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!”

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

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When we sat down to watch Sicario: Day of the Soldado, audible laughter erupted  from our seats as Josh Brolin reappeared. Josh has starred in 3 of the last 4 films we have seen. Including Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. In LA it’s often said that at any given time there are two million unemployed actors in the city. So I my next question is — How great is Josh Brolin’s Agent?! Brolin himself has either made a deal with the devil or Creative Artists Agency — or I suspect both. I don’t actually know who his agent is but I know that when I lived in LA and drove by the ominous, sleek and cold, CAA building, which is larger than most embassies, I always got a good case of the heebie-jeebies. Not to mention what I always imagined was the amount of espionage, a la The Conversation, the telephoto lenses and wiretapping devices that were set up across the Avenue of the Stars from CAA at The Hyatt Regency Century Plaza to get the upper hand on the latest deal making. …But hey, sure, it’s all just a product of my overly active imagination. 

Meanwhile back at Marcus Cinema in Appleton, Wisconsin, in my red leather  “DreamLounger” reclining La-Z-Boy in theater 14…the lights seemed awfully bright. For some reason, at the start of Sicario, the house lights never dimmed. D even got up and went out there and told the staff…but nada changed. One thing this did was help me realize how dark this film actually is. I mean literally dark. Many scenes have crushed blacks that under these circumstances where wiped out. I’m sure cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s head would have exploded had he been in attendance. The other thing this lighting snafu brought to my attention is what a tightly wound story Sicario is…well at least until the end, where it goes off the rails, jumps the shark, what have you. But there was no way I was going to get up and complain about the lights and miss any of this. I figured D had taken one for the team already, after all. 

A kudos goes to writer Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote one of my 2016 favorites Hell or High Water. Sicario strongly develops the secondary, or supporting characters. It helps make the drama a lot more meaningful when you know where a character is coming from, metaphorically. 

On the other hand, there is a place where this story logically ends. But then it begins again. Personally, I have a pet peeve regarding epilogues. It shows a lack of confidence in the audience and a certain amount of uncertainty in the artist. An appeasement at best, a setting up of the next film, akin to a commercial, at worst. I’m sure there are plenty of valid financial or political or possibly even creative reasons for epilogues but they always fall flat for me. Most of the time I have to have someone else explain the endings of movies to me — and that’s fine with me.  

One other thing, from someone who has worked on several films in Mexico and heard complaints about this. A border story is like the low lying fruit on the creative tree in terms of storytelling regarding Mexico. Yes, in its obvious, tangible way, it has a built in drama that people can easily relate to on a dramatic level. And well told, a border story like Sicario, can be extremely effective. But there are plenty of other great films coming out of Mexico all the time. Instant classics like Amores Perros and really great more recent films like Güeros.  

Let’s for a moment talk about the insane coolness of Benicio del Toro. This guy has the charisma and presence of a modern day John Wayne. I was sitting in a cafe on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz one night when he shows up at the door. The only sound you could hear was the wait staff falling over one another to get to the guy. It. Was. Eerie. I just wonder what makes someone like that think he can just get a grilled cheese at 11:45 on a Tuesday night and not throw the equilibrium of the entire universe totally off. But even more than that, he needs Brolin’s agent. 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (D)

BenicioL&D attended a special preview of The Last Jedi Thursday evening, and – we aren’t making this up – they waited for us to show up before starting the movie!   We entered to a packed house and a blank screen, and when we sat down they got things going.  Our charmed lives continue.

The movie is actually more of a movie than a commercial and cultural obligation that we often see, with a plot about a zillion times better than the galactic trade tariff squabble nonsense that stupefied an entire generation of fans.  There is also a brazen effort to beef up the moral ambiguities that pervade warfare that involves large-scale killing of the other side and its people.  There are moments where the film heads toward moral nihilism, though it generally puts on the brakes before it gets there.

The action is pretty good, but there is no drama to it.  There isn’t much left to be done with the star fighter dogfight that we didn’t see in the first eight movies, but it’d be hard to have a Star Wars movie without these scenes.  The film makers seem to acknowledge this by opening with a comedic twist and somewhat unconventional blasting away, though it quickly devolves into a full-scale dog fight that looks increasingly awesome, but has all the suspense of watching a dog eat a bowl of food in the morning. The film is replete with Star Warsian Boilerplate:  The pod race is now a horsie chase.  The bar scene is a casino scene (has anyone ever written on the pervasiveness of gambling in the Star Wars universe?). The walkers are back, not nearly as deadly, but with some sort of big cannon thingie with them (where do those bad guys store all this hardware? Damn).

