By Lynn Venhaus
Think New Yorker meets Highlights for the literary geek chic. As a paean to print, “The French Dispatch” is a glorious reminder of how turning pages, enraptured in an article, can take us away to other worlds.

Set in an outpost of an American newspaper – the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun — in a fictional 20th century French city. It brings to life a collection of stories published in the final edition of the newspaper empire’s Sunday magazine, following the death of the editor (Bill Murray).

Experiencing a Wes Anderson film is like being transported into an illustrated picture book with stunning artistically complex worlds both familiar and of wonder – feeling new and nostalgic at the same time.

It is always a unique event that I look forward to with great anticipation, having listed “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” among my favorite movies of the 21st Century. And his whimsical stop-animation features “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “The Isle of Dogs” (his last movie in 2018) are genius.

No matter if they connect or not, all his films of the past 30 years are painstakingly detailed works of art that offer something different – and feature wit, eccentric characters, superb music accompaniment, and striking composed visuals as common threads.

Therefore, it pains me to say that while “The French Dispatch” is a love letter to journalists and has considerable quirky charms, with dizzying fanciful techniques and the director’s distinctive symmetrical style, color palette and designs, it is at once too much and not enough.

‘THE FRENCH DISPATCH.’ (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Set in the truly inspired metropolis Ennui-sur-Blasé (which translated, means “Boredom-on-Apathy,” with a wink), this sophisticated exercise is an overstuffed toy box that melds too many concepts to be as satisfying as his top three. And despite its splendid cast, there isn’t a single character that emotionally resonates.

This anthology, running 1 hour 48 minutes, is crowded with enough content for 10 movies. Anderson’s offbeat screenplay, with a story conceived with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Hugo Guinness, is divided to fit the magazine’s sections: arts and artists, politics/poetry and tastes and smells, but starts and ends with the life and death of diligent editor Arthur Horowitz Jr. – played by Anderson all-star Bill Murray, just as droll as ever.

In “The Concrete Masterpiece” by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), which goes off the rails two-thirds in, Benicio del Toro plays Moses Rosenthaler, a psychopathic artist who paints critically acclaimed abstracts in prison, uses Simone (Lea Seydoux), a female prison guard as a nude model, and attracts the attention of Cadazio, an imperious, impatient art exhibitor played by Adrien Brody, backed by his two businessmen uncles (brief appearance by Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban).

“Revisions to a Manifesto” has student radicals protest, which leads to “The Chessboard Revolution,” with rebel leader Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet), who gets the attention of no-nonsense scribe Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). This meanders and should have ended midway.

The third is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” as recounted by urbane food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) in a television interview with talk show host (Liev Schreiber). This is a complex crime caper involving multiple characters, many locations, and quite a roster of talent.

At times, these short stories seem indulgent, rambling, and tedious. Sharper pacing would have helped with the storytelling, which does benefit from the gifted performers who find their rhythm and deliver crisp dialogue in the earnest manner one expects in these idiosyncratic tableaus.

Owen Wilson, who has been in eight Anderson movies, second only to Murray, is good-natured staff writer Herbsaint Sazerac, who takes us on an amusing tour of the city. Anjelica Huston, aka Mrs. Tenenbaum, capably handles narration duty this time –a lovely addition.

One of the pleasures of this film is to see such a star-studded array of repertory players, and more – among them, Saoirse Ronan, Tony Revolori, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Steve Park, Lois Wilson, Fisher Stevens, and Griffin Dunne.

The pandemic delayed this film’s release by a year, which heightened expectations and allowed a clever literary marketing campaign to enchant with graphics and snippets, modeled after venerable periodicals from days gone by. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July, where it received a nine-minute standing ovation.

Having spent nearly a half-century working at publications, the editorial office setting was the most intriguing yet the least focus — an aperitif instead of an entrée. With every bon mot that Murray tossed off as the veteran editor corralled correspondents, I wanted more of that colorful staff.

The sight of Murray taking a pencil to hard copy, as ink-stained editors once did in non-cubical newsrooms, should make journalists yearn for a grizzled authority figure to cut their long-winded prose and hand the typed papers back with gruff remarks and certain expectations. Writers may weep at the sight of a proofreader and a layout guy trying to fit linotype into a grid, for it’s part of a cherished past.

As a film, tightening those long-winded vignettes would have made a difference.

Nevertheless, the production elements are exceptional, especially from frequent Anderson cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, flipping between black-and-white and color, and other collaborators Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (for “Grand Budapest Hotel”) and costume designer Milena Canonero, four-time Oscar winner including “Grand Budapest Hotel,” and composer Alexander Desplat’s score.

