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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. Berensen’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 hand-crafted 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 Catch-Up: Hail, Caesar!

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to postwar Hollywood in the early 1950’s when big budget epics, westerns, and musicals ruled the cinematic land. Josh Brolin leads this stunning cast of Coen Bros frequent collaborators and newcomers alike as Eddie Mannix, the head of “Physical Production” of Capitol Pictures. As the fixer of the studio’s many issues Mannix corrals wayward stars, abates the rumor mill of gossip columnists, and generally solves any and all problems that occur- sometimes with charm, other times with a bit of muscle when need be. Between all of this, Mannix is caught between an offer for the easy life at Lockheed Martin and whether or not he should stay and wrangle the many personalities and problems of Capitol Pictures.

The main driving force of the film is the abduction of infamous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of “Hail, Caesar!” a religious epic in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben-Hur”. Once informed of the actor’s disappearance Mannix goes on the hunt for the lost star, but gets bogged down in internal studio affairs. Once contacted by the kidnappers, self-titled The Future, Mannix collects ransom money from the petty cash allotted by the studio and follows their orders until he can find the solution. Meanwhile other directors and crews must handle the consequences of Mannix’s decisions, like taking cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and putting him into the high-society drama “Merrily we dance” directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). What follows is easily the funniest scene of the film and a direct criticism of studios making huge moves like replacing stars just for favors to keep from worse studio secrets spilling out into the public. Hobie Doyle may be a world renowned movie star in westerns where he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, but Laurence Lorenz is a stand in for the extremely precise thespian director that desires very specific line delivery. Pairing these two together, with Doyle’s thick southern accent and Lorenz soft speaking mannerisms that quickly boil over into confused agitation- was a genius comedic choice in my opinion.

In the midst of both the ‘Red Scare’ and the beginnings of the Cold War the real Hollywood of the early 1950’s was transitioning to meet the needs of this new era of paranoia and television. The Coen Brothers satirize this period with precise detail and pitch perfect comedic timing. The large studios still very much worked on the star system of the past and watching Capitol Pictures in the film work to garner attention by investing in as many westerns, musicals of synchronized swimming, and epics of religious nature is equally funny and fascinating. With the abundance of well known stars cast in the film, from Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip columnists!) the film has a lot going for it simply on performances alone. The recreation of the early 1950’s pastel color palettes and huge set-pieces within the massive expanse of “studio city” is commendable in its own right as well! Roger Deakins again showcases his masterful use of lighting and camera movement as the frequent Coen cinematographer, and it’s easy to see why they collaborate as often as they have. The pairing between the three as writers, directors, and cinematographer is a cinematic dream team!

“Hail, Caesar!” was a lightweight affair when compared to other offerings from the Coens and everyone involved seems to have had a great deal of fun satirizing their industry’s golden age. As is often true with most Coen bros films, it may not be for everyone, but it is crafted by skilled people who are truly invested in the art form. Joel and Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins, give a damn about the movies they choose to make, and this riff on the industry’s earlier era is full of winks, nods, and references to that time and the films that came out of the studio-orchestrated chaos. It is a pastiche of the gilded age of cinema crafted with great panache, and I definitely recommend giving it a watch!

Final Score: 10 Communist Writers and 1 Dolph Lundgren (seriously keep an eye out for him, easy to miss!)

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Review: Isle of Dogs

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion animated film set in Megasaki City, a fictional Japanese city in the not so distant future, where a virus known as ‘Dog Flu‘ has devastated the pet populace and threatens to transfer to humans soon. In the face of this threat Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares an emergency order, exile all dogs to trash island. He begins with the public exile of his young nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) dog/bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber). Six months later the decrepit isle is populated by every dog from Megasaki City and we focus on five particular pooches looking for food amongst the scraps, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban). After a quick scrap over the available morsels with another gang of roving dogs they spot an incoming small plane that’s about to crash land. After they drag Atari from the wreckage and dub him, the little pilot, they figure out that he’s looking for his lost dog, Spots.

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This little film was a joy to watch. I already have a proclivity towards stop-motion animation, so the film had already piqued my interest- but I really did enjoy the story of “Isle of Dogs” as well. At the heart of the film the story is about friendship and doing the right thing, but there were darker shades of conspiracy and a more realized threat for all of the four-legged companions than I was expecting. I won’t get into spoiler territory, but the film was more clever than I had expected and that was a nice surprise. The stellar voice cast cannot be ignored either as each dog had a major name behind their voice and their stylized performances, written for each celebrity, fit their larger than life personas which only added depth to their characterization. There’s also the visual treat of the film as a whole, the blocking and movement was tight and tactile while maintaining Anderson’s well worn Symmetry (with a capital S!) in all frames. This film might fall more on the niche side of his works than say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” but it won me over and I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection once the physical copy is released.

 

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Now, to discuss the elephant in the room; the fact that Wes Anderson made a creative choice to have all human characters speak in their native tongues and deciding against subtitles. There are also translations through interpreters at events or machines that perform the same function. The untranslated Japanese speakers didn’t bother me in this film’s context, it felt more like a quirky choice that was an example of the difficulties with translation as a whole as used in the dogs versus humans, but yes this was clearly made for an English speaking audience. Personally, I’m of the mind that ‘cultural appropriation’ and those who like to throw the term about wildly, aren’t nearly as bad or mean-spirited as people might immediately assume. Obviously context matters here, ‘blackface‘ for example was not okay and we all understand that. However, today’s outrage culture seems poised to sniff out any little tidbit of possible offense and use it to lambaste those who might simply be fascinated by other cultures and their traditions. Just so long as the Japanese voice actors’ speech wasn’t derogatory or insensitive to the culture, which after doing some mild research- it seems to be a fairly innocent tactic, the filmmaker seemed invested in playing with a motif of Japanese culture while also attempting to do so respectfully.

