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 

Isle of Dogs

Release: Friday, April 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

When it comes to Wes Anderson, ‘more of the same’ is absolutely a compliment. I don’t find myself saying that about many other filmmakers. Now nine films deep into a career that has netted him an ever-growing, passionate and devoted fanbase it is clear he isn’t changing tacks. On evidence of his latest effort, a visually dense yet lucidly told saga about a young Japanese boy in search of his lost pup, it is clear he doesn’t need to.

With Isle of Dogs, it is more than just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (It has been four years, apparently, since The Grand Budapest Hotel.) Isle of Dogs has the distinction of being only the second animated feature film on Anderson’s résumé. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is rendered in stop-motion animation, an aesthetic choice that on its own attests to a profound commitment and love for the craft of telling stories in moving pictures. His live action films feel restrictive by comparison in terms of the number of aspects he can control and customize to his completely obsessive liking. This new offering is so meticulously crafted you can easily take its beauty for granted.

Set in the fictitious metropolis of Megasaki City in a near-future Japan, trouble begins when the new, authoritarian, cat-loving mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the exile of all dogs from the city to an off-shore wasteland called Trash Island following an outbreak of “snout fever.” A brief timeline of events is immediately established, tracing the downward trend in the public repute of our canine companions. The relationship has deteriorated from dogs being subjected to harsh verbal treatment from their owners to being flat-out persecuted. So when I say this film is beautiful, I suppose I’m being shallow because if you do a little thematic digging you are sure to find some things that are actually quite ugly. Elements of immigration, of second-class citizenship and racial prejudice, even slavery are touched upon.

In the present/future/future-present/whatever, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who happens to be the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, flees the city in an attempt to reunite with his best buddy. His dog Spots was the very first to get booted to Trash Island. Upon his crash-landing there several months later Atari meets a group of abandoned mutts — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — who prove surprisingly willing to aid in his quest. After mistakenly identifying the remains of another dog as Spots, they seek the advice of wizened old fools Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who point them to the remote reaches of the island where they might have luck finding him amidst the cannibalistic tribes rumored to be living there.

Luckily, a post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston isn’t in his first Wes Anderson movie just to give a whimper of a performance. He has real bite here, playing a tough pooch who must break free from his habit of distrusting others, especially he who walks upright. This is his movie more than anyone else’s, and that of course means sacrifices on the part of Anderson regulars in order to elevate his status. Good for fans of Cranston, but perhaps a disappointing revelation for those wanting more Bill Furr-ay.

Isle of Dogs is a very busy place, a fully realized environment bustling with activity and overloaded with imagery that pays tribute to Japanese culture and iconography. To this viewer, that effort comes across as sincere and respectful but that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your experience was anything like mine you may have spent more time and a frustrating number of scenes trying to figure out which famous actor was voicing which animal rather than all the ways in which this movie appears to reinforce negative stereotypes. My head hurts already from overthinking things.

And then there are those obligatory subplots to contend with as well, which are considerably less interesting this time around. More often than not these asides tend to chop the central conceit up into annoying bits and pieces of doggie chow. One involves the predictable repercussions of Atari’s disappearance as his uncle vows to bring him and his newfound friends to justice. The other, also an attempt to balance perspectives, finds an outspoken animal rights activist (Greta Gerwig with HUGE hair) stumbling upon a potential conspiracy involving the corrupt mayor and a group of scientists featuring Yoko Ono. (Like I said, there’s just a lot going on.)

Much of the ambition pays off. How can it not when you have a filmmaker as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson, and especially here, when he is in complete control? Unfortunately not all of it succeeds and a few bells and whistles feel unnecessarily tacked on. Frances McDormand’s inclusion is a shining example of Anderson trying to do too much. The talented actress fulfills this really weird-bordering-on-condescending role as an English translator in select scenes where Japanese is spoken. She more often than not just gets in the way, neither becoming an interesting character nor a necessary plot device. In fact her function is borderline insulting, not simply to the few Japanese characters who actually do get speaking roles, but to those of us who are even decent at reading body language and facial expressions. Never mind the fact that the movie stops dead in its tracks just to explain such superfluity.

Ultimately though, Isle of Dogs does a lot of good. It is as uplifting in its action sequences as it is saddening in its darkest trials, of which there are quite a few. The whimsical spirit of the adventure and the often comical physical renderings — the scrappy dog fights are true highlights — go a long way in making a somber reality more palatable. The film is perhaps the darkest one yet in his filmography, yet it is perpetually buoyed by its fascination with the simple but unconditional love a dog has for his owner. Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson at his narrative best, but its flaws are not enough to stop me from asking for more of the same. Please, just. More.

