Thursday, December 7, 2023

Film Reviews: Track the Making of Three Women Activists in Very Good “Waitress: The Musical,” “Origin” and “Poor Things”

Waitress: The Musical (c) Bleecker Street

Film: Waitress: The Musical 
In Cinemas for a week via Fathom Events 

Waitress, the musical, and the 2007 movie it’s based on have always had a tinge of sadness over it with the film’s director and co-star Adrienne Shelly murdered before the film’s premiere. The 2016 Broadway musical was a modest critical hit, but audiences loved the show of a down-on-her-luck waitress who finds the strength to continue with her dream of baking pies, even with an unexpected pregnancy with her abusive husband. It ran for almost four years, closing in January 2020, right before the pandemic, and the show reopened with its composer Sara Bareilles as Jenna (she played the part as a replacement during the initial run), with this film capture of the musical as its endgame. And what a fine decision that was because now it’s finally being released as a Fathom Event after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere earlier this year. Bareilles may be a bit no-nonsense to be entirely believable as the meek waitress Jenna who can’t stand up to her loser husband Earl (Joe Tippett), but she sings her songs beautifully, including the big hit song “She Used to Be Mine,” and that’s worth the price of admission alone. Thankfully, the show is filled with other reasons to catch this filmed Broadway production, including original cast members Drew Gehling as Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s geeky gynecologist, whom she is flirty with, and Christopher Fitzgerald, who got a Tony nomination as Ogie, the amateur magician/war reenactor in love with one of the other waitresses Dawn (Caitlin Houlahan), after an internet blind date. The rest of the cast are fine, but it would be a crime not to mention Charity Angél Dawson as the last of the three waitresses, Becky, who gets to sing the second act opener and showstopper, “I Didn’t Plan It.” The film’s director, Brett Sullivan, is able to get a lot of cool close-ups over the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, including the use of an actual baby, which was probably not part of the Broadway production but gives the story some heartbreaking verisimilitude. But again, the marquee attraction is Bareilles, a pop star turned musical writer and now actress (she was on the TV show, Girls5eva and received a Tony nomination for the Baker’s Wife in the recent Into the Woods revival). Jenna at one point is described as the queen of kindness and goodness and Bareilles is able to radiate that in spades, amid her “sugar, butter, flour.” 

Origin (c) NEON

Film: Origin 
In Cinemas 

Ava DuVernay has gone back to her early years as an activist filmmaker after a sojourn into the Hollywood machine with A Wrinkle in Time in 2018. The director, who is most known for films like Selma and 13th is dealing with race again, but in a way that might feel like a bridge too far to some in discussing racism in America. DuVernay has written a movie about real-life journalist Isabel Wilkerson during the period when she was researching what would ultimately become her bestselling book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It feels like quite a task to try to explain Wilkerson’s ideas about slavery and caste while also telling the story of her life, but DuVernay is quite fortunate in having the luminous, Oscar-nominated actress (for King Richard) Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor as Wilkerson. Even when the film falls into some didactic passages (at one point, Wilkerson pulls out a whiteboard to connect her ideas), it is Ellis who grounds the theories to make it feel less academic. This is a pretty turbulent time in Wilkerson’s life as she has to deal with health crisis of most everyone around her, including her loving husband Brett (a refreshingly subdued Jon Bernthal, reuniting with his King Richard co-star), her mother (Emily Yancy), who is reticent to move to an assisted facility, and her best friend and cousin Marion (played with no-nonsense sass by Niecy Nash-Betts). But when a magazine editor wants her to write about the then recent Treyvon Martin (Tony-winner Myles Frost) shooting — a story she doesn’t want to write at first — she reluctantly starts some research while dealing with all this other stuff going on in her life. Her research leads Wilkerson to the thesis of her book, and it certainly is more complicated than a one sentence synopsis, but essentially: Racism in American against black people should actually be categorized as a result of the wider theory of caste subjugation, which can be seen in the Nazi’s “solution” of the Jews in WWII Germany and the ongoing example of the Dalit (also referred to as the untouchables) who are the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. In order to fully discuss this cinematically, DuVernay dramatizes some anecdotal historical examples, which feels more like a PowerPoint presentation than a well-plotted film. Still, I was intrigued by the premise, and the film is a good 135-minute cliff notes primer for whenever I decide to fully invest in reading the 496-page book. Origin is food for thought that keeps me hungry enough to want more. 

Poor Things (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Poor Things 
In Cinemas 

Director Yorgos Lanthimos certainly has a unique vision in movies like The Lobster and The Favourite, but nothing will prepare you for Poor Things, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, which feels like a fractured steam-punk fairy tale, and while visually it’s a triumph in every way, the story itself sort of runs out of gas. But until then, Lanthimos entrances you with the story of a deformed doctor with the too-on-the-nose name of Godwin (Willem Dafoe), who has transplanted the brain of a baby into the body of a recent suicide victim, now called Bella (a fascinating Emma Stone). Bella’s early life is that of a child in the body of an adult, whose walk is janky, and her grasp of language is a bit spotty. By the time she is able to communicate with the world (although still unsure of its customs), she is spotted by the lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, at his most dandy), and what starts as purely sex (or what Bella calls “furious jumping”) soon becomes a demented version of My Fair Lady. It is at this point the story feels lost at sea (literally) and what was fascinating and unpredictable suddenly becomes an allegorical morality tale about women, which is a bit of a letdown after the unexpected journey so far. There’s even an overused (and unfunny) Marlon Brando screaming “Stella” moment. All the actors are having a great time playing in the Lanthimos sandbox, including a bemused Ramy Youssef as Dr. Godwin’s protégé and the devilish Kathryn Hunter as boarding house madam. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan plays around with color and black & white in a playful way, and Jerskin Fendrix’s score feels like an old victrola playing a scratchy record, keeping the audience on its toes. Cinephiles have latched onto Poor Things since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and while it may not be a homerun of a film, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.

If you want to comment on these reviews, please do so on my Instagram account.  All reviews have their own post.  And please follow to know when new reviews are released.