The French Dispatch

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Panama Al Brown, Paris, 1935

The new Wes Andersen film, The French Dispatch, finally made its way to the greater “north”east Wisconsin area, and D and Dr. B were able to catch it in some of its glory. If you are a Wes Andersen fan, it is highly likely that you have already seen the movie and you are busy gushing about it to someone.

If you haven’t seen it, perhaps you should. The movie is incredible. The level of detail and all of those Andersen touches in set after set is almost incomprehensible. And the star power of the cast is almost hard to believe — there are not too many new faces in this one because evidently there are lots and lots of old faces who are crawling over one another to work with Andersen, including Appleton’s own Willem Defoe! And The Fonz! And, off the top of my head, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Scwartzman, Griffin Dunne, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, that guy from Dune, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, and, of course, Bill Murray.

Oh, right, and Ed Norton. Ed Norton! He gets roughly 45 seconds of screen time, sure, but it’s Ed Norton!

The great sets and great acting and solid storytelling notwithstanding, the movie still did not quite sit well with me. So I swapped notes with an L&D regular who found the movie “oddly boring.” That is exactly how I felt. I liked the first story well enough(Benicio del Toro dominates!), but by the end of the second story I was kind of not looking forward to the third story. And by minute 90 I was impatiently awaiting the credits to get an accounting of all the star power herein.

The credits came, and I will say my experience with the credits is probably an apt summagion of my feelings about the movie. For each of the stories the cast flashed on the screen alongside a putative cover of The French Dispatch, but there wasn’t enough time to examine the characters and to digest the cover. And if you pick just one, you still don’t have enough time to take in what’s going on. There is 110 minutes of that.

This is all by design, of course. As French Dispatch editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., (Bill Murray) continually reminds his writers, in what I take to be the thesis of the movie: “Just Try To Make It Sound Like You Wrote It That Way On Purpose.”

And those writers, of course, are proxies for writers for The New Yorker magazine, of course, which the movie is an extended homage to. Not coincidentally, the credits slow down as Andersen lists the dozen or so New Yorker greats from back in the day that he dedicates the movie to.

One of those writers, A.J. Liebling, is an iconic boxing writing, and his prose is instrcutive. Liebling opens his classic, The Sweet Science, with this advice on attending a fight:

If you go to a fight with a friend, you can keep up unilateral conversations on two vocal levels — one at the top of your voice, directed at your fighter, and the otehr a running expertise nominally aimed at your companion but loud enough to reach a modest fifteen feet in each direction.

Let me ask you this, is that the guy you sitting in your section?

Liebeling gives us an example of how a (self-proclaimed) expert might go about this:

“Reminds me of Panama Al Brown,” you may say as a new fighter enters the ring. “He was five feet eleven and weighted a hundred and eighteen pounds. This fellow may be about forty pounds heavier and a couple of inches shorter, but he’s got the same kind of neck. I saw Brown box a fellow name Mascart in Paris in 1927. Guy stood up in the top gallery and threw an apple and hit Brown right on the top of the head. The whole house started yelling “Finish him, Mascart! He’s groggy!'” Then, as the bout begins, “Boxes like Al, too, except this fellow’s a southpaw.” If he wins you say, “I told you he reminded me of Al Brown,” and if he loses, “Well, well, I guess he’s no Al Brown. They don’t make fighters like Al any more.”

There is a lot of amusing stuff in there, yes. But to what end?

This identifies you as a man who (a) has been in Paris, (b) has been going to fights for a long time, and (c) therefore enjoys what the fellows who write for quarterlies call a frame of reference.

A frame of reference, indeed, but perhaps not the most humble one. The medium is the message. In The French Dispatch Andersen doesn’t just approve of this, he venerates it. Indeed, he adopts it. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of 110 minutes of Panama Al Brown references. Just because the loudmouth at the game knows what he’s talking about, it doesn’t mean he’s not annoying.

