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).


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).


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).


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).


Enough Said (2013, Nicole Holofcener)

For most of Enough Said, I marveled at how director Holofcener–apparently in an act entirely lacking irony–created the perfect film to fail the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test, which is all the rage, requires two female characters talk about something besides men.

Well, besides talking about men, the characters in Said do not do much. Lead Julia Louis-Dreyfus otherwise makes acerbic observations about those around her or the minutiae of her life; I wish I could know how the film played if one is unfamiliar with a certain show about nothing starring Louis-Dreyfus, but I cannot. It probably wouldn’t be much better, because Holofcener isn’t just lazy at the plotting, she’s lazy with the characters.

Here’s the idea (straight out of a “Seinfeld”). Louis-Dreyfus starts seeing James Gandolfini (even though he’s fat–she’s supposed to be out of shape too, in one of Enough Said’s more absurd requests for the viewer to suspend their disbelief). She’s a masseuse. Her new client–an exceptionally wasted Catherine Keener–turns out to be really cool and they become friends. Oh, and Keener’s Gandolfini’s ex-wife. Which Elaine–sorry, sorry–which Louis-Dreyfus figures out and keeps to herself.

The film wastes the more interesting empty nest subplot involving Louis-Dreyfus bonding with her daughter’s friend, Tavi Gevinson. Sure, they fail the Bechdel test too, but not as bad as the rest of the film.

Bad editing from Robert Frazen. Great performance from Gandolfini.

Enough’s pointless and slight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener; director of photography, Xavier Grobet; edited by Robert Frazen; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Keith P. Cunningham; produced by Stefanie Azpiazu and Anthony Bregman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Eva), James Gandolfini (Albert), Tracey Fairaway (Ellen), Toni Collette (Sarah), Ben Falcone (Will), Catherine Keener (Marianne), Eve Hewson (Tess), Tavi Gevinson (Chloe), Amy Landecker (Debbie), Toby Huss (Peter) and Kathleen Rose Perkins (Fran).


The Way, Way Back (2013, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)

At a certain point during The Way, Way Back, it became clear the film was never going to do anything interesting. Then, all of a sudden, writer-directors Faxon and Rash get to their “realistic” ending–by realistic, I mean it doesn’t resolve the most important story lines–and even though the film isn’t going to reward the viewer, at least it’s doing something different.

Then they go back on it. And given both Faxon and Rash appear in the film, when they show up, it almost feels like they couldn’t make that bold a move. Back is a film without any bold moves. It’s about a teenager (Liam James) who goes off to spend the summer with his mom, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s daughter.

Steve Carell’s a great jerk as the boyfriend, but there are no layers to his character. Toni Collette plays the mom; she’s similarly shallow, though Faxon and Rush seem to get she shouldn’t be.

Thanks to the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) and the awesome, immature water park owner–Sam Rockwell in just as much a type-casted role as Collette’s–James eventually comes into his own. Yep, it’s a standard growing up story.

I won’t spoil if Collette gets her act together thanks to her kid.

A lot of the film is appealing. James is good in the lead–he plays it hostile, which is cool. Robb’s good, Alison Janney’s fun as her partying mom, Rockwell’s great.

But there’s nothing to it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Mark Ricker; produced by Tom Rice and Kevin J. Walsh; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Liam James (Duncan), Sam Rockwell (Owen), Toni Collette (Pam), Steve Carell (Trent), AnnaSophia Robb (Susanna), Allison Janney (Betty), Maya Rudolph (Caitlin), Rob Corddry (Kip), Amanda Peet (Joan), Zoe Levin (Steph), Nat Faxon (Roddy), Jim Rash (Lewis) and River Alexander (Peter).


Trance (2013, Danny Boyle)

Trance is extremely cute. It’s sort of Hitchcockian, with James McAvoy actually playing the female role and Rosario Dawson the male. Director Boyle and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge figure out some neat ways to change up expectations of that relationship along the way. Besides being a technical marvel, full of good performances, Trance’s most important feature might be its approach to gender roles.

The film opens as tough but fun heist picture. Boyle skips around the narrative, building toward a big reveal. Only Trance reveals its biggest twist about halfway through. The final revelations are significant, but they aren’t the MacGuffin. Boyle and the writers manage to move past the MacGuffin reveal into new territory. Some of it isn’t expected (there’s a little too much foreshadowing, but one could also just chalk it up to good acting).

Both McAvoy and Dawson are fantastic. She’s the better, just because she has a lot more to do. McAvoy just acts slightly crazy and lost as an amnesiac. Dawson’s got to hold it together as the shrink he goes to see. Meanwhile, Trance is also a crime movie, so small time crook Vincent Cassel is also in the picture.

