The French Dispatch (2021)

When I was a teenager, I thought of Wes Anderson as a singular genius who made esoteric art films for in-the-know sophisticates.  In my thirties, I now see him for what he actually is: a populist entertainer.  The fussed-over dollhouse dioramas that typify Anderson’s visual style often distract from the qualities that make his films so popular & rewatchable: they’re funny.  Laughing my way through his new high-style anthology comedy The French Dispatch felt like a rediscovery of the heart & humor that always shine in Anderson’s work but are often forgotten in retrospect as we discuss the consistency of his visual quirks.  People often complain about how visually lazy mainstream comedies are, and here’s a film packed with Hollywood Celebrities where every scene is overloaded with gorgeous visuals and hilarious jokes.  You can access it at practically any strip mall multiplex, right alongside the superhero & animated-animal sequels that otherwise crowd the marquee.  No one else is making films exactly like Anderson’s, but everyone stands a chance of being entertained by them.

Judging by the wraparound segments of The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson appears to be self-aware of his usefulness in presenting Art Film aesthetics to wide audiences.  The titular literary magazine is written by high-brow artsy types in the fictional town of Ennui, France, but is published as a newspaper insert in the farmlands of Kansas.  The film is structured like a magazine layout, with light humorous moodsetters, standalone articles of in-depth culture writing, and a heartfelt obituary to cap it all off.  The deceased is the magazine’s editor, whose death makes the entire film feel like a love letter to the lost art of editing at large, in the age of ad-driven clickbait production.  Mostly, though, it’s all just a platform for rapidfire joke deliveries from talented celebrities dressed up in gorgeous costumes & sets.  The anthology structure makes it play like a warmer, more frantic version of Roy Andersson’s sketch comedies, except the presence of household names like Frances McDormand & Benicio Del Toro means that more than a couple dozen people will actually watch it.  And they’ll laugh.  The French Dispatch may be more-of-the-same from Wes Anderson, but it really helped clarify how much I value him as a comedic filmmaker – even if he’d likely rather be referred to as a “humorist”.

Scrolling through this ensemble comedy’s massive cast list, it’s easy to distinguish which new additions to the Wes Anderson family feel at home among the returning players (i.e., Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin stand-in) vs. which ones were invited to the party merely because they’re celebrities (i.e., Liev Schreiber as the talk show host who interviews Wright).  It’s much more difficult to single out which performer is the film’s MVP.  Tilda Swinton is the funniest; Henry Winkler is the most surprising; Benicio del Toro is the most emotionally affecting.  It’s likely, though, that the film’s true MVP is newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a scrawny political idealist who incites a vague yet violent student’s revolution on the streets of Ennuii with no clear political goal beyond the fun of youthful rebellion.  It’s not that Chalamet is any stronger of a presence than this fellow castmates, but his Teen Beat heartthrob status outside the film is highly likely to draw some fresh blood into Anderson’s aging, increasingly jaded audience.  The general reaction to The French Dispatch indicates that adult audiences who’ve been watching Wes Anderson since the 1990s are tiring of his schtick. Meanwhile, teenage girls hoping to get a peek at their favorite shirtless twink are perfect candidates for newfound, lifelong Anderson devotion.  He worked best on me when I was that age, anyway.

The French Dispatch is dense & delightful enough that I’m already excited to watch it again, which is exactly how I felt when I first watched titles like Rushmore & The Life Aquatic in my teens.  It might be my favorite of his film since The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least it feels like a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s been playing with since then.  There’s a high likelihood that I walked out of Moonrise Kingdom & The Grand Budapest Hotel with this same renewed enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve merely forgotten that immediate elation in the few years since.  Regardless, I don’t know that I’ve ever so clearly seen him as one of America’s great comedic filmmakers the way I do now.  His visual & verbal joke deliveries in this latest dispatch are incredibly sharp & consistently funny.  Many scenes start as fussed-over dollhouse dioramas shot from a cold, clinical distance.  Those neatly segmented spaces tend to fill with oddly endearing goofballs, though, and you can tell he’s having the most fun when he’s feeding them punchlines.