Still, this is an exceptional piece of work that is well above the $5 bar and is certainly one of the better movies you will see this year — the production values, the attention to detail in the set pieces, the stories, the acting, it’s all there. So when it’s all said and done you can pick up the BluRay and start dissecting it with the extended Andersen fanbase. Or you can, as my friend reports, go home and watch The Budapest Hotel.

“Now that’s a great movie!”

Lamb

Lamb A24 movie

Man versus Man. Man versus Nature. Shepherds and sheep. Live-action deliveries. Isaac and Abraham. 80s pop. At least four of the Ten Commandments, especially the tenth. Wrath of God. Wrath of Lamb. This film has it all.

Noomi Raplace (of Girl with the... fame) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason (I had to look up the spelling) carry heavy loads as the leads in a film where sheep outnumber humans by a pretty wide margin. As for Raplace and Guðnason, they play a staid married couple at what is certain to be a pivotal point in their marriage and their lives. In an early scene the couple has a breakfast conversation about time travel that gives you the sense that they are in no hurry to go forward, and they definitely don’t want to go back — perhaps they should just stay at the table.

The movie was shot in Iceland (and possibly Poland), and the film makers were not afraid to pull out the wide-angle lens. The continous canvassing of the landscape and the setting reveal many things that are otherwise otherwise left unsaid (the film has subtitles, but human dialog is pretty sparce). One thing we learn, for example, is that the own a fair swath of property that is pretty far afield from the bus stop that gets you to Reykjavík. And, of course, the lead couple tend to crops and have more than just a few sheep.

The pace is deliberate, to say the least, and there is not a lot of on-screen action. Indeed, pretty much everything that does happen would constitute a spoiler in one way or another, so describing the plot is out. Let’s just say the film opens with some live births in a manger on Christmas Day, and the religious imagery only gets thicker from there. I have a feeling if I had paid closer attention in Sunday school back in the day, I would have more to work with on this review.

L was no help on that front — still smarting from Midsommar, he left Dr. B and me in the proverbial Icelandic desert on this one. And, as such, we shared a fair bit of headscratching as we made our way to the parking lot. So I will close this up with a bit of the New Testament that I do remember, my favorite of the Lamb of God responses: Have mercy on us.

No Time to Die

Wait, Felix is from Milwaukee?

Alright, then. We headed off to opening night of the latest, but not the greatest, edition to the Bond canon, which gives a well-publicized sendoff to Daniel Craig in the title role. The movie is, in my estimation, the second or third best of the Craig era, and right about tenth in my personal rankings in the series.

I don’t really have a full-blown review here, but I do have some notes from some texts I shared with one of our loyal readers. First off, Daniel Craig is bored. This shows up intermittently throughout the film when he isn’t doing his best to pretend otherwise. Unlike the aging prizefighter looking for that last paycheck, however, he came in in excellent shape!

Second, the story is not a bad story, all told, but the villain by committee is both unsatisfying and uncharacteristic of the series. It’s like watching a baseball game where the manager keeps changing pitchers. I guess the writers sacrificed the prospect of one last great Bond villain in the service of a bunch of other things they wanted to include.

Third, the action is OK. There are a couple of very cool scenes, including the first part of the opening scene (this is a really long movie), but nothing that holds a candle to, say, the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises or Tenet.

I bring up those latter two because it is difficult to discern whether the many, many, many similarities and parallels to action films generally (including The Dark Knight Rises (!)), or Bond films specifically, are hat tips or homages or just mere coincidences. That said, many things happen in this movie that are new to the Bond series, the types of things you can probably read about in reviews that have ample spoiler alerts.

In my estimation, there are a handful of Bond films that are good, stand alone movies. Then, depending on the day, there are five-to-ten in the series that are durable as fun action movies, but aren’t terribly good stories and you wouldn’t consider watching them if it didn’t have the Bond pedigree. No Time to Die is probably in the former category for now. The novelties herein will probably have people revisiting this one more than they might have otherwise.

The Green Knight

What follows is a guest post from the Good Doctor himself. For a Stoopid American, he sure knows a lot about English literature!

