Review – The French Dispatch

I’m finishing my London Film Festival coverage with a film that everyone can finally see this very weekend, which is really exciting news. It’s fun seeing films early and feeling special, but films this great deserved to be shared and The French Dispatch is one such great film. As everything about its aesthetic should tell you, The French Dispatch is the newest film from Wes Anderson, the beloved mind behind Fantastic Mr Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, among other wonderful and charming films. His newest outing is an anthology tale, consisting of tales from the final edition of The French Dispatch, a France-based journal that is part of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.

We’re gifted with three tales, although there’s five or six parts if you really want to be picky about it. There’s an introduction to the city in which The French Dispatch is based (deliciously called Ennui-sur-Blasé), a city which has slowly found itself gentrified and liberated from its grimy history. The three stories find plenty of grime to roll in though. First is the story of an incarcerated painter, whose work inspires a fellow inmate. Second is the tale of student protests and the romantic connections that spring up in the heat of revolution. Finally, we find the tale of a chef who aids the police chief he works for in searching for a missing child. All of these tales, themselves presented in the wider fabric of the film, are told by their (fictional) authors, though for Anderson fans this shouldn’t feel unfamiliar. Similar to how the core of The Grand Budapest Hotel was hidden under a few layers of matryoshka dolls. French Dispatch is a series of dolls, with a handful of layers each. Though it sometimes means you may struggle to fully invest in more than a few characters, it creates what I can only describe as a picnic feel. You get to sample a whole host of different ideas from Anderson, all interesting in their own ways, and all of course beautifully presented.

It’s a bloody good cast doing bloody good work.

Being an anthology, there’s a lot of actors needed to bring the stories to life and holy hell, what a cast. It says a lot about how stacked your cast list is when actors like Saoirse Ronan, Christoph Waltz and Edward Norton don’t even get main billing (find them and many others hidden in that little list near the bottom of the poster). This all means I’m going to have to do that thing I do quite a lot and say that all the cast are brilliant. You know that they’re brilliant though, so many of these actors are ones you already love from other films and they’re great here too. I’d struggle to say that many are giving career best performances, but that’s far more an indication of their quality of roles than their weakness here. It’s a bloody good cast doing bloody good work.

Poster for The French Dispatch (2021)

But I should spotlight a few of them, and spotlight I will. Going loosely in order of appearance, my first fave is Tilda Swinton. I adore Swinton in everything she does and she’s a brilliant comedic presence when given Anderson’s dialogue. Here, as the journalist J. K. L. Berensen, she gets to exercise her best comedic muscles, by putting on a silly accent and acting pompous. It’s not ground breaking, but seeing her on screen again always made me smile. I also really enjoy Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student activist who is amusingly pretentious. He captures all the over-arrogance of young people involved in politics, playing a straight man to a silly world. I hope it encourages him to do more comedies, he works well in these worlds. Finally, I’m also a big fan of Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, the author of the third story. There’s a way that he manners his voice, which navigates between the deadpan and the comic, and which I remain totally entranced by. The way he speaks has been one of the things that has most stuck with me after viewing the film and I can’t explain why it works, only that it very much does.

Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson though, there’s a style that you’re here to watch and once again, it seems the man has bested himself. Any one single frame would let you know immediately who the man is steering this ship and likewise, any one of those frames would warrant hanging on a wall. His stunningly symmetrical shots are back, so is the twee score courtesy of returning collaborator Alexandre Desplat and many of your other favourite trademarks. But there’s also a sense of exploration. By now, even those of us who didn’t spend four years studying film know what a Wes Anderson film looks like, so it’s time to play with the formula a bit. We’ve got shots that move or spin in new ways, random animated sequences and some really stunning freeze frames that I fell in love with the first second they showed up and continued to love as they reoccurred. It is, quite simply, another Wes Anderson film. If you’re already on board with his aesthetic and acoustic tastes, you’re going to be very happy indeed.

These are the stories of a world that has already passed. I found myself genuinely quite sad at the end of every story, each signalling a goodbye of its own to someone or something.