-Brandon Ledet

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

My relationship with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is very similar to an ill-considered, last-call hookup at a dimly lit dive bar. I’ve always caught a grotesquely macho vibe from the advertising for Marin McDonagh pictures that has made me avoid each one no matter how lauded, as I was immediately turned off at first sight. The barrage of negative think pieces picking at McDonagh’s latest film’s mishandling of American race relations made it even more of an unappetizing prospect, something that somewhat validated my initial instinct to avoid it. There’s a kind of desperate, ticking clock effect to Oscar Season, though, an arbitrary deadline that often pressures me into taking chances on movies I’d typically avoid. With the last couple Best Picture nominees I hadn’t yet seen looking like they’d immediately put me to sleep (apologies to diehard fans of Darkest Hour & The Post), the incendiary divisiveness of Three Billboards stated to look a lot more attractive as an Oscars catch-up prospect. Of course, as most desperate last-call hookups go, the experience was exactly the total disaster I expected & should have known better to avoid.

Frances McDormand stars as a grieving mother who lashes out at her local Missouri police force for not thoroughly investigating the rape & murder of her teenage daughter. Much to the frustration of her son (Lucas Hedges), her not-so-secret admirer (Peter Dinklage), the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson), and everyone else in their small, everybody-knows-everybody community, her vengeful rage is largely misplaced & unproductive. The most dangerous sparring partner she finds in her crusade to shame the local police into action (through inflammatory messages advertised on the titular billboards) is a racist, idiot cop with a reputation for “torturing black folks.” Most of Three Billboards’s cultural backlash has focused on this dangerous small-town cop archetype (performed competently enough by so-much-better-than-this Sam Rockwell), whom many critics believe to have been afforded more empathy than deserved, given his violently racist past. Much like with Andrea Arnold’s awkward portrait of American poverty in American Honey, this redemptive arc for an undeserving racist cop is just one symptom of a larger problem the movie suffers: a British outsider estimating an ill-informed view of American race relations. A long-respected playwright, McDonagh attacks this narrative with a tunnel-vision approach that values dialogue & character work over cultural context. To an American audience, it’s absolutely baffling to set a 2010s narrative about a violent, dysfunctional police force near Ferguson, Missouri without directly dealing with lethal, systemic racism in modern American law enforcement. “Black folks” are mentioned by name periodically throughout, but are largely nowhere to be seen, only checking in occasionally to encourage McDormand’s grieving mother with lines like “You go, girl. You go fuck those cops up.” McDonagh gets so caught up in telling a neo-Western revenge story about the meaningless, self-perpetuating nature of violence (a lesson we’ve had explained to us onscreen countless times before) that he doesn’t notice how many thematic cans of worms he’s opening & leaving unattended in the process. The empathetic portrait of the film’s most flagrantly racist cop is just one small part of that cultural-outsider obliviousness.

To be honest, I had soured on Three Billboards’s tone long before its American race politics naivete could fully sink in. Being willfully unfamiliar with McDonagh’s past works, I can’t claim to know if this film is indicative of his usual style, but I found it to be overwritten & under-directed in a consistently frustrating way. It felt like watching libertarian blowhard Bill Maher attempt to bring his Politically Incorrect brand of social commentary to the world of live theatre. When I say I’ve always caught a whiff of grotesque machismo from the look of McDonagh’s works, I should probably specify that it’s a pseudo-intellectual machismo – the kind of darkly comedic, overwritten tone that would appeal to Philosophy-major college freshmen who waste countless hours on Reddit & worship at the altar of The Boondock Saints. Indeed, even while featuring a “strong female” lead, Three Billboards feels like a grotesquely macho echo of the worst aspects of the highly-stylized, post-Tarantino dialogue that poisoned indie cinema for much of the 90s. I’m not fully convinced by the argument that Tarantino writes grimy genre throwbacks specifically to create an excuse to use racial epithets, but that exact criticism nagged me throughout Three Billboards. The performative, in-your-face way the film discusses fat people, “retards,” “midgets,” “wife-beaters,” a few more hateful terms I’d rather not repeat, pedophilic priests, rape, cancer, and suicide in a “transgressively” “humorous” tone was, to put it kindly, exhausting & juvenile. Women are lovingly addressed as “bitch” & “cunt” as pet names in a way that feels initially phony, then gratuitous in repetition. It got to the point where even the inciting incident of a teenage girl being “raped while dying” numbed me into not caring about the objectively horrific act’s revenge, since it was written in such a crassly flashy tone. Given Three Billboards’s Oscar nominations for Best Picture & Best Original Screenplay (among others), I suspect many audiences read this “non-PC” demeanor to be bravely truthful about “how things really are” in the American South. I personally found it to be empty, pseudo-intellectual macho posturing, like watching an #edgy stand-up comedian get off on “triggering snowflakes” in a two hour-long routine that supposedly has something revolutionary to say about life & humanity, but is covertly just a reinforcement of the status quo.