Dark: And so Sir Gawain sets off, traversing forests and mountains to find The Green Knight, where he meets a talking fox who warns him: 'You will find no mercy, no happy end'

The Gawain doctor is in—and like most doctors, he’s running a little behind.

I should probably start with the patient’s question, which was about how faithful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to the 14th-Century poem of the same name. It’s not particularly faithful, but since we’re not 14th-Century readers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is deeply engaged with the original poem in ways that are probably more interesting than would be the case in a more direct adaptation. Knowing the poem will give you a framework and additional material to think about, but it won’t “explain” the film or leave you with nothing to do but listen to some English professor carping about what the director misunderstood or didn’t get right.

The original poem explores the themes of courtesy and mirth, reflecting on how a society genuinely inspired by the medieval Christian understanding of those virtues might operate (and on how the actual medieval world falls short). David Lowery’s movie has almost no mirth, and courtesy always turns out to be a deceptive mask (as it sometimes is in the original as well). It feels more like the world of Beowulf or Game of Thrones than the refined and civilized world of the movie’s source material.

Fittingly, Lowery’s Sir Gawain is a flawed everyman rather than an innocent embodiment of courtesy. He has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and his drunken excess is always set in a brothel or a tavern to distinguish it from the equally-inebriated, Christian-sanctioned mirth of the original poem. I think this revision is probably designed to make Gawain a relatable character, allowing modern film-goers to identify with his trials and tribulations over the course of the film, in much the way that medieval readers were invited to identify with the courteous but inexperienced Gawain of the poem.

At the same time, Lowery nicely captures the sense in the original poem that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that forces at the edge of our understanding—if not entirely beyond it—are at work shaping the course of events and giving them meaning. His approach is more in the form of a fever dream than the subtle and teasing allegorical undertone of the original poem, but it feels properly medieval in its rejection of naturalist or realistic plot in favor of symbolic or allegorical meaning.

There are definitely easter eggs for readers of the original poem. There is a brief mention of the five virtues, an important set piece from the original poem in which Sir Gawain’s shield is allegorized for its “endless knot” pentangle front and painting of Mary inside. When that shield is cracked and destroyed in the opening episode of his journey, it confirms what you had probably already guessed about how far those medieval virtues would get you in the movie’s world.

The film also follows the basic structure of the original poem: the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, fast-forwarding to Gawain’s departure a year later, a Christmas over-nighter at a mysterious castle, and a final conclusion of Sir Gawain’s “game” with the Green Knight. Readers familiar with the poem will find significant resonances with the critically important castle episode immediately prior to that final encounter, and may be particularly interested in the decision to cast the same actress as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold and the lady of the house.

The final confrontation with the Green Knight is as confusing and counter-intuitive as in the original, but works to a different end. My own reading is that, where the original invites the recognition of our fallen nature in even the most virtuous of Christian heroes, Lowery is more interested in revealing the systemic injustice of patriarchy. Ironically, Lowery’s Gawain must pass his test if he is to succeed, whereas the 14th-Century Gawain can become a hero despite his all-too-human failings. But there is plenty of material (friendly robbers, lady ghosts, talking foxes, earth giants) to fuel other interpretations, which is one of the things that makes this movie so rewarding.

If you can figure out what those creepy giants are up to, you’re a smarter reader than I am. Len tells me that they’re Czechoslovakian anime, and who am I to disagree?

The Green Knight

We rallied the troops and hit The Green Knight on opening night, the new cinematic adaptation of the classic 14th-century poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” So the big question you are asking, I’m certain, is whether the film is faithful to the poem?

And my answer, of course, is that you are asking the wrong guy.

There is so much about this movie that I don’t have answers to, starting with who is this Green Knight? Is it the rocky, green-tinged shrub guy, or is it the inexperienced Gawain himself? Does his mother actually like him? Is she a lady or is she a tramp? What do you think happened to that little guy? And shouldn’t King Arthur be perhaps just a little more buff?

So L&D called a doctor for this emergency. Not an M.D., of course, but the type of doctor with command of lyric poetry and pop culture (!). So keep an eye on this space.

