Bloody Well Write

The French Dispatch

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Who’s ready for Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson-y movie to date?

It feels like we say that every time he releases a new film, but The French Dispatch is absolutely the inimitable auteur at his most Andersonesque.

The French Dispatch is a magazine — a weekly addition to a Kansas newspaper covering the ins and outs of Ennui, France, the town where the periodical is based. The film itself is an anthology, four shorts (four of the stories published in the final edition) held together not by the one character each has in common, editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), but by Anderson’s giddy admiration for France and The New Yorker.

Boasting everything you’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson film — meticulous set design, vibrant color, symmetrical composition, elegance and artifice in equal measure, and a massive cast brimming with his own stock ensemble — the film is not one you might mistake for a Scorsese or a Spielberg.

Expect Anderson regulars Tilda Swinton, Mathieu Amalric, Lea Deydoux, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand and newcomers Benicio Del Toro, Timothee Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright. And those are the big roles (although truth be told, no one is on screen all that long).

Blink and you might miss Saoirse Ronin, Willem Dafoe, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss, Ed Norton, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber and Jason Schwartzman.

In the segment filed under the “Taste and Smells” section, Dispatch writer Roebuck Wright (Wright) turns in a sprawling profile on master chef Nescaffier (Steve Park) that – to Howitzer’s chagrin – contains merely one quote from Nescaffier himself. As with the other pieces of the anthology, the many tangents of the piece are explained through Anjelica Huston’s narration, which can’t replace a truly emotional through line and holds the film back from resonating beyond its immaculate construction.

Anderson’s framing of symmetry and motion has never been more tightly controlled, and the film becomes a parade of wonderfully assembled visuals paired with intellectual wordplay and an appropriately spare score from Alexander Desplat.

As a tribute to a lost era of journalism and the indelible writers that drove it, Anderson delivers a fascinating and meticulous exercise boasting impeccable craftsmanship and scattershot moments of wry humor. But the layer of humanity that elevates the writer/director’s most complete films (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) never makes it from page to screen, and The French Dispatch ultimately earns more respect than feeling.

What’s In a Name?

The Personal History of David Copperfield

by Hope Madden

Will he turn out to be the hero in his own life?

The Personal History of David Copperfield reunites the writing/directing team of Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci, whose Death of Stalin, In the Loop and the series Veep represent high water marks in political satire.

How are they with whimsy?

Not too bad. While the material is a far different style of cynical minefield for the filmmakers, Dickens offers a couple of opportunities Iannucci and Blackwell can appreciate: a big cast and wordplay.

Dev Patel is a perfectly amiable, easy to root for David Trottwood Daisy Dodi Murdstone Davidson Copperfield. (Ranveer Jaiswal is the even easier to root for, ludicrously adorable youngster version.) As we see their tale spun and re-spun, it is, of course, the characters that come and go that make the biggest impression.

Who? Tilda Swinton (with the year’s best onscreen entrance), Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong and Peter Capaldi, among many others. The multiracial cast emphasizes the fanciful fiction, the desire of a writer to create a story better than their own reality. Here, each actor takes character to caricature, but the brashness suits Iannucci’s busy, bursting, briskly paced narrative.

Iannucci hopscotches about the story and timeline in an episodic manner that fits the source material. What results is a charmingly animated rumination on those characters in life who shape our stories, experiences and maybe our character.

We can all get behind an underdog story, although like most of Dickens’s work, David Copperfield isn’t one. It’s the would-be tragedy of a person of good breeding who falls into a life that’s beneath him only to have his proper station returned to him via a happy ending.

Not to poo-poo Dickens, but it’s in the cheery resolution that the material seems a misfit for the raging if delightful cynicism of the filmmakers. When Uriah Heap accuses, “You and yours have always hated me and mine,” the boisterous nature of Iannucci’s film feels ill at ease because of the line’s pointed honesty. Let’s just right these cosmic wrongs and give the money back to the people who had it in the first place, shall we?

Still, this David Copperfield has its own lunatic charm to burn. Gone are the laugh out loud moments as well as the bitter aftertaste of Iannucci’s best work, but in their place is a lovely time.

Ghouls

The Dead Don’t Die

by Hope Madden

Indie god and native Ohioan Jim Jarmusch made a zombie movie.

If you don’t know the filmmaker (Down by Law, Ghost Dog, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson and so many more jewels), you might only have noticed this cast and wondered what would have drawn Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, RZA, Caleb Landry Jones, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and Selena Gomez to a zombie movie.

It’s because Jim Jarmusch made it.

