The French Dispatch

Bill Murray as the editor of the Dispatch

A middle finger to the haters, The French Dispatch finds an unrepentant Wes Anderson doubling down on the whimsy and pastiche of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There’s more. An artist’s statement, done early on in Owen Wilson’s laconic voiceover, vouchsafes that “All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.” Secrets? Deepest? Anderson is all surface, surely?

Anyhow, on to the Dispatch, which is an American magazine/supplement of New Yorker stripe run in the old way – a liberal institution headed by a steely eccentric (played by Bill Murray), never short of money and with enough space to contain at least one writer who doesn’t write, enough time on its hands to worry excessively about dangling participles and house style. People have expense accounts. The assignments are exotic. It’s fun. People are dying to work there. This is an indeterminate French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but is essentially mid-century Paris by way of Clochemerle, as depicted in Gabriel Chevallier’s sweetly satirical novel of sleepy, petty French France.

And from here, framing device established, Anderson gives us three separate stories, each fronted by a different writer. In the first Tilda Swinton gives us another of her big-teethed, big-haired eccentrics, relating the story of a jailbird (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes a great artist thanks to his muse, who’s also his jailer (Léa Seydoux), and a conman gallerist (Adrien Brody, best thing in the whole film). In the second Frances McDormand plays the writer of a piece about how she befriended and bedded a student radical (Timothée Chalamet) in an Andersonian version of 1968 Paris, before he ran off with a woman closer to his own age (Lyna Khoudri). And in the third Liev Schreiber plays a TV host talking a story out of a celebrated journalist (Jeffrey Wright) about how a chef of the molecular gastronomy school (Steve Park) – he’s called Nescaffier, which is the film’s only really good joke – thwarted a kidnapping.

The artist and his muse/jailer
The artist and his muse/jailer



It’s arch, all of it. At this point in Anderson’s career that kind of goes without saying. But the level of pastiche is what’s really remarkable, and the fact that Anderson never, ever stops laying it on. In one micro-scene that’s emblematic of the whole thing, he fast-cuts between various recipients of a radio broadcast, each one of them listening to it on a different mid-century transistor radio straight from kitsch corner. Inside each doll another doll, fractalling away in a pastiche universe stretching off to the limits of time.

Shot in that dead flat, absolutely shadowless way by Robert Yeoman, who’s been with Anderson ever since his debut, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, the effect is Carl Theodor Dreyer meets a mid-century-modern furniture catalogue, every single aspect considered, every item teased and tweezed. Everything just so.

As with the films of Peter Greenaway, there’s an obsession with symmetry and a tendency for the elaborate production design (by Adam Stockhausen) to become the star of the show. The frame outshines the painting it contains. The “movie” stops moving.

If there are “deepest secrets” then it’s Anderson’s abiding love of the mid 20th century. When the US venerated French culture, and Ernest Hemingway might be found drinking with Lee Miller in the Café de Flore. It’s the era of the triumph of democracy, of pop culture, New Journalism, continental philosophy and the European arthouse movie. Boomers might recognise themselves.

The cameos are fun – Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, some on screen for mere seconds.

To reach for another comparison, it’s Jacques Tati without the jokes and if, like me, you’re not a Tati fan, it’s a slog to watch. 45 minutes from the end I was wondering if the dry-humping of the picturesque past was ever going to stop. I was never entirely sure if it was meant to be an entertaining whole, or just a series of brilliantly executed “sketches”? Like a dinner of exquisite individual courses that never really hangs together as a whole, The French Dispatch is easier to admire than to enjoy.



The French Dispatch – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









No Sudden Move

Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro at a phone box

On the principle that second-rate Soderbergh is better than no Soderbergh at all, a warm hello to No Sudden Move, a pastiche 1950s crime drama with a Maguffin that insists it’s more than a Maguffin.

Don Cheadle, Kieran Culkin and Benicio Del Toro play three prickly guys hired to “babysit” a family (ie hold them hostage) while one of them takes Dad Matt (David Harbour) off to pick up something from a safe. That “something” becomes increasingly important as the story progresses, eventually bathing everything in a Chinatown-style glow as it becomes apparent that behind these no-marks is a vast scheme based on corporate corruption of a sort that makes day-to-day Mob activity look silly.

