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The French Dispatch, The Hand of God and The Beta Test

click to enlarge "Hope this holiday card finds you well."

The French Dispatch

"Hope this holiday card finds you well."

THE FRENCH DISPATCH. From an overwhelmingly auspicious beginning, I find my relationship to Wes Anderson's work has become surprisingly complicated. Whether due to overexposure, the calcification of my own perspective and penchants or the increasingly distilled products of his vision, I find my level of engagement to the work to be highly variable. From Bottlerocket (1996) through The Darjeeling Limited (2007), I thought he could do no wrong, each entry into the canon a perfect, self-contained little world. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012) tempered my enthusiasm, leaving me appreciative of their humor and aesthetic, but less passionate about their narratives and themes. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Isle of Dogs (2018) brought me right back around, whether despite or due to their consummate Wes Anderson-ness.

And therein may lie the conundrum: It's possible no other living writer-director has built a career of such robustly distinctive work. With each project, Anderson seems to venture ever further into his own imagination, emerging with visions for the invented world, each more iconoclastic and sprawling than the last. My opinion is bound to diverge from his at some point. With The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun), diverge it does, once again.

I feel obligated to offer the disclaimer that I admire The French Dispatch as much as anything Anderson has made, which is high praise indeed. This is perhaps the most ambitious project he has undertaken yet, and arguably the most precisely composed and executed. I just don't feel particularly connected to it.

Designed as a cinematic interpretation of an issue of the titular magazine, The French Dispatch actually presents three shorts connected by the death of editor and founder Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murrary). All set in invented French city Ennui sur Blasé, the first examines the work of maniac-genius painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard muse Simone (Léa Seydoux) as reported by J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton). In the second, Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reports on and becomes intimately acquainted with student revolutionary Zefferelli (Timothée Chalamet). And finally, Roebuck Wright (Jeffery Wright) turns a profile of a police chief into a kidnap caper and a meditation on isolation, otherness and exploration. In the interstitial sections, Howitzer interacts with each of his writers, cajoling and encouraging with avuncular aplomb.

In describing them, I find my fondness for these stories increasing in hindsight. In real time, though, the intensity and insistence of Anderson's compositions, palette and shot design felt somehow distancing, rather than compelling. Every frame of the thing is undeniably intentional, likely perfect and obviously "as it should be," but some of the decisions struck me as inscrutable, even distracting. It is a significant achievement indeed, with Del Toro and Wright each delivering career-best performances, but its artifice makes it something to be observed, rather than lived in. R. 107M. MINOR.

THE HAND OF GOD, on the other hand, in spite of its own unmistakable, tightly controlled use of light and space and the camera, manufactures a reality to draw us in, to explore with the characters. Where Anderson loads every frame with detail, writer-director Paolo Sorrentino creates a feeling of rooms and spaces always containing more than we can see, without forcing our attention.

Apparently a work of veiled autobiography, The Hand of God follows teenaged Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti) as he explores his home-city (Naples in the 1980s), his relationship to his family, his emerging sexuality and, eventually, his reaction to tragedy.

Gorgeously photographed by Daria D'Antonio, the movie makes the most of its endlessly beautiful, occasionally hazardous setting while also telling a sad, quiet, authentically familiar story about growing up and engaging with the world. And it manages to do it with a devious sense of humor to leaven the heaviness. R. 130M. NETFLIX.

THE BETA TEST. Jim Cummings is making a most unlikely career: writing/directing/acting in independent movies when independent movies almost don't exist anymore. His last feature The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020) is a charmingly cracked take on genre horror, with plenty of gore and a truly distinctive tone to the writing. Now, collaborating with P.J. McCabe, Cummings has entered into even more terrifying territory: Hollywood talent agencies, sexual tempatation and the insidious effects of the internet.

Jordan (Cummings), an ever-hustling, self-deluding agent with a wedding but weeks away, receives and accepts an invitation for an anonymous, no strings attached sexual encounter. Everything has strings, though, and when Jordan starts to pull at them, his world begins to unravel.

Cummings puts his brand of fast-patter and self-effacing handsomeness to good use here, and the script cleverly examines a toxic industry facing extinction and the vagaries of post-Weinstein-ism. But it also ominously suggests a future manipulation of Big Data that feels chillingly prescient. NR. 93M. STREAMING.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

NOW PLAYING

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SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. See what happens when you take your mask off? Starring Tom Holland and Zendaya. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

WEST SIDE STORY. Here's hoping Steven Spielberg's remake brings back dance fighting. Starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. PG13. 156M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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