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.

Waiting for the Worms

Dune

by Hope Madden

Denis Villeneuve’s vision for Frank Herbert’s Dune is as gorgeous and cinematic as you might expect from the filmmaker behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. The worlds, the interiors, the exteriors, the space crafts, the spice, the worm — each articulated with a sense of wonder, as if the director himself was awestruck by what he saw.

That vision is hampered by a number of things, but the cast is not among its faults. Though Part One contains too many glorified cameos, even those are handled with care.

But let’s start at the top. Timothee Chalamet, whose genuine vulnerability makes him the perfect emo savior, is a natural for Paul. There is depth and almost humor to the performance. Even with only the first part of his journey completed by the end of the 2 hour and 35 minute film, his arc is clearly underway.

Oscar Isaac is so wonderfully Oscar Isaac as Paul’s noble but human father, and Rebecca Ferguson is exquisitely tortured as Paul’s mother. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa and especially Javier Bardem all leave impressions with minimal screen time.

But the film has two problems, they are both pretty substantial, and they are both the story.

Problem #1 is that Dune Part 1 is half a film. You can make a multi-part story and still have several lovely, complete, standalone films. Kill Bill did it. Dune did not. It ends at the halfway point and that is exactly how it feels: 2 and a half hours to halfway there.

The second concern is that the source material is a white savior film. By casting almost exclusively people of color as the indigenous Fremen people of the conquered planet Arrakis, Villeneuve was at least facing the issue directly. That same laudable decision also exacerbated the situation, however, by turning Dune from a metaphorical white savior story into a literal white savior film, as the very white Chalamet takes on the mantle of messiah to lead the Fremen toward salvation.

He’s a dreamy messiah whose hair is forever mussed and hanging in his big, brown (for the moment) eyes, sure. But we know where this is going, even if we have no idea when we’ll get to see it arrive as Dune Part 2 is not yet filming.

It’s a lot of very attractive waiting for something to happen, which is maybe the best Dune synopsis I can think of.

Once More, with Feeling

Little Women

by Hope Madden

Just when you think They’re making Little Women again? Greta Gerwig steps in and gives this beloved story a fresh, frustrated perspective.

Gerwig’s presentation tosses sentimentality to the wayside, thankfully. The vibrant retelling brims with empathy, energy and laughter as well as those prickly emotions that dwell within a family.

In fact, settling into those very petty realities of sisterhood is a conscious choice Gerwig makes with her retelling. Those who’ve always controlled what we see may see nothing of value in so mundane a story as that of four somewhat coddled, routinely bickering sisters on the precipice of adulthood, but who says those men are right?

Gerwig understands and illustrates the political, economic and often lonesome choices to be made, couching those in the equally honest tensions of disappointing your sisters when you choose.

Gerwig’s writing, respectfully confident, brings conflicts more sharply to the surface in clear-eyed ways that reflect the characters’ bristling against unfair constraints and expectations.

Self-discovery and camaraderie still drive the piece, but Jo’s fiery independence has more meaning, Marmie’s self-sacrifice contains welcome bitterness, Aunt March’s disappointment feels more seeped in wisdom, and spoiled Amy is an outright revelation.

Saoirse Ronan, Gerwig’s avatar in the brilliant Lady Bird, is impeccable as ever. It’s her sometimes frenetic, sometimes quiet performance that delivers Louisa May Alcott’s own sense of lonesome independence.

Ronan’s flanked by superb supporting work including that of Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts and Meryl Streep (naturally). But it’s Florence Pugh, having a banner year with Fighting with my Family and Midsommar in her rear view, who entirely reimagines bratty Amy, turning her character into the sister we can best understand.

In all, this remarkable filmmaker and her enviable cast make this retelling maybe the most necessary version yet.

Love Is the Drug

Beautiful Boy

by George Wolf

Those of a certain age hear the title Beautiful Boy and most likely think of the John Lennon song, a sweetly poignant ode from father to son. It’s used to touching effect in the film that shares that title, an utterly heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful adaption of separate memoirs by David and Nicolas Sheff.

David was the proud father, a successful writer who dreamed of great things for his bright, ambitious son. Instead, Nic became an alcoholic and drug addict who offered his family countless  promises of recovery that always fell empty.

Two masterful performances drive this film to its emotional heights, keeping it steady the few times it teeters on slopes of undue manipulation.

Steve Carell makes David an instantly relatable mix of unconditional love and crestfallen confusion. As Nic’s addiction batters David’s homelife with his wife (Maura Tierney) and two young children, flashbacks to sweet memories with a younger Nic outline the bond between father and son that only grew after David’s split with Nic’s mother (Amy Ryan – also stellar). Carell makes it feel real with a thoughtful, often understated turn full of quiet detail.

And people, if last year didn’t hip you to the immense talent of Timothee Chalamet, he’s back to seal the deal with a performance certain to be hailed come Oscar time.

Just when you’re comfortable with the authenticity of Nic’s slide into addiction, Chalamet digs deeper to find the shattering center of a soul at war with dependence and desperation. Though his baby-faced smile stays miles away from meth addict ugliness, Chalamet finds a raw humanity that makes Nic a walking wound, and makes us feel part of the frayed parental bonds. His scenes with Carrell – where Nic tries taking advantage of his father’s love only to turn on him moments later – find two actors in complete sync, revealing a crushing humanity that hits you hard. Bring tissues.

There are two important stories here, and they only falter when it feels some intimacy from each has been shortchanged to make room for the other. Director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown), collaborating on the screenplay with Luke Davies (Lion), merges the dual memoirs for a series of episodes that resonate best when given room to breath, free of any heavy-handed reminders about how quickly children grow up.

Beautiful Boy illustrates a vital, shattering cycle of addiction, rehab and relapse, often beautifully. Through first-hand insight and two towering performances, it finds a thread of hope in the ashes of a family’s nightmare.

 





Sowing the Seeds of Love

Call Me by Your Name

by Hope Madden

It’s a languid Italian summer circa 1983 and everything is just so ripe.

Call Me by Your Name, the coming-of-age drama from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), swoons. Precocious seventeen-year-old Elio (an utterly astonishing Timothée Chalamet) is surrounded with luscious fruit from the trees, lovely girls from the village, books and music to fill the hours spent with his parents (Amira Casar, Michael Stuhlbarg) in the rural villa where they research Greco-Roman culture.

Then their seasonal research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives.

Awash in sensuality, Guadagnino’s love story is unafraid to explore, circling Oliver and Elio as they irritate each other, then test each other, and finally submit to and fully embrace their feelings for one another. Theirs is a remarkable dance, intimately told and flawlessly performed.

Enough cannot be said for Chalamet’s work. He is astonishingly in control of this character, and were that not the case, the age difference between the two characters (Oliver is meant to be 24, though Hammer is 31 which makes the gap seem more disturbing) would have left things feeling too predatory.

Hammer has never been better. Though the young Chalamet’s performance is Oscar-caliber, Hammer matches him step for step, creating a character both vulnerable and authoritative.

A standout in a solid ensemble, Stuhlbarg, looking almost alarmingly like Robin Williams, brings a quiet tenderness to the proceedings, a tone he elevates in a late-film monologue that could not have been delivered with more compassion or love. It’s breathtaking, perfectly punctuating the themes of acceptance and self-acceptance that permeate the film.

But even before Hammer or Chalamet can seduce you, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom does, lensing a feast for the senses. Together he and Guadagnino immerse you in this heady love story, developing a dreamy cadence and alluring palette that invites you to taste.