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Non-Review Review: The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch is a sweet and sincere love letter to a certain kind of journalistic endeavour, and to the creative process beyond that. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly disjointed and uneven.

To be fair, these structural problems come with the format. Wes Anderson has constructed his latest film as an anthology, one loosely designed to mirror the flow of a magazine like The New Yorker. The film is comprised of an opening obituary, a travellogue, and three short stories, all designed to emulate the structure of reading a classic journalistic magazine. It’s an interesting and ambitious approach to structuring a movie, one not without challenges and one that allows Anderson the opportunity to lean into his already heightened sensibility.

That is a lot of Wes Anderson.

However, as with many anthology films, The French Dispatch suffers from an unevenness in terms of pacing. As one might expect from an anthology directed by a filmmaker as distinctive as Anderson, The French Dispatch does maintain a consistent tone across its various elements, but it also suffers from stopping and starting five times over. It doesn’t help that each of the three stories flows in much the same way, playing on many of the same tropes of Anderson’s storytelling, starting with Anderson’s signature arch detachment and inevitably puncturing it with small glimpses of humanity.

The appeal of a magazine like the fictional French Dispatch is a diversity of voices and perspectives. The film positions itself as a celebration of the individual journalists relating their stories to the audience, finding their own ways into these narratives and sharing something over themselves with the world. However, while the film does afford some shading of the characters themselves in the framing sections and within the narrative, the stories themselves all feel like they are cut from the same clothe. They are even similar in stylistic terms, mostly shot in black-and-white Academy ratio, occasionally breaking that for dramatic effect.

Stu(dent)ing resentment…

To be fair, this isn’t a fatal problem. Anderson remains a director with a strong aesthetic and keen sense of humour. His worlds are elaborately constructed, both rich and textured. For all that Anderson’s rigid formalism can seem twee or arch, his films are often possessed of a real heart, one that is all the more effective for sneaking up on the audience through these otherwise carrefully composed surroundings and often caricatured characters. The French Dispatch is no different. It is a film with charm to spare, and with a genuine heart beneath it.

Still, for all that The French Dispatch is a celebration of artistic freedom and discovery, and a passionate argument for an editorial hand the encourages distinct voices and approaches over one that imposes a consistent style, by the time the third story is finished, it feels too much the work of a singular voice working a familiar framework.

The Wright stuff.

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Non-Review Review: Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills is an ambitious sequel, if a little messy – and not just in the way that one expects a slasher movie to be messy.

Halloween Kills is a direct sequel to David Gordon Green’s Halloween. It picks up in a very similar place to where the two other direct sequels to a movie named Halloween start. Like Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II and Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, the film follows Laurie Strode to hospital as Michael Myers continues his rampage through Haddonfield, Illinois. Although Zombie’s Halloween II takes a sharp turn in its second act, all three direct sequels extend the eponymous night into the early morning that follows.

Gripping stuff.

There is a lot going on in Halloween Kills. The film effectively splits across three main plot threads that only intermittently overlap with one another. One of these threads centres on Laurie’s recovery in the hospital, while the second follows the reaction of the local community to the carnage, and and the third focuses on Myers’ continuing rampage through an Illinois suburb. The film is disjointed, with Green inheriting a lot of continuity and character baggage from his previous film while heaping even more connections back to the original film upon it.

Still, perhaps the best and worst thing that can be said about Halloween Kills is that it marks a return to the grim nihilism that defined John Carpenter’s original.

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New Escapist Video! “Dune Is One of the Year’s Best Movies – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Dune, which is released theatrically in Europe and the United States next weekend.

Non-Review Review: The Last Duel

The Last Duel is a thorny and compelling medieval epic. It’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s undeniably part of the appeal.

The Last Duel is adapted from the book of the same name by historian Eric Jager. As its title implies, the film offers an account of the last judicial duel permitted by the Parlement of Paris. That duel was fought between two noblemen: Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. The challenge was offered over allegations that Le Gris had raped de Carrouges’ wife, Maguerite. The assumption was that divine authority would ultimately determine where the truth lay in the matter, that the victor in this mortal combat would ultimately be vindicated.

