The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun)

Release: Friday, October 22, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray; Owen Wilson; Adrien Brody; Benicio del Toro; Léa Seydoux; Tilda Swinton; Frances McDormand; Timothée Chalamet; Jeffrey Wright; Mathieu Amalric; Ed Norton; Steve Park; Elizabeth Moss; Willem Dafoe; Saiorse Ronan

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

 

****/*****

Trying not to laugh in a Wes Anderson movie is like trying to suppress a sneeze. All the little absurdities he is synonymous with are those constant tickles that build toward something you can no longer contain. Of course, his movies aren’t pure comedy and so you’re fighting a battle of needing that sweet release and being stifled by the seriousness that sits right beside the silliness.

The French Dispatch (etc, etc) is yet another example of that uniquely entertaining struggle. But it might be a struggle in another way, for this is the most ambitious project Anderson has yet undertaken. As such it isn’t a great starting point for a newcomer (I highly recommend beginning with his début Bottle Rocket — it’s low-key but full of the elements that would later make him an auteur). In some ways, early Anderson might be the best Anderson as you see raw talent more than the money. Post-Royal Tenenbaums, the intensifying style and increasing magnitude of cast represent an elitist form of repetition, with his exacting precision and obsessive-compulsive control over all elements remaining forever the things you remember more than story beats.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m a fan, and if he so chooses to make a movie that somehow tops this level of complexity, consider me there. But I also wonder about the sustainability of the future — can Anderson just keep drilling down into more and more complicated narratives or does something eventually give? His tenth film is a doozy, at one point a post-World War II musical (that’d be something to see!) now turned into a detail-laden love letter to journalists that unfolds as though one is watching a magazine come to life on screen. For Anderson, the way a story is told has always been tantamount to the subjects of those stories and in drawing inspiration from The New Yorker he’s found an ideally idiosyncratic space in which to run wild with his obsessions.

It’s the end of an era for the staff of the titular paper, a foreign bureau of a fictional Kansas publication based in the delightfully made-up French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé (literally Boredom-upon-Apathy). The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Usually it’s no news is bad news but this is bad news for his underlings, a tight-knit group often coddled by Howitzer — a character loosely based on The New Yorker founding editor Howard Ross. As per his wishes, Howitzer’s death means the end of the paper. The overarching plot, manifested in a prologue and epilogue, revolves around this bittersweet development as the loyal staff gather themselves, without crying, to reprint a series of stories for the paper’s final issue.

Sporting an insane cast The French Dispatch all but demands a second viewing if you want more than the basic shape. The first segment, titled ‘The Concrete Masterpiece,’ is relayed to us by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), an art aficionado prone to personal digressions at the lectern. Her presentation describes a strange relationship between incarcerated, tortured artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard/muse Simone (Léa Seydoux). Adrien Brody complicates the scene as an art dealer who intends to sell Rosenthaler’s provocative abstracts to the highest bidder. The buyer’s persistence sets off a chain of amusing events that becomes impressively convoluted considering the confinement of the scene.

From a physical altercation we pivot into social unrest in ‘Revisions to a Manifesto,’ which centers on journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), a lonely writer who emphasizes professional objectivity yet develops an intimate relationship with a student protestor (Timothée Chalamet) as she helps him formalize his complaints in writing. The righteous cause in this case is getting campus rules rewritten so that boys can visit girls in their dorms. As the movement evolves, the town of Ennui becomes ensconced in greater conflict, in what becomes known as The Chessboard Revolution. The tableau is constructed as farce but finds real-world roots in the May 1968 student-led protests that snowballed into nationwide strikes and even prompted a temporary government shutdown. It’s a tricky area in which Anderson’s unbridled whimsy could easily feel inappropriate, but he avoids unfunny facsimile by keeping the focus almost exclusively on the (intentionally inappropriate) dynamic between writer and subject.