When we discuss Wes Anderson though, it often comes down to these discussions of his style to such an extent that a lot of reviewers (and I’ve been guilty of this too) forget to talk about the emotional response. Anderson’s films connect and are beloved because we fall in love with their characters, be it M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel or our titular fox and his family in Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s probably this area though where The French Dispatch is at its weakest. As I said earlier, the anthology nature of the film means we don’t spend much time with any character, and therefore can only ever make minimal connections with them. Fortunately, it’s not a totally cold film, as you end up (and bear with me on this) feeling this melancholy love for the French Dispatch itself. It’s a magazine that is ending, and a type of magazine that hasn’t much time left in our world. Inherently then, these are the stories of a world that has already passed. I found myself genuinely quite sad at the end of every story, each signalling a goodbye of its own to someone or something. Again, it’s very hard to put into words, because it just works. That lingering emotional impact allows itself to be tainted with hope (with the final line being “what next?”) but it’s melancholy nonetheless. A damn fine melancholy it is though that Anderson has crafted.

Like I said then, it’s another Wes Anderson film. If you like his other stuff, it would be very strange if you didn’t like this. It’s beautiful, it’s held up by a cast all giving 100% and its emotional aftertaste has lingered on me like a cigarette kiss. I thought it was wonderful and on Friday, it’s yours to enjoy too. Treasure it and all its whimsy. (But probably also go see Dune, which I haven’t seen yet but will also presumably highly recommend.)

Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli in The French Dispatch (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review – Last Night in Soho

I love Edgar Wright. Like most other film fans my age, watching his films while growing up really changed the way I thought about the medium as well as simply inspiring me. In particular, Hot Fuzz remains one of my favourite films, a film that aside from being hilarious and action-packed and fast paced, was also a film that showed me what films can do. I was ten at the time, so I mainly mean it showed me how violent films can be, but it was still a formative moment. All of this preamble is important because it’s me saying upfront that I love Edgar Wright’s filmmaking style and explains why, despite being willing to follow him anywhere, the news that his next fiction film would be a straight horror film worried me somewhat. That new film is Last Night in Soho and as you may expect, my worrying was misplaced.

The setup of Last Night is fab. A young woman named Eloise moves to London from the countryside in order to attend a fashion design university. She, like countless students before her, finds that the sheen of London rubs off quite quickly and she soon becomes disenfranchised with a city that is nothing like she expected. Searching for escapism, she finds just that in visions of London from the sixties. In these visions Eloise is an aspiring dancer named Sandie, navigating the exciting world of London during its seedy heyday. While attempting to work out if these visions are glimpses into the past or dreamlike hallucinations though, things suddenly get worse and that’s all I’m going to tell you. Edgar Wright left a note to be read at the press screening (of all the films, the only time a director did that, thank you for the effort Edgar) in which he asked reviewers not to divulge many of the plot details and out of respect for Wright, I’m doing exactly that. The second half gets twisty and scary and very fun, but that’s for you to discover, not for me to spoil.

I’m a real fan of the cast here, it’s one of those cast lists in which not a single performer gives a weak performance. In the lead role of Eloise is Thomasin McKenzie, who has been great since Leave No Trace and continues filling out a filmography that is already very impressive. Having seen her in a few things, she wouldn’t be an obvious choice as the lead in a horror film, but she works really well and that’s why I’m not a casting director. The much showier role of the two leads is Sandie, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Again, she’s a young actress who seems to have barely put a foot wrong (and even whatever weird dance The New Mutants was barely feels like her fault) and she absolutely tears into her role. She has to embody the spirit of glamour, a glamour so complete that it feels almost artificial, which as a beautiful woman is the feeling Taylor-Joy casts on much of the internet regularly. Fortunately, she’s not just a pretty face and really gets to have some fun with the places that Sandie goes to. Even in the quieter moments, just the way she moves and stares towards people and places feels inherently cinematic. She seems born to be a movie star and this is yet another perfect fit for her.

Poster for Last Night in Soho (2021)

Surrounding these two women are plenty of well-established and well loved British actors, chewing scenery or adding intrigue where appropriate. I’m going to sound incredibly vague when talking about the roles these actors play, because I don’t want to spoil the ways they all feed into the wider plot, so apologies if the descriptions don’t sound particularly in depth. Matt Smith is a handsome man in a suit, who Sandie encounters in the sixties. I’ve loved him since Doctor Who and it feels like he hasn’t had a worthwhile role since. Until now, that is, so thank you Edgar. Veteran British actor Terrence Stamp meanwhile is over in the present day, playing a mysterious white haired man who seems to have been quite the charmer back in his day. Most of his time is spent looming suspiciously, so when he does get dialogue Stamp makes it count. Finally, in her final performance, is Diana Rigg as Eloise’s landlord. There initially doesn’t seem to be a great deal to her role, but keep watching and she may just surprise you. She is hiding something and it’s a secret well worth discovering.

