The French Dispatch

Written by Taylor Baker

65/100

Yet another Covid belated release bows in theaters this awards season push, nearly two full years since it’s screenplay was available for purchase in France. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is now on multiplex screens around the country. With all the formal panache and tweeness Anderson is known and largely renowned for. The French Dispatch is a staggered vignette anthology film that mostly ties together by the end, not unlike The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The last Coen Brothers film which was released on Netflix in 2018 to mixed reactions from audiences. For Anderson fans The French Dispatch will feel like a familiar experience with plenty of stylings, witticisms, and casting choices that make you feel right at home.

For non-Anderson fans though, the throughline of a narrative expressly about Ennui the word and place may seem more than a bit much. Each part is composed of different elements that are all tonally similar, but largely develop into delightful little offshoot excuses for Anderson to experiment with different subplot arcs. Ranging from kidnapping, shoot outs, high stakes chess, chase sequences, nudity, animation, prison, and “Art”. As one would expect from differing sequences with varied elements some stand out more than others, but each is formally presented with the rigor and exacting visual standards that accompany one’s mind when they ruminate on Wes Anderson.

The opening sequence recounts the founding of a publication in Ennui-sur-Blasé, France called the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun. Pitched as a chance for a young Arthur Howitzer Jr. later played by Bill Murray to get his feet wet in the family business and learn about the world. The subsequent sections are each far more rich and detailed than this opening until we reach the end of the film which acts as a book end to the beginning, this time comprised almost entirely of men and women we’d grown to know over the runtime. The three major segments of the film are:

1. The Concrete Masterpiece which is framed by J.K.L. Berensen played by Tilda Swinton as she recalls the story of an artist in a maximum security prison played by Benicio Del Toro, his muse and prison guard played by Lea Seydoux, Adrien Brody the incarcerated man who discovers and buys Del Toro’s Moses Rosenthaler’s art, as well as a host of other talented actors and actresses. This particular sequence is easily my favorite, and presents some choices that feel new or at least uncommon for Wes.

2. Revisions To A Manifesto written and presented to us by Frances McDormand’s Lucinda Krementz. Revisions To A Manifesto recalls the story of Krementz who lives alone by choice and is unknowingly setup on a dinner date by friends with Christoph Waltz. On her way to the bathroom after some tear gas causes a single tear to begin rolling down her cheek she encounters a young and impassioned Timothée Chalamet. He’d snuck home and into the bathroom to bathe after a hard day fighting the good fight of youthful idealism against the establishment. The segment is mostly conversational and coyly addresses politics, youthful idealism, disillusionment, and the deification of dead youth.

3. The Private Dining Room — of the Police Commissioner presented by Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck Wright with brief appearances by Liev Schreiber, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, and Mathieu Amalric, as well as others. Consists of a story in which Wright’s character Wright is invited for dinner with the police commissioner played by Amalric for a piece that he has been tasked by Murray’s Howitzer Jr. with for the paper. When the commissioner’s son is kidnapped during their meal it turns into a wry rescue mission story that capitalizes in a delightful if on the nose sequence where Wright digs the last page of the piece out of the trash and Howitzer Jr. tells him that’s the reason to the write the piece.

Anderson reteamed with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman who has worked on and off with him since his sophomore feature Rushmore. As well as editor Andrew Weisblum who has worked with Aronofsky since The Wrestler. It’s always hard to tell where Anderson’s choices begin and end and where a crafts persons work begins, but the collaboration between these three appeared effortless and seamed together with enough ease that no transitions felt jarring, which isn’t an easy task in anthology films. Though The French Exit lacks the enveloping romanticism I’ve found in my favorite Anderson films it’s an intriguing formal exercise from a master. Luckily the viewing experience wasn’t one of ennui, despite it being our destination.

