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By Christopher Stipp

The Archives, Right Here

Check out my other column, This Week In Trailers, at SlashFilm.com and follow me on TWITTER under the name: Stipp

BRIDESMAIDS - REVIEW

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If ever there was a movie that could make a statement against the maligned “Chick Flicks” moniker this could be the one. For all the awfulness that movies like VALENTINE’S DAY or LEAP YEAR or GOING THE DISTANCE brought into the lives of women who wrongly assumed this was about as good as it’s going to get for them, a paid admission to this film will send a message that there needs to be more movies like this and they all need Kristen Wiig to oversee them. For if this Svengali can weave a tale that deftly splices the best parts of gross-out comedy, romance, female empowerment, yet wrap it up in a story that is at the same time intelligent and respects the audience it’s talking to then there is no stopping this woman.

And make no mistake about it, this is Kristen Wiig’s film. We can all realize this is an ensemble film and that every woman in this movie acquits themselves quite well as they bring the funny but this was Wiig’s opportunity to not only craft the story but embody it fully on screen. She is the accessory that brings this outfit together.

This movie is the scrappy sibling to the movies like MONSTER-IN-LAW that supposes so much about the lives of women who are on the verge of getting married but gets it all wrong thanks to a cadre of individuals that believed showing women as they think they want to be, instead of who they are, is entertainment. Wiig tries hard, and succeeds gloriously, in depicting a real woman who has real ambitions, real needs, and real emotions. From the awful roommates she shares most of the film with to the ruffled sofa you would only see by actually venturing into the wilds of the Midwest where comfort trumps class at her mother’s house there are echos of reality that feel comforting. This comfort only heightens the comedic effect whereby Wiig becomes an “everywoman”, someone who doesn’t have the luxury of being created out of whole cloth, imbued with enough opulence that we can forget she’s a real 30-something who is trying to eke out an existence that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

And where she is going is beset on all sides by a truth that life does not play out like it does in the movies. There are no chance encounters with men who look freshly coiffed from a Kenneth Cole photo shoot with teeth that shame even the whitest Chicklets with hearts brimming with secret desire. No, we get Jon Hamm who plays an understated and horrifically obnoxious pig of a man who Wiig genuinely wants in her life. He can’t be changed but it’s the hope that she has which gives the moments these two have on screen the kind of comedic fuel that helps establish the film’s boundaries. Which is to say that it’s going to be crass, lewd but not without heart. We see more of what’s on the inside of this film thanks to Maya Rudolph who turns a best friend role into something special. The chemistry that is usually reserved for women and their male counterparts also rings true for these two women. We believe this relationship exists, and we have to believe it, because without a believable bond the entire emotional thrust of the film’s central theme collapses into one artificial set up after another. We can buy that Wiig really wants to do what she can to make her best friend’s wedding perfect and all the gross out, drunken antics that follow are merely bad luck. Hence, that’s what is really special about this film.

It’s a comedy that simply could have been one zany escapade after another but the writing is sharp enough to take the tougher route and inject a genuine heart at the center of it all. Wiig and the comedic abilities of the other maids in the bridal party help to create such chaos that when we meet Chris O’Dowd it is a brilliant moment in the film as he provides the first of many emotional anchors that help to ground the film in a world not unlike our own. O’Dowd is a curious choice because he’s not classically beautiful (See Kenneth Cole above) but he’s the only logical and perfect choice based on the world that Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo have crafted. It’s an honest choice in a world where Wiig moves back home and shacks up in the sewing room. The film focuses on small details but the silliness and the comedy that comes out of so many improbable situations just works because of the writing.

By the end, when things go the way they should according to every romantic comedy, we don’t feel like we’ve been given a movie that was built by a formula. Even though there are beats you would find in any Kate Hudson film starring a shirtless Matthew McConaughey, Wiig deconstructs those elements and makes them work on her terms. She subverts the expectations of what a movie like this ought to be and makes a movie that speaks to an honesty of the heart you simply don’t find much of nowadays where it seems that the more gross-out you can make a movie the better, to hell with the characters. It’s all about character in this film and it’s because the actors here it that this movie is one of the best reasons men (and women) will have in making it known that we will not stand for formulaic, and shirtless, films of this variety.

The Lake Effect with Wild Horses and the Dead Inside By Ray Schillaci

As mentioned in my last review of the Phoenix Film Festival (April 15th, FRED Entertainment), there were a couple of other films that garnered awards that I did not have the chance to see. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to have the Phoenix Film Foundation lend me a few screeners so I could play catch up with some of the best from their festival. Each one of these films is a stand out, although I am on the fence with one that could have a target audience akin to “Repo; the Genetic Opera,” but more about that in a moment.