The worst movie experiences are always the comedies that fail to make you laugh. I haven’t felt as isolated in a laughing audience watching Three Billboards since I allowed myself to be culturally pressured into watching the similarly #edgy Deadpool. The only comedic bit that got a chuckle out of me was a brief scene where Frances McDormand talks to her house slippers, which feels like a nice glimpse into a much better screenplay. The discomfort of the film’s failed dark humor is only intensified by its demand to be taken (very) seriously. The suddenness of the brutality and the omnipresent somber country music feel like hallmarks of a dead serious drama, but there’s an awkward stage play sheen to the dialogue that doesn’t allow that tonal sobriety to sit right. References to Oscar Wilde and unprompted questions like “Do birds get cancer?” feel entirely foreign to a film that’s supposed to capture the Ugly Truth of the American South. McDormand gets by relatively unscathed in her central role, but the stage play quality of the dialogue forces most actors in the film into awful, flat performances we already know for a fact they’re better than (talented youngsters Lucas Hedges, Caleb Landry Jones, and Samara Weaving are especially embarrassing here). Sam Rockwell’s teetering between comedic buffoon & explosive threat is a microcosm of the film’s problems balancing #edgy dark humor with overwritten stage play drama, so it makes sense that his character would draw most of the film’s backlash. He’s just one detail indicative of larger, deep-seated issues, though, a mascot for the film’s many ills.

I’m going to tell you an open secret: we’re unpaid, non-professionals here at Swampflix, so we don’t often see moves we have zero interest in. There’s no one to assign them to us with a monetary reward attached, so there’s really no reason for us to seek out movies we know we aren’t going to like (which helps explain why the vast majority of our reviews are rated three stars or higher). Awards season attention & high critical praise (or at least extensive critical conversation) are among the few factors that can lead us outside our comfort zone, which often means our lowest-rated movies are among the most critically lauded titles of any given year. I’m admitting all this to reiterate that I had no business watching Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. The early advertising convinced me I would dislike it, the second-wave critical backlash confirmed that suspicion, and then I allowed its high profile within the Oscars Conversation to convince me to give it a shot anyway. I can’t honestly say it’s one of the worst films of 2017, because I had the non-professional’s freedom to avoid moves I likely would have found to be worse. I can only report that it was one of my least favorite screenings of a high-profile movie from last year and I owe that experience to last minute desperation, FOMO, and The Academy.

-Brandon Ledet

This Must Be the Place (2012)

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Like a lot of thrifty New Orleans music nerds, I recently stumbled across an opportunity to see goth legends The Cure perform for cheap at my alma mater’s lake shore campus. It was a wonderful experience that unfortunately inspired me to embark on a disappointing one immediately after. I’ve been curious about the Sean Penn indie dramedy This Must Be the Place since it was first released four years ago and the option of it conveniently streaming on Netflix combined with my post-bargain bin Cure show glow to finally push me into pulling the trigger. The gun backfired. On paper, a movie starring an aging Sean Penn as a Robert Smith stand-in on a quest to murder his father’s concentration camp Nazi tormentor sounds fascinating, if not mind-blowingly incredible. Throw in some cameos from the always-welcome David Byrne & Harry Dean Stanton (with only the former portraying himself, unfortunately) and you have a must-see proposition. Like a lot of The Cure lyrics will explain to you, though, the reality is a much gloomier, more depressing experience than that romantic ideal. This Must Be the Place is one of those thorough letdowns that teases you with all the puzzle pieces required to make a great film, but leaves them messily scattered across the kitchen table, never bothering to carefully slap them together.

