Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress is a captivating romantic comedy. It captivates you quietly and playfully, like someone sneaking up from behind to cover your eyes and say, “Guess who”. Or here, “Guess what”. Shelly herself will never be around to help with the answers. Shockingly, this actress of scat skills (Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth and Trust) who became a writer-director was murdered – in a random atrocity – shortly before she would have learnt of Waitress’s selection for Sundance, where it was an audience hit.
There is no justice. But equally, there is no boring closure for this movie. It remains a sweet enigma. For instance, is it all a joke on Madame Bovary? Waitress and piemaker Jenna (Keri Russell) is married to a gorgeous-looking stud (Jeremy Sistow) but has an affair with a boring doctor (Nathan Fillion). Admittedly the husband is a male chauvinist bully, who confiscates her pay packets and forbids her to travel to piemaking contests, while the kind doctor, her gynaecologist, is a handy means to sexual emancipation. But it proves that love can run crooked, even when running a little shallow. Jenna’s real friends, anyway, are her fellow waitresses (Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself) and the pieshop owner, a caring curmudgeon played by the amazingly still-acting-and-breathing Andy Griffith.
Jenna makes pies with ridiculous names: they are her works of art and soul’s expression. “I Hate My Husband Pie.” “Bad Baby Quiche.” (Daringly in a feelgood movie, she greets news of her pregnancy with “I’m having the baby, it’s not a party” and calls it an alien and parasite.) Neither of her co-workers has a stable love life, though Hines favours the big bang with the pieshop cook and Shelly the steady state with a marriageable, poetry-composing nerd (Eddie Ocean’s 13 Jemison).
The only moral is this: you must ensure that life is what you make of it, not what it makes of you. Like a pie with inadequate stiffening, Waitress sometimes threatens to slide and slurp all over the place. The music track has been squirted on as if with a cream syringe; I felt especially queasy when Jenna broke into “Gonna bake a pie with a heart in the middle”. You need a hard stomach sometimes in American romcoms. Equally, though, you’d need a hard heart not to love the good humour, good intentions and grace-of-style of Adrienne Shelly’s farewell film.
The writer-director Paul Schrader could be arrested for stalking his own alter ego. He has been doing it in screen fiction for 30 years. Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) in The Walker is the latest mutation of a hero who began as De Niro in Taxi Driver and became Richard Gere in American Gigolo, then Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper. Like those narcissist- neurotics, Carter Page III is a cabin- pressured solipsist suddenly released into a large and perfidious planet.
But what planet, exactly? Today’s planet? As a society escort, descended from southern political bigwigs, who squires Washington ladies to functions, Harrelson’s male butterfly with his periphrastic speech patterns belongs to a world halfway between Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. “I am the gay weathervane,” he purls during one of his long voice-overs. More a male Blanche DuBois, I would say, awaiting the kindness of strangers. That arrives at the end of an elaborate murder-and-intrigue plot set in the purlieus of power. Someone is killed; Carter takes the rap for a friend (Kristin Scott Thomas); the homophobes and hollow men close in. Suddenly Carter hears “the sound of doors closin’ all over town”.
The Walker seems the work of a straight movie artist trying to “do” gay. There is no reality humanising the caricatural extremes: on one side the gossipy preciosity of salon lunches and soirées, on the other, more briefly, the demi-monde of gay bars and artists’ lairs thick with S-and-M imagery. (Carter’s Euro-trash photographer lover Emek, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, is the rough trade every straight filmmaker believes every gay man covets or pursues.)
A rollcall of screen first ladies is here. Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and others join Scott Thomas in playing the woman army that rules Washington, while the corrupt and crumbling patriarchy is embodied in Central Casting stalwart Ned Beatty. The result is a lost-seeming film about a left-behind America. Today’s Washington is a different place, surely – less full of florid airs and graces, more full of crude sectarianism and manoeuvring – than this fancy talking-shop where orchidaceous words camouflage old-time conspiracy scenarios.
A surfing mockumentary with penguins is a lovely thought. In Surf’s Up the thought fathers the deed, with digimated Antarctic birds riding waves, daring “tubes”, delivering their dude-speak and generally carrying on like John Milius heroes with beaks and flippers. The docu-spoof approach allows an illusion of vérité – the penguins’ offhand streams of extemporisation to camera were surely inspired by Nick Park’s Creature Comforts – and prompts hilariously distressed black-and-white “archive” footage of CGI surfer birds circa the dawn of aqua sports.
Shia LaBeouf voices Cody, the teenage Rockhopper and aspiring record-breaker. Jeff Bridges voices the veteran coach and superdude, an avian cross between the Big Lebowski and the surf messiah of Dogtown and Z-Boys. The throwaway jokes are no less funny than the in-your-face ones, with the gag about Ma’s regurgitated tuna casserole probably qualifying in both categories. (Likewise the full-frontal outbreak of pixillation over a patriarch penguin’s genital area, though a later shot shows there was nothing to hide.) A film co-directed by experts, Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Tarzan), makes for a happy 85 minutes, although it might have been a teensy bit happier, banishing all hint of repetition, at 75.
Transylvania needs action from the Trade Descriptions Act. Vampires? Coffins? Bloodsucking? Forget it. This is a modern tale of love, emotional crisis and childbirth from the Algerian director Tony Exiles Gatlif. It is set in Romany Romania, where everyone carries on as if they have been thrown out of a Kusturica film (round-the-clock dancing, wassailing, music-making). Wide-eyed, pregnant Zingarina (Asia Argento) finds love with shaggy heart-throb Tchango (Head-On’s Birol Unel), after giving up on the child-begetter she chased all the way from France. When not hyperkinetic, the film is stone-cold dull. When not celebrating the joys of free living and free love, it tells us they bring nothing but grief. Have your polenta buttered on both sides.
None but the mad will want to see Rush Hour 3, but at this time of year that includes all of us. Sick of extreme weather? Fed up with international tensions? Can’t stand another ramp-up in the Lewis Hamilton/Fernando Alonso saga? Then relax with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. They leave the starting grid at 100mph, screech through Paris on two wheels each, and prove that age cannot wither Mr Chan nor customised grins stale the motor- mouthed cheerfulness of Mr Tucker. Max von Sydow and Roman Polanski, no less, play the sinister foreigners. From a mere speck of their DNA you could reconstruct the whole of European art cinema over the past 50 years. Now there’s a plot, a novel conspiracy conceit, for Rush Hour 4.