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@ The Movies! “The Last Duel”, “Last Night in SoHo”, & “The French Dispatch”

Over the last few weeks I saw three new releases in theaters, and in this film critic’s humble opinion, each one was a cinematic triumph. The main thread linking each film, unfortunately, is that despite these films having mid to large budgets, numerous big name actors attached to each one, AND the fact that each film is directed by auteur film directors in Ridley Scott, Edgar Wright, and Wes Anderson- none have performed well financially at the box office. Granted, there are a huge number of caveats to this year’s box office numbers for every major film release- but given the recent major resurgence in theater-going audiences that began in earnest this year with “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings”, it’s a bit discouraging to see a lack of interest in these excellent films. I sincerely appeal to you dear reader, please go see these films at the theater. If you care at all about the filmmakers and actors putting these films together, and the future of adult themed films being able to obtain star power and big budgets, again, I implore you, give these films a shot if you’re feeling safe enough to do so. Unfortunately, studios will take note when the money doesn’t exactly roll in. Especially in the case of “The Last Duel” and it’s dwindling box office returns, which is a crazy turn of events considering the talent involved.

“The Last Duel”

Written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, and directed by Ridley Scott, “The Last Duel” is a medieval “Rashomon” of sorts in which characters reflect on the events leading up to the titular duel. The first version of the story is told through the eyes of Matt Damon’s Sir Jean de Carrouges, a man of war who works for Dukes and Kings, even when looked down upon by those he serves and those who galivant with the powerful. The second version of the truth is from Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, a Nobleman of the realm who did indeed fight alongside Jean de Carrouges in war, though he eventually befriend’s Ben Affleck’s Duke Pierre d’Alençon- who bristles at even the sight of Jean de Carrouges. The third and last truth is told from Lady Marguerite’s (Jodie Comer) point of view, and her story holds the most revelations as she is the victim of a brutal sexual assault by Jacques Le Gris. Obviously, each person believes they are the hero of their own stories, and as each of them will not budge from their account of the truth, the solution is to have both men battle in a duel to the death and, “Let God decide who is right”. As far as the production of the film, everything looks great, Scott keeps each story on the same visual level creating a cohesive world while distinctly altering each repeated scene as the characters view them. It’s a damn smart film on a technological level. The action scenes, especially with the titular duel, are outstanding, visceral, and powerful. Naturally, as the Knight of the three, Jean de Carrouges has the majority of these scenes in his version and within Jacques Le Gris’s story as well. They truly add to the overall theme of the film, that living in the past may not be as glorious as we’d all like to think it could be. Story wise, the film also excels as each version of the truth told by each character layers the other two’s perspectives to a level that ultimately may be the closest thing to the truth. Though, the film does take a side of the three characters as to whose version actually IS the truth. Within the context of the film, it makes all the sense in the world to have Lady Marguerite’s version of the story be the true version, but admittedly, I prefer Kurosawa’s take on the central idea- that everyone embellishes and no one is capable of telling the truth without muddying the waters a bit. In “Rashomon”, for example, even the ghost of the dead character who speaks on the issue of their own murder couldn’t help but embellish the truth. Though, Lady Marguerite’s version greatly impacts the other two chapters of the film and how each character could misinterpret each other’s intentions. Though I have to say that even in Jacques Le Gris’s version of the rape scene, it’s not easy to watch. Sure, he sees it as a more playful endeavor- but he’s still, clearly, in the wrong. Lady Marguerite’s version of that scene is so much worse and far more brutal- even with subtle changes in the edit, like punching up the sound design to sound… well it’s just worse and more painful. It’s certainly hard to watch, but it does give the actual duel more weight. Speaking of the duel, the film also chooses to depict the battle as a disgusting, and frankly gross, way to solve a dispute. In this world and time however, it’s the closest thing society had to…. justice? It’s a brilliant move that informs the audience that even with all of the pomp and circumstance, all the talk of honor and pride, it’s just two men fighting to the death in the mud over what happened to a woman- who in this time is viewed, unfortunately, as property. History is brutal dear friends, and while it’s fun to romanticize Knights, Kings, and Queens- it wasn’t exactly a great time to be alive for many of us. That being said, I do highly recommend seeing this one.

“Last Night in SoHo”