Duel narratives.

Naturally, the events that inspired The Last Duel remain contentious. Historians are not entirely sure what happened, and how much of the various accounts reflect the truth of what happened or have been shaped by the convenient narratives of the victors. The film, with a screenplay from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, leans into this ambiguity. The film is structured similarly to Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon, outlining three separate accounts of the events leading up to the trial from the perspective of each of the key figures: Jean, Jacques and Maguerite.

The result is a film that touches on the blurred boundaries between history and narrative, and explores the way in which these sorts of stories are shaped by wounded pride and vain ego. It’s an uncomfortable and unsettling film, occasionally a little clumsy in its execution, but which grapples with big ideas.

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Non-Review Review: No Time to Die

There is perhaps some irony in the fact that a movie titled No Time to Die is the longest movie in the James Bond franchise.

No Time to Die is an interesting mess of a movie. It’s a film that contains a variety of interesting and intriguing elements that never coalesce into something completely satisfying, and are often lost in a mess of continuity accrued from the previous four entries in the franchise. As the final film in the franchise to star Daniel Craig, No Time to Die finds itself tasked with turning off the lights at the end of the night, serving as something of a series finale to the actor’s previous adventures.

Drinking it all in.

The biggest challenge facing No Time to Die is the simple fact that the previous four films in the franchise don’t really form a single or cohesive narrative. They were four separate movies, with each shaped and informed by the reaction to the prior entry. When Casino Royale proved that audiences could accept a modern take on the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace doubled down on tweaking the character to fit into the modern action thriller landscape. When that didn’t work, Skyfall course-corrected for a more traditional approach. Following that success, SPECTRE tried clumsily to tie it all together.

No Time to Die spends far too much of its impressive runtime trying to reconcile these films to each other. As a result, the film never really finds space to play with its own more interesting and compelling ideas.

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Non-Review Review: The Many Saints of Newark

The Sopranos was a groundbreaking piece of television that completely changed the rules of television as a medium, with a mob epic that was singularly suited to the opportunities and the constraints of its given medium. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Many Saints of Newark is that it at least reinforces how much of the success of The Sopranos was down to its existence of a television show. The Many Saints of Newark demonstrates that so many of the tricks that made The Sopranos so compelling when watched in thirteen-hour seasons become deeply frustrating when condensed to a two-hout movie.

The Many Saints of Newark is a fundamentally flawed film. The most charitable interpretation of the film is that it feels like an attempt to condense an entire season of television down to a cinematic narrative that clocks in at just under two hours. The Many Saints of Newark is a sprawling film, one that spans from the late sixties into the early seventies. It often doesn’t seem to have a singular driving plot, but instead a set of competing subplots that swirl and occasionally cohere around the lead character of Dickie Moltisanti. They gesture broadly at compelling thematic concerns, but without any real clarity or focus.

Clever Dickie.

The Many Saints of Newark hinges on the narrative trickery that made The Sopranos such a compelling watch. It has an expansive cast. There’s a recurring ambiguity about what any of this actually means and what parts of it will be actively important to the resolution of the story. The film is willing to spend extended periods focusing on vignettes involving tertiary supporting cast members, away from the nominal lead. The film’s ending is a very deliberate and pointed anticlimax, one that is very deliberately set up over the film’s runtime, but which still feels designed to confound audience expectations.

All of these elements worked on The Sopranos because the production team had enough room to explore and develop them. The show was dense enough and had enough narrative real estate that credited leads like Lorraine Bracco or Dominic Chianese could disappear for multiple episodes at a time, only to return at pivotal junctures. The show spent enough time developing its narrative threads that sudden curve balls that seemed to derail certain plots instead felt like satisfying and unexpected pay-offs from others. The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t have this luxury. It doesn’t seem expansive, just messy.

Family ties.

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251. Up (#123)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this week with special guests Deirdre Molumby and Brian Lloyd, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, marking the passing of Ed Asner, Pete Docter’s Up.