Finally we arrive at ‘The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,’ which, for now at least as my brain tries not to overheat, is at risk for being remembered only for the breathtaking action midway through, an Adventures of Tintin-style animated sequence down narrow French streets that effects a New Yorker comic strip in moving picture form. During a television interview, forlorn foodie Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts the kidnapping of the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric)’s son by members of Ennui’s seedy underbelly, represented by Ed Norton‘s Chauffeur. The kidnapper’s motive (and fate) prove far less significant than the recollection itself, which encompasses his painful backstory of how he, an openly gay writer, came to be hired by the Dispatch.

Each of these stories are works of art unto themselves. Although some are more memorable than others, it’s not crazy to imagine any one of them being stretched into a full-length film of its own. Details matter more here than they ever have. In a story overflowing with minutiae perhaps this is no small thing, but it’s important to note the way Anderson regards journalists — at the very least, his journalists — not as unassailable heroes incapable of doing harm but rather emotional beings who have egos, biases, habits, neuroses. The French Dispatch is not a lamentation of clickbait or a yearning for the days when long-form journalism didn’t need to be qualified as ‘good, old fashioned.’ This is a satire of writerly sensibilities, of insecurities and imperfections, ironically delivered by a veritable perfectionist. 

While the laughs may not come as easily on the first try, the layered narrative approach and copious relationships ensure The French Dispatch will be a piece worth returning to time and time again. 

If you mention block-editor to me one more time . . .

Moral of the Story: The French Dispatch is a movie that finds Wes Anderson pushing his iconic style and atmosphere to extremes, such that style and substance become one and the same. The subject matter is more esoteric than something like the romantic escape of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and more complex even than the history of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but the good news is that you don’t need to be aware of all the homages and references that are made to enjoy what Anderson is doing here. As with so many of his films, what you put into it is probably what you will get out of it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins. 

Quoted: “As you know by now, we have kidnapped your son.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.impawards.com; www.rogerebert.com 

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Stefano Sollima

I need to file a complaint. Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is an eyesore of a title. It is an awkward concession, the plasticine product of a marketing scheme designed to put the movie in “the best position to succeed.” Really though, it’s just poised to confuse. Elsewhere (outside of North America, that is) you’ll find the same film operating under various guises, such as Sicario 2, Soldado and Sicario without Emily Blunt.  

Good. Now that that resolved something, maybe now we can talk about the movie itself.

And what a vicious movie it is. Fortunately, at least with regards to quality, the content is not the title. Italian-born director Stefano Sollima confidently carries the torch passed to him in what appears to be a bonafide crime saga anthology in the making. While Soldado indeed navigates the same ethical and tactical morasses Villeneuve established in his instant classic from 2015, it’ll be remembered more for its even bloodier, soul-bruising action bent. And yet, in the spirit of its predecessor and despite the absence of an audience surrogate like Blunt’s Special Agent Kate Macer, Soldado effects the thrill of privileged access to things we should not be witnessing.

In 2018 the game has changed and so have the rules. The war against the ruthless Mexican drug cartels has taken an even more nefarious turn. Rather than the smuggling of illicit drugs, the focus has shifted to the prevention of human trafficking — specifically the transporting of bomb-making desperadoes across the line. An opening salvo details in gut-wrenching fashion precisely what CIA black ops agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic hitman Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro) are up against this time. We experience first-hand in Kansas City the callousness with which the bad guys are able to dispatch with the innocent.

Graver, who specializes in getting his hands dirty, is called in by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) for an assignment seemingly tailor-made just for him. Given such rampant violence, the American government has reclassified these gangs officially as terrorist organizations. Their objective now is to exacerbate tensions between the factions to the point where they simply wipe each other out. Victory by way of escalation, not extradition.

To get things rolling, Graver enlists his friend to carry out a ballsy false-flag operation involving the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (a crushingly good Isabela Moner), daughter of the sadistic kingpin Carlos Reyes. The mission gets a bit more complicated/spoiler-rich but suffice it to say it doesn’t all go off without a hitch. Double-crosses and unexpected escapes crop up along the way, and it isn’t long before Graver and Gillick themselves question just what it is they are trying to accomplish. (And, as an aside, this is the coldest and most ruthless I have ever seen Catherine Keener. Consider me now a big fan.)