Amazing photography from Anthony Dod Mantle (anyone who complains about lens flares needs to see this one), editing from Jon Harris and music from Rick Smith. The filmmaking is so strong, at some point I realized the conclusion barely mattered.

But Boyle’s got a good conclusion too. It’s rough and great.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; written by Jon Ahearne and John Hodge; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Jon Harris; music by Rick Smith; production designer, Mark Tildesley; produced by Boyle and Christian Colson; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring James McAvoy (Simon), Rosario Dawson (Elizabeth), Vincent Cassel (Franck), Danny Sapani (Nate), Matt Cross (Dominic), Wahab Sheikh (Riz) and Mark Poltimore (Francis Lemaitre).


The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

Malick shot The Tree of Life in a variety of formats, but it displays at 1.85:1. It’s his first 1.85:1 since the seventies and, somehow, it feels like the film would be more intimate wider.

Somewhere in Tree of Life, there’s a great film. Not the best film Malick’s ever made or anything along those lines, but there’s a great film. But he adds a lot; most awkward is his rumination on God. Most of it comes from Jessica Chastain’s character (wife to Brad Pitt, mother to Hunter McCracken, who’s played by Sean Penn in the present day scenes). But Chastain isn’t the lead in the great film somewhere in Tree of Life. The great film is about Pitt and McCracken.

Penn’s presence—and the modern day stuff—is useless (except to spot Joanna Going, who’s been gone too long from cinema). Malick’s got a birth of the universe sequence, he’s got a bunch of dinosaurs (while the scenes are lovely, the CG isn’t)… but it’s Penn who’s out of place. It undermines what Malick does in the film’s best moments.

Some of the photographic effects are wondrous and Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is great. Alexandre Desplat’s music is excellent as well.

Malick gets a great performance from Pitt and from McCracken and the cast in general.

When the film fails, it’s nice to see it fail because of Malick’s reaching and failing to grasp something, not because of casting or historical accuracy. It’s an honest, sometimes wonderful disappointment.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terrence Malick; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Hunter McCracken (Jack), Brad Pitt (Mr. O’Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O’Brien), Laramie Eppler (R.L.), Tye Sheridan (Steve) and Sean Penn (Adult Jack).


Hotel Chevalier (2007, Wes Anderson)

It’s wrong to call Hotel Chevalier Anderson’s best film. The end of the film is some of the best work he’s ever done and a lot of the writing is some of the best writing he’s ever done (alone). The dialogue in Chevalier cuts in a way similar to Hemingway (maybe the Paris setting implies it too). It’s fantastic dialogue.

And Chevalier even surmounts one enormous problem–Jason Schwartzman is nowhere near as good in the film as Natalie Portman. Some of it has to do with Anderson’s script–Portman’s character is, in her seven minutes of screen time, probably Anderson’s most developed female character. The idiosyncrasies Anderson fills his features with are present here… but mostly only for Portman. Schwartzman’s character is nowhere near as interesting.

Anderson even manages to make the story universal (even though a plot detail is Schwartzman’s wealth). It’s a stunning, beautiful piece of filmmaking.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wes Anderson; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Vincent Marchand; released by Fox Searchlight.

Starring Jason Schwartzman (Jack Whitman) and Natalie Portman (Jack’s girlfriend).


Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)

I hate responding to films like Black Swan because I don’t know where to start.

From the first sequence, Aronofsky defines his approach as singular. Except for that first sequence, he never tries to film a ballet. He’s always filming a ballet performance. But he manages, filming those performances, which he tends to shoot in long shot–approximately the audience’s view of the dancers–to make them the most exquisitely filmic ballet sequences I can remember having ever seen.

While ballet makes up a good portion of the film’s running time, it’s not necessarily a film about the ballet. Until the third act, Aronofsky is making one of the stranger character studies. We spend the entire film with Natalie Portman’s ballerina and I don’t think there’s a single expository conversation involving her. Aronofsky and screenwriters Heyman, Heinz and McLaughlin (given the importance of gender, it was a shock to discover three men wrote the film) offer infrequent insights into Portman’s character. Black Swan is a character study with very few people and a lot of “action” (the ballet scenes); the discovery is gradual.

Saying Portman’s performance here is her best work is misleading. Her previous work never suggested she was capable of such a performance.

Aronofsky holds her in these intense broken moments and brings in Clint Mansell’s beautiful, disturbing score and the film transcends.

Great supporting work from Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey.

I’ve been waiting nine years for Black Swan and I didn’t even know it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, based on a story by Heinz; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Andrew Weisblum and Kristina Boden; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre), Benjamin Millepied (David) and Ksenia Solo (Veronica).


Scroll to Top