Carl Fredricksen is a widower who finds himself facing the end of a modest life in the small house that he once shared with the love of his life. When it looks like what little remains of that life migth be disturbed and destroyed, Carl decides to embark on the one last adventure that he never got to take with his beloved life: a trip to mysterious “Paradise Falls”, without leaving his home.

At time of recording, it was ranked 123rd on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the Contradictory Generational Conflicts of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the film.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an interesting mess of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a classic story of generational conflict about a son who needs to defeat and vanquish his evil father in order to determine his place in the world – like Star Wars. However, it is also a story about a prodigal son who needs to connect with his roots and let his older relatives provide him with an identity that he cannot determine for himself. It’s a weird juxtaposition that creates an irreconciliable conflict at the heart of the movie.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

“We Will Change You, Doctor Jones”: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and a Unified Theory of Indiana Jones…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie with very real and very tangible problems.

Part of the problem is one of simple aesthetics. The original trilogy were products of a very particular moment in the history of American cinema, spanning the eighties. Raiders of the Lost Ark was very much a rollercoaster of a movie, a showcase for practical effects and impressive stunt work. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was built around impressive physical sets, model work and location work. Even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took a great deal of pride in how tactile this world felt.

Crystal clear.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a product of a transitional decade for Hollywood. It is no coincidence that the film opened in the same summer as blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which heralded a new future for crowdpleasing spectacle. While The Dark Knight made a conscious effort to ground its storytelling in practical effects, Iron Man signaled that the digital effects revolution was going to be the cornerstone of the superhero genre.

As such, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a deliberate and conscious step into the uncanny valley. Many of the movie’s most decried action sequences are driven by green screen and computer-generated special effects, standing in start contrast to the weight and mass that defined the earlier set pieces. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. The chase sequence in the Amazon is perhaps the most egregious example, but this detachment from reality is obvious from the early scenes inside the warehouse, as pixels guide our hero and his captors to their destination.

Blowing the roof off.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists in another uncanny space, most obviously through the introduction of the character of Mutt Williams. Part of this problem is undoubtedly Shia LeBeouf himself, who has been candid about his work on the film to the point of alienating director Steven Spielberg. Much like it’s easier to recognise the “pre-sequel” of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a prequel with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier now to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a rough draft of a “legacyquel”, like Creed or Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Of course, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is too clumsy to really work in that way. The film’s closing moments dare to tease the idea of Mutt Williams succeeding Indiana Jones, the wind blowing Jones’ iconic hat into Williams’ clutches. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lacks the courage of its commitment. Jones snatches the hat away at the last minute, prefiguring the way in which Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker would retreat from the idea of passing Star Wars to a new generation.

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

There are other ways in which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like it is caught between two eras. The film’s structure arguably suffers from the production team’s famed attempts to preserve the secrecy of the plot, which even extended to a sting operation and a high-profile lawsuit. The publicity around the film reportedly considered keeping Karen Allen’s return a secret, and the film’s structure conceals the presence of Marion Ravenwood for an hour. It’s a choice that muddies the film’s handling of its themes, denying it the clarity of how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade handled Henry Jones.

Still, accepting these issues as problems, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening beneath the surface of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In particular, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a very sincere and genuine effort on the part of everybody involved to figure out some grand unified theory of Indiana Jones, separated from the original three films by decades. What does it mean to look back on the trilogy? How has the world changed? How would the character wrap it all up?

It was admittedly a bit of a wash…

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New Escapist Column! On How “The Green Knight” Deconstructs the Hero’s Journey…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of David Lowery’s The Green Knight on streaming, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the director’s reimagining of classic Arthurian legend.

In particular, when is so fascinating about The Green Knight is the way that it takes a very classic and very conventional hero’s journey – the story of a character who embarks upon a quest that makes them better, stronger and wiser before returning home fundamentally changed by the experience – and gradually deconstructs it. Is a hero’s journey alone enough to make Gawain a great man? Can the adventure make him a different person? Is there a checklist of accomplishments that he must complete before he becomes a worthy knight? The Green Knight interrogates and explores these questions.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.