Tag Archives: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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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She's the One (1996, Edward Burns)

She’s the One has a fantastic first act. Some of the banter doesn’t connect, but all of the performances are strong and when the banter does connect, it makes up for the rest. Director, writer, and star Burns relies a little too much on “gentle” homophobia for the banter between his character and Michael McGlone’s. They’re brothers–John Mahoney (easily giving the film’s best performance) is the dad. Mom never appears. I thought she was deceased, but no, Burns just doesn’t give her an onscreen presence, which is a big problem later on. Anyway, Burns’s reliance on the “sister” jokes for McGlone end up just being foreshadowing for the real problem with the film–Burns and McGlone are lousy leads.

But, wait, still being upbeat about the first act. Maxine Bahns is great as Burns’s new wife. They meet in his cab in the second or third scene and go off to get married. Jennifer Aniston is excellent as McGlone’s suffering wife. She gives the film’s second best performance. But she’s not just suffering because McGlone’s an alpha male jerk, but because he’s carrying on with Cameron Diaz.

Diaz, it turns out, is Burns’s ex-fiancee, who he left after she cheated on him. Eight million stories in New York City, of course it turns out everyone knows each other. Except they don’t, so Burns isn’t even trying to do an interconnected thing. Once the second act hits, Burns fully embraces the “movie about nothing.” Short scenes, usually in long shot, setting up what someone else says and then everyone else talking about it. Maybe if it were intentional, but it seems like Burns is trying to find the story. He never does. She’s the One has roughly thirty minutes of actual content. It runs over ninety minutes.

Along the way, there’s some fine acting from Mahoney and Aniston. Frank Vincent is hilarious as Aniston’s father. McGlone’s a funny jerk. The problem is he’s pretty much the lead, because Burns is exceptionally passive in his performance. He gives himself the shallowest character. Well, it’s between his character and Mahoney’s, but at least Mahoney gets an arc, at least Mahoney gets some agency.

Diaz is bad. She’s got a terrible part, which just gets worse for her along the way, but she’s not good in it. The film requires her to have exceptional chemistry with Burns. She has none. She ought to have some chemistry with McGlone too, since he wants to leave Aniston for her. But nope. Aniston and McGlone, when they’re with other people and not just in their own subplot, are great together. Bahns is best in the first act, then her part goes to crap too.

She’s the One is about Burns and McGlone having to accept some responsibility for themselves and doing whatever it takes to get out of it. Burns, as director, tries as hard as he can do get them out of it too. The women of She’s the One are all universally more interesting than the men; Burns just doesn’t want them to be. So there’s some internalized, “gentle” misogyny going on too.

The last act is a rush to save everything and, thanks to Mahoney and Bahns, Burns is almost able to pull it off. Almost.

Great songs and score from Tom Petty (though it’s usually just for Burns and Bahns, McGlone and Aniston don’t get music). Frank Prinzi’s photography is solid, even if a lot of Burns’s composition is questionable. When he finally gets around to letting characters talk and actors act–i.e. the third act–She’s the One shows some of the promise of the first act.

It’s just too little, too late.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Tom Petty; production designer, William Barclay; produced by Ted Hope, James Schamus, and Burns; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Edward Burns (Mickey Fitzpatrick), Michael McGlone (Francis Fitzpatrick), Maxine Bahns (Hope), Jennifer Aniston (Renee), Cameron Diaz (Heather), John Mahoney (Mr. Fitzpatrick), Leslie Mann (Connie), Malachy McCourt (Tom), Amanda Peet (Molly), Anita Gillette (Carol) and Frank Vincent (Ron).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | EDWARD BURNS.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce)

Director Peirce makes an interesting choice with Boys Don’t Cry–she never gives the viewer enough information about Hilary Swank’s protagonist. As a result, it’s occasionally difficult to think of Swank as the protagonist. For the first eighty or so minutes of the film, Swank is just this skinny little guy who falls in with a questionable crowd of rednecks. Nothing in Swank’s performance indicates the viewer is supposed to take the character as anything but male (but Peirce frequently contradicts that approach, sometimes for dramatic purposes, sometimes for filmic).

Boys is often pointlessly over-stylized with time lapse photography and, at one absurd point, Peirce and co-writer Andy Bienen suggest its the way Chloë Sevigny (as Swank’s girlfriend) sees the world. But not because she’s huffing whip-its, which is the only reasonable explanation.

But the performances Peirce gets are astounding (so much so, when the actual facts show up at the end, there’s a disconnect between the actors and the people they portrayed). Swank’s fantastic–in that first eighty minutes, Boys is a shocking study of masculinity as Swank experiences it and the viewer does with him. Sevigny’s great. Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III as the redneck villains are amazing; Sarsgaard gets more depth, so when Peirce shows it for psychopath Sexton, it’s even more affecting.

Excellent supporting performance from Alicia Goranson.

Awful Nathan Larson score.

Peirce can’t crack Boys; she’s too fixed on having a thesis statement. The actors ably carry the film to success.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kimberly Peirce; written by Peirce and Andy Bienen; director of photography, Jim Denault; edited by Tracy Granger and Lee Percy; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Michael Shaw; produced by John Hart, Jeff Sharp and Christine Vachon; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Hilary Swank (Brandon Teena), Chloë Sevigny (Lana Tisdel), Peter Sarsgaard (John Lotter), Brendan Sexton III (Tom Nissen), Alison Folland (Kate), Alicia Goranson (Candace), Matt McGrath (Lonny), Rob Campbell (Brian) and Jeannetta Arnette (Lana’s Mom).


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Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

The funniest thing in Birdman is, surprisingly, not when Michael Keaton and Edward Norton get into fisticuffs and Norton’s in nothing but speedos. The funniest thing in Birdman, which is about former superhero movie megastar Keaton staging a pseudo-intellectual comeback stage production of a Raymond Carver adaptation, is–after Norton makes fun of Keaton’s character’s overly wordy adaptation (Carver wasn’t a wordy writer, as published)–how pointlessly wordiness of director Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo’s script.

There’s also a huge gaffe when Emma Stone talks about Carver’s story being sixty years old (unless Birdman takes place in 2041 and, given the constant references to social media networks, it isn’t).

Birdman is a pretentious, Hollywood “indie” melodrama. Iñárritu’s fake single shot style, expertly manipulated by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, brings nothing to the film except a distance from the audience. Iñárritu uses the style–and Antonio Sanchez’s drum score–to keep up the film’s energy, because otherwise, there’s nothing but Batman references, superhero movie jabs, New York condescension of Hollywood, trite father-daughter problems and expository dialogue.

Oh, and Keaton being haunted by Birdman, the superhero his character played to great financial success.

There’s nothing in the script for Keaton to do. He does it all pretty well, but his part’s exceptionally shallow. The “deep” scenes with ex-wife Amy Ryan suggest Keaton and Ryan could make a good film. Not this one.

Norton’s great, Stone’s awful. Nice supporting work from Naomi Watts.

Birdman’s gallingly light stuff.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione; music by Antonio Sanchez; production designer, Kevin Thompson; produced by Arnon Milchan, John Lesher, James W. Skotchdopole and Iñárritu; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Michael Keaton (Riggan), Edward Norton (Mike), Emma Stone (Sam), Naomi Watts (Lesley), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Andrea Riseborough (Laura), Amy Ryan (Sylvia), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha), Jeremy Shamos (Ralph) and Merritt Wever (Annie).


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