The French Dispatch Trailer

The French Dispatch is currently playing in theatrical wide release.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Review: The Suicide Squad

Written by Alexander Reams

97/100

“We’re all gonna die”

Bloodsport

“I hope so”

Polka-Dot Man

“Oh for fucks sake”

Bloodsport

This interaction between Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) tells you all you need to know about James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. The film, and the marketing are seemingly reacting to the question “Is this a sequel or a reboot to Suicide Squad (2016)?”. The answer is simpler than you would think: yes. It is a continuation, as proved by the existing relationship between Flag, Harley, and Captain Boomerang. While also starting over, not ignoring Ayer’s film, but also paving a new path for this group of villains. The major difference in this film to Ayer’s is that everything here is turned up. The dark humor is borderline nihilistic, but never quite feels like a downer. The action is way more realistic, making you feel every grain of sand and every speck of dust that hits the screen. 

The plot is a simple one, something that James Gunn thrives in. The squad, led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Bloodsport (Idris Elba), are tasked with going to the fictional island of Corto Maltese and destroy an old Nazi research post known as “Jotunheim” (reference to Norse mythology, the planet Jotunheim was the home world of the frost giants). As you would expect the mission gets very out of hand and they get a lot more than they expected. The beauty of Gunn employing a simple plot is that he can go anywhere he wants with it (Finally Warner Brothers has seemingly decided to trust its filmmaker), and he does, quickly subverting any audience expectations within the first 10 minutes of the film. I won’t spoil what he does, because it is so exhilarating to see it without knowing anything.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021 

I was excited to see this from the first casting poster, and I’m happy to report that this film not only good but fun. Such has been an issue with the DCEU thus far. They can be good, but not enjoyable (Wonder Woman), or they can be bad, but there is fun to be had (Suicide Squad, more like Good Time, if youre drunk, but my point stands). Thankfully in 2021 we have gotten 2 high quality DCEU films, this, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. If you remember I sang the praises of that film. After years of mixed to meh films, we’ve had a banner year, that brings me hope for whats to come.

The squad ends up being Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Peacemaker (A wonderfully macabre John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, my favorite nihilistic performance since Edward Norton in Fight Club), Nanaue/ King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, with in my opinion his best performance since the first Rocky), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior, the heart of the flick). This ensemble plays off of each other deftly, and Gunn gives time for each of them to shine. As well as moments for everyone to play off each other. One of the best, and one of my personal favorite moments, is when Peacemaker and Bloodsport have a kill count competition, their facial reactions and body movements elevate the scene into one of the funniest in the film with only 2 lines of dialogue.

Gunn has managed to make a multi-genre film that exists within the current DCEU and make it work. He clearly has a lot of passion for this film and these characters. With all of that behind the camera, and the borderline legendary ensemble on screen, each manages to shine throughout and leave a lasting impression on myself long after the credits rolled. From one DC fan to another, thank you James Gunn.

The Suicide Squad Trailer

The Suicide Squad was screened at Fantasia 2021 Film Festival and is currently in wide theatrical release and streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

P.S.: Peacemaker has his own TV show on HBO Max, and after this, I can’t imagine what Gunn has cooked up for us, but I know I want to see it.

MCU Retrospective: The Incredible Hulk

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Now, onto the movie that everyone forgets is canon.

55/100

Thor: The Dark World might have the distinction of being the worst Marvel movie, depending on whom you ask, but The Incredible Hulk most certainly is the most forgettable entry into the MCU, with most fans regarding it as barely canon until William Hurt appeared in Captain America: Civil War, reprising his role as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

The first reason fans purposely forget The Incredible Hulk is that it is simply a forgettable movie. 

Audiences having just seen Ang Lee’s 2003 movie Hulk starring Eric Bana, director Louis Leterrier eschews an overlong origin story, instead starting in media res, which spares us a rehash of an oft-repeated story but also leaves us grasping for details about Banner’s first Hulk transformation shown over the opening credits (with some very 2000s graphics reminiscent of Elrond’s floating head in The Fellowship of the Ring). Why did Banner volunteer for this dangerous governmental experiment? How was he involved? What exactly happened that made him turn into the Hulk? We don’t know, but we are expected to care about this random man hiding in Brazil anyway. 