Wright is still working very clearly in genre filmmaking, specifically horror. It’s not the kind of horror that’s going to ruin your night with a lack of sleep, rather the special kind of cheesy horror.

I mentioned it already earlier, but this is tonally quite different to Wright’s previous fiction films (I’m being specific and pedantic because obviously The Sparks Brothers is different). Characters still make jokes and I found myself laughing a lot, but the filmmaking itself isn’t used for comedy. In earlier Wright films, editing would be used to cut to things at the perfect moment or to contrast two different things, making comedy happen even when no one was being funny. While that is gone, Wright is still working very clearly in genre filmmaking, specifically horror. It’s not the kind of horror that’s going to ruin your night with a lack of sleep, rather the same special kind of cheesy horror that Malignant was (side note, if you haven’t seen Malignant, very much get on that). The word I kept coming back to was fun, in that even when I was getting spooked or when I was nervous or any other stage of scared, I would find myself grinning. It is a great film to spend time inside, especially with a packed audience. I am going to make sure I see it plenty while it’s in cinemas, because it’s a film that deserves to be soundtracked by screams and giggles.

Wright is taking the opportunity while trying something new to also play around with the visual side.

Last Night is also a film soundtracked by actual songs though, which is classic Wright. Like his good buddy Quentin Tarantino, Wright has an immaculate ear for picking either little known songs to put into his films or finding the perfect moment for a more well known song. That streak continues untouched here, be it the titular song, Sandie’s rendition of “Downtown” or any number of songs I didn’t recognise but loved the use of. It’s also Wright’s best looking film yet, evoking the period setting with what looks like ease. In particular, Eloise’s room has a neon light outside which allows for multiple references to a very particular shot in Vertigo that I have gone on record about as being one of my favourite shots from any film ever. These beautiful visuals do feel hard worked for, like Wright is taking the opportunity while trying something new to also play around with the visual side and it’s an incredibly promising experiment. I’m not sure what he plans to make next, but if it continues this trajectory it will be jaw-droppingly stunning.

So surprise surprise, 22 year old film student loves Edgar Wright film. In fairness, Last Night is proving more divisive than most of Wright’s films, but it’s so completely up my street that it’s embarrassing. It’s a tale of fractured identity, messing around with time, all while being a very fun exercise in generic play. Quite simply, it’s a really grand time at the cinema and when it releases at the end of the month, it’ll be perfect for a late night Halloween watch. I’ll be right back there in the cinema with you, to enjoy the ride once again and soak in the fumes of yet another night in Soho.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie and Matt Smith as Jack in Last Night in Soho (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Review – The Souvenir Part II

It’s not often that independent movies get sequels. Honestly, it’s not often that independent movies need sequels. But then again, it’s not often that movies of any scale are The Souvenir. In 2019, The Souvenir was a film that really bowled me off my feet, telling the story of a young film student named Julie and her relationship with an enigmatic yet charming man named Anthony, whose sudden disappearance at the end of the film leaves a profound mark on her life. The film can certainly stand alone but with this dramatic moment occurring in the final few scenes of The Souvenir, it is clear that there’s much still to process. In order to process that then, here is The Souvenir Part II, distinctly named so as to make it clear that this is the second half of The Souvenir and not an unnecessary expansion.

Now that most of the people who didn’t see The Souvenir are gone, it’s time to stop playing coy and talk about the end of the first film a little. Julie is still shaken by Anthony’s death and spends much of the first half of Part II talking to people Anthony knew and asking them for answers. However, Julie is also still trying to get on with her life, including graduating film school. The second half of the film then is still concerned with Anthony in some aspects, as Julie creates a final piece that borrows liberally from her relationship with her now deceased partner. This is where the brilliantly meta elements of the film really start to get folded in, as The Souvenir was originally based on a relationship that writer/director Joanna Hogg had when she was a young woman, that she (Joanna) made into a film called The Souvenir, a film which features Julie making a film out of her relationship, called The Souvenir. Confused? Don’t worry about it, there’s not too much to grasp, it all makes sense on screen even if I can’t lay it down coherently.

I believe in [Julie] completely, in every scene.