Jarmusch is an auteur of peculiar vision, and his latest, The Dead Don’t Die, with its insanely magnificent cast and its remarkably marketable concept, is the first ever in his nearly 30 years behind the camera to receive a national release.

Not everybody is going to love it, but it will attain cult status faster than any other Jarmusch film, and that’s saying something.

He sets his zombie epidemic in Centerville, Pennsylvania (Romero territory). It’s a small town with just a trio of local police, a gas station/comic book store, one motel (run by Larry Fassenden, first-time Jarmusch actor, longtime horror staple), one diner, and one funeral home, the Ever After.

Newscaster Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez – nice!) informs of the unusual animal behavior, discusses the “polar fracking” issue that’s sent the earth off its rotation, and notes that the recent deaths appear to be caused by a wild animal. Maybe multiple wild animals.

The film never loses its deadpan humor or its sleepy, small town pace, which is one of its greatest charms. Another is the string of in-jokes that horror fans will revisit with countless re-viewings.

But let’s be honest, the cast is the thing. Murray and Driver’s onscreen chemistry is a joy. In fact, Murray’s onscreen chemistry with everyone—Sevigny, Swinton, Glover, even Carol Kane, who’s dead the entire film—delivers the tender heart of the movie.

Driver out-deadpans everyone in the film with comedic delivery I honestly did not know he could muster. Landry Jones also shines, as does The Tilda. (Why can’t she be in every movie?)

And as the film moseys toward its finale, which Driver’s Officer Ronnie Paterson believes won’t end well, you realize this is probably not the hardest Jim Jarmusch and crew have ever worked. Not that the revelation diminishes the fun one iota.

Though it’s tempting to see this narrative as some kind of metaphor for our current global political dystopia, in fairness, it’s more of a mildly cynical love letter to horror and populist entertainment.

Mainly, it’s a low-key laugh riot, an in-joke that feels inclusive and the most quotable movie of the year.

Self Portrait

The Souvenir

by George Wolf

The Souvenir rests at the hypnotic intersection of art and inspiration, an almost shockingly self-aware narrative from filmmaker Joanna Hogg that dares you to label its high level of artistry as pretense.

It is an ode to her craft and her experience, reflecting on both through an autobiographical tale of hard lessons learned.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne – Tilda’s daughter) is a young film school student with a privileged background and a cautiously supportive mother (played, of course, by Tilda, who’s customarily splendid). It is the early 1980s, and Julie has high aspirations for projects that will mine truths she has yet to experience.

That changes when she begins a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke) a complicated older man who preys on Julie’s naivete.

Hogg lays the relationship bare, literally opening her diaries and projects for a portrait of the artist on her own unapologetic terms.

While other cast members had scripted dialog, Byrne worked improvisationally from Hogg’s own journal, with Julie’s student films also closely resembling those in the director’s past.

In her first major role, Byrne is tremendously effective (which, given her lineage, should not be that surprising). In her hands, Julie’s arc is at turns predictable, foolish and frustrating, yet always sympathetic and achingly real.

The intimacy of Hogg’s reflection on a toxic relationship is worthy on its own, but her story’s added resonance comes from its unconventional structure, and the brilliantly organic way Julie’s thoughts on filmmaking tell you why that has to be.

The Souvenir is finely crafted as a different kind of gain from pain, one that benefits both filmmaker and audience. It is artful and cinematic in its love for art and cinema, honest and forgiving in its acceptance, and beautifully appreciative for how life shapes us.

Dance Macabre

Suspiria

by George Wolf

Seventies horror has had a damn good month.

Just weeks after David Gordon Green gave 1978’s Halloween the sequel it deserved, director Luca Guadagnino re-imagines 1977’s giallo classic Suspiria as a gorgeous rumination on the horror of being haunted by echoes of your past.

Wait, wasn’t the original about witches?

It still is, more than ever. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich (True Story, A Bigger Splash, the upcoming Pet Sematary remake) remove the guesswork about the dance academy coven in favor of a narrative much more layered, meaningful and bloody.

The building blocks remain the same. It is 1977 in “a divided Berlin,” when American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, nicely moving the character from naivete to complexity) arrives for an audition with a world-renowned dance company run by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, mesmerizing). Susie impresses immediately, and is soon given the lead in the company’s next production.

This “cover version” (The Tilda’s phrase, and valid) of Argento’s original lifts the veil on the academy elders early, via the diaries of Patricia (Chloe Moretz), a dancer who has fled the troupe in fear. While whispers paint Patricia as a radical member of the anti-fascist Red Army Faction, she tells psychotherapist Dr. Josef Kiemperer (also The Tilda, under impressive makeup) wild tales of witches and their shocking plans.

Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth. Macabre visions dart in and out like a video that will kill you in 7 days while sudden, extreme zooms, precise sound design and a vivid score from Thom Yorke help cement the homage to another era.

But even when this new Suspiria is tipping its hat, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. The color scheme is intentionally muted, and you’ll find no men in this dance troupe, serving immediate notice that superficialities are not the endgame here.

Guadagnino’s stated goal of “de-victimizing” women in this film shows early and often. They move in strong solidarity both onstage and off, dancing with a hypnotic power capable of deadly results. In fact, most of the male characters here are mere playthings under the spell of powerful women, which takes a deliciously ironic swipe at witch lore as it creates a compelling bookend to what’s going on away from the dance academy.

Dr. Kiemperer, still searching for his wife missing since the end of WWII, becomes a personal illustration of Germany’s struggle with its Nazi legacy. When paired with Patricia’s rumored involvement in the “German Autumn” uprising of ’77, we get two important pillars of an epilogue that, admittedly, some may find a head-scratching overreach.

But after the finale that precedes that epilogue, the bigger problem may be breath-catching. A glorious celebration of the grotesque, it explodes into a cathartic mix of Ken Russell’s The Devils and GOT‘s Red Wedding that more than affirms the film’s intense, obsessive build. Guadagnino has thrown so much at us, he knows we deserve a payoff and damn, he delivers one.

It cements a vision of Suspiria that’s as ambitious and it is uncompromising, one that explores different definitions of horror while ultimately delivering more outright shocks and shivers than Argento ever attempted. Who knew a silly witch story could support so much mind-fuckery?

His name is Luca.

 

 

 





Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.





The Snack that Smiles Back

Okja

by Hope Madden

That lovely period of youth, close enough to childhood to be magical, near enough to adulthood to be tinged with longing – it’s that moment where people like Spielberg made their greatest mark.

Filmmaker Joon-ho Bong takes us there with the story of a super pig – a genetically engineered and yet utterly adorable hippo-like beastie bred to feed a lot of people cheaply – and her best friend.

If you haven’t seen the films of Joon-ho Bong, you should. All of them. Repeatedly.

This versatile Korean filmmaker is as comfortable with dystopian fantasy as he is creature features, with dark family dramas as police procedurals. Whatever he makes, he edges it curiously with humor and shadows with a bit of horror. It’s a heady mix, but in Bong’s hands, it never ceases to satisfy.

In this case, we tag along as Korean farm girl Mija (Seo-hyun Ahn) wiles away days in the rural mountains with Okja. Ten years earlier, the Mirando corporation left the tiny piglet with Mija’s farmer grandfather. It’s now time for the company to take her back.

What opens as a beautiful story of magical childhood friendship a la E.T. or some kind of live-action Miyazaki film turns, in Act 2, into something far darker. Once Tilda Swinton (glorious – and playing twins!) and Mirando Corp come calling, Okja becomes satire of the most broad and brutal sort.

Though Bong peppers the prolog with a couple F-bombs, there’s still no way to be ready for the pivot his film makes. Not every actor is prepared for the shift, either.

Swinton – so breathtakingly brilliant in Bong’s 2013 flick Snowpiercer (Be a shoe!) – is characteristically fascinating as Mirando’s mogul, and Paul Dano offers a startlingly unpredictable eco-terrorist.

The generally reliable Jake Gyllenhaal can’t seem to nail his part, kind of a Jack Hannah patterned after a crackhead version of Richard Simmons. It’s less interesting than it sounds.

Otherwise, though, the collision of styles and gut punch of a third act guarantee that the film will stick with you.

Okja is the first film in which Bong clearly states a prescribed purpose, rather than simply writing and directing a fine, if politically astute, film. That doesn’t take away from his movie’s power, and only cements his position as a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Halloween Countdown, Day 23: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Vampires again! Can’t we just give it a rest already?

I hear ya, but before you write them off completely, let Only Lovers Left Alive renew your faith in the genre’s possibilities.

Leave it to visionary writer/director Jim Jarmusch to concoct the perfect antidote to the pop culture onslaught of romantic teenage blood drinkers. OLLA is a delicious black comedy, oozing with sharp wit and hipster attitude.

Great lead performances don’t hurt, either, and Jarmusch gets them from Tom Hilddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve (perfect!), a vampire couple rekindling their centuries-old romance against the picturesque backdrop of…Detroit.

