THE FRENCH DISPATCH film review

A quirky, stylistic motion picture in which the production design is the real star. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch delivers everything you expect from his authorship of cinema, but not much else; it’s a bountiful buffet of Andersonisms, in an anthology commenting on the dying print media industry; but while you’ll chuckle here and there, the stories themselves mostly fall flat. No doubt about it, that this film is overflowing with talent on and off screen; it’s not often that we get a single motion picture with such a prolific all-star cast. But even the whimsical production design and dry humor, that we automatically expect from an Anderson film, isn’t enough to compensate for the lackluster “short films” within the larger anthology cataloging the final printing of The French Dispatch magazine. No mistaking it, every visual element of the mise-en-scene is crafted with immense care! But the weakness in this film is the lack of ability for the vast majority of audiences (from cinephiles to those whom simply want to be entertained–and there’s nothing wrong with that, lest we forget) to connect with an of the individual characters, let alone the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s it: lack of relatability; that is the fly in the ointment.

A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th-century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in “The French Dispatch.”

If you were hoping for another Grand Budapest Hotel or Rushmore, then I’m afraid that you may be disappointed. That said, if you go in with a desire to appreciate a masterful visual storytelling methodology, then you will be impressed and even delighted. While I find the characters themselves lacking in their ability to connect with the audience, this motion picture delivers abundantly in a beautifully eclectic blend of cinematic and stage craft that draws audiences into a stylistic world as can only be dreamt by Wes Anderson.

Before I talk about what didn’t work for me in this film, I want to highlight what was brilliantly executed. And that’s the imaginative visual design as can only be conceived by Wes Anderson. Even the most scholarly Anderson aficionados will be surprised by the diversity in visual expression of the immersive world on screen. Not only do we get the hybrid film/stage craft in production design, but we even have moments that the story is being told though the medium of a graphic novel. What Anderson can do that few filmmakers can is create massive depth in the world on screen. Furthermore, there is this absolute beauty in the deceptively simple approach. There is more love in the production design in a single frame of this film (and his films in general) than in most films in their entirety. From the very first frame of the film, it is clear that you are about to watch a Wes Anderson film! Few directors have achieved the degree of cinematic authorship that he has. In my classroom, I talk about him with the likes of Hitchcock and Burton (80s-90s), two filmmakers who’s stylistic approach to cinematic storytelling was so incredibly well-defined that they transformed into brands themselves.

I am often picky when I observe grayscale imagery in a film. Why? Because, most of the time, the filmmaker simply desaturates the color image to give it that old school grayscale (commonly referred to as black and white) look and feel. Not having seen any behind the scenes featurettes, I cannot confirm this, but the segments of the film that are grayscale appear to have been lit for grayscale. This is HUGE. The way a filmmaker lights for grayscale is NOT the same as it is for color. That is why, when a filmmaker simply removes the color from the image, that there is something that doesn’t look quite right or authentic in the image. In true grayscale filmmaking, the shades of gray go from a dark charcoal to almost white–that is the rage of shades of gray. So I greatly appreciate these moments in the film because I could observe the care that Anderson put into the filming of these scenes.

The French Dispatch is a collection of short stories (films) that are the visual extension of their written counterparts. Not written as in the screenplay, but written as in they are they represent the last stories for the final issue of The French Dispatch. So what we have here is a self-reflexive motion picture about the dying print media industry. If you need a reference, think LIFE magazine. We are watching the final issue of a legacy travel magazine come together as the narrator guides us through every story in the issue. It’s very much a love letter to print media, which is increasingly becoming extinct. If you are a print journalist working for a legacy publication, then this story will likely resonate with you. For everyone else, it won’t likely pack the same comedic punch.

This film is overflowing with characters! But what’s ironic, is that with all those characters, there aren’t really any that will likely connect with the audience. There is this wall there, a sort of separation between these characters and the audience. And this separation is felt all through the stories that fall flat, albeit, you’ll chuckle here and there. There is a great disconnect between the characters & story and the audience. They’re all generally likable–which is a problem. Films are comprised of characters we love and love to hate. When you generally (again, not fervently) like all the characters, the stakes are never high. The journalists writing the stories and the characters therein are incredibly one-dimensional with little to no growth arc. Neither the audience nor the characters are taken on a journey. And the short story that is the most blase´ and perfunctory of all is the one featuring Timotee´ Chalamet as the one-dimensional, self-centered student socio-political activist that has been consistently highlighted in the advertising (newsflash: kids and teens are rarely more enlightened than adults; don’t live your life by what’s on Tik Tok or presently being sensationalized).