Talking of mobsters, early on we meet Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), the face who’s hired Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin), but behind him, so the whisper goes, might be Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) or possibly Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke), a pair of local mobsters, though there’s also talk of teams moving in from out of town, from Detroit, Chicago or Illinois, or possibly all three. This thing is big, which should make small-fry Curt and crew nervous but doesn’t, because all three of them are hoping for a quick in and out and also because they’re all a bit dim.

Anyhow, what looks like it’s going to be a straight-up family-hostage drama, reinforced by the fact that it’s excellent Amy Seimetz playing the concerned matriarch, becomes something far less straightforward once – big breath – a) it’s established husband/dad Matt has been having an affair with his secretary, b) they were planning on running off to California together, c) the “something” at the husband’s workplace isn’t in the safe, d) one of the gang unexpectedly dies, e) the police arrive, f) the surviving two set about playing one big gangster off against another, hoping to somehow wriggle through the gaps and come out of this morass as wealthier men.

There are more plot turns, a lot more, involving Matt’s shifty boss Mel Forbert (Hugh Maguire), four-square cop Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) and corporate big wheel Mike Lowen (Matt Damon). And as the actual nature of what was meant to have been stolen becomes clear, it’s as if, somewhere in the screenwriter afterlife, Raymond Chandler (the increasingly unfathomable plot) and Robert Towne (the LA-corruption angle) are duking it out for possession of the film’s soul.

Frankie Shaw and David Harbour
Matt gets no comfort from Paula



Here the screenwriter is Ed Solomon, best known for light-hearted larks really, having written Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels and the Bill and Ted movies, but he’s got his pastiche hat firmly screwed on in No Sudden Move, having clearly binge-watched a lot of movies featuring men in hats talking out of the side of their mouths. Some snappy one-liners occasionally move things towards a comedy precipice, especially as it becomes more obvious that our smalltime criminal heroes are incompetent and/or drunk most of the time.

The dead weight of pastiche extends to Steven Soderbergh, who alternates his usual sparkling shooting style with scenes done very dark, often in impressively big interiors full of wood and with ornate ceilings, plus the odd Edward Hopper-inspired exterior shot to emphasise America at its most American, while David Arnold’s score hums along with drums, bongos and double bass picking out a downbeat jazzy vibe.

The best pastiches (like, say, Michel Hazanavicius’s OSS movies starring Jean Dujardin) aren’t just technically accomplished, they re-orient our attitudes to the original material – they have a political agenda.

There’s no such thing going on here. Instead, Soderbergh gives us an accomplished and very cool exercise in style. If you’re in the mood to roll around in one of those, you’ll probably enjoy No Sudden Move more than I did. On top of that, for all the joys of seeing this first-rate cast and laying a small bet on how underused Ray Liotta is going to be (again), there’s a fatal indecision about how comedic things are actually meant to be. It’s like the Three Stooges without jokes.

As for the postscript insisting that the movie has been about a real-life conspiracy driven by a cartel of US car manufacturers, it’s as good as an admission by Soderbergh and Solomon that they’ve failed. Sumptuously.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021







The Usual Suspects

Pete Postlethwaite, Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 January

 

 

Pete Postlethwaite dies, 2011

On this day in 2011, aged 64, the actor Pete Postlethwaite died of pancreatic cancer. It had been diagnosed in March 2009. Postlethwaite had already survived cancer once, having been diagnosed of testicular cancer in 1990, which went into remission after he had a testicle removed. An actor simultaneously of great force and nuance, Postlethwaite’s relatively uncommon name marks his family down as having originated in Postlethwaite in Cumbria, England (the name means Postle’s Farm). His relatively uncommon looks – huge bony cheekbones, honest putty nose, angry skin – were matched by his trajectory into acting. He was a drama teacher before becoming a repertory actor at the Liverpool Everyman and only came to film roles relatively late. But once he got noticed – most notably in Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives – he was off. Soon he was playing small parts in the biggest films (Jurassic Park), big parts in smaller films (In the Name of the Father) and anchored British classics such as Brassed Off, or Hollywood experimenta, such as Romeo + Juliet. However he is probably most fiercely, cultishly remembered by lovers of The Usual Suspects, where he brought a touch of mystery to the role of Kobayashi, the right hand man of the even more mysterious Hungarian mobster Keyser Soze. That he managed to stand out in an ensemble of scenery chewers/scene stealers such as Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey probably says all that needs to be said about Postlethwaite’s ability to do the “presence” thing.

