‘The French Dispatch’ Presents a Journalistic Panorama

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The French Dispatch (CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Wally Wolodarsky, Anjelica Bette Fellini, Anjelica Huston, Jarvis Cocker, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Denis Menochet, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Alex Lawther, Mohamed Belhadjine, Nicolas Avinée, Lily Taleb, Toheeb Jimoh, Rupert Friend, Cécile de France, Guillaume Gallienne, Christoph Waltz, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Winston Ait Hellal, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Hippolyte Girardot

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Art Model Nudity, Surprising Sexual Partners, and Some Language Here and There

Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Theaters)

The French Dispatch is about the staff and subjects of an American magazine that covers a small but colorful fictional French town. It’s published as an insert in the Liberty, Kansas Evening Star newspaper, so it’s basically like a midwestern Parade, but with the vibe of The New Yorker. Which all begs the question: who is the intended audience of The French Dispatch*? (*The fictional newspaper, that is, not the movie of the same name. [Although by extension, you could ask the same thing about the movie, though that conversation would be a little different.]) It feels like somebody dared Wes Anderson to create an anthology film of the most esoteric stories ever and he then declared, “Challenge accepted.” As I watched I wondered what made these stories worth telling, and I believe that the answer is: they’re worth telling because they’re worth telling. So in that way, The French Dispatch is very much like Little Women.

The fictional French town in this movie is called Ennui-sur-Blasé, which literally translates as “Boredom-on-Blasé,” but there’s no way you’ll be bored while watching a film that’s as overstuffed as this one. Overwhelmed, perhaps, but not bored. (But if somehow you are bored, please let me know about your experience. It’s interesting when someone’s reaction is so different than mine!) The anthology structure is composed into five sections, two to set the context and three to dive deep. First up is an introduction of the staff, particularly editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a my-way-or-the-highway type, except when he readily makes concessions to his writers’ peculiarities. Then travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) takes us on a bicycle tour to provide color for the town. The fleshed-out stories include the journalist-subject pairings of Tilda Swinton covering incarcerated artist Benicio Del Toro; Frances McDormand covering student revolutionaries led by Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri; and Jeffrey Wright as a food journalist covering the story of a police officer’s kidnapped son that also features a very talented chef.

The French Dispatch is a love letter to a time and a place when you could throw whatever budget you felt like at whatever story you felt like covering. Based on the accounts of people who were involved in that era, that characterization actually isn’t that far off from how 20th century American journalism really was run. But it’s so different from journalism’s current state of affairs that it might as well be from another universe. Appropriately enough then, The French Dispatch felt to me like it was beaming in from an alternate dimension. I don’t know how these stories could have ever possibly been conceived, but I’m glad that I’ve now experienced them.

The French Dispatch is Recommended If You Like: The New Yorker, Symmetrical geometric arrangements, French pop music, Skinny mustaches

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bylines

It’s Not Time to Die, Because It’s Time for a Review of ‘No Time to Die’

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No Time to Die (CREDIT: Nicola Dove/© 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas, Rory Kinnear, Billy Magnussen, Christoph Waltz

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Running Time: 163 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Spy Violence with the Bloodiest Moments Artfully Obscured

Release Date: October 8, 2021 (Theaters)

The Daniel Craig version of James Bond carries the weight of his previous chapters: the physical scars, the emotional scars, all the expectations of the world. Ergo, the conclusive entry No Time to Die really goes out of its way to tie everything together and put a nice little bow on the whole affair. That was also actually kind of the case six years ago with Spectre, but that earlier film had a lot of viewers going, “Wait-wait-wait, hold on, you don’t have to tie ALL of these seemingly disparate threads together.” But now that I’ve seen No Time to Die pull it off, I appreciate the effort, and I can confidently say that the Craig Era is fully synthesized with a satisfying emotional resolution.

