Review: ‘The French Dispatch,’ starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in “The French Dispatch” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The French Dispatch”

Directed by Wes Anderson

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, the comedy film “The French Dispatch” features predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After the American editor of The French Dispatch magazine dies, his staffers gather to put together the magazine’s final issues, with four stories coming to life in the movie.

Culture Audience: “The French Dispatch” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson and of arthouse movies that have well-known actors doing quirky comedy.

Lyna Khoudri, Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet in “The French Dispatch” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

At times, “The French Dispatch” seems like an overstuffed clown car where filmmaker Wes Anderson tried to fit in as many famous actors as possible in this movie. This star-studded cast elevates the material, which is good but not outstanding. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is an acquired taste that isn’t meant to be for all moviegoers. He fills his movies with retro-looking set designs, vibrant cinematography and snappy dialogue from eccentric characters. “The French Dispatch,” written and directed by Anderson, takes an anthology approach that doesn’t always work well, but the fascinating parts make up for the parts that are downright boring.

The movie revolves around a fictional magazine called The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (also known as The French Dispatch), which is a widely circulated American magazine based in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. The French Dispatch was founded in 1925. The movie opens in 1975, when the French Dispatch editor/owner Arthur Howitzer Jr. (played by Bill Murray), an American originally from Kansas, has died in the magazine’s offices. The employees have gathered to work on his obituary and reminisce about him and the magazine’s history.

Arthur appears in flashbacks throughout the movie. In one of the flashbacks, Arthur has told his top-ranking staffers that he has put a clause in his will which requires that The French Dispatch will stop publishing after he dies. The staffers are melancholy and a bit disturbed when they hear about this decision. Arthur is loved and respected by his employees, so they oblige his request. Therefore, they know that the French Dispatch issue that will have Arthur’s obituary will also be the magazine’s final issue.

The French Dispatch is a magazine that is known for its collection of stories. In “The French Dispatch” movie, four of these stories come to life and are told in anthology form, with each story told by someone from the magazine’s staff. Some scenes are in color, and other scenes in black and white. Anderson says in the movie’s production notes that The French Dispatch was inspired by his love for The New Yorker magazine. That’s all you need to know to predict if you think this movie will be delightful or pretentious.

The French Dispatch staffers are mostly Americans. They including copy editor Alumna (played by Elisabeth Moss), cartoonist Hermès Jones (played by Jason Schwartzman), an unnamed story editor (played by Fisher Stevens), an unnamed legal advisor (played by Griffin Dunne), an unnamed proofreader (Anjelica Bette Fellini) and an unnamed writer (played by Wally Wolodarsky). All of these aforementioned staffers don’t have in-depth personalities as much as they have the type of quirky reaction conversations and stagy facial expressions that people have come to expect from characters in a Wes Anderson movie. A running joke in “The French Dispatch” is how obsessive Alumna and proofreader are about things such as comma placement.

The staffers who get more screen time and more insight into their personalities are the four staffers who tell their stories. The first story is told in travelogue form by Herbsaint Sazerac (played by Owen Wilson), whose title is cycling reporter. Herbsaint travels by bicycle to various parts of the city. He has a penchant for going to the seedier neighborhoods to report what’s going on there and the history of how certain locations have changed over the years. During his travels, he visits three other French Dispatch writers who tell their stories. They are J.K.L. Berensen (played by Tilda Swinton), who is the magazine’s flamboyant art critic; Lucinda Krementz (played by Frances McDormand), a secretive essayist who likes to work alone; and Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright), a lonely and brilliant writer with a typographic memory.

J.K.L.’s story is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which is about the how a “criminally insane” painter named Moses Rosenthaler (played by Benicio del Toro as a middle-aged man and by Tony Revolori as a young man) is discovered and exploited while Moses is in prison for murder. One of the paintings that first gets attention for Moses is a nude portrait of a prison guard named Simone (played by Léa Seydoux), who is his muse and his lover. Moses has a makeshift art studio in prison for these intimate painting sessions, which he is able to do because Simone gives him a lot of leeway and protection from being punished.

An unscrupulous art dealer named Julian Cadazio (played by Adrien Brody), along with his equally corrupt and greedy uncles Nick (played by Bob Balaban) and Joe (played by Henry Winkler), find out about Moses’ talent and are eager to make huge profits off of Moses’ work. These art vultures figure that they can take advantage of Moses because he’s in prison. Julian, Nick and Joe get a tizzy over how much money they can make off of Moses, who is a mercurial and unpredictable artist. Imagine these art dealers’ panic when Moses decides he’s going to stop painting until he feels like painting again. There’s also a Kansas art collector named Upshur “Maw” Clampette (played by Lois Smith) who comes into the mix as a potential buyer.