Still, a Wes Anderson movie is like hanging out with erudite English Literature majors, some of whom are raconteurs and iconoclasts, who motivate you to add books and adventures to your to-do lists.

The French Dispatch” is a 2021 comedy-drama directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson and Elisabeth Moss. It’s run time is 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language. In theaters Oct. 29. Lynn’s Grade: B.
Portions of this review were published in the Webster-Kirkwood Times and discussed on KTRS Radio.

By Alex McPherson

Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” is an experience as eye-popping as it is utterly overwhelming.

“The French Dispatch,” largely inspired by writers at The New Yorker magazine, including James Thurber, James Baldwin, Mavis Gallant, and others this Gen Z critic has never heard of, recounts the experiences of four writers at the French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun newspaper based in a fictional French town. These writings take place within “Ennui-sur-Blasé” (Boredom-on-Blasé), which proves to be far from boring. The editor-in-chief, a strict yet sentimental chap named Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), has just died, leaving behind one final issue of the paper filled with eccentric happenings and colorful characters. 

Anderson’s film is structured like an anthology narrated by the author of each “article,” opening with a biography of Howitzer and ending with his obituary. We get a scene-setter from a beret-wearing cyclist, Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). Sazerac sets the scene, showcasing a French town packed with people of all sorts, as well as hundreds of rats and cats. We then delve into an arts report by JKL Berenson (Tilda Swinton) as she gives a PowerPoint presentation on an (in)famous incarcerated painter named Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), his muse/prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), and a greedy art collector named Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) wanting to capitalize on Moses’ works.

Afterwards, viewers are launched into a rather intimate profile, written by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), of a young, insecure revolutionary named Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who amid the student uprising in 1968 engages in high-stakes chess matches with authority figures. “The French Dispatch” saves the best for last, however, as food columnist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) — a gay Black man — discusses on a talk show a profile he wrote of Lt. Nescafier (Stephen Park), an esteemed chef of a local police chief The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). Both Wright and Nescafier are dragged into a life-or-death situation. 

Timothee Chalamet as Zefferelli

If this sounds like a lot to digest, you’d be correct. There’s so much movie here that it’s hard not to be mentally swamped. This lessens the impact of individual vignettes that are, by themselves, quite profound. Nevertheless, “The French Dispatch” provides a nonstop barrage of aesthetically pleasing eye candy that holds attention even as the overstuffed whole threatens to undermine the compelling characters on display.

Ennui-sur-Blasé is a meticulously crafted setting, a cinematic dollhouse that refuses to be categorized in simple terms. In typical Andersonian fashion, everything moves like a clockwork machine coming to life. A quiet neighborhood suddenly fills with activity upon the rising sun, sets transition between one another as characters walk from room to room, and elegantly symmetrical shot compositions are once again used in full force. Interestingly, “The French Dispatch” also alternates between black-and-white and color photography shot-to-shot — perhaps representing timeless bursts of humanity that transcend the written word. 

Each section utilizes Anderson’s style in different ways, paying homage to French filmmakers like Jacques Tati and François Truffaut, as well as cartoonists from The New Yorker. That being said, “The French Dispatch” knows when to subvert its rules to emphasize the darker elements of this charming, albeit troubled dreamworld, particularly concerning the existential threats that tinge Wright’s perspective with sadness and dread. For brief moments, the madcap fades away to zoom in on true, deeply felt emotions. Alexandre Desplat’s score perfectly accompanies the action, eliciting joy and melancholy.

Of course, there’s an outstanding amount of acting talent here (including some cameos I won’t spoil), and everyone brings their A-game, even if we only spend a few minutes with them. Murray, Del Toro, and Wright are standouts — lending their characters a sense of three-dimensionality that’s all the more meaningful in such cartoonish locations. Although some performances are more effective than others — Chalamet is somewhat one-note, for example — they’re perfect vessels to deliver Anderson’s signature playful, occasionally irreverent dialogue that seems even more obsessive than usual.

Although some might say “The French Dispatch” is style over substance, Anderson’s film grows more meaningful the more I think about it, stretching my Film Studies muscles to approach coherent conclusions. We see a literal tortured artist being exploited for profit, an aging journalist mourning her youth, childish revolutionaries blinded by idealism, and outsiders seeking comfort in an alienating world. While the second portion featuring McDormand and Chalamet comes across as a bit precious and rushed in places, there’s rarely a dull moment. Despite the sections’ differences, they’re thematically bonded through exploring concepts of belonging, passion, storytelling, and the creation of art itself with a whimsical edge that likely benefits from repeat viewings. 