Crucially, Taylor Sheridan returns for this loosely-connected sequel. Once again his screenplay masterfully simplifies a lot of technical jargon without diluting the essence of the conversation. The gifted screenwriter is of course blessed with acting talent to match. Bad-boy Brolin feels at home in his über-niched role as a sandals-wearing DoD enforcer, while the aforementioned Keener and Modine lend incredible weight with their government agents standing at a safe distance. Del Toro may never have been quite this interesting (or this blood-caked). Meanwhile, the child actors — yes, absolutely Moner, but also introducing Elijah Rodriguez as the wayward Miguel — commit to their emotional load-bearing roles as consummate professionals.

Sheridan’s world-building also impresses. What else is new? He presents the labyrinthian network of black market dealers and uneasy relationships among different levels and loyalties of law enforcement as an ever-shifting landscape of personal vendetta and evolving objectivity. A lot of traveling is required and to exotic locations such as Djibouti and the Gulf of Somalia, and we hop back and forth across the border enough times to get dizzy. The director has to temporarily suspend reality in a few places to accommodate character arcs, but even with a few cut corners the main flow of the narrative rarely, if ever, exceeds our grasp — even while we shield our eyes from the more gory details.

Soldado isn’t as sophisticated a drama as what came before. This movie is more of a blunt instrument than a think piece, and it has no interest in being anyone’s friend. In almost any other production it would take some effort to justify this level of bloodshed. No, Soldado doesn’t exactly champion humanity, but it is a reflection of it. And yes, it should upset you. It should make you cringe, if not for Alejandro and friends then for the next generation caught in the crossfire.

Recommendation: Savage confrontations and a dearth of feel-good moments characterize this action thriller of above-average intelligence (poor titles notwithstanding). Soldado should satisfy fans of the original with its continuation of the same blood-soaked moral quandary established three years prior, even if a lot of nuance is lost in the transition. And the way this second chapter leaves you — left me, anyway — is nothing short of morbidly fascinating. I can’t wait for a third installment. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You’re gonna help us start a war.”

“With who?”

“Everyone.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Little Prince

'The Little Prince' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Irena Brignull; Bob Persichetti

Directed by: Mark Osborne

The Little Prince is a gem. It’s a crime it never received a theatrical release. It’s a heartwarming journey rivaling anything Pixar has created on an emotional and intellectual level, and perhaps it’s the complex, multi-layered animation that truly sets the film apart, interweaving crude stop-motion with crisp, computer-generated imagery to produce an aesthetic you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne’s enchanting tale is a reimagining of the 1943 French novella of the same name, penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a successful commercial pilot (and novelist, poet, aristocrat and journalist) prior to World War II. The man once traveled to American shores in an attempt to convince the government to bring the fight to Nazi Germany following his disenfranchisement from the French Air Force in the early 1940s. He spent a little over two years in the States writing what would later become three of his most popular works. He later would re-join the Force only to disappear mysteriously soon thereafter à la Amelia Earhart.

Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an aviator factor into this modern interpretation of The Little Prince in curious ways. (It should be noted, however, that his original story was published before he enlisted.) Fantastical elements are of course front-and-center and the story is entrenched in the stresses of modern living, but under the surface lie untold mysteries and tales of bravery, heroism and self-discovery. Strong emotional hooks are drawn from an impressive, inspired voice cast and Osborne’s touch, though ultimately nothing unique, is just confident enough to steer the story in a direction that, come the end, very well may have you in tears. The good kind, of course.

We’re introduced to The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy, who thus far has Interstellar, The Conjuring and Ernest & Celestine on her résumé, and at the time of writing she’s yet to turn 16) who lives in a very grown-up world driven by rules, schedules and obedience. Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) wants her to attend the prestigious Academy so she can grow up and become an essential, contributing member of society. The initial interview does not go well as the panel, led by Paul Giamatti‘s intimidating and overly harsh instructor, springs an unexpected question upon her that causes her to panic. Mother has a Plan B: make her daughter cram so much studying into each and every day of her summer vacation she’ll be sure not to have any distractions (i.e. friends).

