Category Archives: ★★★

Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelly)

For most of its runtime, Waitress is a character study. Writer and director Shelly does give the film an epical arc, which doesn’t get fully revealed until the third act (and, arguably, epilogue), but most of the film is spent watching Keri Russell, her character’s actions, reactions, inactions, and her performance. Russell is a small-town waitress in an undetermined Southern town stuck in a dead-end life. She’s married to an abusive prick (Jeremy Sisto), desperately trying to hide away enough money to escape him—her heart set on winning a major pie baking contest (Russell’s a pie-baking virtuoso)—she works in a local diner (appropriately a pie diner, so she at least gets to do what she loves and her two coworkers are good friends), and her life’s been stalled so long she can’t even remember when it was in motion.

Throughout the film, Shelly introduces a couple big expository devices to reveal more and more about Russell. First, she daydreams up her pie recipes, usually as a reaction to what’s going on in her life, usually what’s going wrong in her life. The second device comes later, after the inciting incident—turns out Russell’s pregnant, the result of an offscreen, definitely not enthusiastically consented night of martial relations (Sisto intentionally got her drunk). Russell’s miserable at the thought of being a mom; fellow waitresses, aforementioned good friends Cheryl Hines and director Shelly get Russell a pregnancy journal. One of the features is a place to write to the baby, which eventually gives Russell an outlet. And the audience a fuller picture of her thoughts and how she experiences the film’s events.

Because even though she’s got good friends Shelly and Hines, they’ve all got their secrets. And those secrets are the most important things in their lives. The only one who can see into Russell’s secrets is Andy Griffith, which seems like the most natural sentence in the world. Who else could.

Griffith’s the crotchety old man owner of the diner where Russell and company work. She’s the only one who likes him; he’s mean to everyone else. He’s just the owner, Lew Temple runs the place. Temple’s a crotchety middle-aged man who’s mean to everyone, Russell included. The reason Griffith’s so nice to Russell is because he sees something wonderful in her. So does Sisto as it turns out. And so does Russell’s new doctor, played by Nathan Fillion. While there’s some reciprocity in the first and third relationships—Russell gets nothing but despondence and multiple kinds of pain from being married to Sisto—Russell’s still being used by Griffith and Fillion. There’s a significant, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit power imbalance to the relationships, which Russell takes a while to fully understand.

It’s a great character arc for Russell and the film. Shelly’s got the plot down, just not the plotting of it. She establishes a deliberate, relaxed pace in the first act, speeding it up a little at the start of the second, but then skipping along as the film nears the halfway point. Whole weeks go by offscreen with character development on pause between scenes. Even with Sisto, whose intensified abuse changes Russell’s trajectory multiple times, there’s very little insight and even less deliberation. When things start getting difficult, Russell clamps up; it’s never clear how much her friends know about her home life, ditto Fillion (once their relationship develops, rather unprofessionally, past doctor and patient), and the journal entries become more sporadic and used for emphasis not insight.

It’s not exactly a rocky finish, but the film never slows down to find a new pace. It’s still successful—Shelly’s direction, writing, Russell’s phenomenal performance, the supporting performances, the crew—none of the quality dips, it’s just Shelly goes for aspirational instead of realistic. She’s trying to find a happy ending in it all, which is going to require a lot of contrivance, a lot of coincidence.

Great photography from Matthew Irving; he and Shelly create this gentle but strong light theme, very focused on the actors, emphasizing their performances. There are some great scenes of Russell and Fillion just listening to each other and considering the other’s words. And Russell’s constant waiting for Sisto’s explosions is terrifying. Sisto’s great. Fillion’s good too, but he’s (somewhat intentionally) never deep enough. It’s not a character study about him, after all.

Hines, Shelly, Griffith, Temple, they’re all excellent. Eddie Jemison has a small part and he’s a lot of fun.

Good music from Andrew Hollander, good editing from Annette Davey. Ramsey Avery’s production design is essential.

Waitress is outstanding. It’s got its issues, but thanks to Russell’s performance, Shelly’s directing, her script, the supporting cast… it’s outstanding. Even though the film gets inside Russell’s head, Shelly showcases her performance like it doesn’t. They’re a great team.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly; director of photography, Matthew Irving; edited by Annette Davey; production designer, Ramsey Avery; produced by Michael Roiff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keri Russell (Jenna), Jeremy Sisto (Earl), Nathan Fillion (Dr. Pomatter), Cheryl Hines (Becky), Adrienne Shelly (Dawn), Lew Temple (Cal), Eddie Jemison (Ogie), and Andy Griffith (Old Joe).