Banner has found work at a bottle factory, where he demonstrates his intellect but rebuffs any offer of promotion, determined to stay where he is. He seems to be doing okay: he has a dog, he practices martial arts and breathing techniques, his hot coworker makes googly eyes at him. He’s also looking for a cure for his little green friend, corresponding with an unknown “Mr. Blue” about bloodwork and cells, and looking forlornly at a picture of Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross. After an accident in the factory allows the US military to track Banner down, Thunderbolt Ross sends a team led by highly-decorated Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to take Banner into custody.

Obviously, this ends rather poorly.

So Banner wanders back to the US and reunites with Betty, and they clearly want to get together despite Betty now dating a guy named Leonard (Ty Burrell), and we finally get some backstory. Bruce and Betty worked together on a scientific experiment for the military, ostensibly to make humans immune to gamma radiation but in actuality—though they didn’t know it at the time—to create super-soldiers. The exposure to gamma radiation created the Hulk within Banner, who pokes his head out whenever Bruce’s heart rate rises above 200 beats per minute. (Marvel entirely abandoned this heart rate conceit by The Avengers.) However, the serum has since been refined, and General Ross gives some to Blonsky, which obviously will end well. We also learn that General Ross is Betty’s father, something that is treated like a huge reveal by the movie but falls flat because a) we were not shown any reason to care about their relationship before the reveal and b) it has practically no effect on the rest of the movie. 

So Betty and Bruce go to track down Mr. Blue, who turns out to be the professor Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who turns out to be just a plot device (there are hints at him becoming his comic book counterpart, The Leader, but these are dead ends) to get Blonsky to fully turn into his comic book counterpart, Abomination. There are some big CGI fights and then it’s over; while Hulk vs. Abomination in this movie and Iron Man vs. Iron Monger from Iron Man sound similar on paper, the former gives us little reason to care about their fight whereas the latter builds a solid relationship between Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane before it all falls apart, so we feel invested in that clash of metal suits. (Tony shows up for about two minutes at the end to broach the Avengers Initiative with General Ross and those are the most interesting two minutes of the entire movie.)

It’s not that The Incredible Hulk is bad, per se—there remains a base level of enjoyment to most Marvel films, and at least from me you probably won’t see a score dip below 50—it’s simply a bit forgettable, a fact compounded by the way Marvel has tried to sweep the film under the rug, which in turn is compounded by the fact that Universal and not Disney owns the rights to any solo Hulk movie. (Remember when Marvel sold off character rights when they almost went bankrupt? Here are the ramifications.) It’s all very thorny.

The second, more obvious reason The Incredible Hulk has been neglected is Mark Ruffalo.

Mark Ruffalo took over from Edward Norton in the role of Bruce Banner come 2012’s Avengers, and aside from a joke about how he “broke Harlem,” the events of The Incredible Hulk are ignored. The circumstances regarding the recasting are murky: Norton, who helped write the film with Zak Penn (though only Penn received credit), wanted to go down a darker, grittier path with Hulk for any sequels, à la Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, whereas Marvel was already starting to find their sweet spot as quippy, fun, and fast-paced action movies. Norton is also rather famously rumored to have a big ego, and Ike Perlmutter, Marvel Entertainment’s CEO, is rather famously stingy (as well as racist and sexist, but more on that in the later entries). The official statement from Marvel on Norton’s departure read, “Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble,” so infer from that what you will.