If you are in the mood for a quirky out-of-this-world diversion into a whimsical world, then this film may fit the bill. If you’re looking for a substantive story, you won’t find that here. Go into it with an eager attitude to appreciate the art of the cinematic image, and that is the best approach to enjoying Anderson’s newest feature. If your favorite Anderson feature has been Grand Budapest or Rushmore prior to watching The French Dispatch, then you may find yourself wanting to go back and rewatch those for a better story.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“Little Women” (2019) Review

Authentic. If I had to sum up the experience of watching Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, then that’s the one word I would choose. Thankfully, I am not limited to simply one word to describe this brilliant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s best-selling, timeless novel. Being out of town visiting family for a couple of weeks, I do not have the same amount of time to watch movies at home or at the theatre, as my family isn’t nearly the film fan as I am. However, when my mom wanted to go to the movies, and asked me if I wanted to see Star Wars (again), I countered her idea with suggesting Little Women. She was utterly delighted to see the movie, and I am so glad that my mom and I got to watch this movie together. Just now, my mom walked through the living room (as my head is buried in my laptop) and exclaimed “I just loved that movie, the story is so familiar yet so fresh.” Sounds like something I would write. To my mom’s point, I feel strongly that the reason she feels that was is because this is modern story of the complex emotions, societal expectations, and ambitions of women masquerading around as a period drama. It feels both “of its time” and “today.” While to the casual observer, this may seem like a story for women, young and older alike, it is a powerful story for anyone that has dreams but feels trapped by whatever societal or familial forces. Little Women is incredibly heartfelt and uplifts the human spirit. Just the gift of the season we needed. There is something for everyone in this movie that remains committed to its literary roots, yet plants itself in a modern garden to be appreciated by and inspire all those whom choose to watch it. Greta Gerwig’s masterful storytelling is evident from beginning to end, and all the performances are excellent. You will undoubtedly fall in love with this story all over again, or will fall in love for the first time.

Following the lives of four sisters, Amy (Florence Pugh), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Meg (Emma Watson), as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times.

While the 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn has long sense been seen as the gold standard, I will be so bold as to state that this may be regarded as the best adaptation of Alcott’s timeless novel. Ever since I saw Frances Ha, I’ve known that Gerwig is destined for cinematic greatness. Her trademark artistic expression and ability to disarm even the most hardhearted, is witnessed time and time again in this film. Furthermore, Gerwig possesses a unique gift that quickly establishes empathy from the audience and begins to develop a relationship between them and the central character(s) quickly and effectively. For those of you whom are familiar with Gerwig’s semi-autobiographcial debut of Frances Ha, you will undoubtedly pick up on hints of Frances in our central character of Jo March. Although Gerwig has demonstrated an uncanny ability to write and direct, the real power of this film comes form her knowing the novel from cover to cover; the only way to intertwine the original narrative with the journey of the author is to have known everything there was to know, and then some, about Little Women. Gerwig’s creative decision to meld the Jo’s struggles and joys of being our de facto Alcott with the original story allows the film to comfort audiences with the familiar while wowing them with a fresh, modern interpretation of the story.

I love the five primary archetypal characters we have in this film. Jo is the rebellious independent thinker but struggles with loneliness, Meg desires a more traditional life but has a strong will, Amy has a creative spirit but desires to be a kept woman, Beth is empathetic selfless and nurturing, and Laurie is a self-centered bachelor whom lacks direction and focus yet wants to love. These characters provide ample opportunity for the audience to connect with one or more of them. The relatively simple plot of the film paves the way for complex characters and prolific amounts of dramatic conflict. While the main plot is about Jo and her goal of publishing a novel, all the other character have their own respective goals that support the subplot and are the conduit through which the subtext flows. While the characters remark that domestic struggles and joys are not entertaining, the irony is that these are the very things that make for a strong film. Strength of character is witnessed in how a character responds to and is affected by conflict–we love to see the reactions. No two characters respond to the same stimulus in the same way, and they each speak with their own voice. Through these characters, we experience triumphs, struggles, love, and loss. No Mary Sues in this bunch, nothing comes easy for any of them; and they work diligently to achieve what they want, whether that is marriage or a career. Each and every goal is earned, the windup equals the payoff.

Before addressing the technical elements that worked flawlessly, I cannot ignore the one element that did not work for me, at least in the beginning. And even then, I merely got used to it as the film went on. The editing. There are times that I was taken out of the movie by the pacing and structure of the editing choices, but ultimately it did not greatly hinder my experience of watching this future classic. It took several scenes, before I realized that we had more then one concurrent timeline. As a matter of fact, I believe we had three (1) present day (2) seven years earlier and then (3) shortly before present day. I’ve read that there are only two timelines, but I truly feel that I was following three different ones. I wasn’t always sure where I was in the trifecta of timelines. Eventually, I realized that I could follow the color palette, hair styles, and costumes as my timeline token. If we were going to alternate between present day and the past, I would have preferred if Gerwig took a page out of the Fried Green Tomatoes handbook for two concurrent storylines.

Now that’s out of the way, I have to remark on how much I love the cinematography, costuming, and production design. The cinematography works in tandem with the tone of each scene; moreover, there are moments that the cinematography is snug and warm, and other times that it is distant and cold. The emotion of the scenes is communicated lowkey through the camera choices. Period dramas are known for great opportunity for costuming to shine, and this film is no exception. Much like one’s fashion choices, in real life, are often an expression of the soul, so are the costumes of the lead and supporting cast. The costumes are almost characters in and of themselves. We can read some into the personality of the characters by the choice in attire. Along those same lines, the production design is also an extension of these characters. The locations, sets, and set dressing communicate so much about where these characters are mentally and where they want to be. The various production design teams demonstrate a keen eye for even the smallest detail that communicates the right mood, texture, subtext, or atmosphere. Period dramas sometimes struggle with making the locations and settings feel like real places that the audience can smell, feel, and touch; but this isn’t true with this film.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is truly a wonderful Christmas gift this season. You will laugh and cry along with these endearing characters in this Civil War era world in which the story unfolds. Gerwig takes the timeless story and brings it into a modern world to entertain and inspire a whole new generation.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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