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Gregory’s Girl (1980, Bill Forsyth)

At no point in Gregory’s Girl does writer and director Forsyth wait for the audience. He’s not hurried, he’s not hostile, he’s just not repeating himself. Ever. The result is a whimsical but grounded film, not exploring much more than its characters could handle and often trying to make space to find some everyday magic. Forsyth doesn’t establish the limits of this magic until he goes rather far with it, which sort of retroactively makes earlier scenes more in the same category. The film doesn’t have a jumpy narrative pace but it does have a speedy one. The pace is key to the film’s particular charm and second only in importance to leading man John Gordon Sinclair.

Sinclair is disarming, sincere, and awkward. His closest confidante, the film goes on to reveal (after the first “act”), is little sister Allison Forster. Sinclair’s home situation, which does get covered at the beginning, appears to be one of ships passing the night. The film introduces his father (Dave Anderson) and mentions his mother, but they’re not part of Sinclair’s regular day and the film is all about the regular days of its cast. When Forster comes in, she helps explain why Sinclair’s so awkward. It’s not just because he grew five inches over the last year to tower over everyone else at school, teachers included, but because instead of having teenage boys as his primary social influence, it’s soulful ten year-old Forster. She’s already got a beau of her own, in what might be the film’s most mature onscreen relationship; the tweens understand dating, the teenage girls understand dating, the teenage boys not so much.

Forsyth gets a lot of quiet humor out of Forster’s beau, Denis Criman. He’s a similarly soulful ten year-old. He and Sinclair have a great scene together.

Albeit one where Forsyth’s limited composition techniques gets in the way—Forsyth relies way too heavily on close-ups, which could be a budgetary thing, but it’d be nice to have a two shot for some of the banter; the two shots do eventually come in, at the end of the film for the… action-packed (at least from Sinclair’s perspective) finale. Their arrival isn’t just welcome, it’s noticeable. Gregory’s Girl never amps up the pace or drama. Forsyth never changes the gentle, lyrical, detached narrative distance.

Including when Forster comes in—sorry, there’s something else to talk about with that sequence. Forsyth juxtaposes soulful Forster, with her wise-beyond-her-years (or just appropriately pre-hormonal) understanding of coupling, with already graduated Douglas Sannachan coming back to visit his pals. While Sannachan is explaining the sexual conquests being a window cleaner allows, Forster is hanging back, waiting to give Sinclair better advice. Forsyth constantly plays with the idea of mutual exclusivities in the film. Boarish bullshitter versus sweet and sincere, for instance.

But then there’s also the whole football thing.

Soccer football.

In addition to all the boys getting interest in the girls—though the film doesn’t discount the possibility they could be interested in boys (Gregory’s Girl, which doesn’t have homophobia or bullying, is a decidedly un-American teen movie)—they’re interested in footy. One of the main plot lines involves football coach Jake D’Arcy demoting former star striker Sinclair (he grew, it’s not his fault, he’s got too much height now to walk properly) to goalie and getting a new striker. Turns out the best striker in the school is a girl, Dee Hepburn. Sinclair immediately falls for Hepburn, watching how she can control the ball, while D’Arcy goes on this “girls can’t play boys sports but wait she’s better” arc. Only it’s a really quiet arc. Meanwhile Hepburn’s got to fight the preconceived notions. For the first two “acts” (quotation marks because it’s pointless to think about the film epically), Forsyth splits the narrative between Sinclair, D’Arcy, and Hepburn. Once the football ends—once Sinclair outgrows it—he’s ready for romance.

Even if he doesn’t understand it.

The only other subplot to last until the finish is Robert Buchanan and Graham Thompson’s. They’re comic relief; the boys even more inept at the romance than Sinclair. They’re a lot of fun. Thompson’s the silent one, Buchanan’s the motormouth. Their subplot is mostly aside from Sinclair’s main one, but the threads intersect early on to lay the groundwork for a pay-off in the finale. It’s another of the lovely, deliberate moves in Forsyth’s script. If only he liked two shots more.

Nice photography from Michael Coulter, fun smooth jazz score from Colin Tully. John How’s cuts are always a little too rushed, especially with the lack of coverage, but maybe the lack of coverage is why the cuts are a little too rushed.

Forsyth’s got some big moves he saves for the end (might be nice if they’d been foreshadowed) and they’re more than worth the wait. Gregory’s Girl is a delightful peculiarity.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by John Gow; music by Colin Tully; produced by Davina Belling and Clive Parsons; released by ITC.

