Keri Russell

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


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).


Leaves of Grass (2009, Tim Blake Nelson)

I wonder if Tim Blake Nelson has read Disgrace. Cheap, cheap, cheap comment.

One-liner even.

It’s a one-liner.

Leaves of Grass is not–if I underlined, I would here–an American Disgrace. It’s something different from that sort of attempt, but also something different from a mainstream or independent attempt… it’s a comedy drama unlike most others because the comedy is absurd at times and it’s got Edward Norton playing a genius pot grower.

It’s also got him playing a genius classical philosophy professor, which then makes it a twin movie–in a genre occupied, with the exception of Parent Traps, mostly–in recent history–by Jean-Claude Van Damme. I wonder if anyone mentioned that one to Norton.

It’s a fine, fine film. It’s funny, it’s touching–it features the best Richard Dreyfuss performance in many years not to mention actually talking about anti-Semitism in an American film without being sensational. I don’t think, actually, anti-Semitism even gets a sensational handling in American film anymore. American film pretends the country isn’t chock-full of bigots, unless they’re bigots who get easily cured by the end of the picture.

Great acting by Norton (the lack of Oscar nomination is a hilarious, gut-bursting joke), Dreyfuss and Nelson. Susan Sarandon’s underwritten but fine, as is Melanie Lynskey. Keri Russell’s surprisingly okay.

It’s a great film until the third act, when Nelson seems to realize something should probably happen and it’s fine after that point.

Just not great.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Michelle Botticelli; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Max Biscoe; produced by Nelson, Edward Norton, Bill Migliore, John Langley, Elie Cohn and Kristina Dubin; released by Millennium Films.

Starring Edward Norton (Bill/Brady Kincaid), Tim Blake Nelson (Bolger), Keri Russell (Janet), Richard Dreyfuss (Pug Rothbaum), Susan Sarandon (Daisy), Josh Pais (Ken Feinman) and Melanie Lynskey (Colleen).


Wonder Woman (2009, Lauren Montgomery)

They really should have cast Rosario Dawson as Wonder Woman. Never thought I’d be typing those words–even if it is just voice casting–but Dawson is so much better than Keri Russell, whose Wonder Woman comes off as dependent on Nathan Fillion’s male for everything down to pseudo-feminist banter. Russell’s voice defers and doesn’t suggest any authority–well, except the script also bestows Fillion’s character kung fu on par with the Amazonian goddesses (are they goddesses, it’s never clear), which confuses things even further.

But Wonder Woman is still pretty good, even if its sexual politics are all trite platitudes. The most honest moment comes at the end, when it’s suggested men, even acting under the best of circumstances, need to be coddled by women into believing they, men, are still capable of offering something to the “weaker” sex. It seems completely unintentional, since only a few scenes before the whole problem with the world is boiled down to warrior women stepping away from it. You know who should have written Wonder Woman–Lily Tomlin. Was she too busy? A Wonder Woman movie written by a feminist icon, one who’s had time to reflect on the movement… would have been spectacular. Instead they turned it into a… pardon the expression… neutered Disney movie.

Well, neutered but still with lots of killing, sexual innuendo and almost a curse word.

It’s a pleasant surprise to be sure, but would have been as a feminist reaction to the Disney Princess “franchise.”

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lauren Montgomery; screenplay by Michael Jelenic, based on a story by Gail Simone and Jelenic and the DC Comics character created by William M. Marston; edited by Rob Desales; music by Christopher Drake; produced by Bruce W. Timm; released by Warner Premiere.

Starring Keri Russell (Diana), Nathan Fillion (Steve Trevor), Alfred Molina (Ares), Rosario Dawson (Artemis), Marg Helgenberger (Hera), Oliver Platt (Hades), Virginia Madsen (Hippolyta), Julianne Grossman (Etta Candy), Vicki Lewis (Persephone) and David McCallum (Zeus).


Mission: Impossible III (2006, J.J. Abrams)

After two asinine outings, Tom Cruise finally figured out how to get a Mission: Impossible to work. There’s an actual story–the viewer’s engagement with the plot doesn’t revolve around one’s appreciation of Tom Cruise and his frequent grin. The difference is in Cruise himself. He’s no longer charming the women aged twelve to fifty-two in the audience, he’s widened his scope–he’s trying to present an affable lead… to everyone. It’s amazing how little the film needs to engender some real concern for the character. Give him a girlfriend, a pre-exisiting girlfriend–does wonders. Throw in Ving Rhames putting his foot in his mouth while talking about the girlfriend. Rhames and Cruise, after two chemistry-free occasions, finally work well together. They’re finally believable as friends… or friendly acquaintances. Again, all seems to be Cruise.

There’s the other development–a personable team. Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers don’t exactly have a major part in the film, but there’s a definite sense they work together and know each other. It’s a very welcome feel, since Mission: Impossible kind of suggests them having a team. It changes the kinds of stunts Cruise gets to do–he still gets to run a lot and there’s a motorcycle sequence–but having to involve his teammates… I don’t know if it makes Mission: Impossible III more possible (there’s a lot of silliness, down to the secret underground base), but it makes the concept a little easier on the senses. Instead of whacking the viewer’s cognitive reasoning centers with a two by four, it’s a more acceptable amount of disbelief the film’s requesting suspended.

J.J. Abrams and crew present a rather simple spy plot–it’d work, easily, for a James Bond, a Lethal Weapon or even a Die Hard (all, obviously, with significant changes)–and do it well. It doesn’t really matter if this one’s a sequel to the other two Mission: Impossible movies. It’s a spy getting married movie, they’ve made these for a long time. Cruise works–and works quite well with love interest Michelle Monaghan. Monaghan and Cruise have a really great scene–one where Abrams’s directorial abilities come through–and Monaghan’s just too good for this kind of material… and she can even pretend she doesn’t know it.

Cruise assembled a great supporting cast–Laurence Fishburne (in the kind of role he should have been doing for years), Billy Crudup, Simon Pegg and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman should have been playing the cooly evil villain for years–he excels at it. The scenes where he’s playing Tom Cruise playing Philip Seymour Hoffman are comic gems.

It isn’t just Abram’s story–he put together a great crew. Daniel Mindel’s a fine cinematographer–Mission: Impossible III has a bunch of CG composites and the lighting is never off, which is a not insignificant achievement. The music–by Michael Giacchino–is fantastic. It’s never bombastic (like a composer I’ve actually heard of) and occasionally feels like cheap TV music–a perfect match for Mission: Impossible.

Given the first two movies, it’s hard to believe III even has a chance. But, almost immediately, it’s a fine diversion. It just gets better throughout, even pulling a couple nice saves throughout (especially at the end).

Abrams is an impressive feature director.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Abrams, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller; director of photography, Daniel Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian), Ving Rhames (Luther), Billy Crudup (Musgrave), Michelle Monaghan (Julia), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Declan), Keri Russell (Lindsey Farris), Maggie Q (Zhen), Simon Pegg (Benji), Eddie Marsan (Brownway) and Laurence Fishburne (Theodore Brassel).


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