“The Concrete Masterpiece” is the movie’s highlight because it adeptly weaves the absurd with harsh realism. Swinton is a hilarious standout in her scenes, because J.K.L. is quite the raconteur. She delivers her story as a speaking engagement in front of an auditorium filled with unnamed art people. It’s like a pompous lecture and bawdy stand-up comedy routine rolled into one. You almost wish that Anderson would make an entire movie about J.K.L. Berensen.

Lucinda’s story is “Revisions to a Manifesto,” which chronicles a youthful uprising in the French town of Ennui, when young people stage a labor strike that shuts down the entire country. At the center of this youthful rebellion are two lovers named Zeffirelli (played by Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (played by Lyna Khoudri). Zefferelli (a college student) is the sensitive and romantic one in this relationship, while Juliette has a tendency to be aloof and no-nonsense. Although “Revisions to a Manifesto” has some visually compelling scenes depicting the strikes and protests, the overall tone of this story falls a little flat. Chalamet’s performance is very affected, while McDormand is doing what she usually does when she portrays a repressed character.

Roebuck’s story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” which is a tale of kidnapping and other criminal activities. The story starts off being about a famous chef named Nescaffier (played by Stephen Park), who is hired to serve Ennui-sur-Blasé’s police commissioner (played by Mathieu Amalric), who is just named The Commissaire in the story. But then, the story becomes about The Comissaire’s son/crime-solving protégé Gigi (played by Winsen Ait Hellal), who gets kidnapped by some thugs, led by someone named The Chauffeur (played by Edward Norton). The kidnappers say that Gigi will be murdered unless a recently arrested accountant named Albert (played by Willem Dafoe), nicknamed The Abacus, is set free from jail.

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” ends up being too convoluted and somewhat sloppily executed. Liev Schreiber has a small role as a Dick Cavett-type TV talk show host who interviews Roebuck on the show. There’s some whimsical animation in this part of the movie. But ultimately, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is a story about a lot of people running around and making threats with no real sense of danger.

Although it’s admirable that Anderson was able to attract so many famous actors in this movie, after a while it seems like stunt casting that can become distracting. Viewers who watch “The French Dispatch” will wonder which famous person is going to show up next. Some well-known actors who make cameos in “The French Dispatch” include Christoph Waltz, Saoirse Ronan and Rupert Friend. Anjelica Huston is the movie’s voiceover narrator.

“The French Dispatch” can almost become a game of Spot the Celebrities, since there are so many of them in this movie. That being said, there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. However, the movie would’ve benefited from taking a chance on casting lesser-known but talented actors in some of the prominent speaking roles, in order to make the film a more immersive viewing experience instead of it coming across as an all-star parade.

Despite its flaws, there’s no doubt that “The French Dispatch” is a highly creative film that has Anderson’s unique vision and artistic flair. He has a love of language and a knack for keeping viewers guessing on what will happen next in his movies. And these bold risks in filmmaking are better than not taking any risks at all.

Searchlight Pictures released “The French Dispatch” in U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021.

Review: ‘Separation’ (2021), starring Rupert Friend, Brian Cox, Madeline Brewer, Mamie Gummer and Violet McGraw

April 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Violet McGraw and Rupert Friend in “Separation” (Photo by Blair Todd/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Separation” (2021) 

Directed by William Brent Bell

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “Separation” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A recent widower and his 8-year-old daughter experience unexplained and spooky things in their home.

Culture Audience: “Separation” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching empty-headed horror movies that are dreadfully boring and don’t even bother to explain why the horror is happening in the story.

Violet McGraw in “Separation” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Anyone who watches the horror flick “Separation” will be left with lots of questions that start with the word “why.” Why was the family in this movie being haunted? Why bother introducing scary characters in the story and not explain their origins? Why was this movie even made? Don’t expect any answers to these questions if you decide to waste your time watching this garbage.

Yes, it’s a stupid haunted house movie. And yes, there’s absolutely nothing original or clever about it. But what makes “Separation” so hard to take is that it drags with such repetitious monotony with no plot development to explain why this haunting is taking place. Any moments that are meant to be scary are few and far in between and end up repeating themselves with the same scenarios. This movie’s idea of making a scene terrifying is changing the cinematography to crimson red.

Directed by William Brent Bell, “Separation” has a cast of talented actors whose skills are squandered in this odiously bad movie, which was sloppily written by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun. The movie’s opening scene takes place in a New York City brownstone townhome, where 8-year-old Jenny Vahn (played by Violet McGraw) is doing what a lot of 8-year-old girls do: play with dolls. However, Jenny’s dolls are creepy-looking horror dolls and she’s sitting in the middle of a circle of lighted candles. Is she some type of child witch?

While Jenny is playing with the dolls, she speaks to a witch doll that she has named Scarlet. Jenny says, “We must be quiet, or else we’ll scare her away.” Who is this female that shouldn’t be scared away? Later in the movie, Jenny refers to someone named Baby, which sounds like an imaginary friend. Don’t expect the movie to explain that either.

While Jenny is playing with her dolls in the attic that looks more like a witch’s lair than an innocent child’s playroom, her father Jeff Vahn (played by Rupert Friend) is downstairs in a study room, hanging out with the family babysitter Samantha Nally (played by Madeline Brewer), who is in her 20s. Jeff is a comic book illustrator who’s showing Samantha his main claim to fame: a horror comic book series called “The Grisly Kin,” featuring a group of characters that look like they’re from a twisted fairy tale. Samantha is also a comic book enthusiast, and she gushes to Jeff about how talented she thinks he is.

“The Grisly Kin” was such a hit that the main characters were made into stuffed doll toys, which are on display in the Vahn home. Jenny is seen playing with these dolls throughout the movie. At one point in his career, Jeff was in talks to make “The Grisly Kin” into a TV pilot, but the deal never happened because he and the TV executives had “creative differences.”

For the past two years, Jeff has been unemployed, while his prickly wife Maggie (played by Mamie Gummer) has been the family’s breadwinner. Maggie works for the law firm of her domineering and stern father Paul Rivers (played by Brian Cox), and she tells Jeff in an argument that she hates it because she wouldn’t have to work there if Jeff had a job. Jeff’s long unemployment has caused a lot of tension in Jeff and Maggie’s marriage, which viewers find out is deteriorating to the point of no return, much like this movie’s plot.

While Samantha is in awe of Jeff, Maggie has contempt for Jeff. At one point, Maggie snarls at Jeff: “You’re not special. You’re just unemployed.” Maggie is also seen arriving home, looking at the mail and becoming irritated when she sees that the couple’s electricity bill hasn’t been paid and they’ve received a final notice. Apparently, Jeff has shirked his responsibility for paying the bill, so Maggie has another reason to be annoyed with him.

Meanwhile, in the attic, Jenny is startled by a bird at the window. She falls down and hits her head and gets an injury on her forehead that causes bleeding. When Maggie comes home and finds out, she’s furious with Samantha and Jeff for leaving Jenny alone in the attic. Maggie is so angry that she won’t let Jeff go with her when she takes Jenny to the hospital.

And then, the next thing you know, Maggie has filed for divorce. Maggie wants full custody of Jenny, while Jeff is contesting it and wants joint custody. In a divorce mediation, Maggie’s father Rivers (Jeff is the only one in the story who calls him Paul) has taken it upon himself to be Maggie’s attorney. (Can you say conflict of interest?) In the mediation meeting, Rivers immediately belittles Jeff as an unfit parent.

Maggie seems to have the upper hand because she makes more money than Jeff, and she’s using Jenny’s accident as proof that Jeff can be a flaky father. Maggie and her father offer Jeff a large settlement in exchange for Maggie getting full custody of Jenny, but Jeff hesitates to sign the agreement. Jeff’s lawyer Janet Marion (played by Linda Powell) advises him to take the settlement because if the custody battle goes to trial, Jeff will most likely lose.

While they are embroiled in this custody battle, Jeff and Maggie are still living together (because he has no other place to live) but they take care of Jenny separately. One day, Jeff and Jenny are at a coffee shop, where Jeff has agreed to meet Maggie so that she can pick up Jenny to spend some mother-daughter time with Jenny. While waiting for Maggie at the coffee shop, Jeff is seen and happily greeted by one of his former classmates from college.

The former classmate’s name is Connor Gibbons (played by Eric T. Miller), who tells Jeff that he started his own comic book company, which was sold to a larger company that let Connor stay as the leader. Jeff tells Connor about his impending divorce and custody battle, and Connor offers Jeff possible employment at his company.

Jeff asks if Connor would be interested in reviving “The Grisly Kin,” but Connor adamantly says no. The best he can offer Jeff is a lowly entry-level job as an inker. Jeff doesn’t get too far in the conversation with Connor when Maggie calls Jeff. There was some miscommunication and Maggie went to the wrong coffee shop. Naturally, she blames Jeff for the mixup.

During this phone conversation, Maggie tells Jeff that her father has assigned her to oversee a project in Seattle, so she plans to move there with Jenny. Jeff is naturally upset by this news. He tells Maggie that he was ready to agree to the divorce settlement and agree to give Maggie full custody of Jenny, but now that Maggie plans to move to Seattle, he tells Maggie that he might fight for custody after all.