Once again, Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie and plays her delightfully. Julie is the kind of character I should hate. She is intensely privileged, is quite unaware of the world around her and is generally a character whose gentle nature allows herself to be moved around by the machinations of the world. And yet, in Byrne’s hands that gentleness is Julie’s strength. She never feels annoying because of her wealthy lifestyle or naivety because she feels real. I believe in her completely, in every scene. The supporting cast are also terrific. Some are returning actors, like Tilda Swinton and Ariane Labed, the former in a smaller role but the latter soaring in an expanded role. My favourite returning actor though is Richard Ayoade. He essentially had a cameo in the last film, but he gets a good handful of scenes this time around and wrings all of them for both comedy and genuine pathos. It’s his best role since Paddington 2, I don’t mean that to sound like a joke. New cast members are also good, but I just remain so transfixed by Julie that it’s hard to talk about other characters in a fair way.

Poster for The Souvenir Part II (2021)

As with the first part, Part II remains a film about memory, something extra tangible due to its place as a sequel. If you have seen the first film already, I seriously recommend not re-watching it before seeing the sequel, because that maleability to your memory of the previous events is exactly what Part II works so well because of. Sets feel familiar yet uncomfortably empty, gazes are held into vacant spaces, conversations are had seeking answers to questions we may never have raised. Complicating the films relationship with memory is the new lens Hogg has also added; the camera lens. As the beautiful poster above puts it visually, Julie is the filter through which we view the film and through which she creates her own film. We’re getting into pretentious, twisty turny territory now, I appreciate, but it’s exactly this kind of thematic weaving that I love. It also means that just like the first installment, it’s an incredible feeling when scenes or shots resurface in my mind. Much as the experience of watching the film is brilliant, it lends itself very well to musing over and you know me, I love a good muse.

Hogg is totally capable of play within an emotional field, slowness is just her field of choice.

These aspects are all delivered to us through a film whose tone is once again totally dreamy. It’s quite a slow film, occasionally interspersed with some lovely little musical moments, but otherwise it is a long series of scenes where characters talk or sit quietly. I can’t emphasise this enough though, if you’re on board with the characters then you want to spend time with them, to luxuriate in their world. This softness also means that any breaks in the pattern feel genuinely shocking. There’s a scene where an item of crockery is broken and the gasp heard in the screening room was almost hilariously loud. Again, it is testament to how well the film works that it can make you legitimately jump because of the emotional connection you built with a pot. In the final act though, there is a scene which ditches this and goes for a feeling that is comparable to the finale of Twin Peaks season two. To say more would ruin it but suffice to say, Hogg is totally capable of play within an emotional field, slowness is just her field of choice.

In a way, these reviews from London Film Festival are all going to end up being really boring. Guess what, I loved The Souvenir Part II! Filtering the memories of the memories through the camera and into my soul, Joanna Hogg delivers a knockout film that even in a time when I’m inundated with brilliant films is proving to stick. Don’t watch it if you haven’t seen the first, but if you haven’t seen the first then there’s still plenty of time to watch it and let linger. I think Part II is getting a UK release in January and until I can see it again, I’m very excited to let Joanna’s film about Julie’s film percolate a while and create a delicious crema in my brain.

Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie in The Souvenir Part II (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review – Red Rocket

Red Rocket is the newest film from director, writer and editor (among other things) Sean Baker, after his delightful The Florida Project back in 2017. While both films are set in the trash underbelly of America though, Red Rocket is very different in tone due to ditching a loveable main character in favour of one of the worst people I have ever seen depicted in a film. This character is Mikey, a former porn star who returns to Texas to live with his ex-wife (herself also a former porn star) due to his career in Los Angeles imploding. This return is both unannounced and unwelcome, but he returns regardless into the town he once called home.

Once settled onto his mother-in-law’s sofa, it is fair to say that Mikey isn’t exactly being a model citizen. After a brilliant montage in which he spends his numerous job interviews explaining the seventeen year hole on his CV (“Google me”, he encourages his potential employers, with a twinkle in his eye), Mikey falls back into his old job dealing weed and sets about befriending any of the locals who are vulnerable enough to believe his lies. These all lead Mikey to the Donut Hole, a donut shop where Mikey meets a girl named Strawberry, who turns 18 in three weeks. In her, he sees potential. He sees a dream. He sees his possible re-entry into the very industry that sent him sprawling back to Texas. And so, he is willing to do whatever terrible thing it takes to make his return happen, careening through Baker’s brilliant script without a single compassionate gesture or thought for others. The only question is, when will the crash happen?

Red Rocket is a hangout movie starring the worst person you’ve ever met.