Also, two out of the three films had stars that had an uncanny resemblance to other better known and bigger stars. The funny thing is; the leads of these independents were more appealing and provide a far more down to earth quality than the superstars of today. One in particular really struck a chord in the winner of the Best Ensemble & Best Screenplay award.

2010_01_2220lakeeffect_poster“The Lake Effect” is most notable for its sincerity and light humor at an awkward moment in several lives. Director/writer Tara Miele delivers a story with wit and wisdom and keeps a far distance from the too smart dialogue associated with another pregnant teen movie, “Juno”. There are bound to be comparisons and it can’t be helped in the beginning, but somewhere after the first twenty minutes we are caught up in the lives of these very real people.

Ross Partridge as Rob is so likeable as the 40 something man-child who is dealing not only with commitment issues and a younger wife that yearns to have his child, but also gets blindsided by a visit from his estranged 18 year-old pregnant daughter. All of this converges on him while he is on the brink of a big business deal and inherits a lake house in need of repair which stands as a wonderful metaphor for everyone involved. With Ross’ ex-wife having kicked their daughter out of her house, Ross and his new wife take on a responsibility with both light comic and dramatic moments.

The cast is a pure pleasure the way director Miele has guided them through a touching labyrinth of emotions. Ross Partridge has a striking resemblance to a younger Mel Gibson, but sans any glibness on his part that Gibson was more noted for in his earlier career. Partridge has captured the pulse of the frustration of not being sure what one wants in life and not in a hurry to get to it either.

Also, playing various levels of frustration beautifully is Tara Summer as Ross’ new wife, Natalie. Summer immerses us subtlety in her psychological pain and transference of motherhood as she attempts to care for Ross’ daughter. Then there is the turnkey, Kay Panabaker as Celia the estranged pregnant daughter. Young Panabaker roles with the nuances that writer Tara Miele has provided with this character. Panabaker underplays the role with a thought-provoking alacrity that dismisses any comparisons to Ellen Page’s “Juno”. It’s not that she is better, but she delivers a well rounded (pardon the pun) performance with grace and style that is very much appreciated and has one wrapped up with her by the end of the film.

wild-horse-wild-ride-image-2“Wild Horse, Wild Ride” provides us with a rare look into 100 wild Mustangs who are given a chance to lead better lives through a contest, “The Extreme Mustang Makeover,” that challenges 100 trainers in 100 days. This is a film for anyone who loves animals and if you are not an animal lover, you may turn into one after this film. Directors, Alex Dawson & Greg Gricus have given us a wondrous ode to the magnificence of these wonderful creatures and their brief yet important relationship with the special people that have dedicated themselves to them for such a short period of time.

In my opinion, this had to run a neck and neck race for winner of Best Documentary with “Thespians’ winning by a nose. But “WHWR” did not walk away empty handed. Aside from the packed theaters and immense praise from audiences, it also took home a well deserved Best Cinematography award. Gricus, who doubles up as producer and cinematographer, paints a beautiful canvas that sweeps us away from beginning to end.

From the capture of the Mustangs to the introduction of a select group of trainers and the eventual contest, “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” provides an exhilarating journey of man (or woman) bonding with nature. Each trainer has a style of his/her own that is fascinating and sometimes endearing. We get to know these people and their genuine care for the animals they are attempting to tame.

Some of the unforgettable players are; George, the old “never say die” cowpoke who captures our heart immediately. The Navajo grandfather, Charles, whose patience and hesitation become heart wrenching and the wildcat, Wylene Wilson from Queen Creek, Arizona. This single mother/horse trainer/local, state and national competitor can have an entertaining bio on just herself alone.

We also come to discover that the horses themselves are individuals that have different moods and temperaments. They can be funny, sad, stubborn and proud. Dawson and Gricus have provided so many enriching moments that one wishes the film was even longer.

I think the greatest strength of this film is that it appeals to all ages. My 11 year-old came in 10 minutes after it started and was transfixed from then on. He’s even asked me to buy it when it gets released on DVD. That is the first documentary he’s ever wanted. “Wild Horse, Wild Ride,” is a endearingly drawn testament to the men and women who have involved themselves in an arduous task that becomes a thing of beauty and the magnificence of the wild Mustang.

sarah-poster“The Dead Inside,” is a curiosity that will probably be cherished by the legion of fans that have given their undying love to films like “REPO: The Genetic Opera”. I sat amused, perplexed and sometimes unsettled while watching this bizarre little film that resembles its lead character with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), if that is what she is suffering from. I was never quite sure. Travis Betz’s tour-de-force into the strange is an off-beat and original zombie story told by a writer with issues of terrible writer’s block that may be threatened with an exorcism and involved with a very sick ghost with all encompassing musical numbers. It’s a mixed bag that works at times (for me) and no matter what will keep you watching till the very end.

