Waitress (Shelley, 2007)

Catching up on some key missed films of 2007, so here goes. Waitress is everything I heard it would be – a sweet story, fantastic script, and some delicious mise-en-scene framed around wondrous pies and bright colors. But Keri’s Russell’s brilliant central performance greatly surprised me. At times cringing with agony (she has maybe the worst husband in modern movie history), Russell’s titular waitress Jenna walks like a zombie through a rotten existence, only finding her true calling when pushed to the brink by an unwanted pregnancy. Director Adrienne Shelley’s sparkling film enables a peachy rejuvenation for Jenna and her incredible pie making talents, showing a glow of confidence shine brightly. Purpose seems to be the great theme of Waitress, something that makes up both the company we keep and the lives we live. The sunny denouement sprinkles the final pinch of sugar on top of a joyful independent treat, one fixated on the edible joys of sacrifice and love and the pitfalls of insolence and insecurity.- A sad side note: As many of you might know, director Adrienne Shelly (a great actress in her own right), was murdered last year before the film came out, a devastating loss for the film community. As Shelley’s one and only directorial effort, Waitress feels like a forlorn goodbye to an old, innocent style of filmmaking crushed by the Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s of the world.

I Am Legend (Lawrence, 2007)

Part bold character study, part mindless Hollywood action bonanza, I Am Legend doesn’t require prior knowledge of any past artistic incarnations to be successful as pure entertainment. No, neither Richard Matheson’s harrowing source material from the 1950’s nor the previous two film versions of I Am Legend look or sound anything like director Francis Lawrence’s epic disaster film, which rightly flaunts Will Smith (in a wonderful performance) as the end of the world hero hell bent on saving mankind from eternal damnation as vampires. The time is 2012 and Lawrence introduces a desolate, hollow New York City landscape, then Smith’s Robert Neville racing through the dense and quiet mise-en-scene in a glimmering red Mustang. Neville, a military scientist and lone survivor of a terrible outbreak three years prior, goes about his solitary daily life with only the companionship of his German Shepherd Sam. At night, he barricades himself from the Night Seekers, the infected populace which has taken over the Earth. We get glimpses of Neville’s family and the initial panic of the outbreak through flashbacks, but nothing resembling deep insight about why he’s survived (no hard science here) or his past responsibilities as the chief military officer in charge of the global quarantine. The mystery behind Neville’s plight makes the first half of I Am Legend a beautiful exercise in dramatic minimalism framed through spatial emptiness, giving the viewer just enough of his past trauma’s and fleeting shadowy glances of the blood thirsty vampires. Also, Smith’s interaction with his canine makes for some fascinating scenes of friendship and devotion amidst the most strenuous and self-defeating circumstances. But Lawrence and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman can’t resist taking the movie toward a life-affirming conclusion, singling out themes of faith and sacrifice which don’t feel half as honest as images of Neville and Sam playing ball or picking corn. I Am Legend has always been about the loneliness and regret Neville feels when faced with his own failures and those of the world around him, and the final third of this latest version plays it safe with these tense emotions. Sure, I Am Legend delivers the goods as a surface level adventure film, displaying a fine star presence and gripping apocalyptic set pieces, but somehow the familial demons which plague Neville and make him a fascinating character in the first place get left behind for schmaltzy hopes and retrograde sympathy. While the legend lives on, it does so seeped in sap.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Verbinski, 2007)

This series became so bloated and tedious it’s hard to even remember the originality and cleverness of the maiden voyage. Like The Matrix, Pirates went epic after it’s initial success and lost what made it worthy in the first place – a great story. Better than Pirates 2 you say? Barely. But that just shows how far we’ve lowered our standards.

Fred Claus (Dobkin, 2007)

The latest Vince Vaughn comedy isn’t really a comedy at all, but a surprisingly sincere story about Christmas, brothers, and selflessness. It’s often funny (the Siblings Anonymous scene is priceless), sweet, and jovial without being blatantly manipulative. A surprise treat for those in the mood for such a plump and festive jaunt. Today, I was more than happy to oblige that sentiment.

Patterns of Place: Regional Expectations Die Slowly in Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007)

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Ben Affleck begins his complex directing debut Gone Baby Gone with two distinctive signatures of Boston – the rough faces of it’s populace mulling about outside their houses layered over with the potent regional drawl of the film’s narrator, private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), voicing his reflections on the essence of community. Patrick, proud of his beginnings with honest optimism, muses about the history behind such a place, the hard work, the people, and the values which inevitably define a region. This particular enclave has just suffered a tragedy; the kidnapping of a young girl from her own home, enacting the full presence of the police (led by a devoted Capt. (Morgan Freeman) and the media. The missing girl’s Aunt and Uncle hire Patrick and his partner (in both senses of the word) Angie (Michelle Monaghan) to help with the local color, i.e. getting information from those who might not approach the cops. This quick and tense setup produces a disturbing scene early on in which Patrick and Angie question the harsh rubes of a seedy local bar. A resentment becomes apparent between Patrick and the inhabitants which he doesn’t immediately understand. His sense of self and place become intrinsically threatened by these men, and it offends him more than it frightens. Director Affleck builds the scene masterfully, laying out the smokey space in terms of building conflict and threatening bodies, striking chords with both story and character. The incident in the bar provides us with the flip side to Patrick’s seemingly benign personality, the brutal actions alluded to and founded by a more violent and criminal past. Gone Baby Gone bristles with countless scenes like this one, those based on character’s expectations which undeniably come crashing down. As Patrick becomes more embroiled in the girl’s disappearance, his own perception about place, ethics, and morality are tainted by the investigation. Many have called Gone Baby Gone an excellent genre film, which it certainty is. But there’s more to Affleck’s pacing (which challenges traditional plot points) and his direction of actors than simple genre aesthetics. The sum of all these parts leads to the unravelling of Patrick’s expectations about his home, friends, religion, basically everything that defines him. This evolution can be found in the supporting players as well, including a harrowing turn by Ed Harris as a local detective on the case. Each character in Gone Baby Gone shows their true stripes through the death of their own expectations, and as moments of violence and heartache reveal contrasting natures, so does Patrick’s sense of place change drastically. By the end of the film, Affleck’s opening salvo takes on new meaning – the simple faces and tone of region have depth and menace and faith beyond even the judgment of it’s own people, a dangerous combination when faced with the complexities of life. Gone Baby Gone is a beast of a film, invigorating, frustrating, and ripe with shifts and turns worthy of a Noir, while taking on a view of humanity all it’s own. We are not doomed by fate, or by chance, but by our own denial of character flaws themselves. Patrick learns this countless times, yet by the time the Brothers Affleck bring us full circle, we’re still not sure where he stands, a force of ambiguity that both engulfs the film and the it’s characters’ sense of place. Sometimes, home sweet home turns tragically unfamiliar.

First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982)

A classic character in a great origin story with ample subtext concerning post-Vietnam America. Rambo’s literally thrust into another guerilla war on his own turf, but the film does not entirely let him off the hook, nor his military liaison played by Richard Crenna. The situation more so than the people is cause for concern, and after all the destruction and hurt in First Blood, it’s unclear whether anyone has learned from the experience. Too bad the sequels have been dumbed down for the war hungry public.