Starring John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory), Allison Forster (Madeline), Dee Hepburn (Dorothy), Jake D’Arcy (Phil Menzies), Clare Grogan (Susan), Billy Greenlees (Steve), Robert Buchanan (Andy), Denis Criman (Richard), Graham Thompson (Charlie), Douglas Sannachan (Billy), and Chic Murray (Headmaster).



RECENTLY

Narc (2002, Joe Carnahan)

In addition to starring in Narc, Ray Liotta also produced, which makes sense because the film gives him a great part. Narc is about disgraced ex-cop Jason Patric getting back on the job because the department (Detroit, with Toronto standing in but never noticeably) has a dead cop and they need a fresh set of eyes. Why Patric? Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie? Ostensibly it’s because Patric was an undercover narcotics officer (subtle title nod) and the dead cop was also an undercover narcotics officer (something writer and director Carnahan somehow manages to forget to establish, but hey, the script’s often messy). Basically it’s a Hail Mary pass.

Only Patric’s gotten to be a pretty okay guy since leaving the coppers and wife Krista Bridges doesn’t want him going back. He hems and haws a little bit about it, but he’s not going to listen to her, of course. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Also because Carnahan avoids doing real scenes between Bridges and Patric like the film depends on it. And it probably does. Narc relies on Patric to be able to give the impression of being the lead in some kind of character study when it turns out Narc isn’t going to be about Patric at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Patric takes one look at the files and decides the department needs to bring back Liotta, who’s the bad cop the good cops love (he beats up suspects, plants evidence, whatever). The silly liberals in the city have taken Liotta off the case—even though he knew the murdered cop (Alan Van Sprang in flashbacks)—and he’s got a great conviction rate. Patric convinces boss Chi McBride (great in a nothing part) to bring Liotta back and now it’s time for the second act. Second act basically becomes a study of Liotta, with occasional cuts to Bridges being mad at Patric and Patric ignoring her because it’s a cop movie and silly woman. Also there are these gorgeous shots of Patric by himself in the urban blight considering his existence, set to the wondrous Cliff Martinez score, with even more wondrous Alex Nepomniaschy photography. Narc often looks and sounds fantastic. Not so much when Carnahan’s doing this silly quartered screen thing showing Patric and Liotta’s amazing investigatory skills; the sound design is intentionally confusing and pointless. Kind of like the amazing investigatory skills—all Liotta and Patric end up doing is showing the dead cop’s photograph to various Black guys in bad neighborhoods. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the possible racial unrest Liotta will bring to the investigation—because he’s the racist bad cop good cops love, even Black commander McBride—but all the actual bad guys are white. Does Liotta ever realize he’s wrong based on empirical evidence? No. But whatever. It’s not like the investigatory aspect of Narc is its strength. Carnahan doesn’t write a great mystery, he directs a great gritty character study and pretends his script is going to match. It eventually doesn’t (the third act), but thanks to Liotta’s performance and the perception of Patric’s at the time, Carnahan is able to then pretend he’s been doing an intentionally peculiarly plotted mystery the whole time.

And he gets away with it. Narc is not, in the end, a success. It does not realize its initial ambitions or narrative gesture. But the film gets away with it because of the intensity of the acting, intensity of the filmmaking. Who cares if Patric’s character entirely changes in the last thirty minutes. Maybe we never knew him at all, maybe we were just projecting, maybe Liotta was just projecting, maybe everyone was just projecting onto Patric’s tabula rasa. We weren’t, of course, and not just because it’s impossible to project onto Patric; his handlebar mustache and soul patch would get in the way.

But Carnahan is able to get away with it, because of built-up goodwill and (apparently) de facto liberal sensitivities.

In its third act, Narc becomes one of those mysteries where the resolution doesn’t have to succeed so much as not screw up the previous two acts too much. A bummer to be sure, but still an extremely well-made film with two great lead performances. Even if Patric’s character goes absurdly to pot.

Carnahan and his production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor, do spectacular work. Especially on the limited budget. The limited budget kind of perturbs when you realize it’d have been very cheap to do those much needed scenes between Patric and Bridges and Carnahan just chokes on it instead. That Nepomniaschy photography is great, that Martinez score is great, Liotta is great, Patric is (mostly) great. So what if the second half of the script’s shaky and Carnahan doesn’t know how to establish ground situations.