It’s possible the most important missing or ill-fitting piece in this particular production is Sean Penn’s lead performance. Although Penn is dressed in Robert Smith’s hairspray, make-up, and legacy, he plays the part with the quietly obnoxious energy he brought to the ill-advised mental handicap melodrama I am Sam. Every weird, lispy, half deaf sound Penn makes in this film is a singularly bizarre choice that just doesn’t pay off. The most enjoyable moment in his performance is the opening credits sequence of him wordlessly applying make-up in a mirror. It’s all downhill from there. The performance is even more baffling if you’re familiar with the real Robert Smith’s speaking voice. In interviews the aging goth rocker sounds like a perfectly normal British man, just as he always has. Penn instead sounds like David Sedaris made faint by a bout with pneumonia. He gives a delicately odd, grandmotherly performance that’s arrestingly bizarre, but never recommendable the same way, say a Nic Cage train wreck might’ve been. There’s no pleasure to be had in it, only confusion.

The real shame is that Penn’s distinct awfulness feels completely out of sync with what everyone else is doing on camera. As mentioned, Harry Dean Stanton & David Byrne are their usual wonderful selves in trumped up cameo roles that serve as desperately needed breaths of fresh air in a film that could use a little more charisma along the same lines. Byrne is especially welcome here, bringing some much-appreciated Lynchian energy into a scene where plays a bizarre musical instrument of his own invention an an entirely unearned, but pleasant moment when he sings the Talking Heads song the film borrows its title from. Frances McDormand is also wonderful as always, playing an entirely thankless role as Not Robert Smith’s divinely patient wife whom he doesn’t deserve. Only Penn stands out as a sore thumb annoyance here and a lot of the film’s faults lie squarely on his apparently incapable shoulders.

It’s really no wonder this film bombed so miserably at the box office, but I guess it’s not entirely Penn’s fault that it failed to find an audience. Much like its soft-spoken weirdo protagonist, This Must Be the Place is entirely unsure of itself. It floats between so many tones & genres that it’s difficult to pin down exactly why it feels so off other than it has no idea what it’s doing or what it wants to be from minute to minute. This is a first draft work in need of a severe revision, either swinging hard to the character-based indie dramedy or the Nazi-hunter revenge thriller directions it flirts with or, hell, swinging to both. It instead hovers like a Ouija board reader hesitating to decide on a path. There’s some really interesting imagery on display, finding surreal details in unlikely sources like an above ground swimming pool, a buffalo, and a naked old man roaming the desert. There’s also some interesting sources of internal conflict, like Penn’s retired musician’s guilty over two dedicated fans’ suicides or his quest to avenge the tormentor of a father who disowned him due to his gender androgyny.

These individual pieces, again, never amount to a cohesive whole. Even if they did, though, Penn’s choices in his lead performance might’ve been enough to sink the ship on their own. Everything feels half-cooked & out of place here, just as self-opposed as Penn’s Robert Smith image vs. his non-Robert Smith demeanor. I’d even argue that the parenthetical half of the title of its Talking Heads source material, “Naive Melody”, would’ve made for a better choice in moniker. Everything at play is just exactly off & ill-advised in that way, except maybe David Byrne. He can do no wrong.

-Brandon Ledet

Darkman (1990)

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I’ve never been much of a Sam Raimi fan. His Spider-Man films felt like the height of superhero cinema mediocrity to me in their heyday. The Evil Dead series was never really my thing, mostly because of the rapist tree & my contention that Bruce Campbell is a second-rate version of Jim Carrey’s worst tendencies. As far as I knew until recently, Raimi’s greatest contribution to the cultural zeitgeist was as a producer on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, with his directorial work not mattering much to me in any significant way. I appreciated the over-the-top cartoonishness of his aesthetic, but it never connected with me in the same way that the work of, say, Peter Jackson did. Darkman changed all that.

A comic book-inspired noir riding on the coattails of Tim Burton’s Batman, Darkman is a masterfully goofy work of genre cinema. Its comic book framing, over-the-top performances, and stray Ken Russell-esque freakouts were all perfection in terms of trashy entertainment value, pushing the lowest-common-denominator of trash media into the realm of high art. Darkman is not only the finest Sam Raimi film I’ve ever encountered, it’s also one of the most striking comic book movies ever made . . . which is saying a lot considering that it wasn’t even based off of a comic book. Given our current climate of endless adaptations, remakes, and reboots, it’s bizarre to think that Darkman was made from an original idea of Raimi’s & not from bringing a pre-existing character to the screen. The film’s two superfluous, direct-to-video sequels would fit in just fine with our current trend of endlessly returning to the well, but the original Darkman really went out on a limb with its central idea & it’s a risk that paid off nicely.