Meanwhile, a few of my unvarnished observations: Firstly, this is really great entertainment. Great story, great acting, great intrigue, great fun. It is not Hollywood fare in that you can’t really see where this one is going. And it is not Hollywood fare in that once you get where this one is going, it is unlikely you will be able to sort it out neatly. Yes, there is magic and there are spirits and there are even a handful of mushrooms for you and your handsome friend, so that doesn’t add to the clarity. But my advice to anyone overwhelmed by mushrooms, as always, is to stay put and see what happens.

Secondly, you should see this before it gets displaced by all of the (would-be) August blockbusters. Ugh. If it sticks around, I will see it again. Grab a friend and go.

And, finally, as we were watching, we started a running list of films that this one draws upon, including (but not limited to), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fantastic Planet, Midsommar, The Last Temptation of Christ, Phantom Thread, Cruella, Guardians of the Galaxy (I or II), and I’m sure this list will continue to grow.

Big ups from the entire crowd. It’s highly likely you will find this on the year-end list…

One Year Hence.

Presumed Innocent

What a colossal blunder

My wife and I took in the 1990-something classic, Presumed Innocent, this evening. The big takeaway is that Raul Julia dominates the movie in the role of Rusty’s defense attorney, Sandy Stern. In hindsight, I suppose I knew this because the only parts of the movie I remember involve Julia. Otherwise, it is an interesting and somewhat complicated plotline, and I actually had to pay attention to keep up.

A couple of big moments: In a brilliant cinematic moment, Stern stands behind the prosecutors during his cross, and we get to see the DA and ADA’s reactions as he dismantles their witness. The scene where he undresses Dr. “Painless” Kumaga bests the climax of A Few Good Men, for sure. It must be nice to see a script like this come your way.

Bonus: Rusty’s kid is a Packers fan. Who knew?

Recommended.

H/T Hecubus (Spoiler Alert!)

Old

Approximate Taco Bell Drive-Thru Line, 9:58 p.m., July 22, 2021

If you’ve seen the previews to the new M. Night Shyamalan feature, Old, then you pretty much know how the movie is going to unfold. There are some metaphors about the existential dread of aging, not particularly good ones, and some not terribly well fleshed-out antagonists. The beach is lovely, though. And although you know how it unfolds, what actually happens will perhaps surprise you.

The ending wraps things up in a jiff!

This is not must see material, but if you must see a movie, you might consider this one. The summer release schedule has seemingly hit the point of tedious high-budget action films, and spooky would-be horror films. That would perhaps explain a rather full theater on opening night, but my guess is that the legs of this release are not long.

Heading over in the pre-10 p.m. hour, I did note that the Taco Bell sign was not illuminated. Yet, cars at the drive thru snaked well out of the parking lot and into the street. The tension between ridiculously low-priced fast food and the capacity to staff a restaurant that offers ridiculously low-priced fast food remains strong in the Fox Valley.

Cruella

Did you hear L&D are back?!?

Well, you might be the first to hear, because the Marcus Theater employees didn’t recognize us, and they didn’t hold the movie for us, either. Our preferred theater generally runs 20 minutes worth of preliminaries, so the movie starts roughly 21 minutes after the posted time as L&D are settling in; but in this post-Covid world, evidently, they sometimes cut the trailers short for the late movies so the staff can get out a few minutes early. So we missed the previews and whatever would-be hilarity Greg Marcus is bringing these days, and also missed the opening opening of the movie.

That said, we probably missed a lot of other stuff, too. This movie is sensory overload, for sure, in a good way. Early in the movie they were doing this blur tactic on moving camera shots that I couldn’t quite get accustomed to. By mid-movie I was thinking we were sitting too close to the screen because it was hard to keep track of everything going on. There was explosive color, lots of colors, lots of colors moving across the screen in every direction, more pixels than your brain could ever hope to handle.

And a lot of black and white, too, of course. The most colorful black and white you are ever likely to see.