The script is just a delivery system for the filmmaking, the acting. Not ideal, not successful, but… good enough. Especially since the dialogue’s solid (there’s just not enough of it).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan; director of photography, Alex Nepomniaschy; edited by John Gilroy; music by Cliff Martinez; production designers, Greg Beale and Taavo Soodor; produced by Michelle Grace, Ray Liotta, Diane Nabatoff, and Julius R. Nasso; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jason Patric (Nick Tellis), Ray Liotta (Henry Oak), Krista Bridges (Audrey Tellis), Chi McBride (Captain Cheevers), Tony De Santis (Medical Examiner Art Harlan), Anne Openshaw (Kathryn Calvess), Bishop Brigante (Eugene Sheps), and Alan Van Sprang (Michael Calvess).


The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophüls)

The Reckless Moment is self-indulgent. But in a remarkable way. A remarkable and good way. Director Ophüls and star Joan Bennett both find a way to get at the core of the story, which is a very limited character study of Bennett. The film is occasionally fantastic and sensational—though never melodramatic, even in the plotting—as upper-class Bennett gets involved with scumbag James Mason. Sure, he’s cultured and charming because he’s James Mason, but he’s Irish; he’s cultured and charming in a decidedly not WASP-enough way. But it’s always just about Bennett trying to manage her life.

Bennett and family live on Balboa Island, a nouveau riche Los Angeles suburb. Besides Bennett, there’s father-in-law Henry O’Neill, there’s all-American tween son David Bair, there’s art school daughter Geraldine Brooks. There’s also the maid, played by Frances E. Williams (a Black woman), who doesn’t even get credited even though she’s in every third scene with lines so thanks for the ick 1949.

Williams is important too.

Anyway.

The movie opens with Bennett heading into L.A. unexpectedly to meet with Shepperd Strudwick in a cheap motel. Not like that. In the closed bar, in one of the many scenes in Moment where screenwriters Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg give the film just a little bit of detail and Ophüls and his crew are able to amp it up. Lots of individual parts firing just right is what makes Moment such a special success. Because it’s also very noir-y. But also not.

Sorry—back to Strudwick. He’s carrying on with seventeen year-old daughter Brooks—she’ll be eighteen next month he tells Bennett during their initial confrontation. He’s one of the low class people Brooks has met because artists and he’s willing to give her up for cash money, something Brooks doesn’t want to hear from her mother when Bennett gets back. Family drama and some really effective lighter scenes between Bennett and son Bair ensue—Bennett having to single parent Bair gives her a lot of subtle character development. Consistently too. It’s always good. Because Bennett, Ophüls, the screenwriters.

Dad is a post-WWII civil engineer who’s making a fortune—presumably—traveling the globe and rebuilding war-torn countries with U.S. Steel. It’s important because it’s American and a success story. Bennett very knowingly, very deliberately revels in her class status and the privileges it brings. She wouldn’t initially be so sympathetic if daughter Brooks weren’t so obviously in the wrong and beau Strudwick so obviously a creep. Brooks is Moment’s weakest performance, by a lot. She’s all right by the end, but she’s a disaster before Bennett starts having to be a mama lion.

And Bennett has to be a mama lion because it turns out Strudwick’s a gambling man and he just can’t win. As collateral, he’s provided loanshark slash blackmailer slash general scumbag James Mason with all seventeen year-old Brooks’s love letters. They could ruin her. In more ways than one it turns out. Enough so Bennett has to deal with Mason at the same time she tries to deal with the Strudwick situation and get the house ready for Christmas. Reckless Moment has a very short present action. It’s a tight, noir-y thriller. Only it’s a character study, which is what makes it so special.

Bennett dips her toe in the water of disrepute and it doesn’t just fill her life with it, it changes how she experiences her life because of the new situations it brings. It turns out to be an awesome role for Bennett.

It’s a fairly good role for Mason too. He’s got his own subplot about crushing on Bennett, which she doesn’t know about and wouldn’t believe if she did. The only time Mason’s off is when he lays on the Irish too much, usually when he’s talking about Ireland, which isn’t too often. Not sure why Mason’s top-billed, other than patriarchy (though Bennett’s character would clearly approve of the man getting top billing… by would she by the end?).

Good supporting cast: O’Neill’s fine as the father-in-law, Bair’s amusing, Williams’s really good, Brooks’s uneven but comes out all right by the end, Strudwick’s appropriately scuzzy. Great black and white photography from Burnett Guffey. Nice editing and music (Gene Havlick and Hans J. Salter, respectively). Bennett’s house is absurdly big, but Frank Tuttle’s set decoration does a lot for the picture.

The Reckless Moment is short, quiet, and rather good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Max Ophüls; screenplay by Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg, based on an adaptation by Mel Dinelli and Robert E. Kent and a story by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Geraldine Brooks (Beatrice Harper), David Bair (David Harper), Frances E. Williams (Sybil), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), and Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby).