Timothée Chalamet

The French Dispatch

23/10/21

Cameo, Edinburgh

The word ‘quirky’ could almost have been invented for Wes Anderson. Since his breakthrough with Bottle Rocket in 1996, the director has relentlessly followed the path less travelled. Along the way, he’s dallied with stop-frame animation and, in his live-action features, has developed a visual style used by nobody else in the business. Take off a blindfold in a movie theatre and watch ten seconds of any one of his films and, chances are, you’ll recognise his style instantly.

Now here’s the much-delayed The French Dispatch, a portmanteau made up of three short films, linked by a framing device. It probably has a valid claim for being the most Wes Anderson-like film yet as it employs all of the tics and, yes, quirks we associate with him: those bizarre doll house vistas; jarring cuts from colour to monochrome; weird frozen tableaux of action scenes – and characters that are as eccentric as they are amusing. And, of course, there’s also the WA repertory company, a seemingly endless supply of big-name actors, who seem perfectly happy to put their famous mugs in front of the camera, even if they’ve not actually been given much to do.

We begin at the offices of the titular publication, a New Yorker-style literary magazine that is itself an offshoot off a newspaper in Kansas, yet somehow has its headquarters at the top of a ramshackle building in the sleepy French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé. It’s from here that editor Arthur Howitzer Jnr (Bill Murray) sends his various critics around the country to seek out and document stories of interest – and we are subsequently treated to three of them, all set in the 1960s.

First up we have the tale of convicted murderer, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), who, inspired by his love for prison warden – and sometime model – Simone (Lea Seydoux), decides to express his love, by creating works of modern art in tribute to her. He inadvertently becomes a cause celebre. Next there’s the story of journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and her dalliance with dashing young revolutionary, Zefferelli (Timothée Chalamet), whose rebellion against authority is played out as a literal game of chess. Finally, there’s the story of writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), assigned to write a piece about celebrated prison chef, Nescafier (Steve Park), only to find himself caught up in a kidnapping drama involving the adopted son of the prison’s Commisaire (Mathieu Almaric).

The stories are dazzlingly told and the main theme here seems to be one of affection for an age that’s largely gone – a yearning for old-school journalism, when editors cared more about the writing than the money it might generate. Anderson – who co-wrote the story – also has much scorn to heap on the world of art, mocking the ways in which commerce waits greedily in the wings to get its hooks into the next big thing, qualities evidenced by Adrien Brody’s ruthless art dealer, Julien Cadazio. There’s some evident homaging going on here too. The second piece eerily captures the look of French new wave cinema – and did I imagine that little salute to The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling?

I have to say that I admire The French Dispatch enormously, rather than love it. There’s always an element of grandstanding about Anderson’s work, a celebration of his own uniqueness that can sometimes feel a little too arch – and the parade of characters unleashed here are essentially caricatures rather than people I can believe in. Perhaps that’s entirely the point, but it’s a quality that can polarise audiences.

Suffice to say, if you’re a fan of the director, you certainly won’t be disappointed by what’s on offer here. This is Wes Anderson turned up all the way up to 11. And, in the unlikely event that it’s the first of his films you’ve seen, then enjoy the trip.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Dune

21/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

After the long shutdown of the pandemic and the recent Bond-led ‘resurrection’ of cinema, what we need next is an epic – one of those big, sprawling sci-fi adventures replete with stunning alien landscapes and awe-inducing special effects. So Dune really couldn’t come at a better time, but director Denis Villeneuve must be all too aware of the potential pitfalls. A previous attempt to put Frank Herbert’s source novel onto film – in 1984 – almost stopped David Lynch’s burgeoning career dead in its tracks. And while Lynch attempted to pack the entire contents of the book into one film, Villeneuve adds the extra gamble of shooting just the first half of the story, trusting to providence that the resulting movie will be successful enough to bring him sufficient revenue to make the second part.

The jury is still out on that but initial worldwide box office figures look promising.

It’s the year 10,191 and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has recently been assigned – by the Emperor of the Universe, no less – to become the fief ruler of the desert planet of Arrakis (Or Dune, as it’s sometimes known). He and the rest of House Atreides will be taking over from its previous overlords, House Harkonnen, led by the corrupt Baron Vladimir (a hideously bloated Stellan Skarsgård). Arakis is the source of spice, a mysterious substance that pretty much runs the entire solar system, so of course the Harkonnens are far from pleased about being ousted from their exalted position.

Meanwhile, Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), has been having recurring dreams about Arakis, or – more specifically – about a young woman who lives there, Chani (Zendaya). She is one of the indigenous Fremen, who have always endured a precarious existence under the yoke of their despotic rulers. Paul begins to think that he’s destined for something important and, when he learns his friend, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), is setting off on a preliminary reconnaissance of the planet, Paul begs to be allowed to accompany him. But he’s told he must wait until Leto and the others can go with him.

So it is not until he and the rest of House Atreides set foot on the sun-blasted sands of Arakis that they discover they are venturing into a carefully laid trap….

James Herbert’s novel has an almost messianic following and I imagine most of its readers will be pleased with what’s on offer here. Villeneuve’s direction, combined with the almost hallucinatory qualities of Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s eerie score, makes for a memorable experience. The casting is impeccable, with Rebecca Ferguson excellent as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and Josh Brolin a perfect choice as the dour warrior, Gurney Halleck. And then, of course, there are those infamous sandworms, one of the elements that really didn’t work in Lynch’s movie, but they certainly generate lots of tension here…

Villeneuve keeps everything bubbling along at a sedate pace, taking enough time to set out his stall. The world-building is beautifully done and the theme of colonialism convincingly explored. And if Paul Atreides is just another in a long list of Christ figures, a popular conceit in science fiction, well it hardly matters. Dune carries us along on a tidal wave of sensory overload until we dimly register that the first instalment is over and we’ll have to wait another year to see how things turn out for Paul.

Quibbles? Well, yes, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly common. Dune has a 12A certificate, which means that some of the more violent elements of the tale have been downplayed. While I understand there’s a wish to maximise the potential audience for the film, this was never going to be another Star Wars (Dune comes from a much more po-faced universe than Obi Wan and his merry gang). So I think a 15 would be a much better fit. But I absolutely understand why it is what it is.

That said, I enjoy the film enormously and I’m sure I won’t be the only one eager for a second helping, which… all being well… will be coming to a universe near you in the not-too-distant future.

4. 6 stars

Philip Caveney