Additionally, the notion of this newspaper traveling all the way back to corn-covered Kansas holds its own significance. Stories should be universal, after all, and “The French Dispatch” underlines how this form of humanistic journalism shouldn’t be discarded amid the changing media climate. As a tribute to artists of all kinds and a wistful thesis on the future of print, this is a film that deserves to be mulled over, and I’m eager to research the people who influenced it. Tighter pacing and more focus could have made it one of Anderson’s best, but “The French Dispatch” is most assuredly worth opening up.

Jeffrey Wright and Liev Shreiber

The French Dispatch” is a 2021 comedy-drama directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson and Elisabeth Moss. It’s run time is 1 hour, 48 minutes and is rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language. In theaters Oct. 29. Alex’s Grade: B+.

Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux

 

By Lynn Venhaus

“No Time to Die” is everything you want in a Bond movie, a super-spy thrill ride elevated by director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s flair for assembling dynamic action sequences and his attention to details.

And in a welcome surprise – assertive women show up in an impressive triumvirate of Ana de Armas, Lashana Lynch and Lea Seydoux.

For the fifth and final entry in the Daniel Craig era as the suave James Bond, our very human hero has left active service at M16 and is enjoying a tranquil life of retirement in Jamaica. However, his peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) from the CIA asks for help in rescuing a kidnapped scientist. The mission turns out to be far more treacherous than expected and leads Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain (Rami Malek) armed with dangerous new technology.

Fukunaga’s keen eye is well-documented in his unflinching 2015 film “Beasts of No Nation,” in which he was also cinematographer, and his masterful first season of the dark, hypnotic “True Detective” in 2014, for which he won an Emmy Award for directing.

He excels at moving this intriguing spy story along and the globe-trotting camerawork by Linus Sandgren, Oscar winner for “La La Land,” is dazzling. Even at 2 hours and 43 minutes, this slick yet gritty adventure keeps our attention, and satisfyingly wraps up Craig’s story arc as the British icon.

While most other Bond films can stand on their own, some 25 and counting over six decades, the five in the Daniel Craig era are connected. “No Time to Die” relies on viewers knowing that Vesper Lind was Bond’s first wife in the 2006 “Casino Royale” reboot and that tragic backstory, as well as familiarity with what happened in the last one, “Spectre” in 2015 – especially about his girlfriend Dr. Madeleine Swann, daughter of nemesis Mr. White, and sinister mastermind Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), Swann’s dad’s boss.

The script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as Fukunaga, is noticeably impacted by the contributions of screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge (heralded creator of “Fleabag”), who brings a refreshing female perspective to the well-documented male patriarchy of the Bond franchise.

This entry is far more female-forward than previous Bond installments – and there is a new 007, Nomi, and she is a feisty, ferocious machine, with Lashana Lynch in a dandy performance, the first black British agent in the film’s 58-year history. No, he may be legendary, but they did not retire Bond’s number, 007.

The iconic ID has been around since Ian Fleming’s first novel, “Casino Royale,” in 1953, and he went on to write 11 novels and two short story collections. Other authors have carried on Bond’s missions.

What direction the Bond franchise goes after Craig’s swan song is anyone’s guess – but post-credits, producers are emphatic: Bond will return in 2022. Debate rages over the possibility of Idris Elba or Rege-Jean Page, or even a female agent. Hmmm…anticipation grows.

In the meantime, Craig fans will enjoy his final emotionally charged performance. He’s been a fine Bond, one of the best, displaying an intensity about dedication to duty, a wily intelligence and a tiny chink in his reserved demeanor about feelings, which is endearing. His orphan roots and lovers’ betrayals have exposed his internal wounds.

While he might not be as memorable as some previous villains, Rami Malek is an interesting adversary as mad genius Lyutsifer Safin, warped by his father’s zeal for using chemicals as weapons.

As the other Bond villain, Blofeld, Christoph Waltz is far better here in one confrontation than he was in the entire “Spectre,” which was a disappointing film after the extraordinary “Skyfall” in 2012.

Not everyone is sold about French actress Lea Seydoux playing the love interest, a rare second appearance for a girlfriend, but it deepened the Craig finale.

This foray features a solid cast, with the always-exceptional Ralph Fiennes returning as a conflicted M, Ben Whishaw as tech whiz Q, Naomie Harris as loyal assistant Eve Moneypenny, Rory Kinnear as government wonk Tanner and this time around, Jeffrey Wright compelling as CIA pal Felix.