As we check back in with Bond, he’s hanging out with Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann in Italy, and they appear to be a full-fledged item. I preferred him with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, but she’s dead now. She’s not forgotten, though, as James makes sure to set aside some of his time in Italy to visit her tomb. At this point in his life, he’s really trying his damnedest to get out of the spy game once and for all, and Madeleine can be a chance for him to do that, but he doesn’t fully trust her. Besides, go-to evil organization SPECTRE is still causing plenty of chaos, and new foe Safin (Rami Malek) has dangerous world-altering plans that James and Madeleine eventually get caught up in. There are a bunch of motivations working at cross-purposes here.

The most satisfying element of No Time to Die is the bonhomie. Everyone at MI6 respects each other as colleagues. Some of them would even go so far as to call each other friends. James is given the space he needs to be retired, but when it’s time for him to spring back into action, everyone is happy to have him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Q, Moneypenny, and Felix Leiter more pleased and honored to be in the company of their fellow agent. Even Lashana Lynch as the newly designated 007 has nothing but mutual respect to offer James. Ralph Fiennes as M, meanwhile, just looks eternally stressed out. He obviously has to answer to a multitude of masters, but I’m sure he appreciates his agents in his own way.

Anyway, Safin has this whole plan involving poison that’s going to usher in a new world order or something like that. I’m not entirely sure how the mechanics of it work, but I’m happy that it underscores (instead of getting in the way) the emotional resonance. James Bond is no longer just the uber-cool guy with the tuxedos and the gadgets and the martinis. Now he’s also a true part of our parasocial family.

No Time to Die is Recommended If You Like: The emphasis on character and continuity in this Bond era

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Missiles

Movie Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Features Visionary Effects and a Convoluted Story

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Eiza González, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cyborg Limbs Flying All Over the Place

Release Date: February 14, 2019

Can slightly-larger-than-normal human eyes in a motion capture performance exist anywhere other than the Uncanny Valley? That is the conundrum at the heart of Alita: Battle Angel‘s box office prospects, but from where I’m sitting, they’re clearly the best part of the film. Yeah, those peepers might be creepy, but they are also a deep wellspring of an infectious personality. Rosa Salazar may have given her performance while dressed up in a bodysuit with a camera mounted on her head, but her enthusiasm to be part of groundbreaking cinema is consistently palpable.

Based on the manga series Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel was co-written and co-produced by James Cameron, but presumably because he’s busy with all those Avatar sequels, directing duties fell to Robert Rodriguez. This could have been a clash of auteurs, as both men are enamored with creating digitally rendered, visually rich fantasy worlds, but Rodriguez has never really worked on the same scale as Cameron. (To be fair, nobody works on quite the same scale as Cameron.) But the steampunk metropolis of Iron City in 2563 is a sight to behold, and its array of cyborg citizens are correspondingly fascinating. Rodriguez has mostly realized Cameron’s vision without putting his own unique stamp on the project, but even so, on a technical level, this is the best James Cameron movie that Cameron never directed.

Too bad the plot is incomprehensible. A bunch of sci-fi tropes about the dangers of creating and living alongside artificial life are thrown out there, but none of them amount to anything. There is some talk about how Alita resembles the deceased daughter of her scientist caretaker (Christoph Waltz), but that does not lead to any of the expected emotional confusion. Alita is also being hunted down by other cyborgs, but it is never clear what threat she actually poses to anyone. Also, she is centuries old and the last of her kind, which could mean that she is a sort of Rosetta stone to the past, and people treat her that way, but nobody ever clearly explains why that matters. With all the empty dialogue in Alita, it makes me wish that someone in 2019 would be bold enough to make a $200 million sci-fi extravaganza as a silent film.