Tim Burton’s Batman (a film Raimi had actually once been considered for as a potential director) seems like the most obvious point of reference for Darkman‘s cultural context. Released just one year after Batman‘s release, Darkman was a similarly dark, gritty, noir-inspired comic book landscape that even brought longtime Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman in tow for its score. The original idea for Darkman had nothing to do with the Caped Crusader at all, however. It wasn’t even conceived as an homage to comic books. Raimi had first conceived Darkman in a short story meant to show reverence for Universal Studio’s horror classics of the 1930s. It’s very easy to see the mad scientist ravings of characters that would’ve been played by folks like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff in an earlier era (or both in the case of The Invisible Ray) in Darkman‘s DNA. The outfit the anti-hero uses to hide his face even more than closely resembles that of The Invisible Man. The combination of this monster movie pedigree & the newfound comic book seriousness of Burton’s Batman were a great start for Darkman as a launching pad. Add Sam Raimi’s particular brand of cartoonish camp to the mix & you have a perfect cocktail of violently goofy cinema.

Liam Neeson stars as Darkman‘s titular anti-hero, a brilliant scientist & kindhearted boyfriend working on the secret of creating new body parts for scratch with the world’s first 3-D printer (of organic material, no less). The doctor’s girlfriend, played by Frances McDormand, inadvertently gets him mixed up with some rough mobster types who burn down his lab with the poor man inside it & through some shaky-at-best comic book/monster movie shenanigans, he emerges alive, but forever altered. Horrifically scarred, unable to feel pain, and freakishly strong due to an increase in adrenaline, the doctor emerges as the masked vigilante Darkman & sets out to exact his revenge on the Dick Tracy-esque mobster villains who destroyed his life. His masks alternate from the Invisible Man get-up mentioned above to temporary organic faces contrived from his pre-mutation scientific research & his revenge tactics go beyond basic vigilantism into full-blown, cold-blooded murder. Instead of struggling with the inner conflict a lot of violent superheroes deal with regarding which side of the law & morality they stand on, Darkman truly enjoys exacting revenge on the goons who wronged him in the cruelest ways he can possibly devise.

It’s not just remarkable to me that Sam Raimi happened to direct a movie I enjoyed. What’s most surprising is the ways that Darkman couldn’t have been made by any other auteur. Raimi’s personal aesthetic is what makes the film work and although he could’ve easily allowed the formula to go off the rails (he really wanted Bruce Campbell in Neeson’s role, which would’ve been a disaster), it’s his own cinematic eye & sadistic sense of humor that makes it such an iconic accomplishment. With Batman, Burton had brought comic book movies out of the dark ages, proving that superhero media wasn’t just the goofy kids’ media of Adam West yesteryear. Raimi combined both those extremes, the gritty & the goofy, in Darkman in an entirely idiosyncratic way (as Burton also would in the similarly masterful Batman Returns). The film indulged in some Batman-esque brooding, especially in its noir lighting & in introspective lines like “The dark, what secrets does it hold?”, but those elements are all so over-the-top in their inherent ridiculousness that there’s never any sense that Raimi is doing anything but having fun.

Although Darkman isn’t technically a comic book adaptation it exudes comic book media in every frame. Darkman‘s onslaught of drastic Dutch angles, 1st person shooter POV, Oingo Boingo circus aesthetic, Alterted States-esque hallucinations, and wild tangents of practical effects gore all feel both like classic comic book imagery & classic Sam Raimi. I can’t speak too decisively on the entirety of Raimi’s catalog since there are more than a few titles I’ve intentionally skipped over, but I can say for sure that the director has at least one certified masterpiece of goofball cinema under his belt: Darkman. It’s a work that not only surprised me by becoming an instant personal favorite, but also by inspiring me to consider giving Raimi’s catalog a closer second look to see if he ever repeated the trick.

-Brandon Ledet