The French Dispatch (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It can only be ironical that Wes Anderson’s wonderfully idiosyncratic, evocative, often hilarious, picture – featuring ex-pats writing for an American magazine in the style of the New Yorker – is located in the French town of Ennui (translation: “boredom”) because it is anything but, a continuous stream of imaginative and inventive scenes, settings and characters. Where other directors make aspects of history their own (Ridley Scott, David Lean) and others lay claim to greatness by inverting genres (Quentin Tarantino), Anderson’s genius lies in creating worlds nobody else could lay claim to. Although this particular film covers just a triptych of tales, you can easily imagine Anderson has another hundred or so stories at his fingertips, all contained in his own unique universe.

You can see why actors queue up to work with him for he allows them to develop highly-individual characters far removed from their denoted screen personas.  Some like Timothy Chamalet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright and Lea Seydoux take advantage of this freedom to conjure deliciously realised human beings, while others such as Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton let the opportunity slip or appear  in the picture so briefly (Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban) as to make little impact. Even headliner Bill Murray, who bookends the show, is given to more inventiveness than usual, breaking up his usual deadpan  delivery to make an occasional emphatic point.

While mostly this zips along, when Anderson occasionally stops for breath the effect is electric, for example a static camera taking in the back of a tenement through which we see by virtue of various windows a waitperson’s exhausted ascent. Mostly, the tales follow their own internal logic, but when forced into a genre corner, such as a shoot-out, Anderson resorts to pure zest. And while the narrative is mostly driven by voice-over, this takes on different aspects, from a loquacious raconteur (Jeffrey Wright) to a droning lecturer (Tilda Swinton).

Clearly planning to keep one step ahead of critics who claim his movies run out of steam, Anderson heads off that issue by filming three short unconnected stories. Del Toro and Seydoux head up the best item which sees a psychotic murderer embark on an artistic career that hooks art dealer (Adrien Brody).  Those who expect Anderson to spring surprises might still be taken aback when it transpires that the nude model (Seydoux) of the prisoner (Del Toro) is in fact his gaoler. Having opened a box of twists, Anderson continues in this wild vein. Narrators attempting to impose a semblance of normality generally find themselves at odds with their subject matter. In the second tale, as off-beat a student revolutionary as you could find, Chamalet breathes as much life into the character as he appeared stultified in trying to create a real person in the misfiring Dune (2021). Crime is not usually best served best by asides and droll self-importance but Wright, in the final story, manages to tie up in knots what should a taut kidnapping tale.   

If you come looking for star turns by Bill Murray and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, you will be sorely disappointed but if you willing to settle for an energetic, fresh, nostalgic take on an imaginary France, with plenty laugh out loud moments, you should come away well satisfied. Of course whether the French will feel as insulted as by television show Emily in Paris remains to be seen but I’m sure the Hungarians did not take The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) too literally.

I notice that this received a platform release in the States and broke per-cinema box office records in the process and I wonder what might have been the fate of The Last Duel (2021), regardless of its budget, had it opted for a similar launch approach.

Current Cinema Catch-Up 1 – Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong

Before the pandemic and before I started writing this Blog I used to go to the cinema once a week on a Monday, normally catching a double-bill of my own choosing, and occasionally lucky enough to watch three movies in a day. Since cinemas re-opened in my neck of the woods in mid-May I’ve found it impossible not to return to my old habits. So here’s my first triple-bill.

Nomadland  (2020) ****

Easy Rider meets The Grapes of Wrath except in both these cases the travellers had a distinct destination in mind. Like the title implies, the characters in Nomadland are going nowhere, and often just round, though somewhat contentedly, in circles. Deservedly winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Director Chloe Zhao, this not so much invests in diversity but in a world we never knew existed, of people who live out their lives in the backs of vans and trailers. In a previous generation, they might be deemed trailer trash, but that’s not the case here. They may be humbled but they are not unprincipled.

Recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road after unemployment closes down her small town and temporary work at the local Amazon depot dries up  after Xmas. Considering herself “houseless” rather than “homeless” Fern finds herself involved in a peripatetic community of like-minded individuals, some drifting due to circumstance, others wanting to live out their last years as sight-seers. It’s not a drama and it hardly even qualifies as a docu-drama because virtually nothing happens but it is an eye-opener, not just for the visuals but for the way it explores the inherent loneliness in society. Once she has a taste for the road, Fern spurns every opportunity to settle down. The characters encountered are definitely originals and have the feel of genuine nomads – Swankie and Linda May certainly are –  the camera just happened to catch as it tracked by.

A true original with McDormand – her third acting Oscar after Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2107) plus another one as producer here – giving a tremendous performance as a passive individual surrendering, despite occasional indignity and hardship, to the joys of roaming.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) ****

Rather than face a jail sentence. car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) turns FBI informant and infiltrates a Black Panther group led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Spurred on by FBI controller Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s work has disastrous consequences.

As a devastating expose of the criminal activities undertaken by the world’s highest- profile criminal-catching operation, the FBI,  this is a first-class procedural type of picture, where, courtesy of the suspense created by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds, 2013), you find yourself rooting for O’Neal as he comes close to being discovered. But it is also grounded by an impeccable performance by Kaluuya (Queen and Slim, 2019) who portrays Hampton as a gentle soul, shy with women, but with a gift for public speaking that rouses a put-upon generation.

The Black Panthers are shown as instigators of genuine social reform, setting up medical programs etc, rather than just gun-toting rebels. Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but in truth he steals the show from the lead Stanfield.  

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) ***

If you can make out what is going on in among all the noise and implausibilities then there is a halfway decent summer blockbuster to be enjoyed. The sci-fi gobbledegook spouted by scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) leads Kong-whisperer Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Ilene (Rebecca Hall) into harm’s way, so far beneath the earth you are likely to poke up in Australia. Naturally, the two ancient behemoths go head-to-head while destroying everything in sight.

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