Alita: Battle Angel is Recommended If You Like: James Cameron’s Brand of 3D Visual Effects, Overly Busy Impenetrable Screenplays

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Big Eyes

This Is a Movie Review: Miniaturization is Only the Start of ‘Downsizing’s’ Quest to Save the Human Species

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe

Director: Alexander Payne

Running Time: 135 Minutes

Rating: R for Scientific Full-Frontal Nudity

Release Date: December 22, 2017

How do you live in such a way that ensures both the health of the planet and yourself? That’s really what Downsizing is asking. Its light sci-fi innovation about shrinking people is just a quirky way to get in there and explore this big conundrum. No single piece of entertainment is going to answer that question to everyone’s satisfaction, but Downsizing at least knows how to grab our attention, and Alexander Payne’s take is interesting enough in getting us to where he wants to go.

Fair warning, if it is not clear already, that Downsizing is not exactly the movie advertised in its trailer. Its whimsical tale of the land of the miniatures is present, but it is ultimately just an entry point to smuggle a thornier story into. After all, there is only so far you can go with the visual humor of size differential juxtaposition. There are a few bits wringing laughs out of giant (i.e., regular-sized) crackers or Jason Sudeikis sitting on a cutting board and drinking from a tiny wine glass, but those moments are there to just add quick bursts of establishing color. In fact, most of the shots in the miniature world do not feature any contrast to the normal-sized surroundings.

The miniaturization process has been invented to reduce the strain that humans have been putting on the environment, which makes clear sense: if you’re only 5 or 6 inches, you consume many fewer resources than if you’re 5 or 6 feet. And from a personal standpoint, it’s a no-brainer as well, as the exchange rate is tremendous, multiplying the real spending value of your money by about a hundredfold. So Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), bored by his office job and feeling glum at home, signs right up. But his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) pulls out of the procedure at the last minute, portending that everything may not be as rosy as promised.

Downsizing is primarily interested in digging into the questions raised by this near future world. The practical and scientific matters (like, do babies born to downsized adults grow up to be similarly small adults?) are not explained too thoroughly, but those matters are not ignored; you kind of have to roll with the film a bit and accept that those things have already been settled. Instead, the focus is on the knottier philosophical questions and the unexpected implications of downsizing. Why has this scientific breakthrough happened while people with chronic diseases still suffer? Should downsized people have the same rights as the natively-sized? Will governments use involuntary downsizing to tamp down undesirable segments of their populations?

The answer to that last question turns out to be a resounding yes, and we see its fallout in the form of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, giving the most forcefully charming performance of the year), a Vietnamese dissident who has been downsized against her will and then smuggled into America in a TV box. As we and Paul are introduced to her life, Downsizing makes it clear that it believes that humans are wired to always separate themselves into separate classes, no matter what utopian urges drive us. As she and Paul become entwined, the underlying, most burning question of this film becomes clear: is it better to specifically attempt to save the entire species, or to focus on being a good person in your own particular space? The resolution that Payne offers is a little pat, but not dishonest. Miniaturized or not, utopian or practical, whatever your station in life, no matter how weird things get, you have to give yourself the room to be a good person.

Downsizing is Recommended If You Like: Being John Malkovich, Captain Fantastic, Robot & Frank

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Utopias

This Is a Movie Review: Tulip Fever

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At the end of Tulip Fever, I thought, “Oh, that’s what that was all about.” It ultimately becomes clear that there is an incredible amount of kindness inherent to the main characters. They struggle because they find themselves in situations that are far from ideal and beyond their control, but they ultimately find a way out. That is a fine bit of satisfaction. But for the first 95%, the floral mania is totally confounding and there is little in the way of enjoyability beyond the (not-that-out-of-place) comedic relief from Zach Galifianakis and Christoph Waltz’s nicknames for his penis.

I give Tulip Fever 1 Bulb Just Barely in Bloom.

SNL Recap February 16, 2013: Christoph Waltz/Alabama Shakes

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A piano’s gonna fall on me or something?

Cold Opening – Carnival Cruise Ship
One of those throw-a-bunch-of-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks sketches.  And guess what: enough stuck!  I probably enjoyed more than most the voice of Kenan yelling out, “There is no god!”  Oscar PistROius? B

Christoph Waltz’s Monologue
I’m a sucker for a good pun, and “Who’s on wurst?” was far from the worst. B

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