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DID YOU READ

“Waitress,” “Paris, Je T’aime”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “Waitress,” Fox Searchlight, 2007, left; Elijah Wood in “Paris, Je T’aime,” First Look International, 2007, below]

Waitress

The people in Adrienne Shelly’s “Waitress” begin as caricatures and ends as characters. They introduce themselves on phony looking sets with Southern slang that’s all “What can I get ya, hun?”s and “Have a good time, y’hear!”s. But their obviously constructed surroundings contain — and in some ways mask — the characters’ humanity, humor and decency, at least until Shelly’s screenplay slow-draws it out with wit and charm and a kind of patience that feels as old-fashioned as the story’s setting.

Keri Russell plays Shelly’s titular heroine (Shelly herself is in a smaller role), a small town diner pastry chef and waitress named Jenna. Jenna’s depressed, and not only because she’s got two jobs (whoever heard of a chef having to serve her own food?); she’s stuck in an unhappy marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto) and just learned there’s an unwanted child on the way. She seems fated to endless misery until her baby puts her in front of the new gynecologist in town, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a hunky and nervous fellow who strikes up an immediate friendship with the unhappy Jenna.

Jenna’s pie diner and the whole bucolic community in which it sits feel at first like a joke at the expense of small town America, but the film reveals itself to be something more: part idealized portrait, part warm-hearted satire. Shelly’s intentions become infinitely clearer when Andy Griffith appears on screen as Joe, the diner’s owner and most cantankerous customer. Griffith, of course, is famous for playing Sheriff Andy Taylor for eight seasons on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and, as a result, for defining the essence, real or imagined, of small town America. Casting him as the town’s crabby patriarch and infinitely wise arbiter is as crucial to Shelly’s imagery as apple pies and American flags, and it lets Griffith draw upon the audience’s memories of his pop culture past even as he plays with them a little (Joe’s mouth is dirtier than TV Andy’s ever was).

Like most of the characters in “Waitress,” Joe seems like one thing and reveals himself as another. This is not a particularly bold or original technique, especially in a movie about idyllic communities in the American heartland. Still, the richness of some characters stands apart from the well-worn storytelling techniques. Earl, for example, looks at first to be just another suffocating husband, but Shelly and Sisto bring something deeper and sadder to the role. The more we see of Earl, the more we realize that he is just as trapped in the marriage as Jenna, if only by his own suffocating desire to be needed and to feel loved. When he learns Jenna is pregnant, he’s fearful not that he won’t be able to handle his responsibilities as a father, but that Jenna might love the baby more than him.

You don’t necessarily grow to like Earl (he is, after all, a pathetic bastard), but you do grow to like the moments when he’s onscreen because of the enjoyably awkward tension he has with Jenna. Sisto and Russell have terrific negative chemistry, particularly in one hilarious scene where they have very bad sex. Observe the way he talks to his wife; peppering their conversations with detailed instructions on how she is to respond to him (“Tell me you love me… tell me it will be all right.”). It’s as if he sees his life as a movie — he’s the director obsessed with his material and she is the actress who’s dared to improvise the dialogue.

I’ve said a lot about how smart the movie is even in the face of its seeming plasticity, and it is, but I’ve also neglected how simple the story is on another level: sweet and funny, and, in Jenna’s relationship with Dr. Pomatter, romantic and even a little sexy. Given that Shelly died tragically shortly after completing the project, I went in with the incorrect expectation that “Waitress” would be somehow dark or sad. It is neither, except when one stops to reflect on how charming the film is and how its director will never be able to make another one like it.

Paris, Je T’aime

Most short films are just okay. They’re just not long enough to be particularly deep, or moving, or whatever. By their nature, they are slight and somewhat insignificant. Unless you’re a connoisseur of shorts, you could spend your whole life going to the movies and never seeing any. They exist in this world mainly as calling cards for young filmmakers. Instead of handing prospective financiers resumes, they hand them the short film they’ve made.

As a collection of eighteen shorts about the city of Paris (one for each of its neighborhoods), “Paris Je T’aime” is only as good as its component parts, which is to say it is, at least half the time, just okay — not long enough to be particularly deep, or moving, or whatever.

That doesn’t mean that some of its parts don’t do more than that. There are a few clear standouts, including the final short, “14eme Arrondissement,” by Alexander Payne, about a lonely American tourist. It’s like one of Payne’s features in miniature, only 6 minutes long but just as funny and moving as a full-length film. “Quartier de la Madeleine,” a twisted love story about a vampire and her prey (played by Elijah Wood, who once again makes good acting amongst effects work seem so effortless), is darkly stylized by Vincenzo Natali, where most of its brethren are light and shot like documentaries. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Parc Monceau,” in which an older man (Nick Nolte) and a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier) discuss the man who has come between them, continues the director’s recent love affair with the long take from his last feature, “Children of Men.”

Others don’t stand out, and others tend to fade together in memory. Some, like Olivier Assayas’ “Quartier Des Enfants Rouges” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as an American actress shooting a film on location, aren’t particularly Parisian and could probably have been set anywhere. Others, like Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marais,” about an intimate moment between two men in a printer’s shop, are basically an elaborate set up for a joke. Sometimes you can feel the filmmakers straining against the short format: the Coen Brothers’ “Tuileries,” for instance, would work a lot better in the middle of a movie about Steve Buscemi’s character (a terrified tourist learning about French subway etiquette the hard way), rather in the middle of a movie about 18 different groups of people.

If we don’t feel that we know or understand a character, their predicament, no matter how smartly constructed or adeptly filmed, won’t have an emotional impact. And in six minutes, it is not easy to make an audience feel like they know or understand a character; in some cases, it helps to start with a movie star in a role, as their preexisting relationship with the viewer can work as shorthand, as it does in Richard LaGravenese’ romantic “Pigalle” starring Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant.

“Paris, Je T’aime” shows that short films are usually just okay because they’re quite difficult to do well. Here is a collection of some of the best filmmakers in the world; many have made classics, if not masterpieces. If they can’t pull off a really great six-minute film, how can we expect some young turk from USC to do it?

“Waitress” opens in limited release May 2nd (official site); “Paris, Je T’aime” opens in New York on May 4th (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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