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 

Three Identical Strangers

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Directed by: Tim Wardle

Significant spoilers follow.

Documentarian Tim Wardle stunned the Sundance crowd earlier this year when he premiered Three Identical Strangers, the remarkable true story of a set of triplets separated at birth who by sheer chance were reunited at the age of 19. Call it one of life’s greatest plot twists. You might even call it a real-life fairytale. But do all fairytales have a happy ending?

Level One

It all began when a curly-haired Robert “Bobby” Shafran stepped foot back on campus at a community college in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. It was his sophomore year. A day that started as any other quickly turned surreal when seemingly everyone kept mistaking Bobby for some guy named Eddy (last name Galland), a former high school football star who was attending classes there the semester prior but had since transferred. It wasn’t until Bobby met his roommate that he would get an answer as to why girls he had never met before were walking right up to him and kissing him. The roommate, a Michael Domitz, knew Eddy had left the college and yet Bobby was so strikingly similar looking he had to ask a couple personal questions to potentially satisfy a theory. Were the two related in some way?

Turns out, both of Michael’s roommates shared the same birth day and year, and both were adopted — through the same adoption agency, no less. How many instances of coincidence does it take for someone to become convinced they aren’t coincidences? After an eerie phone call to someone whose voice was a perfect echo of his own, Robert took off for Long Island in the middle of the night. He had to meet this Eddy and immediately. Michael tagged along too. Four hours later, Robert found himself staring into a mirror — minus the actual mirror. The two had the same smile, the same bearpaw-like hands, the same curly hair. They spoke with the same cadence and laughed each other’s laugh. They instantly knew they were brothers and they acted like it. It was if those years, all that time spent in ignorance of each other’s existence, never were.

Level Two

Their story quickly gained national attention and the pair toured the country, making appearances on all the major talk shows. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Kellman happened upon a picture of the two in a local paper and was struck by their resemblance not just to each other, but to himself. America was already falling in love with this saga about long-lost twins being found. When it was learned there was actually a third, the narrative shifted from heartwarming to truly unbelievable. In this film there are so many things you will try to deny even as the subjects themselves graciously invite you into their lives. And as they explain more, it paradoxically becomes harder to accept.

Three Identical Strangers is a pure joy to behold, a spectacle of families coming together and expanding under the most unlikely of circumstances. It really is like a fairytale, until it isn’t. That isn’t an indictment on the way Wardle handles the material. There is a reason he considers the triplets the “single greatest story” he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second. In that way, there is this bipolar quality to the film’s emotional trajectory, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.

The triplets, along with their respective foster parents (one an upper-class couple, another comfortably middle class and the third blue collar) had more questions than they had answers — the most pressing of which were directed at the adoption center that split them up at birth and irrevocably altered their lives.

Level Three

The jaw-dropping revelations don’t end with the three brothers finally together and taking Manhattan by storm. In fact I’d argue this is where Wardle really goes to work. And where Three Identical Strangers goes from feel-good to “I feel sick.” As it moves into its unforgettable third act, interviews with curious journalists and scientists alike begin steering the narrative in a direction that is altogether surprising and deeply disturbing. What was before a celebration of life and love curdles into a desperate search for the truth and, ultimately, an infuriating ethics debate.

How were the three boys never told by their foster parents they were triplets, separated at birth? Did the parents themselves know? What about their birth mother? Why were they put up for adoption in the first place? I really want to answer some of those questions right here, right now. But you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Believe this though: Three Identical Strangers is one of the most breathtaking documentaries you will ever watch. It exposes an existential crisis the likes of which you and I will never experience, while questioning the nobility of scientific experiments in which the lab rats look alarmingly like us.

the triplets star in a brief cameo in the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Recommendation: Three Identical Strangers is the epitome of a film best experienced going in as cold as possible. Ideally, you’ve read my spoiler warning up top and skipped right down to this section. I guess it doesn’t matter when words don’t really do this story justice. It is just an insane true story and you have to check it out to draw your own conclusions. And please do so before Hollywood botches it by turning it into a narrative feature. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

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.unz.com

Truth

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: James Vanderbilt

Directed by: James Vanderbilt

Truth be told, a movie featuring household names like Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, one propped up on real-world events of this magnitude shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through. Yet, here we are.

