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What’s inside Wes Anderson’s latest curio ‘The French Dispatch’?

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

As this newsletter was being compiled, news broke about the tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in an incident involving a prop gun fired by actor and producer Alec Baldwin while in production in New Mexico on a film titled “Rust.”

Hutchins was a rising cinematographer with a growing career ahead of her.

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“She was one of those sort of DPs who was super rugged and would crawl into any space or explore the weirdest places to stand with a camera,” said Adam Egypt Mortimer, director of “Archenemy,” a film shot by Hutchins. “She did not care what time it was or how little money we had. She was always like, ‘How can we make this moment look incredible?’ We were making this sort of sci-fi superhero movie, but all of our references were things like ‘Hiroshima mon Amour’ and Wong Kar-wai movies.”

That this accident happened less than a week after a major strike involving the issue of crew safety was narrowly averted only underscores that no moment in a movie is worth someone dying over. Dedicating your life to something shouldn’t actually mean dying because of it.

This week also saw the long-awaited release of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune,” making for two movies starring Timothée Chalamet in one week. (Also note “The French Dispatch,” below.) “Dune” is both in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, and I for one will be resisting the siren call of pushing a few buttons to watch it at home until I can see it very big and loud in a theater. The material has already been the basis for David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation and the 2013 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”

For The Times, Justin Chang called the film “magisterially brooding,” while adding, “With any luck, there will be more to see and much more to think about in ‘Dune: Part Two,’ the completion of which will depend to some degree on this first movie’s fortunes. Will ‘Dune’ conjure enough coin — the spice of the Hollywood realm — to see itself through to completion? I suspect it might, in part because I doubt Villeneuve, a filmmaker more dependable than he is interesting, has it in him to add to ‘Dune’s’ string of memorably catastrophic failures. Dust has long been his truest cinematic habitat, and to dust may he return.”

Written and directed by Alex Camilleri and produced by Ramin Bahrani, “Luzzu” is a story of Maltese fisherman that is only the nation’s second submission for the Academy Awards. For The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “Sun-drenched ‘Luzzu’ is an unaffected triumph with a simmering power, the type of deceivingly familiar film that helps us sail into a place and a lifestyle most of us ignore but that are made vividly compelling in the hand of a new storyteller with classically honed sensibilities.”

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‘The French Dispatch’

Directed and co-written by Wes Anderson, “The French Dispatch” is an anthology of stories designed to mimic the structure of the magazine it is about, the fictional (but “New Yorker”-inspired) France-based supplement to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, an enterprise overseen by editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). The rest of the cast includes Benicio Del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Elisabeth Moss, Tilda Swinton and many more. The film is playing now in limited release.

For Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “The pans are lateral, the tilts are vertical, the compositions themselves crammed and cramped with visual information, requiring so much labor in order to discern every detail that it’s possible the eyes and brain might just reject the task at hand. … It’s hard to be critical of a film and filmmaker that seem to have pure intentions, seeking to craft a charming love letter to the golden era of (generously funded) print media. But the tics and habits that make up Anderson’s often imitated, never duplicated aesthetic have reached the point of actively working against him in ‘The French Dispatch.’ If he is trying to say something (and it’s unclear what that might be), all of the fuss and muss obfuscates any message, and even worse, any emotional connection to the film. This latest dispatch is indeed a profound disappointment.”

I spoke to composer Alexandre Desplat, music supervisor Randall Poster and musician Jarvis Cocker — who recorded a supplementary album as “Tip-Top,” a pop star in the world of the movie — about creating the musical backdrop to Anderson’s storytelling.

“He’s got good taste in music,” said Cocker. “So I was kind of flattered they asked me to do a version of [‘Aline’], because he could have just got a French person to do it, which would have probably been the more obvious thing to do. I think that’s often the way, not only with music choices, but Wes is very particular in what he puts in his films, the way that he meticulously puts together a scene. He doesn’t always put the most obvious things.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “A certain amount of the delight you find in ‘The French Dispatch’ may derive from your appreciation of the cultural moments and artifacts it evokes. Anderson expresses a fan’s zeal and a collector’s greed for both canonical works and weird odds and ends, a love for old modernisms that is undogmatic and unsentimental. Which is not to say unfeeling. … Howitzer and the various misfits who turn up in [the fictional town of] Ennui represent an ideal of down-to-earth American cosmopolitanism, an approach to writing, culture and the world that is at once democratic and sophisticated, animated by curiosity and leavened with irony. The movie is a love letter to that spirit, and also a ghost story.”

For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “To the extent these three stories and the interstitial material that frames them share a thematic throughline, it has to do with the characters’ shared love for the power of the written word and the joy of collaborative creation. To use a literary term from the culture that the movie venerates, ‘The French Dispatch’ is an example of mise en abyme, a self-reflexive work of art that contains its own reproduction in miniature. Just like the endlessly fussed-over magazine of the title, this endlessly fussed-over movie showcases a deliberately comic disproportion between effort expended and results achieved. … ‘The French Dispatch’ is a movie made with such deliberate, patient skill, and such brio, that its meandering structure and oddly low emotional temperature come off as intentional choices rather than errors of artistic judgement. Even if it’s not my favorite flavor of Wes Anderson licorice, nothing is there by accident.”