Looking back on Norton’s performance after five movies with Ruffalo (seven, if you count his cameos in Iron Man 3 and Captain Marvel), it’s hard not to be biased towards the latter. Ruffalo’s Banner is a bit more bumbling and awkward, a smart man who gets in over his head. Norton’s Banner is… sexy? Did they try to make him sexy in this movie? He takes his shirt off, fights people, (almost) has sex, suavely winks at Betty before getting injected with gamma radiation… It feels bizarre compared to the current Banner, who has mostly remained unsexualized. (That Age of Ultron “romance” didn’t happen.) Norton feels far too cool for the role, and furthermore fails to provide Banner with an inner life that goes beyond “sad” and “horny for Liv Tyler.” Ruffalo gives the character a certain innate lovability while portraying the inner torment with more nuance and subtlety than Norton managed.

In fact, where Iron Man soared on the strengths of its characters and performances, The Incredible Hulk falls flat. William Hurt and Tim Roth are barely given anything to do and remain hollow outlines of characters: General Ross is the stock stoic military leader determined to subdue the enemy at all costs, Blonsky is the stock ruthless soldier who wants to amass more power because… because. 

And then there’s Betty.

Betty Ross is hardly a character at all: she is a Strong Female Character because she is Smart, and therefore must be an Independent Woman. (Strong Female Characters don’t need to actually act as people, they just need to have “progressive” traits such as intelligence and spunk so the audience knows that you the screenwriter are Woke and think that women too can be Smart.) What did she think about the project she worked on with Bruce? How did she react when it turned south? Gee, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter because Liv Tyler looks hot and sad in the rain. Betty is smart, understanding, kind, supportive, alternatingly maternal or sexy when the script calls for it, and above all, flawless. She gets angry at a bad taxi driver and that’s about it, and that anger is all in service of Bruce. In short, Betty Ross is the “cool girl” monologue from Gone Girl, a far cry from our previous MCU heroine in Pepper Potts. (Not that Iron Man—or, indeed, the MCU as a whole—is a paragon of gender equality, but at least Pepper is a character with an actual personality.)

The Incredible Hulk is still fine enough, and is an interesting glimpse into the early Marvel days before they figured out their winning formula; this movie attempts to be darker than Iron Man, lacking the humor that has become trademark for Marvel and trying to do… a psychological drama? A character study about a big green guy that goes smash? Whatever it’s attempting to be, it fails, and becomes one indistinguishable mass, its characters utterly lacking in the heart and charm that defined Iron Man and would go on to give the MCU its staying power. But it’s not bad background noise.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Obviously, Tony Stark shows up in the last few minutes of the film to discuss putting together a team. This does not happen until 2012, so this scene is just another case of Marvel throwing out something that might stick for a payoff that won’t happen for several years. (In the next Marvel movie, Iron Man 2, Tony will tell Nick Fury that he doesn’t “want to join your super secret boy band.” I guess he changed his mind from The Incredible Hulk once the writers decided to hold off on a team-up for another few years.)
  • Thunderbolt Ross shows up in Civil War, then again in Avengers: Infinity War, now Secretary of State. Betty has yet to be mentioned.
  • Tim Roth will appear as Emil Blonsky in the upcoming Disney+ show She-Hulk, along with Mark Ruffalo’s iteration of Bruce Banner. Is Marvel starting to actually recognize this movie? Seems like.
  • The super soldier serum Ross and Blonsky mention is the one that made Steve Rogers ripped in Captain America: The First Avenger and is of much discussion in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. (If I were in charge of Marvel, I would have put a Hulk movie after the first Captain America movie so we could see the beginnings of the program first to better understand the ramifications, but I understand wanting to wait to have such a cheesy movie as The First Avenger until the MCU established itself a little more. Kevin Feige, if you read this, call me, I have ideas.)

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Bruce and Betty try to get it on (never mind her other boyfriend!) before his heart rate monitor goes off, warning him he will Hulk out if they progress any further (never mind the random hot woman he’s implied to have slept with in Brazil!). Kinda funny. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk Trailer

The Incredible Hulk is currently available to rent and purchase from most major digital storefronts.

Sources: Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

You see more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.