Although it’s a lot of work watching this, the audio helps a lot. The selections set or match the mood of the scenes pretty well, and when old vinyl doesn’t suffice, it does a nice job of making its own. My conjecture is that the music complements the visuals, allowing your brain to make sense of all that’s up on screen. I did turn on the soundtrack afterwards, as L told you I would, but I think that unlike Rushmore or Pulp Fiction or Baby Driver, this one doesn’t seem to keep my interest without the film rolling. Possibly because unlike those other movies, this is more of a (really) fun-to-watch-at-the-theater movie for me, and not a serious candidate for my attention going forward. Who knows?

Certainly I didn’t know much about this moving going in,* just that it’s Disney and it’s the backstory for Cruella, sure. Even so, it is clear that the primary challenge for the writers is that Emma Stone is so awesome that you just have to love her, and she’s sure easy to love as Estella, but they can’t quite figure out how to turn her into pure evil. Or, more likely, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. I don’t know the actual 101 Dalmatians story, but I am guessing the original Cruella isn’t a sympathetic, misunderstood genius; in this origin story, Cruella is the heroine, that much is for sure.

At any rate, Disney movies don’t get too much better than this. The soundtrack keeps things moving along. The set pieces are generally fun, sort of like if Wes Andersen had a $100 zillion dollar budget and ordered up costumes and materials for three or four movies, and then Disney kicked him out and put in its own people. That’s not quite accurate, but certainly a starting point for discussion. The supporting actors were very good, dogs watching footy made me lol, the heist scenes were generally solid (if a bit overdone), the plot was mostly non-obvious, good fun all around. And after 60 hours of productions featuring lions mauling and being mauled, superheroes killing and being killed, Jedis behaving badly, and full-scale intergalactic warfare, Disney finally got around to showing blood in one of its films.

And what a great punchline that was!

So, see Cruella, you will like it. And, if not, at least you will like the soundtrack.

Also, watch this space for potential curling and National Rugby League updates. L&D is back in business.

_____

*Taco Bell appeared to be closed on the way by, so the usually reliable TBI was not available. On the way back it still appeared to be closed, though there was a pretty good queue at the drive thru window. It’s a great big world.

Minari

Minari is being touted as the next great Korean film, a story of a Korean family coming to America in Reagan-era Arkansas. There are big things and small things going on here, and it’s the small things that make this add up to a far greater movie than the basic storyline would suggest.

So here we go — what are you expecting from a movie about Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas? Go through your mental checklist and consider what you think will be in here. Whether you want to do this or not, you will consult this checklist with the introduction of each new character, each new setting, each new plot development. As Chekov says, if there is a gun on the mantle in the opening scene, that gun needs to go off by the end of the story. Watching this movie is like walking into a armory.

For the American in me, I see a movie about existential uncertainty, a meditation on the various roles that family, friends, and society play in insulating us from life’s inevitable agonies and traumas (as well as the emergent excesses of American agribusiness). It takes a little bit of work, but what does the father, Jacob, see here? What is he doing in rural Arkansas? What are all these other Korean immigrants doing? What exactly does America promise these folks? Does it deliver?

Does it ever!

What a great experience. It is both completely unpredictable throughout, but not all that surprising once it ends. Clear your schedule and dedicate some time to watching this one carefully.

Thanks to Dr. and Mrs. B for their generosity in providing food and libations and, of course, the stream!

The Investigation

The Investigation is a six-part, roughly four hour, Danish drama that has aired on HBO over the past few weeks. The subject matter, of course, is the investigation into a grisly death of a female journalist and the attempts to piece together her macabre demise. The result is a meditation on the fallibility of prioritization, the limits of human knowledge, the vastness of oceans, and the wonderment of dogs.

It is visually breathtaking in spots, and it is visually suffocating in others. It is hard to believe the capabilities of human ingenuity and modern technology, and yet there are still limits on what is knowable. What is certainly remarkable is where The Investigation runs up against this boundary.

And, finally, I do wish that these extraordinary productions didn’t focus so disproportionately on the ghastly murders of young women.

With that proviso, still recommended.