Mother draws up an impossibly elaborate Life Plan and constructs it so that each minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year is accounted for. Soon enough, The Little Girl rebels. She befriends their eccentric, hoarding and elderly neighbor, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who is introduced as the scourge of this SimCity-esque neighborhood — one comprised of identical blocky houses and roads filled with cars driving identical speeds and in organized right-angled patterns. Mother looks at the situation like so: “Just think about [his] house being the reason [ours] is available. This is the place where you’ll learn to grow up and become Essential.” (I paraphrase.)

The Aviator is a wonderful creation, and Bridges brings the character to life in ways that are difficult to fathom. Practically speaking, his performance is little more than a voice laid over/synced up with a cartoon character. It’s not the genuine article, and yet, he is mesmeric as he regales The Little Girl about his past experiences with an enigma he calls The Little Prince, whom he met after crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert many years ago. The Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son Riley) shows him a world where everything is possible, a reality that The Aviator has been trying for years to communicate to anyone willing to listen. Finally he has found someone who will, even if her intelligence means she’s skeptical about certain details.

The Little Prince is a space-traveling young lad who once lived on a tiny planetoid, a celestial object so small you could traverse on foot in a matter of minutes and whose existence is constantly being threatened by hungry tree roots eager to take over the entire planet. He left this world and a Rose he fell in love with (voiced by Marion Cotillard for some reason) in search of greater truths amongst the cosmos. In the present day, The Little Girl decides it is her responsibility to track down The Little Prince and prove to The Aviator that he still does exist, and that even though he has grown into a jaded, passive adult, he never abandoned the child within.

The Little Prince astounds on a visual level. It is an exercise in contrasts, the real world from which The Little Girl temporarily escapes suffocating with its seriousness and sterility, while the universe expands into this wondrous, strange space in which individual worlds are populated by simplistic, insulated communities comprised of childless, passionless adult drones. Scale is quirkily reduced to something almost tangible. We’re not talking interstellar travel here, more like a weekend road trip amongst the stars. You’ll find the stop-motion animation reserved for backstories concerning The Aviator’s relationship with The Little Prince while the rest operates in a pristine, colorful world that gives Disney a run for its money.

Much like a Roald Dahl creation, The Little Prince refuses to condescend to its pint-sized viewers. It strikes a delicate balance between entertaining youngsters while providing the more jaded a few different ways to look at the lives they’ve shaped for themselves. Occasionally the chronicle trips into the realm of the pretentious with a few overly-poetic spits of dialogue that attempt to spice up an already fairly advanced narrative. It doesn’t have to try so hard. The exploration of just what it was that caused the kid in us to go away is profound enough on its own.

The Little Prince

Recommendation: The Little Prince offers adventurous viewers something a little different. Generally speaking the story arc isn’t something you’ll be experiencing for the first time, but it’s the incredible nuance and the textures and the layers to the animation that make it one of the most original works this former animated-film-skeptic has seen all year. Stellar performances abound. There’s even a cute fox voiced by James Franco, a Benicio del Toro-sounding snake and Albert Brooks is along for the ride so the cast is reason enough to check it out. Also, stop-motion. Have I mentioned how awesome the technique is? Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Available on Netflix.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Sicario

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

In Sicario we get to take a tour south of the U.S.-Mexico border, heading to Ciudad Juárez to infiltrate the infamously violent and complex system of drug cartels that has consumed Juárez so completely it has become responsible for the random abductions of tourists and citizens alike from the streets of El Paso (an American city about 10-20 minutes from the official border), some of which occur in broad daylight. Villeneuve’s seventh feature film takes us into the lion’s den and forces us to wait around for the lion. It’s the kind of spine-tingling fear horror films wish they could inspire.

What’s most horrific is there’s nothing about Sicario that feels removed from our present-day reality. If you live in the United States you have almost no escape from news stories about escalating tensions along the Mexican border. The term ‘war on drugs’ has been ingrained into our vocabulary and on occasion we might find ourselves even using the term, almost unwittingly, in conversation. History books need to update what they consider to be the murder capital of the world, because for now it is Juárez. While the film’s events are fictionalized, they often carry the weight of the surreal headlines we’ve been appalled by. Bodies hanging from bridges with parts lopped off, as one example.

