Tag Archives: Frances McDormand

The French Dispatch

23 Oct

‘The French Dispatch’: Bienvenue to the latest precious pages from the desk of Wes Anderson

By Tom Meek Friday, October 22, 2021

Fans of Wes Anderson, cinema’s official maestro of all things quirky and twee, may be in for a bit of a letdown with this loving smooch to “The New Yorker” and other intellectually curious magazines of the latter half of the 20th century – i.e., “The Paris Review.” Sure, it has a tremendous cast: Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand and Léa Seydoux, as well as new players Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss and Jeffrey Wright are invited to the party. But in the league of “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) it is not.

True to the object of its affection, “The French Dispatch” has the assemblage of a glossy flip-through, laid out in sections with a different story told by a different writer. Holding it all together is Murray’s George Plimpton-esque publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr. as he talks with various staffers in the book-lined confines of the Dispatch, the European desk of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun located in the fictional French village of Ennui-sur-Blasé (yes, there’s that twee). Of the four chapters, the least interesting is the opener with Wilson as a bike-riding journalist who pretty much gives us a guided tour of of Ennui, which proves to be true to its name – ouioui, yawn. The best segment has Swinton’s art critic presenting a long lecture about a criminally insane prison artist (Del Toro) who becomes a modern abstract expressionist sensation inspired by his guard, lover and model (Seydoux). The two actors have outstanding chemistry. Then there’s the political bit in which McDormand’s on-the-scene reporter jumps into the 1968 French student revolt (de Gaulle be gone) and embeds with (and beds) the movement’s young leader (Chalamet, whom you can also catch on screen in the next theater over in “Dune”). Lastly, we get the food critic (Wright, Billy Dee smooth) on a Dick Cavett-like talk show recalling a massive kidnapping plot (lots of bodies) for which culinary skills prove essential and lethal. 

The snazzy scenes that take place between the segments, either amid the halls of the Dispatch or in Howitzer’s office with most of the ensemble huddled to together, are gift bonbons that cleanse the palate between the plats principaux. Overall, “The French Dispatch” never rises to Anderson’s high bar. It’s a savory, indulgent mess, something of a fallen soufflé. 

Nomadland

22 Feb

‘Nomadland’: Traveling stoically from job to job, and sometimes it’s cold and the van breaks down

By Tom MeekThursday, February 18, 2021

The films of Chloé Zhao, a short list that is certain to grow, are something else – a unique blend of narrative fiction and docudrama reenactments in which real folks play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, if not just themselves. This kind of filmmaking went disastrously off track for Clint Eastwood in 2018 when he cast the U.S. tourists who thwarted a terrorist attack on a French train as themselves in “The 15:17 to Paris.” Neat idea, but the result was inert, nearly unwatchable. And yes, Jackie Robinson played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950), but Zhao in her somber wonderment “The Rider” (2018) cast Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, a horse trainer from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota who, because of a giant scar across of his noggin, is told he can’t ride a horse for fear he’ll take another toss and die. Guess what? Jandreau really has that scar and lived that life that Zhao recreates from the inside out, and that’s the allure of Zhao’s craftsmanship; she’s able to capture that, from the union between man and land to the quiet, tumultuous struggles within.

Here Zhao has added to her stock, inserting a Hollywood A-lister into the mix of regular folk. Frances McDormand, however, is not your typical A-lister, ever amiable and humble in comport, but she is top tier – of that we need to be clear, lest you want to have a backyard scrap. Sporting short cropped hair, McDormand plays Fern, a semi-recently single middle-aged woman cruising the northern plains, bouncing from one seasonal McJob to the next, cleaning toilets at a Badlands glamping site and slinging grub at a rustic lodge-type resort. It ain’t pretty, but Fern seems resigned and dutiful in her tasks. It’s a way of life that affords her freedom – I half expected The Who’s “Going Mobile” to cue up, but there are times Fern comes out from a night in her comfortably worn van wrapped in three layers of blanket and the chill is bone-rattlingly real. And then that aging van dies on her.

That’s about as complicated as “Nomadland” gets. It’s not about a grand crisis du jour, but the tao of our motorized, nomadic workers and their community. The film, like the Jessica Bruder nonfiction book it’s based on, subtitled “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” is a meander through meanderers who were ostensibly downsized or tossed out of the ivory tower during the 2008 financial meltdown and either couldn’t find their way back or didn’t want to.

For her cast, Zhao does what she did in “The Rider”: Linda, a seasoned nomad with a thick, lustrous silver mane, is played by Linda May; and Swankie, another big-personality road warrior whom we learn has eight months to live, is played by Swankie. You get the idea. The acting by some is great at turns, but it’s not always consistent, and you realize just what you have in someone as good and capable as McDormand (she, the film and Zhao and will continue to reap accolades; the film was part of the Day’s Top 10 Films of 2020 and it won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture and Best Director honors). We do get a beat deeper in on Fern when she stops by her sister’s house for a visit. They live very different lives, and in that short stop we learn all we need to know about Fern and where she’s going. Fern is a lonely soul, and it’s something she embraces. David Strathairn drops in as a campground worker named, well, uhmm, Dave who takes a liking to Fern – their online profiles, should they ever get back on the grid, would be a 100 percent match – but Fern holds him at bay. “I have to do laundry,” she says to a holiday invite.

The real star of the film is the Badlands and plains, so alluring and grand and framed so by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who collaborated with Zhao on “The Rider.” How “Nomadland” ends isn’t really the point; it’s about the journey and disconnected people connecting, finding solidarity in their transient way of existence. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

18 Nov

 

Director Martin McDonagh, a playwright best known for such dark comedies as “The Pillowman” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” put film audiences on pleasurable, if uneasy, heel with his cinematic crossovers “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012). Humor amid violent doings – the graphicness of which you couldn’t make happen in the center of a stage – was the takeaway from those first two films; Tarantino meets the Coen brothers is in the ballpark, and what a glorious one it is. But McDonagh’s vision and style is something of its own, and it operates on its own bloody terms. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is more of the same, and a bit of a feminist anthem that arrives coincidentally, and poetically, as entertainment heavies including Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. are eviscerated for lewd and criminal sexual behavior.

As if a Coen influence was not enough, the film stars Frances McDormand, who ruled the roost in the brothers’ masterworks “Blood Simple” (1984) and “Fargo” (1996), for which she won an Oscar. (She’s also married to Joel Coen). Here McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a steely eyed woman who’s responsible for the three billboards of the film’s overly long title – and something of a bother to the town. Against blood-red backdrops the billboards say “Still No Arrests?”; “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”; and “Raped While Dying.” They concern the death of Mildred’s daughter, which has gone unsolved for months. Mildred blames the town’s beloved sheriff, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson, able to keep pace admirably with McDormand). Continue reading