Besides a take-notice turn by Lynch, Ana de Armas is sensational as a rookie CIA operative helping Bond in Cuba. She is not given as much screen time as she deserved, and her captivating sequence had viewers wanting more, ushering in a new type of “Bond girl” in a changing era.

Bond may be a relic from a distant past, but the fact that filmmakers acknowledge that change is necessary, makes for a fascinating future.

The franchise, known for stylish escapism, may be forced to adapt to keep relevant in a brave new world, but viewers will always want engaging stories of right triumphing over might – no matter if it’s good girls AND guys.

And wow, are those car chases fun to watch.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in “No Time to Die”

No Time to Die” is an action-adventure directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and stars Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Lea Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomi Harris, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Jeffrey Wright, BIlly Magnussen and Ana de Armas. It is Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language, and some suggestive material. Its run time is 2 hours, 43 minutes. It is in theaters on Oct. 8. Lynn’s Grade: A


By Andrea Braun
Contributing Writer“Last night I had the strangest dream I ever had before. I dreamed that men had all agreed to put an end to war.” –Chad Mitchell Trio
Entering Kyra Bishop’s set feels much like walking onto a battlefield. It is dark and dreary, no color to speak of, just browns and grays all around. There are rolls of copper wire, downed trees, and a backdrop so primitive it is held up by rope. Then, in the distance a man is singing a traditional Scottish ballad, “Will ye go to Flanders?” Gradually other voices join him and nine soldiers enter. It is 1914 at Christmas, and these guys are already tired of the fighting and their voices reflect that sense of weariness, of hopelessness.
But what they also demonstrate is a remarkable ability to sing solo, in ensembles or all together. This is the fourth production of “All Is Calm”  that Mustard Seed has mounted since its premiere in 2012, the third one I’ve seen, and the strongest yet.

The ensemble changes, though five of the cast members have appeared in the show at least a couple of other times. What is remarkable is that whoever is in front of us is fully believable, invested in the roles, and able to bring off every single number in the show from the sublime to the silly.
I couldn’t single out any cast members because they were all so good; here they are in alphabetical order: Kent Coffel, Anthony Heinmann, Christopher Hickey, Greg Lhamon, Gerry Love, Michael Lowe, Sean Michael, Abraham Shaw, Jeff Wright
The center of the story is a real event. On a memorable night in the first year of World War I, the British and Irish and the Germans stopped fighting. Just like that. They had been in mortal combat for days, perhaps weeks, and while they don’t exactly beat their swords into plowshares, they spend a night burying their dead together, playing soccer with each other, decorating a tiny Christmas tree, and most of all, singing the holiday songs of their cultures.
Besides song, the men recite quotations from soldiers’ letters, from the Pope and Winston Churchill, and most moving, two of the so-called “War Poets,” Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. These young men created a body of literature about the war experience, and there is nothing romantic about it, nothing “sweet and right” about dying for one’s country, as Owen expresses in his ironically  titled “Dulce et Decorum est,” about a slow and horrible death from mustard gas. All these statements give the audience a sense of how the troops from the lowliest private to the prime minister were feeling about the job at hand. So, why did they do it?
Because they were called to duty. Because patriotism motivates both sides in war. And, probably not least because they could be hanged for treason if they ran away. But there is also a sense of real camaraderie here, not only on one’s own side, but among all the men—perhaps more accurately boys—who have been called to kill the other side who look just like them. The Royal Family is 100 percent German, for example. They just changed their names from Saxe, Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. Done and dusted. It wasn’t so easy for the young men who had to take sides, however.
Lighting design is a character too. Generally, the lighting designer does the job by not being particularly notable, but here, the light literally brings life, especially in the Christmas tree scene wherein “Silent Night” begins in a minor key when the tree comes out, then as the lights gradually go up, the song becomes harmonic. Credit goes to Michael Sullivan.
Jane Sullivan and Zoe Sullivan handle costumes and sound respectively and with their usual expertise. Director Deanna Jent and Musical Director Joe Schoen keep everything moving, and in its fifth production, the show works like a well-oiled machine.
“All Is Calm” is by Peter Rothstein, with musical arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach. Its history is fascinating, having had its public debut on Minnesota Public Radio. Jent notes that: “While not shying away from the horrors of war, it presents a moment of hope that seems to have been transformative for the men involved in the event.”
In only six years since All Is Calm was first presented, our country seems to have gone to war with itself. May the peace among a group of people whose immediate “job” is to kill the “enemy,” serve as an example of the way we might all treat each other and perhaps even someday agree “to put an end to war.”
“All Is Calm” will run through Dec. 16 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre. Details are available at www.mustardseedtheatre.com.