Written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Edgar Wright, and directed by Wright, “Last Night in SoHo” is a Horror Mystery film in which a young aspiring fashion designer moves to London and eventually finds herself being transported to 1960’s London every night. Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise, a young woman who’s accepted into a fashion design school in London and promptly travels there from the countryside. She’s quite obsessed with the culture from the 1960’s through films, fashion, and music. After Eloise encounters a bit of a rude social awakening with her peers at the university, she moves to a small one-bedroom flat nearby. Once she rests her head in her new home at night, she’s transported to that glitzy and glamorous 1960’s London. After a moment out on the street in dazzling wonder, Eloise makes her way into a nightclub and in the reflection of some walled mirrors she sees not herself, but the magnificent Anya Taylor-Joy reflecting back at her. She decides to follow the moment and watches Anya Taylor-Joy’s confidence whisk her into a dance and departure sequence with the charming Matt Smith as her eventual manager in entertainment. To reveal much more would be a disservice to those interested in giving this film a shot, but I must say that I do highly recommend it, the mystery of the story is a lot of fun! I was recently reading a book titled “The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark” and Edgar Wright’s chosen film was an informative one. The film that irrevocably changed his perception of films and filmmaking was “An American Werewolf in London” a briskly paced horror-comedy from 1981 whose immediate spiritual connection with Wright’s own “Shaun of the Dead” is immediately noticeable. In his passage, Wright spoke about that film’s relationship with the horror genre and how much he wanted to tackle the genre himself one day, and here we are in 2021 with Wright’s first legitimate Horror film. As it’s his first film in the genre, there’s some genuinely creepy and harrowing ideas that Wright throws at the screen, especially once the third act gets rolling. However one of the more interesting aspects of the film comes with how he approaches nostalgia. Those rose-tinted glasses might be lying to you, the past may not be as romantic as you once thought. While at times he does rely on a bit of jump-scares, nothing is outright obnoxious, but it’s a trait revealing his beginnings within the horror element. The jump-scare ghosts within the film itself aren’t all that scary, however the scenes depicting Eloise’s inability to escape being transported back to 1960’s London at night- that is some terrifying stuff. What’s worse is the horrible awful things done to young women in the entertainment industry in the past (and in the frighteningly recent past too as the Me-Too movement revealed). If you’re a fan of the British filmmaker this is just another fascinating entry in his evolution as a director and screenwriter and I highly suggest seeing it if you can. If you’re new to Wright in general, go see it! Then give his older films a watch, they’re to die for!

“The French Dispatch”

Written and directed by Wes Anderson with story elements written from the likes of Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman. “The French Dispatch” is Wes Anderson’s tenth film, and it feels like the culmination of all his previous films rolled into one gigantic smorgasbord of cinematic delights. The whole conceit of the film is that The French Dispatch was a fictional American Newspaper, set in a fictional French city (Ennui, pronounced AHN-WEE), with the story focusing on the last edition of the Newspaper and the journalists who wrote each piece. First we get a small bit of information about the Newspaper, how it started, and the editor who ran it up until his death, Arthur Howitzer Jr. played exquisitely by Bill Murry. Which is the inciting incident of the film and the reason it’s the last issue. Each major section is narrated by the journalist that wrote the piece, and each one is a depiction of life in Ennui as seen through the eyes of the writers. The first bit is effectively a short written by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), which details the city itself and the downtrodden, homeless, school children, street walkers and prostitutes who live in it. The three major pieces are written by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). Each one focuses on different aspects of the city they lived in and the stories they thought worthy of telling. Each one is unique and fantastically fabricated. Berenen’s piece focuses on an artistic savant, who also happens to be a psychotic killer living in prison in perpetuity while Ms. Krementz chose to dive into the student revolution taking place in the city in a war of ideologies between Ennui’s generations. Roebuck Wright’s piece delivers the goods on an infamous night in which he was invited to dine with the Police Chief’s superb in-house chef, known far and wide for his culinary skills. The infamy in question began with the kidnapping of the Police Chief’s son during the dinner. I’ll leave the plot descriptions at that for now, as they are told much more skillfully by the writers and performers of the actual film itself. This is the sort of film that I go to the movies to see. Actors in costumes, on sets, using practical props, with monologues and action beats and lots and lots of wordplay. I’ve always been somewhat 50/50 on Wes Anderson, though the back half of his career has given us some of my all-time favorite films. Notably, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Life Aquatic”. This one however, may be my new favorite Wes Anderson film, and possibly my favorite new film of the year. I’ll have to reflect and see it again when thinking back on 2021’s admittedly outstanding collection of film releases if I’m being honest. However, anyone that’s not much interested in Wes Anderson films to begin with, may not be as in tune with “The French Dispatch” as I was. For anyone uninterested in the quirks, that commonly come packaged as criticisms, of this director, mainly that he’s “too literary“, “too invested in European culture“, or “too kitschy or twee“- these potential audiences will most likely not be persuaded by this film. Indeed “The French Dispatch” is all of those things and more, some could call it style over substance, but I’d take issue with that criticism personally- there’s heaps of substance, whole island nations of substance, if you ask me. It just may not be for you in execution. Yes, his dollhouse aesthetic is still present, as is his love of symmetrically composed shots and lateral movement tracking shots, but would it really be a Wes Anderson film if he didn’t do any of those things? Probably, but perhaps not? This film is amongst his strongest work, and I really do recommend giving it a watch, even if you haven’t enjoyed Anderson’s work in the past, this one was particularly enjoyable in my opinion.

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Review: Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s latest film, “Baby Driver” hits theaters this weekend, and it doesn’t disappoint! While I may have come into the theater with a biased love of this director’s work, I believe it may be his most broadly accessible feature yet. The film still offers loads of winks and nods to those eagle eyed viewers with a heart of celluloid to catch and nod knowingly while still engaging in expertly crafted thrills set to a heart thumping soundtrack.