To clear the air first: don’t think of this as the definitive Dan Rather biopic; think of it as a drama that calls upon his iconic red suspenders and larger-than-life personality when convenient. If anything, this is the story of Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who believed she had unearthed some new documents alleging then-President George W. Bush had not met the minimal standards required of fighter pilots at the time of the Vietnam War (thus affording him a loophole from joining in the fight) and had been protected politically, rendering his hypothetical AWOL status one of the most well-kept secrets in recent American history.

Okay, so we’ve been misled a little bit. Of course, that might be on us since it’s easier to associate this shameful chapter in broadcast journalism with a certain face. And it’s easier to recall Rather’s final farewell with teary-eyed reverence than anything Mapes may have said or done as she watched her career collapse like the Hindenburg.

With that in mind, Blanchett is far from a bad alternative as she impetuously fights a losing battle in an effort to exonerate herself and her good friend from this now infamous ethical debacle. The argument she presents? The authenticity of said documents — which turned out to be forgeries created in Microsoft Word and which she gained after a brief meeting with Stacy Keach’s Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett — isn’t the big picture. Finding out precisely what happened with Bush’s involvement in the armed forces in the early ’70s is.

This is almost verbatim what she tells a panel of hard-nosed, ultra-conservative lawyers — some of whom fought on behalf of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove prior to his 2007 resignation — in the film’s spectacularly unspectacular final scenes. The big, bad showdown, as it were. This, after being cautioned by her own lawyer to simply keep her head down and try hard not to fight back. Old habits die hard I guess.

Truth is, of course, very well-acted. Blanchett settles in to yet another tough female lead who’s difficult to get along with, introduced as someone whose chip-on-their-shoulder couldn’t be any more apparent. In her lowest moments we see her popping Xanex and chasing it down with white wine, behavior reminiscent of her troubled Jasmine. Her performance is reason enough to see the picture. Redford, inhabiting the undoubtedly challenging role as the iconic CBS anchor, delivers a subtler and more emotionally reserved performance and is thoroughly likable, despite minimal screen time. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss round out the team working under Mapes but they don’t register at all, in terms of performance or their contributions to the drama.

Truth is, writer/director James Vanderbilt, who penned the screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, forces empathy for Rather and his pseudo-surrogate daughter — I can’t think of a better way to describe the pair’s relationship, at least as it’s presented here — as they journey down the gauntlet of shame and humiliation. The feeling hardly eventuates naturally. This is the Salem Witch Trial sans witches and torches. The American people feel it’s well within their right to take down these journalists as hard as they damn well can, their argument being these people make a living out of digging into other people’s lives. Those not in the business are painted as villainous and bloodthirsty.

Truth is, no matter how you slice it, the innate complexities of the matter make the drama a tough sell to anyone who is unable to look past the political motivations of Hollywood interpreting these events. The liberal slant is far from subtle. The package is too neatly contained to be real life. Despite several sizzling moments of dialogue (mostly spat by a righteously indignant Blanchett) was there any good reason this didn’t materialize in the form of a thoroughly revealing documentary . . . . maybe on 60 Minutes?

That’s the kind of irony that will never be, seeing as this film’s trailers were blacklisted from CBS. It’s an even harder sell when the events depicted in Vanderbilt’s feature film debut are laced with such contriteness you have but one option come the film’s end: feel bad for the people who failed to uphold one of the major pillars of good journalism.

Recommendation: Truth is a strange experience. On one hand it’s well-performed and suitably emotional as we experience the catalytic events that ended Mary Mapes’ and Dan Rather’s careers in shame. On the other, there’s no denying this has an agenda all its own, which is a little frustrating as there is a better movie in here somewhere underneath the moral indignation (for both the American people and the ones getting done in). I don’t want to get into the politics of what constitutes good journalism, I’d rather get into the politics of good acting and Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford indeed make a good team. They’re very strong cogs in a relatively weak engine.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Our story is about whether the President fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that, they want to talk about fonts and forgeries and they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum.”

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