Actors sit on couches in an old-fashioned office with windows onto a hallway.
Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in “The French Dispatch.”
(Searchlight Pictures)

‘Becoming Cousteau’

Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic” featured a Jacques-Yves Cousteau-esque character played by Bill Murray, so it is a funny happenstance that this week also sees the release of Liz Garbus’ documentary “Becoming Cousteau.” The film looks at Cousteau’s work as an undersea-adventure filmmaker — his 1956 film “The Silent World,” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for documentary — as well as his later turn toward environmentalism and the toll his work took on his personal life. The film is playing now in general release.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “Working with Cousteau’s own films and video, his public appearances, photographs, audio interviews and a treasure trove of little-seen pre-fame footage as a young man falling in love with diving, Garbus and editor Pax Wassermann stitch together a briskly paced overview of an illustrious life in all its achievement and complexity, both below and above the water. What emerges — as implied in the title — is an intriguing portrait of personal curiosity made professional, but also how maintaining that curiosity challenges and transforms the individual. … ‘Becoming Cousteau’ may not be as deep a journey as some would hope, but for having to chart a lot of years, it hits its points about passion, fame and activism smartly, even movingly. You’re left marveling at how a guy who began diving to nurse his way back from injury could reach his end realizing the Earth needs that same ardor for its own healing.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “‘Becoming Cousteau,’ Liz Garbus’ new National Geographic documentary, succeeds in restoring some of Cousteau’s luster, and also his relevance. It’s a swift-moving, detailed biography, recounting a life that was long, eventful and stippled with tragedy and regret. … But Garbus (whose recent documentaries include ‘Love, Marilyn’ and ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’) is after more than poignant nostalgia or a lost sense of wonder. The story of Cousteau as she tells it — aided by narration culled from interviews with Cousteau’s colleagues and children, as well as audio from the man himself — is about the awakening of his conscience, about how his fascination with Earth’s oceans turned into a crusade to save them.”

For IndieWire, Kristen Lopez wrote, “The undersea adventure of Cousteau’s life is only half the story, and who the man was as a person is equally fascinating. As he says in one interview, he is filled with flaws and many of them came in the form of being a husband and father. … ‘Becoming Cousteau’ is a dazzling dive into the depths of an undersea world. And while the story of Cousteau’s life is matter-of-factly handled, and with an eye toward optimism, he remains a towering figure worthy of deep consideration. Now when can we watch [Cousteau’s] ‘Voyage to the Edge of the World?’”

Jacques Cousteau
In an image from “Becoming Cousteau,” Jacques-Yves Cousteau communicates by radio with a crew member exploring the ocean depths in July 1969.
(The Cousteau Society)

‘The Harder They Fall’

Directed by Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin, “The Harder They Fall” is a western explicitly designed to reclaim the genre for Black talent and audiences. In the film, which features characters drawn from history but not beholden to actual events, Nat (Jonathan Majors) wants to gun down the outlaw (Idris Elba) who killed his parents. “Harder,” with a cast that also includes Regina King, Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield, is in theaters now and begins streaming Nov. 3 on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “What that HBO series [‘Lovecraft Country’] did for Jim Crow-era horror/science fiction is more or less adjacent to what ‘The Harder They Fall’ means to do for the 19th century western: to pick up the long, rich and frequently obscured threads of Black history and restore them, by imaginative means if necessary, to a genre from which they have been summarily removed. Vengeance may drive this movie’s narrative engine, but Samuel is after another kind of cinematic restitution. … These aesthetic pleasures supply considerable moment-to-moment excitement. I wish they were enough to make ‘The Harder They Fall’ a movie as good as its intentions deserve, to carry it over its patchy stretches and lapses in momentum. … And with so many real-life figures jostling for attention, the departures from the historical record, rather than liberating the movie’s imagination, wind up feeling oddly arbitrary. Surely the truth (or something close to it) of who these men and women were must have been more fascinating, and more worth mythologizing, than what transpires in this strained mashup.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “The work of Quentin Tarantino is perhaps an inspiration here, particularly his enthusiasm for ornate talk and violence that is somehow both blunt and cartoonish. Samuel’s characters, even in their laconicism, love talking to one another, and the movie is shrewd and generous enough to give them room to do just that. But ‘The Harder They Fall’ adds a mournful note that feels distinctly separate from Tarantino’s clever monologuing … [it] has a sneaky weight to it, accumulating over the sprawling run time until it reaches a surprisingly poignant, if melodramatic, conclusion.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “If looking cool were enough to make a movie great, the gritty-stylish revenge Western ‘The Harder They Fall’ would be the best movie of the year. Everybody, and I mean everybody, looks cool in this thing: Jonathan Majors struts his stuff in a fawn-gold leather jacket as supple as silk. Idris Elba cuts a dashing figure even in workaday prison stripes. Regina King, her withering stare its own brand of don’t-mess-with me glamour, faces down a moving train decked out in an elegant military coat and cap — she’s so fiercely self-possessed you fear more for the poor locomotive than you do for her. Everybody has great hats; everybody, at one time or another, appears on horseback, and everyone looks at home there. If looks — and for that matter, intentions — were everything, ‘The Harder They Fall’ would be the ultimate.”

A woman and a man in western costume stand next to a horse.
Zazie Beetz as Mary Fields and Jonathan Majors as Nat Love in “The Harder They Fall.”
(David Lee / Netflix)


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