 

 

 

The Usual Suspects (1995, dir: Bryan Singer)

The Usual Suspects is one of those generational movies, like Heathers, or Apocalypse Now or The Social Network, that are seized first by people of a certain age, but whose greatness takes a while for others to appreciate. Roger Ebert didn’t like it much when he first saw it. He didn’t like the fact that the film was withholding information, and when it did finally show its hand, he didn’t much like what he saw. Fair enough. But so much of The Usual Suspects is not about what is revealed but in the way it is revealed. And by whom – five villains, five different stories about a hijacking in New York, all of them plausible, kind of. If the acting calls for actors with downbeat faces, or careers, or both, the template is straight from one of those old 1940s film noirs – The Big Sleep, perhaps – which deliberately weave and re-weave a plot until it becomes a mess of tangles. Drop into this the character of Keyser Soze, a man of mystery, a Turkish drugs baron so insanely committed to his trade as a gangster that when his children are kidnapped by rival mobsters, he kills them himself on the way through to get to the bad guys. Then he kills them, their wives, their children and still he isn’t satisfied. Or that, at least, is the story that’s told about him. Soze operates off screen, and the very fact that no two people can even pronounce his name the same suggests he might exist only as a legend, possibly. Is Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), Soze’s attorney, really Soze himself? Might be. But then so could any of the “suspects”. But then so could Chazz Palminteri too, playing one of those hat-brim world-weary detective that the 1940s noirs loved so much. The film was the second collaboration of director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Valkyrie) and writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher), two men who understand smart, funny and violent, and the way each can be enhanced by the other. Sure, there’s more than a wave to Quentin Tarantino in there, in the way that The Usual Suspects mixes violence and comedy. It’s in the big “ahaa” reveal, when all is kind of explained, that it becomes clear what a smart movie The Usual Suspects is too.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Singer and McQuarrie’s best work
  • Great ensemble playing by a bunch of actors chosen because they, like the characters they are playing, are on the skids
  • Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, Drive)
  • To answer the “who is Keyser Soze?” question

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Usual Suspects – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Way of the Gun

Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro in The Way of the Gun

 

 

Having written The Usual Suspects, Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial debut was always going to generate a lot of interest. It also, when it finally did arrive five years later, generated a lot of disappointment, not least for McQuarrie, who wouldn’t direct another film until Jack Reacher in 2012. Which, looking back from more than a decade later, seems a bit unfair. In Usual Suspects fashion The Way of the Gun delivers blood and twists with a noirish inflection, and takes a pair of good-looking, tooled-up desperadoes (Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillipe), dresses them up in Tarantino attitude and pitches them into a plot constructed like a maze. Thing starts fairly easy, as the two young guns botch the kidnapping of a young woman (Juliette Lewis), who is the surrogate mother of a milionaire’s foetus. Or is she? And is Mr Big (Scott Wilson) the real father anyway? And why exactly is Mr Big’s henchman (James Caan) taking such a personal interest in getting the young woman back? Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt add to the proliferation of characters, not all of whom have much to do except die, playing a pair of bodyguards also on the sniff. James Caan, as is so often the case, gets the best of the dialogue as McQuarrie whips a blood feud, blood money and blood ties into what he probably thinks is a soufflé in the shape of The Maltese Falcon. Does it stay up? It does not. But at exactly the point where the whole thing starts collapsing McQuarrie chucks in one of those big showdowns in Mexico and we’re treated to scenes of bloodletting that are almost medievally imaginative. You need satnav to find your way through The Way of the Gun but you can’t deny it has zing.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Way of the Gun – at Amazon