Movie review: The French Dispatch

Liberty, Kansas

French DispatchSince I have enjoyed many of Wes Anderson’s films, I went to see a matinee of The French Dispatch. For a time, I was the ONLY person in the Spectrum 8 theater, but during the previews, a couple came in.

I was fond of the conceit of the movie, that a newspaper in Liberty, Kansas, for reasons of nepotism, had an outpost in Ennui, France. And I did appreciate the “love letter to journalists.”

The framing story is that when Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray ) dies, so does the Dispatch. After a brief piece of a guy on a bicycle (Owen Wilson) picking some bizarre highlights of the city, there are three main stories.

The first major piece involves Moses Rosenthal (Benicio Del Toro), a murderer in prison, who takes up art to keep his sanity, perhaps. His muse is prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux). An art dealer (Julian Brody) tries to convince his uncles (Bob Babalan, Henry Winkler) to invest in the prison artist. This segment is reported by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). I liked the absurdity of the manufactured art market.


The second section was about student rebellion, led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Can Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) keep her journalistic objectivity? This section left me flat.

The last substantial part involves The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric) inviting Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) to a dinner prepared by the great chef Nescaffier (Stephen Park). But then a crime is committed, and Wright is caught in the middle of the pursuit of the criminals. Wright retells the story to a talk show host (Liev Schreiber).

This may be the most absurd of the three – not necessarily a bad thing. So much so that a bit of the chase is rendered in animation. It may also be my favorite, largely on the strength of Wright’s performance.

Very Wes Anderson

Leonard Maltin noted: “This is not the first time Anderson has devoted too much time to minutiae and too little to actual storytelling. Even devotees of his work may find this an exercise in frustration-albeit an exceptionally handsome one.” I wasn’t frustrated, but I certainly understand where he was coming from. 74% of the critics and 76% of the audience liked The French Dispatch.

If you admire Wes Anderson’s quirky and occasionally indulgent work, you may appreciate this one. I have enjoyed Isle of Dogs (2018), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014 – my favorite), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and  Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). But I hated The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). I never saw The Darjeeling Limited (2007), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), Rushmore (1998), or Bottle Rocket (1996).

Movie review: Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)

The dystopian visuals are nevertheless beautiful, so as to make you almost forget how trenchantly political it is.

Isle of Dogs. “I love dogs.” When we finished watching this stop-motion-animated film at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany, I asked my wife what she thought the movie was a metaphor for. It may have been the wrong question.

It was, we decided, a response to a lot of things such as the abuse of power – by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and the manipulation of the masses in a government conspiracy, mechanization, plus a whole lot of other interesting things. Your list may vary.

Still, it was, in the end, primarily about a 12-year old boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), nephew of the mayor, looking for his beloved pet on an island of trash. He meets some amicable, helpful canines, Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the less friendly street dog Chief (Bryan Cranston).

The voice cast also includes Scarlett Johansson as the dog Nutmeg, Tilda Swinton as Interpreter Nelson, and Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker from Ohio, with the dulcet tones of Courtney B. Vance serving as narrator. Plus Akira Takayama, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, and Yoko Ono as Assistant-Scientist Yoko-ono.

Interesting to me is that even some of the more positive reviews (91% on Rotten Tomatoes) thought the film was distant. Mick LaSalle wrote: “We stay on the outside, admiring its originality and all the talent that went into it, without ever really finding our way in.” Not our experience at all.

The dystopian visuals are nevertheless beautiful, so as to make you almost forget how trenchantly political it is. There is taiko drumming at the beginning and the end that we found absolutely hypnotic.

I’m not savvy enough about the Japanese references to ascertain whether director Wes Anderson should be chastised for cultural appropriation. I will note that the female dogs didn’t have as much to do with the storyline.

Nevertheless, we liked Isle of Dogs a lot.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel Is a cleverly oddball screwball comedy caper, yet melancholy tale of murder,

Grand_Budapest_HotelIn the first scene of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a young woman or girl walks through a cemetery, and I realize “She looks like a Wes Anderson character.” Is it the sensible shoes, or the way she walked? Not sure. Strange, because I had only seen two earlier Anderson films, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which I did not love, and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which I enjoyed greatly.

This is “The adventures of Gustave H [Ralph Fiennes] , a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero [newcomer Tony Revolori], the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend” during a period when the world is rapidly changing. The tale is told by Mr. Moustafa [F. Murray Abraham], owner of the title structure. It’s a cleverly oddball screwball comedy caper, yet the melancholy tale of murder, theft, and love.

It’s so well made that one forgets how much skill is involved. It includes some stop-motion animation bits which I can only imagine would be diminished on home video. I laughed aloud more than a few times, almost all in the second half.

I rather liked this summary from James Berardinelli of ReelViews: “It offers an engaging 90+ minutes of unconventional, comedy-tinged adventure that references numerous classic movies while developing a style and narrative approach all its own.” Some elements of homage, yet its own film.

LOTS of familiar faces in the large cast, well used. Special props to Tilda Swinton, who plays an 84-year-old woman. My friend Steve Bissette noted that the highlights for him “included Willem Dafoe’s monstrous boogeyman/family hit man and Harvey Keitel’s appearance.”

He called the film an “absurdist faux-continental adventure and among Anderson’s most entertaining confections (and that’s saying a lot), with the usual precocity those who don’t enjoy Anderson’s work will revile and those of us who do savor.”

This was one of those exceedingly rare times we went out on a Friday night, to the Spectrum Theatre in Albany, and actually saw at least five people we knew, two in that very showing. So people really DO go out on date night. I never knew…
I read a review of someone recently seeing Frozen. The reviewer wondered “Why on earth did this movie become a cultural touchstone?… It just wasn’t nearly as fantastic as people have made it out to be…” Then she answers her own question: “I suspect I would have enjoyed it much more if I hadn’t gone into watching it with the knowledge that it has become so popular. I was expecting a lot more, and I think high expectations kind of ruined it for me.” I totally agree, And if she saw it on video, rather than in the theater – I don’t know – THAT would be significantly important in a first viewing.


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