The zombie story, the most interesting, is being written by the lead character. We get glimpses of what is going on in the writer’s mind, it’s weird and fun. But when we suffer through her writer’s block it feels a little self indulgent on the part of Betz the writer, but that is only temporary when we find that our heroine may need an exorcism! The story feels like it’s going in several different directions, but by the end appears to come together and we discover that Betz really does know where he is going with it.

I mentioned earlier that there were two look-a-likes and “The Dead Inside” provides us with Sarah Lassez as Fi a dead ringer for Lea Michele (Glee). Although, Lassez is a bit more fun to watch and unpredictable with her various mood swings, nothing like the annoying whiner Michele plays on Glee. Lassez may not have the vocal range, but she and her co-star Dustin Fasching as Wes are just as entertaining as anyone in “REPO”.

Art direction has to be mentioned here. The color scheme and the cinematography are so uncomfortably intentional that I have to applaud the talents behind them. It brings to mind George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”.

I keep mentioning “REPO: the Genetic Opera,” because I was never a fan of it. Yet the film has die-hard fans that swear to it as both a great piece of entertainment and a very cool art form. I believe “The Dead Inside” has that same quality that somehow escapes me, but I recognize its legitimacy. Betz’s film always remains interesting and his actors go the extra mile to have us root for them. Its originality is what shines and had it win the Dan Harkins Breakthrough Filmmaker Award.

Kudos goes out to all three films and their display of their independence. All three films are currently playing the festival circuit. They clearly break away from the cookie-cutter mold that the industry shoves in front of us far too often. I urge you to check them out whenever possible, because life is too short not to be entertained.

Thespians; an Intellectual and Emotional Peak By Ray Schillaci

Warning: this may be a biased review. There I’ve warned you. Now a little background; I was awarded Best Thespian in high school. My mom was a working actress for years and my oldest son has just been awarded the title of Honor Thespian at his high school, although he has no intentions of continuing down that path. For those uninitiated; the mission of the International Thespian Society is to honor student excellence in the theatre arts. Their motto is, “Act well thy part; there all the honor lies.” As a kid and as an adult I have taken ITS very seriously. So, when “Thespians” won Best Documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival I could not help but be skeptical.

thespians_poster_600pxI had reservations about seeing this documentary on four thespian troupes that were followed to the largest high school theatre competition in the world. Was it possible to rekindle what I had experienced as a Thespian in high school? Could it honestly capture the real feelings of the other young men and women of today’s high school Thespian troupes? How could it get to the core of why a child chooses to take on such an emotional rollercoaster?

I am happy to say that “Thespians” does it all and more. The journey for these young men and women is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Needless to say, this is not a film for action buffs, jocks or weekend warriors. “Thespians” is a sensitive documentary that explores the inner workings of the child that is growing up, discovering who they are and celebrating their individualism. It also introduces the guiding lights that help these young people on their creative road of life; the dedicated teachers, professors and directors who embody the love of theatre arts.

Director Warren Skeels dedicates his lens on several individuals and captures the same magic that the teachers see in their students. Whether it is a monologue, a small group musical or a one-act play, Skeels carefully takes us through the range of emotions that encapsulates everything it is to be part of this unique society. It proves to be far more work than most can imagine.

We are shown how one connects with the emotional core of the playwright’s character. We see the teachers encouraging the students to study all the nuances that can include history, familiarity of set design, dialogue, inflictions, control of body language, voice and more. It is a far more rigorous schedule than anybody ever gives these kids credit for.

There are so many important issues touched upon in this wonderful documentary. The doubts that always hang over so many and the milestone accomplishment in conquering what weakens one’s confidence level. The secret lives some lead to mask their real pain and how they learn to slowly peel away the body armor. Challenging each other and going beyond the expectations even though the outcomes may not always be rewarding.

Skeels works a high wire act between the fun and camaraderie and the seriousness of competition. This is accompanied by the fact that if anyone of them decides to choose acting as a career, then their life will be one long competition. With competition comes discipline and Skeels shows the labor that goes into such a life. He also reveals no matter how talented one may be, the rules will not be broken and sometimes breaking them is paid with a heavy price.

I will end this review on a personal note. It is very hard to get my whole family together and watch a movie. Usually someone has other things better to do; be on the computer, texting or playing video games. It’s even harder if I suggest that I have a documentary. The closest thing to watching a documentary in my home is watching the Kardashians have their way with everybody else’s life or seeing a Playboy playmate mope about her blessed existence while using 2% of her brain power.

“Thespians” riveted my entire family while making them laugh, cry and develop a wonderfully deep meaningful conversation afterwards. I encourage families, schools, religious groups and anybody that has any love for the arts to rally for this movie and encourage a wide distribution release. Our children and our souls deserve it.

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