The action isn’t great, but we do get some drama.  The big story here, is that maybe, just maybe, the Jedi aren’t such good guys after all.  This has been a rather obvious dissenting view for some time now (even among us non-Straussians) but the dissent in Episode VIII comes from none other than Luke Skywalker questioning the whole Jedi order.  It wouldn’t take much to forward some “what about” hypotheticals that are far worse than what is purportedly bothering Luke, but that’s probably unfair, since at least 15 years of the series was all about trying to sell action figures to pre-teenage boys.  I liked the Rashoman sequences, which explored the idea that heroes aren’t without their flaws.  Well, I liked the idea better than the execution, but it was still a big plus here.

The main plot pairs intertwining stories concerning the Rey character (Daisy Ridley), who we last saw tracking down Luke Skywalker and get him to rejoin the rebellion.  With Mark Hamill back as Luke this line of the story certainly pays homage to the great western, Unforgiven.  The other part of that story is the weird interface of Daisey with Kylo Ren, and this one seems to have the legs that will carry us through Episode IX.  Ridley is pretty great in her role and the movie would pretty much suck if she hadn’t been.

My biggest beef is that the villains are weak, and the writers just dropped the ball here. The enormous head of Snoke is bigger and wrinklier than the now-deposed Emperor, but his motives are as transparent as they are uninteresting.   His masked red henchmen lack the intrigue of, say, Darth Maul (the most grotesquely underutilized asset in the history of the series), though the Reds do have these cool, bendy light sabers that are seen but not heard, really.  Indeed, the whole Snoke angle is so underdeveloped that you wonder why they bothered. Oh, man, is that guy evil!  That leaves Kylo Ren to take up the mantle of this generation’s Darth Vader, but Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader (then again, who is?).

A couple of other notes:

  • Benicio del Toro gets to play an unrepentant mercenary, and he is exactly as good as his script allows.  The film makers would be fools to leave him out of the series finale.
  • Wait, isn’t Carrie Fisher dead?  You wouldn’t know it from watching this film.  There is definitely something weird going on with that.
  • Laura Dern is dashing and decisive as the next in command, though she didn’t get the best the script had to offer (although she did use the term “cockpit”, emphasis on the first syllable, to malign testosterone-fueled bravado).  The yin to her yang is the Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) character, and this plays out tolerably.
  • The story line involving Finn and Rose was disposable, and the would-be bromance between Finn and Poe Dameron will have to wait if it is to blossom.  Finn was the big loser as far as the script goes.
  • The days of non-humans as principal characters has mercifully come to an end.  There are smatterings of non-humans, but mostly they are relegated to the more traditional status as non-humans.   Chewie is the big exception and he is a very bit player here.
  • And, keeping up the great westerns, there is even a homage to the final scene Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  
  • This is probably the funniest Star Wars yet.  Not a high bar, but still

The verdict is good, but not great (see L’s review for the same verdict).  If you see it you will probably enjoy most of it, though it’s at least 20 minutes too long.  Maybe 30 minutes too long.  Maybe more.  It’s way too long.  The story winds up pretty much exactly where you think it will, but not quite in the way that you are expecting.   There are also a couple surprises a long the way that will cause even the most hardened among us to crack a smile and shed a tear.

Well, maybe not, but it’s still pretty good.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (L)

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Here at the L & D we put our top picks for 2017 on hold, eagerly awaiting the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  We needn’t have. Last Jedi is a film that is very much in love with itself. And honestly, how can you blame the producers, director or editor. Each shot, a technical marvel. Each set-up, costing the GDP of various small island nations. However, it’s exactly the job of the editor, the director and the producers to make the tough choices that keep a story moving along. If this 2 hour and 33 minute behemoth had been more tightly spun and less concerned with literally looking at itself in the mirror, it would have been a lot stronger. However, with no one there to stop John Williams, the band played on…and on. At one point Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) says to Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) that nothing really dies. The irony escaped no one that she actually was (RIP Carrie). Unless you are a totally enlightened monk, many things can die, including the attention span of the audience. Like so many action films, this one went on at least 20 minutes too long. You could feel it lumbering along, trying to establish relationships for the next episode and getting away from the filmmakers with every drawn-out, self-important gaze.

The biggest stars of the film are these Gremlins type creatures found on Luke’s island. It’s no coincidence Kathleen Kennedy also produced that film is 1984. And like Gremlins, a lot of the action, music and shot selection in Last Jedi feels like it’s directly out of the Spielberg playbook. Spielberg, another Gremlins producer. I almost expected space ships to fly in silhouette across a moon (or several moons since it is Star Wars) with ET perched on a bicycle basket.

All that said, the acting was great, including star Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Kelly Marie Tran, with a solid turn by Benicio del Toro. Though as D mentioned, Laura Dern picked the short stick when it came to cool Star Wars characters. The plot itself was strong and original taking some well deserved cracks at arms dealers and also at those who sit on the fence. The Cinematography and special effects were outstanding and I realized I could watch a feature length film of simply Star Wars landscape shots. If you are a fan of this franchise (and by the size of the audience this opening night, who isn’t) this is a must see installment. For everyone else, firing up the original aka A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back will give you the same thrills and chills.