For waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) life is pie—but that’s strictly in culinary terms not metaphorical. In fact life is anything but easy or exciting for her: She spends every day working for a boss (Lew Temple) she hates before going home to a husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) she hates even more. The lone highlight of Jenna’s day—besides seeing her only two friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) at work—comes when assembling naming and baking her town-renowned daily pie; today it’s the self-explanatory “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby” pie. To her having a baby would put on hold her dreams of winning an upcoming $25 000 pie contest which would enable her to leave Earl. Alas she finds out she is pregnant with Earl’s baby but something good comes out her trip to the OB/GYN—her new young doc from Connecticut Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). He’s different and his attitude is alien to this Southern town but he makes Jenna feel like she matters and it’s not long before she reciprocates. As her due date nears and their secretive affair progresses her confusion only grows but she finds clarity from the most unexpected source. Russell is a long way from Felicity the TV show that launched her career but sometimes escaping the pigeonhole of a character as popular as Felicity Porter takes more than mere time. It often takes a left-of-center role like this one and if Russell’s sole intention was to leave her past in the dust she succeeds—and then some. As Jenna she arouses everything from sadness to joy to tears of both leaving out the forced drama that made her a teen favorite years ago. And yet she maintains an undeniable air of well cuteness that enables her to play younger than she is in reality. Equally refreshing perpetual up-and-comer Fillion (Serenity) does a great job of making his relationship with Russell seem an unlikely one. He also displays great comedic skills which we last saw in ‘05’s Slither. Frankly there’s no good reason he’s not a leading man. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Hines about the last actress you’d pick to play a Southern waitress gives her best movie performance to date even if only by proving doubters like myself wrong. Indie vets Shelly (Factotum) and Sisto (Six Feet Under) are also impressive in their comedic and somewhat villainous roles respectively. And Andy Griffith even stops by for some memorable lines! Beneath this syrupy sweet tale of pleasantness lies a pitch-black back story: Waitress writer/director/costar Adrienne Shelly was murdered in New York City towards the end of completing her movie. The shame of that in movie terms lies not only in the fact that she will obviously never see what is her best and most accessible directing effort but also that she clearly possessed massive talent and we’ll never know where she might’ve taken it. With Waitress Shelly created a warm fuzzy and vaguely nostalgic Southern dramedy with much less emphasis on the drama. And while her characters might not be completely honest representations of the South Shelly at least steers clear of offensive stereotypes that seem to saturate today’s movies opting to make Jenna’s plight the true conflict instead of choosing the proverbial “Southern climate.” Elsewhere Shelly does virtually no wrong. Waitress is exclusively about the female point of view which is quite refreshing. Shelly’s long takes of quirky dialogue between female characters—think G-rated Tarantino—are nothing short of hilarious and although the proceedings tend to take a conventional turn you’re always caught by surprise. As the tearjerker female-empowerment ending unfolds you can’t help but wipe the smile from your face and wish Shelly were still around; film could sure use a positive shot in the arm like her right about now.
From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.