I’m not going to lie, they had me at Swinton/Hiddleston/Jarmusch/vampires, but it’s such a treat to find the end result only exceeds expectations.

Not since the David Bowie/Catherine Deneuve pairing in The Hunger has there been such perfectly vampiric casting. Swinton and Hiddleston, already two of the most consistently excellent actors around, deliver cooly detached, underplayed performances, wearing the world- weariness of their characters in uniquely contrasting ways.

The less you know about the lifestyles of Adam and Eve, the better, and the plot consists mainly of consequences from a surprise visit by Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). But Jarmusch, as he often does, creates a setting that is totally engrossing, full of fluid beauty and wicked humor.

His camera lingers in dark corners and high ceilings, swimming in waves of sublime production design, evocative music and mood lighting that is subtle perfection. This is a master class in style and atmosphere, conjuring up a dark world you’re just geeked to spend time in.

There is substance to accent all the style. The film moseys toward its perfect finale, casually waxing Goth philosophic about soul mates and finding your joy.

Ironically, Jarmusch treats the possibility of nightwalkers among us more realistically than any vampire flick in recent memory. And in the process, has some wry fun with how the whole thing went south.

Talk about finding our joy.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





A Beautiful Trainwreck

A Bigger Splash

by Christie Robb

Remember that infamous high school math problem about the trains? You know, the one where two trains leave different cities heading toward each other and you are tasked with discovering when and where they collide?

A Bigger Splash is a lot like that, only instead of trains we are dealing with ex-lovers and the location of the collision is a gorgeous volcanic island off the coast of Italy.

Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is on vacation, recovering from throat surgery with her studly younger partner Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), when they are interrupted by unexpected houseguests: her ex-lover and producer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his recently-discovered, lascivious daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). It’s clear that Harry still carries a torch for Marianne. It’s also apparent that he is more than willing to use the close quarters to fan those flames into obsession.

A catastrophe is inevitable. It’s just a matter of time — which, in this film, can tend to drag a little bit. This is not just a movie about nostalgic characters. With its long takes and dramatic score, director Luca Guadagnino’s film itself demonstrates a palpable longing for an earlier cinematic age. But with the stellar cast, breathtaking setting, and stylish costumes, the extra length, like a spare tire on an old flame, is easy to forgive. There is something beautiful in nearly every shot.

Schoenaerts and Johnson deliver solid performances in their somewhat underwritten characters (disdainful melancholic and crafted nymphet, respectively). Fiennes and Swinton, however, are delightful contrasts. Fiennes very nearly steals the show with his frenetic outbursts of verbal diarrhea — and in the scene where he dances to the Rolling Stones, he does. However, in the end this is Swinton’s movie. The layers of emotion she manages to convey with minimal dialogue is what truly makes the biggest splash.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





It’s Only Make Believe

Hail, Caesar!

by George Wolf

Coen Brothers films can be brilliant (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or not (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy), but they’re always crafted with interesting ideas. Hail, Caesar! offers a few too many of those ideas and not enough places for them to fully take root.

The setting is Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1950s, when Hail, Caesar! is the new “story of the Christ” epic being produced by Capitol pictures, and starring their biggest asset, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the square-jawed, no nonsense Capitol studio “fixer,” which means he’s the one dealing with kidnappers who are demanding 100,000 dollars for Whitlock’s safe return.

But there’s more.

Swimming-pool starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) is facing a scandalous pregnancy, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is having trouble adjusting to his new image makeover, and communists may have infiltrated the studio!

Looks like Eddie picked a bad week to quit smoking! No, really, he promised his wife he would quit, and his tobacco guilt is just one of the issues that makes a regular in the confession booth.

Crisscrossing situations combine for a madcap romp that homages various classics of the era, including musical numbers recalling Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Roy Rogers. The Coens’ writing is as witty and eccentric as ever, but save for two specific bits, rarely more than amusing.

Eddie’s consultation with a roomful of religious elders about the studio’s depiction of Jesus leads to some nice one-liners, while Hobie’s struggle to wrap his cowboy drawl around more refined dialogue finally turns funny after how-long-can-this-go-on repetition and the growing disgust of Hobie’s proper English director (Ralph Fiennes).

Like Fiennes, more famous faces (Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill) come and go quickly, all beautifully framed by esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins, but the parade of glorified cameos only makes the film’s eccentricities seem more disconnected.

Still, Hail, Caesar! is a fine looking swing that just misses. Beneath all the old Hollywood glamour is familiar Coen territory: faith, folly, finding your purpose and just trying to live a good life.

They’ve done it worse, but they’ve done it better.

Verdict-3-0-Stars