‘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

‘Sound of Metal’ Review: Riz Ahmed Fights to Retain His Hearing and Sobriety

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Sound of Metal (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric

Director: Darius Marder

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, Mainly

Release Date: November 20, 2020 (Theaters)/December 4, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

The premise of a rock ‘n’ roll drummer rapidly losing his hearing offers plenty of storytelling possibilities. But when you also throw in prior drug addiction, well then, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the story is headed in one particular direction. In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, the drummer in question, who is robbed of his most important sense suddenly and instantaneously. His bandmate girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) is worried about him, but she’s more freaked out when he steps out to smoke a cigarette, as it could portend a relapse into something a lot more fatal. Ruben soon finds his way to a sober living program for deaf people, run by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing from a combat explosion and then chased away his family with his alcoholism.

At the core of Sound of Metal is a question of trust, or rather, several questions of trust. Can Ruben buy into the system he suddenly finds himself thrust into? Can Joe accept into his fold someone who’s so resistant to his program? Ruben is clearly more interested in fixing his ears than his head, while Joe’s agenda is very much the inverse. But with a cochlear implant costing tens of thousands that Ruben doesn’t have and no other deaf-targeted sober programs anywhere, he doesn’t have any other good options. Eventually, a moment comes in which Joe tells Ruben that he’s irrevocably broken his trust, and while I believe that Joe sees it that way, I have my doubts that Ruben deserves the full blame, as the strict standards were never the best fit – or any fit – for him.

If you choose to see Ruben and Joe as two reasonable people who just aren’t working together (as I do), then Sound of Metal‘s conflict becomes less about the untrustworthiness of the addicted mind and more about how water and vinegar may not mix, but they can co-exist. Ruben’s ending is so surprisingly happy that I initially thought I must have missed something. He recovers his hearing as best as he can, he and Lou remain together, and Lou reunites with her semi-estranged father (Mathieu Amalric). It’s almost like they’re a perfectly happy and healthy family! But it’s not quite perfect, or at least it’s not as natural a fit as it once was. The music career is in flux, and while Ruben’s hearing may not have disappeared completely, he does have to learn how to adjust it to a new reality. It’s an askew conclusion because it’s actually an awkward beginning

Sound of Metal is Recommended If You Like: Navigating thorny life crises

Grade: 3 out of 5 Decibels

This Is a Movie Review: ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ Reveals Willem Dafoe as an Uncanny Vincent van Gogh

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CREDIT: CBS Films

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Director: Julian Schnabel

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense Mental Turmoil and the Fallout of Self-Mutilation

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)

Wow, does Willem Dafoe sure look like Vincent van Gogh. I had never noticed the resemblance before, but now that the actor has played the Dutch painter in At Eternity’s Gate, I cannot unsee it, and I am left to wonder how I never noticed it before. Perhaps adding a bandage to cover up an ear (or where an ear should be) was essential for making the similarity come into focus. Casting a lookalike actor is not exactly the most impressive cinematic feat, but its effectiveness can transcend its lack of difficulty, as is the case here. The effect is complete only if the actor manages to forge an emotional connection as striking as the physical one. Dafoe is certainly up to the task, with the deep pools in his eyes conveying the sublime weight of the world that hung upon van Gogh’s face.

Van Gogh is one of the most famous examples of the troubled, mentally ill artist. Director Julian Schnabel does not romanticize that side of him, but nor does he attempt to remove it entirely from his creative process. Depression probably made it more difficult for van Gogh to get his work done, but it also forced him into certain perspectives that are strikingly illuminated in his paintings. However, At Eternity’s Gate is less about van Gogh’s creative process and more about how he relates to the world. He has trouble relating to most people, just as they have trouble understanding him. But he does have at least one cherished friendship, with his fellow post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). My brother was telling me that he heard that Gauguin’s purpose in this film is essentially to regularly ask van Gogh, “You doing okay?” That is correct, and it is a crucial purpose. In the film, the ear-cutting incident is played as a moment of panic when van Gogh fears that Gauguin is going to abandon him. It is a highly relatable situation for anyone who has ever experienced anxiety related to their friends moving on in their lives, and it serves to make the struggles of someone who lived over 100 years ago less abstract. The world can be overwhelming, and it has been for some time. Somehow van Gogh made his mark on that journey. We should cherish that for what it is worth, whatever that inscrutable value is.

At Eternity’s Gate is Recommended If You Like: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Melancholia, Willem Dafoe in a starring role

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Starry Nights