Dog day afternoon

Recommendation: Isle of Dogs represents only the second time Wes Anderson has gone the way of stop-motion, but it is a welcome return to a form that I find he actually excels even more in. Barring a few niggling detours here and there, Isle of Dogs is consistently entertaining, surprisingly dramatic and a visually enthralling experience. Four barks out of five.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You’ll meet a bitch named Nutmeg. Tell her Chief says, ‘I’ll see you in Megasaki.'”

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

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

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Release: Friday, October 28, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Oz Perkins

Directed by: Oz Perkins

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House plays out as a chilly haunted house thriller with a literary twist. It’s something a writer might gravitate towards given the film’s concept-heavy plot, but an over-reliance on mood and atmosphere, not to mention some really pretentious dialogue, also make it something horror fans or fans of interesting movies in general are bound to reject.

Oz Perkins’ sophomore feature is the epitome of style over substance, but the style is actually pretty effective . . . for about 45 minutes. Throughout this slow-burning thriller viewers must contend with ghostly spirits, lots of things moving in slow-motion, artsy shots of a creepy home and its interior, and yes, the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy-syndrome — characters saying (or thinking) things that may sound nice and look snazzy on paper, but that ultimately come across as pretentious and unnatural. Pretty Thing (I think it’s unreasonable to expect me to keep writing out the full title) is actually just that — it’s a pretty thing; it looks good and occasionally, almost haphazardly, its brooding atmosphere leads us into a dark place that we want to immediately retreat from.

A meek and mild-mannered Ruth Wilson plays a live-in nurse hired to take care of a horror author named Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss) in her dying days. Blum has been cooped up in a creaky 18th Century home that may or may not have a lot of spooky history attached to it. Blum’s estate manager Mr. Waxcap (a name almost as good as that of the actor playing the part, the one and only Bob Balaban) encourages Lily to read some of her work, in particular a story that seems to be based on a murder that occurred in this very house. But Lily scares easily so she is unable to get into the book.

As weeks turn into months Lily begins experiencing strange occurrences. She’s seeing weird things and her patient keeps calling her Polly, a character out of that very book Mr. Waxcap recommended she read, The Lady in the Walls. A nasty mold has also started to form on one of the walls downstairs. In the film’s opening voiceover we are told that a house with a death in it can never be bought or sold, it can only be borrowed by the living from the ghosts who remain in it. It’s like some sort of paranormal etiquette: you can sleep in the bed and use the kitchen but we the dead remain the key holders.

Our protagonist isn’t exactly well-developed but we do know that she doesn’t seem to mind being in isolation. We also know she’s sensitive to things that go bump in the night and rarely does she seem to be in control of things. Which just begs the question: what on earth is someone like this doing in this place? Why would you take this job? Often it can be fun watching a character well out of their depth contend with threats, but in this case the contrast seems a bridge too far. Also, how does someone who works in palliative care, scare so easily? Isn’t being perpetually surrounded by death more terrifying? Also also: why am I looking for the logic in a horror film?

Despite its elegance — the likes of which struck me as a hybrid of Alejandro Amenábar’s classic creeper The Others and Jonathan Glazer’s challenging psychodrama Under the Skin — Pretty Thing allows the mind to wander far too often. It is good at building tension and suggesting horrors that may or may not be there (which is my nice way of saying the film’s mythology becomes confusing and in a hurry) but the spirits that plague this cinematic universe are really just thinly sketched archetypes all dressed up with no place to go.

iamtheprettything

2-5Recommendation: A film that tries to engage the intellect but falls short with an often infuriating lack of ‘action’ and a glacial pace. Ruth Wilson’s performance is solid which helps keep the viewer engaged but in the end there is so much left to be desired when everything wraps up. I am already well on my way to forgetting this one unfortunately. Though I can’t say definitively if I have been so put off by it that I never want to go near it again. It might be worth a revisit some day. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 87 mins.

Quoted: “I am very seldom required to wear white by my employers. But, anyway, I always do. It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched. Even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw.”

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

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

The Monuments Men

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Release: Friday, February 7, 2014

[Theater]

Hollywood’s golden boy, the man who no one thinks will actually age is not only going grey, he’s becoming uninteresting. His latest directorial effort fails as a historical work of art, but succeeds in the extreme in showcasing A-list celeb vapidity. I’ve never been the biggest sucker for the handsome devil myself, and with the release of The Monuments Yawn, I’m ever more comfortable on my little island.

After watching this film, if you find yourself in agreement that the guy is overrated, I’ll move over and share some space. This island is big enough for the both of us.