The film is set in Atlanta this time, a departure from Wright’s usual English countryside comedies, and begins with one of the most entertaining opening scenes in recent memory. We’re introduced to Baby (Ansel Elgort), the quiet yet calculated driver to a rotating crew of bank robbers and general degenerates, as he waits for a job to be completed while he taps and thumps and hums along to his personal soundtrack that’s set to the rhythm of the robbery. You may wonder during these few small moments as Baby joyfully thumps along to the music “Is this kid’s shtick going to become grating?” Hold. As soon as Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal) trot back across the street and hop into Baby’s red Subaru, you’ll know whether you’re into this movie or not. The opening heist alone is a thing of beauty as Baby shows what he’s made of behind the wheel.

Baby is constantly listening to music, earbuds always in, even as the details of an upcoming heist are at hand. As Kevin Spacey’s Doc explains near the beginning, Baby was in a crash when he was young resulting in tinnitus, so he plays music all the time to drown out the ringing. Bats, an unpredictable criminal played chaotically by Jamie Foxx, doesn’t buy it. He calls the quiet kid out, but Baby effectively proves his observative nature and fine tuned attentive skills. Jon Hamm turns in a great performance as Buddy, he chews the scenery with a sort of grimy dignity and was a surprising delight among the cast. Lily James stars as Baby’s love interest Debora, a diner waitress sporting a familiar look if you’ve ever seen the first two seasons of Twin Peaks. While Debora is almost more of an idea than a fully fledged person, the characters do have a bit of that going on, but James and Elgort sell the romance well enough to do the film justice. The film’s downtime between heists focuses on the quiet nature of the lead and delves a bit into his background to give levity to the people Baby cares about in his own life.

Wright is chiefly invested in the music and sound editing of this film. Even when things turn sour and bullets begin to fly, the blast of bullets is set to the beat of the song at hand. Playfully edited to the beat, Wright’s precision here is music to the eye’s ears. The quick cuts and snappy cinematography that have permeated the director’s previous efforts are littered throughout this film. This film is genre at it’s finest. Curiously inventive and turning expectation on its head, this film is about style, music, and some killer getaway sequences. It’s been the most fun I’ve had at the theater so far this summer and I cannot tell people enough: Go see this movie! If you want more originality, more new ideas and stories in film, then please support original films when they’re showing, lest we become entrenched with the same old thing until the end of time.

Final Score: Three red cars & four cups of coffee

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Heroes: Edgar Wright

Within this subsect of my (possibly everchanging) blog, I intend to put a spotlight on the people that make me want to pursue my dreams more so than anyone else in the movie-making business. For my first entry I chose a director that has been in the spotlight in the last year regarding his once future film “AntMan”. First off, I admired Wright’s work before this whole “AntMan” hubbub. “Shaun of the Dead” is easily my favorite zombie movie and “The World’s End” might be in my top ten favorite films. It’s that good, really it is. I adore his work so much because it reflects the reality of what I want to do, that its possible to succeed if you work very hard and pour your soul into it. Yes, sometimes a quip with a zombie, or an invading alien robot deserves a little bit of heart. Taking a step back to our pint sized superhero flick though, Wright clearly isn’t just making movies just to get a foot in the door with the larger world of newly accepted geekdom. He had a vision with that character and Marvel wanted to do it in a specific way, and I respect the man for stepping back when he knew he was no longer making his “AntMan” film.

Such is what happens when big money and properties come into play. But I also understand Marvel’s point of view as well, at this point they have a formula, one that they intend to keep cashing in on. As they should, but not all director’s fit into a formula. Wright leaving Marvel to pursue other creative opportunities keeps me in mind of the ever present battle of creative control in the studio versus the indie filmmaker. This is important. It comes down to how you want to define yourself as an artist when writing or directing your films, and somewhere along the line you have to decide how much control you’re willing to give up for a multitude of reasons. Better pay, being part of a larger integrated system, bigger toys, bigger sandbox etc. This isn’t to say I’m against studios or studio made films, but this argument does matter though when considering creative freedom.

At the very least I’m glad what we got out of all of that was a fairly good superhero flick to add to Marvel’s vault of success. Wright’s presence can be felt throughout the flick and who knows, maybe that’s why it felt more personal and (pun intended) smaller than its big blockbuster brother that preceded it this summer. In fact between the Avengers sequel and “Antman” I personally got more out of the latter than the former. Expectation may be the culprit to blame most here though. With “Antman”, I was just hoping for it to be fun and a bit self referential in its wildly apparent silliness, which I got in spades. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was entertaining enough, but ultimately didn’t reach the height of the first movie, and really, who could blame them? The first “Avengers” was a milestone in the genre.

I think I’d have to side with Wright if I had been in his position though, if only because I long to be the kind of involved director that writes his own material and is very much “down in the trenches” of film-making. Maybe it’s just because I’m young, have hardly any film-making experience, and haven’t grown into the culture as of yet, but I’d like to believe in the power and integrity of the indie filmmaker. Until then I’ll be heavily anticipating Edgar Wright’s next piece, because if his cornetto trilogy is any indication, Wright is the fine wine of indie genre film-making and he’s only going to get better!