Unlike with a great many films you pay to watch in a comfy theater, you don’t simultaneously leave this movie and the problem it introduces behind. Although you’re not likely to lose sleep over the matter — especially a film that technically is dramatizing reality — Sicario is a different kind of film, one that doesn’t really feel cinematic. On that ground alone Villeneuve has accomplished something remarkable here. His latest effort is more journalistic than a fictional account, taking us deep into a dark and dangerous world that is often bypassed during our daily channel surfing from the couch because, well, the whole situation is sort of depressing.

Emily Blunt, playing idealistic (maybe naïve is the better word) FBI agent Kate Macer, serves as our access into the action. She is asked if she would like to join an elite task force that will be going after an anonymous drug kingpin, a group whose methods are going to differ from her own by-the-books modus operandi. She’s quickly persuaded by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a man whose laid-back attitude is at once comforting and unnerving, to volunteer because he makes a good point: the work she’s doing in Arizona is trivial in comparison. Thus Sicario is viewed from her perspective; our discomfort owed to escalating violence and unspecific mission objectives that constantly put Kate at odds with her colleagues.

Blunt is once again a revelation in an increasingly familiar role (I mean this in the best way possible) as a no-nonsense woman who finds herself out of her depth. She’s soft-spoken but her actions demonstrate the confidence we’ve been getting used to seeing from her as of late. Adding another strong female lead character to 2015’s all-too-elite list of names, Blunt effects a stoicism that may not be quite as strong as her bulletproof jackets, as she does occasionally come undone at the seams as the pressure of her duties mounts. But because she breaks — has anyone counted how many cigarettes she goes through? — she exposes the humanity buried underneath protective gear and a lot of ammo.

As good as she is though, she can’t deliver all the drama, much less react to it, alone. Taylor Sheridan is responsible for writing one of Benecio Del Toro’s career best roles as mysterious operative Alejandro Gillick, whose past experiences make the unit’s new mission extremely personal. His is not a talkative character, but when the stakes are this high what he doesn’t say is often as important as the things he does. Along with Brolin’s loose cannon Matt Graves, the trio assembled on screen is going to end up being one of the most impressive all year.

The casting certainly goes a long way in establishing Sicario as Villeneuve’s most solemn film yet (although I guess the jury’s still out on that as I have yet to see his Incendies and Polytechnique). Once again, though, it must be Villeneuve who deserves slightly more credit. As was the case in his unbearably tense Prisoners and to a lesser degree his mind-bending Enemy of last year, his directorial touch is driven by a need to take his characters to their breaking point and far beyond it. Think Alice in Wonderland, where Alice spends virtually the entire film tumbling down a rabbit hole to hell. Only . . . there is no Wonderland, and instead of magical talking cats and some semblance of whimsy (I realize I’m making a comparison to an already fairly dark tale) we get bullet-riddled bodies and no Mad Hatter tea party to look forward to.

Whereas Alice stepping into a world entirely not her own felt dreamlike and fantastical, this situation is a nightmarish hell on earth; the fact that Kate’s moral compass does her no good only exacerbates the collective stress in the room. Alejandro and Matt ensure us that their operation is legitimate despite their methods. I guess in this world you fight fire with firepower. Borders don’t exist; even the physical one doesn’t mean much. Like Prisoners, Sicario blurs the line between sound and corrupt morality and judgment, creating one of the most captivating cinematic events of 2015. Villeneuve drops his latest film like a bomber plane drops its primary weapon: confident it will hit its target with brutal force and that the effects will be both far-reaching and devastating. His confidence isn’t misplaced.

Recommendation: Sicario is heart-pounding, fist-clenchingly tense stuff, elevated to ridiculous levels by a game cast who might never have been better. In a business where movies often struggle to overcome the need to simply entertain, it’s nice to come across another one that has a bigger agenda than that. This crime drama is a real eye-opener, a stunningly well-crafted film that has a great chance of landing high on my list of the year’s best. A must-see.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You’re asking how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com