Is this a divorce drama or a horror movie? While they’re in the middle of this heated phone conversation, Maggie has been walking on some city streets. And then, she suddenly gets hit and killed by a SUV, which speeds off without stopping. The hit-and-run is so sudden, that it’s probably the only thing that comes close to being a jump scare in the movie.

The next scene is of Maggie’s wake at Jeff’s home, where Rivers bitterly snipes to Jeff that Jeff is lucky that Maggie didn’t have time to change her will during the divorce proceedings. Rivers then informs Jeff that he’s going to file for custody of Jenny. Jeff doesn’t want to argue about it during the wake, but he makes it clear that he’s going to put up a fight in this custody battle with Rivers.

At the wake, Jenny exhibits some strange behavior, when she takes ketchup-covered French fries and starts flinging the ketchup on a wall. Then, she smears her hands all over the ketchup. It’s obviously meant to look like blood smears.

Jenny then says, “Baby is painting like Daddy.” Jeff tells Jenny to stop what she’s doing. Jenny then yells at Jeff: “I hate you! I want my mommy back!” And then, she runs off into another room.

Meanwhile, a family portrait of Jeff, Maggie and Jenny, which is on display on a mantlepiece in the living room, catches on fire from some lighted candles. But the fire is quickly put out by Samantha, who suddenly appears with a fire extinguisher, as if it’s an everyday item around the house. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Separation” continues its downward slide into nonsense from there. Jeff ends up taking a job at Connor’s company and agrees to be an inker, even though Jeff is over-qualified for it. At the company, Jeff meets an eccentric British writer named Alan Ross (played by Simon Quarterman), who’s working on a horror comic book and likes to utter things such as, “This is darkness … Draw me the stuff of nightmares.”

Meanwhile, Jeff and Jenny start having nightmares where they see either a giant witch come to life or a ghoulish clown dressed in a black-and-white striped prisoner’s outfit. The witch doesn’t do much except crook her gnarly fingers. The clown can do crazy contortions and do things like run backwards on all fours. It’s very reminiscent of the Backwards Man character in the 2020 horror film “Black Box.” Whenever “Separation” can’t think of a creative way to resolve some issues, it just has a character pass out or wake up in a scene, as if that person just had a nightmare.

Jeff starts to have random hallucinations that you know are coming because everything on screen suddenly turns crimson red. He has these hallucinations in his home, on the subway and at work. Jenny has a sketch book that’s filling up with horror illustrations that she swears she didn’t draw. The movie tries to make it look like the ghost of Maggie could be haunting this family, but it’s an absurd red herring because the beginning of the movie already showed that something spooky was going on in the house before Maggie died.

Jeff’s co-worker Alan is a big believer in the supernatural, so Jeff confides in him one day about all the nightmarish things that he’s been experiencing. Alan thinks that the ghost of Maggie is behind these unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations. And so, Alan gives Jeff the psychedelic drug ayahuasca to take home with him so that Jeff can “punch a hole in reality and make peace with Maggie.”

Does Jeff take the ayahuasca? Of course he does. Because in a silly movie like this, the first thing you want to do to figure out what you’re hallucinating is take a drug that makes you hallucinate even more. There are parts of this movie that are so bad, they’re really laughable. “Separation” is also the type of dreck where there’s a scene of people falling out of the townhome’s attic through a glass window, and they end up on the sidewalk with no injuries.

“Separation” director Bell also directed the 2016 horror flick “The Boy” and its 2020 sequel “Brahms: The Boy II,” which were both awful and boring movies about a family haunted by evil spirits, with a creepy doll as part of the story. At least with “The Boy” and “Brahms: The Boy II,” there was an origin story that clearly explained why this doll was the root of the horror happening in the movie. In “Separation,” the dolls and any horror entities that appear in the movie have no explanation for why they’re haunting this family.

Most of the cast members try to do their best to be credible in their poorly written roles, but it’s all for nothing because “Separation” is such an empty and pointless film in almost every way. Most of Friend’s acting in “Separation” consists of looking confused or awkward. Brewer is the only cast member who hams it up during certain scenes in such an over-the-top way that it’s unintentionally comedic.

Just when viewers might think “Separation” can’t get any worse, the movie’s last 15 minutes prove that this rubbish was incapable of being salvaged. The mid-credits scene is also completely useless. “Separation” sinks further into a quagmire of idiocy until there’s nothing left but the stench of fried brain cells that had to endure the 107 minutes it takes to watch this time-wasting trash until the bitter end.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment will release “Separation” in U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021.