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I just don’t understand the effort that goes into being that upset consistently. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds about this here as this is just a review for “Isle of Dogs”, but its relevant to the film. Injustice is important to seek and stamp out in society if possible, but if you’re so narrowly focused that you’re actively protesting a Wes Anderson film- well, there are more productive ways you could be helping society as it relates to injustice. As an example, I don’t get that incensed when I see a white person wearing dreads, however, I am upset by government agencies destroying the environment and further ruining the last patches of land and water left to our Native American peoples. Anyway, that’s the end of my miniature lecture.

Final Score: 5 guide dogs and 1 determined boy

*Below are two articles that further discuss the translations, and lack thereof in “Isle of Dogs”, and I encourage you to give them a read if you’re invested in the topic.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-isle-of-dogs-gets-right-about-japan

https://slate.com/culture/2018/04/what-its-like-to-watchisle-of-dogsas-a-japanese-speaker.html

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Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a black comedy wrapped in a seething drama set against the backdrop of small town Americana. Seven months after the death of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards on the outskirts of town lambasting the local chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any real progress in solving the brutal murder. The small town life is portrayed effectively here as its filled with an odd cast of characters that all know each other, which also means that they have to live with each other and that comes with its own set of juggling eccentricities and tolerating ideals. This is a foul mouthed film about grief and sadness, when anger can be useful or harmful, and how assumptions about a person can be misguided, incorrect, or just plain insulting.

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Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes is a fantastically multifaceted character. She’s justifiably angered by the police station’s failing efforts in solving the case of her daughter’s horrific murder. She’s justice incarnate when she decides to go on the warpath against certain individuals. Though as the film progresses she’s shown to be vulnerable, at times physically, but emotionally as well. In a couple moments when the anger has quelled and her fists uncurled, she’s even portrayed as a quirky but caring mother. Woody Harrelson’s police chief Bill Willoughby may seem like a caricature at the outset of the film, but Harrelson goes a long way to imbue the small town chief as a man of many layers. He may seem brash and eccentric, but once the film digs a little deeper into who chief Willoughby actually is we find a far humbler and complex individual lying underneath those immediate projections. Peter Dinklage’s character also poignantly reflects the idea that assumptions, at face value, can be wildly misinformed and he checks Mildred on her own biases later in the film which only continues her path towards a softening of her reactive and violent grief.

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While reading reviews and articles on the film after viewing it, I came across the supposed controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon, a neanderthal of a police officer with a penchant for racial biases and poorly thought out reactions. If you watch this film and believe it to be racist in nature because of this character’s arc, then you haven’t been paying attention. Dixon is repeatedly beaten, mocked by his peers and others, and is never given redemption for his generally awful behavior and actions. In the second half of the film this character is given an acknowledgement from Chief Willoughby that sets him on the path towards becoming a better person, but Dixon isn’t forgiven, he’s simply given a chance to do the right thing, this does not mean that he’s the ‘hero‘ of the story though if that’s what you’re thinking.

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I was particularly impressed with how well the film balanced it’s dark material with comedy through the consistently realistic tone and each character’s reaction to tragedy. This wouldn’t have been possible if the humanity of these characters hadn’t been depicted as efficiently as they were. Just as we each harbor the light and darkness within ourselves, these characters are fallible and just, righteous but selfish, reactionary and meditative all the same. This film showcased a genuine humanity that is seldom seen on the silver screen, and its that much better for it.

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The whole point of the story is that while anger has its place, it can only accomplish so much. Mildred’s cathartic anger from the grief she’s still experiencing after her daughter’s death may have launched the story and gotten the police to reopen the case, but it cannot heal you or cure your grief. Chief Willoughby plants the unexpected seeds of love in the characters that need it most and it is through his actions and acknowledgements that they slowly begin to realize that love and empathy might just be a better outcome than directing our anger at the problems in our lives. The film begins by showing Mildred’s righteous anger as completely justified, and even a bit intoxicating, therefore putting us on her side, but later in the film when Dixon lashes out in anger from his own grief we witness the ugly side of that same dichotomy. This is kind of brilliant because it makes us question what we previously rooted for. After Dixon’s outburst the film puts an emphasis on loosening the grip that anger can clasp so firmly in people’s hearts. Chief Willoughby even acknowledges that the most irredeemable characters can be salvaged if given the right motivation and opportunities through love. This is a powerful message to have in a film at this time. The film isn’t arguing that righteous anger cannot be useful or that it isn’t justified, but that progress cannot be made if you never let go of your anger. Understanding and empathy are the ways forward.

Final Score: Three Billboards, Four Molotov Cocktails 

*The independent article on the “controversy” surrounding Sam Rockwell’s character is linked below and I suggest giving it a read if you’re still unsure of the film. However, there are spoilers within, read at your own caution:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/three-buildings-outside-ebbing-missouri-racism-row-twitter-martin-mcdonagh-oscars-frances-mcdormand-a8178861.html