The latest contribution from the Ocean’s Eleven star is threefold: Clooney’s front-and-center as art historian/appreciator Frank Stokes and can also be found behind the camera directing a cast with its own sense of history. He also wrote the story. The likes of John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett were all at his disposal, as Clooney attempts to dramatize a most unusual circumstance — with the exception of Blanchett’s character, the rest form a band of art buffs who are tasked with locating and recovering precious works from a Nazi regime quickly crumbling during the final year(s) of World War II. They must go behind enemy lines and risk their lives in an effort to ensure der Führer isn’t successful in completely eradicating a culture via the hoarding and subsequent destruction of their remaining artistic creations.

By George, the man’s got a fascinating premise to work with, a heck of a cast, and an indisputably impressive film résumé that has earned him many a star and stripe. Yet he does a disservice to all of the above by creating a film that’s as boring as history courses are to the students who perceive their enrollment in them to be a complete waste of their time.

There’s no denying that one of the world’s most recognizable names has eked its way into a position of absolute authority. We’re at a point where seeing ‘Clooney’ beside the directorial credit is less of a surprise as it is an assumption confirmed; the longer you endure as a performer, the transition from actor to director is a bridge that will inevitably be crossed. . .just because. Of course, there are names aplenty who have realized their storytelling abilities are best demonstrated from the director’s chair, while still being able to show a modest level of conviction in their on-screen presence. Clooney is such a big name that the fact he’s a director now might be a reality we are going to invariably dismiss as the norm for aging A-listers.

In the many instances he comes up short as a director here, it’s not for a lack of trying. With a well-selected cast and a beautiful, authentic sense of time and place, his intentions are earnest and noble. He infuses wit into a story that, given the heaviness of the historical context, really could use it, and he appropriately selected class acts like John Goodman, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban as the vehicles for comedic relief. Too bad they never manage to yank the material out of neutral and become truly funny, as they more often than not are known for being capable of.

Costumes, make-up and set design are all impressive as well, particularly the set design. The film oozes 1940s quaintness. Dull browns and greens compose most of the shots taking place outdoors, while rich hues of mahogany and other colors of royalty help accentuate the dominance of the presence of the Third Reich, even in its state of decay in this moment in time. All actors are outfitted in appropriate garb that feels of the day, while the use of a portable radio that Frank discovers plays up the nostalgia factor wonderfully.

But considering all of these qualities, The Monuments Men should be so much better. It needs to be so much better. If the story were a map, we’re lost instantly in an incoherent jumble of directions, references, points of interest and a few other historical bits and bobs. At the very least, the journey we are meant to undergo throughout France and Germany is set up for some entertaining discovery. Instead what we are provided is a sprawling mess with an alarmingly low payoff come the long-awaited conclusion. Poor, if not nonexistent, character development is chiefly responsible for the way in which this film peters out into nothingness.

This mission is a noble undertaking, and so it stands to reason we should have some fairly compelling characters to deal with for two hours. As it turns out, this is arguably Bill Murray’s most uninteresting turn ever as Sgt. Richard Campbell, whose shining moment is cracking a tooth on some shitty food. Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz feels nothing less than squandered; and while Goodman and Dujardin have more work to do, it’s still menial as compared to Clooney’s talky lead.

As per usual, good old George is perfectly satisfactory as a leading man, playing the invigorated art appreciator who’s responsible for rounding up the troops (I really need to cease and desist with the cute puns). His directorial eye isn’t so trustworthy though, as he clearly has no idea how to control tone. The Monuments Men is monumentally tone deaf as it switches from comedy to drama back to comedy and even to romance from time to time in the space of a few short scenes. Plenty of films slip in between genres, but none feel as bipolar as this one does.

Worse than any of the aforementioned, the film is really a tough sit because it so often falls flat. This includes the comedic side of things. Clooney proves he’s as incapable of writing a convincing, historical script as he is directing it. His most recent directorial effort is a cardboard cut-out of what should be compelling filmmaking; it’s flimsy, hollow and yeah. . .cardboard-y.

Best just to stick to the basics, George. You know, looking great in front of the camera and all that jazz.

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2-0Recommendation: Tall order, recommending this one. The Monuments Men is a massive disappointment on virtually all levels. The main reason to go see this at this point is for the sake of seeing Mr. Clooney in another role, playing alongside otherwise excellent big-screen legends. Here, everyone (with the exception of the man himself) seems wasted in a movie that doesn’t seem interested in. . . .well, making anything interesting. I’d say skip this if you can help it.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Take a goddamn cigarette, Private.”

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