The script is one that largely isn’t plot motivated, which the lack of details in my description hopefully clued you in to. For a large amount of the runtime, Red Rocket feels like a hangout movie starring the worst person you’ve ever met. Fortunately, thanks to Baker’s script, it’s an incredibly funny hangout. Whether in the awkwardness of Mikey attempting to weave another lie or an extended monologue about Mikey’s resemblance to Paul Walker in The Fast and The Furious (which I obviously cackled at very loudly), Red Rocket is predominantly a comedy and a really funny one at that. The comedic elements become essential as the film moves forward, as Mikey commits worse and worse acts. I spent most of the third act in an agonisingly anxious state, which was thankfully remedied somewhat by the humour. Never remedied enough to make the audience forget what Mikey was doing, but enough to keep us on-board long enough to get to a terrific needle drop moment in the finale.

As with Sean Baker’s other films, the cast in here is largely filled with non-professional actors, although lead actor Simon Rex is a notable exception. You see, what you may not know is that in the real world, Rex is (or was) an actual porn star, an actor “gifted” in ways that your typical Hollywood star is not expected to be. Whether Rex used his experience of this industry to help fuel the dirtbag character of Mikey is unclear, but what is clear is that he is a totally magnetic presence on screen. I always find it difficult to work out with actors I’m not familiar with if they’re great at embodying their character or they simply aren’t working with any expectations on my part, but I know Rex is great because even as his character was doing worse and worse things to the people around him, I couldn’t stop watching. He brilliantly embodies the kind of person you would never want to meet but can’t help gawking at on screen. I hope he has cause to make space in his awards cabinet this awards season, adding some prestigious awards next to his no doubt beloved AVN trophies.

Red Rocket (2021) Poster

While a large amount of the watchability of Red Rocket can certainly be attributed to Rex’s swinging performance, I’m also a huge fan of the cinematography of the film. Baker has turned to new collaborator Drew Daniels for this aspect of the film, whose previous work on the sumptuous Waves has clearly helped pave the way here. While the beautiful (and I do mean genuinely beautiful) look at the trashy side of America is carried over from The Florida Project, in which characters are cast in long shots against boldly coloured and brilliantly unremarkable buildings, it’s a new sense of kineticism here I love, which was something Daniels did so well with Waves. In this case specifically, I’m talking about zooms. I know that sounds like such a specific thing to bring up, but it adds so much personality to Red Rocket. Zooms are used as punchline, as crunching realisation, as visual metaphor for the perpetual motion machine that is Mikey. They are like raisins in the cookie of the film, scattered throughout and a soft treat among the crunch.

Baker also has more treats up his sleeve for the audience, those sleeves being in the outfit of the job of editor. It’s always great to see a director who can genuinely consider themselves as auteur from spinning so many plates on a project and it’s even greater when said plate spinning works brilliantly. Editing style is typically broken down between inter- and intra-scene editing, both of which Baker excels at. The intra-scene editing is slow, the film consisting of longer than average takes, but Baker knows when to hold on a moment and when to make it fleeting enough that the next shot feels like an exciting leap forward. Likewise, the inter-scene editing is brilliant, reminding me of a slightly flashier version of the editing style in Greta Gerwig’s films. Baker will often use editing to blend the same action across two different temporal planes, showing inhalation on a cigarette in one location before cutting to show exhalation on a different cigarette on a different place. This creates a disorienting effect that works perfectly for the film, scrambling your sense of time and place. We don’t know where or when we are, only that we are riding wildly on Mikey’s coattails. Of all the brilliant things to single out in this film, I think the editing may be the most brilliant.

[Mikey] is a scumbag, through and through, but a compelling scumbag for sure. I loved following him.

I think a lot of people will hate Red Rocket. Not much happens for a large part of the film and a lot of the things that do happen are Mikey committing criminal offences of various levels of seriousness. I, however, do not care if a protagonist is likable or not, I care for the ride and what a ride Sean Baker has given us. Setting the film in 2016 gives us more than enough clues of the kind of world we’re entering into, through a shockingly effective evocation of the period (2016 period piece is a concept that makes me feel prematurely 50 though) and by the end we need no more clues as to who it is we’re spending time with. Mikey is a scumbag, through and through, but a compelling scumbag for sure. I loved following him, though I didn’t feel sorry to say bye bye bye when, after a long time coming, Mikey’s time finally came.

Simon Rex as Mikey in Red Rocket (2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.