David’s Watch Diary: November 2021, Part One

Brief thoughts on Eternals, The French Dispatch, Last Night in Soho, The Harder They Fall, Nine Days, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, and more.

Eternals

It’s safe to say that my expectations were sufficiently lowered going in — at least, enough for me to enjoy it (despite the criminally dark projector and bad sound mix at the theater I saw it at — never again, Regal Cielo Vista!). It also feels, at least to me, like a lot of people were rooting for Eternals to fail. Not because of the diversity of the cast, surely, or the presence of Academy Award-winner (and self-proclaimed comics nerd) Chloe Zhao behind the camera, but because Kevin Feige and Marvel have simply Hoovered up too much of the culture and are overdue for a fall, and maybe we’re all just getting tired of superheroes, and despite Zhao’s use of natural locations, the film frankly looked kinda dumb.

Eternals is different, in some key ways, from the standard Marvel formula: it puts forward big, cosmic ideas on the biggest possible scale, but spends much of its time keeping its dozen-odd characters in small rooms, having heartfelt conversations about Power and Free Will and What It All Means. It’s as “adult” as the MCU has ever gotten, but you can feel the tension between Zhao’s signature philosophical, naturalistic approach, and the brand’s demand for one-liners and pre-viz’d action scenes involving CGI figures punching each other. The film’s production is said to have been fraught, but Zhao — justifiably feeling her oats after double Oscar wins for Nomadland — was able to assert more control than usual in the editing room. Without her creative imprint, Eternals is probably a more broadly entertaining film, but a less interesting one.

Even here, the result is a mixed bag — the story repeatedly sidelines its most compelling characters (like Barry Keoghan’s Druig, or Lauren Ridloff’s Makaari) to focus on its relatively bland leads — no shade on Gemma Chan, long overdue for a leading role, but Sersi is a bore; Richard Madden’s Ikaris more so. With a sprawling ensemble (it’s insane that Angelina Jolie is here, with as little as she actually has to do) and millennia of history to cover, Eternals struggles to bring together all of the lore and character work in a coherent way; it also has to dig its way out of the hole the rest of the MCU has put it in regarding the gang’s lack of intervention toward Thanos, or Ego, or all the other potentially world-ending threats that would have jeopardized the Eternals’ directive. It would have been simpler, probably, to just say that this is on its own branch in the multiverse, since that’s already in play in Marvel’s TV offerings. Better yet, it probably should have been a series in the first place.

The French Dispatch

Perhaps the most fantastical thing about Wes Anderson’s (COVID-delayed) latest is that depicts an editor who truly supports his writers, treasuring their digressions and run-on sentences and finding value in essays that don’t match the assignment they were given, while still serving as the unquestioned arbiter of what is fit to print. I joke, but I think it’s true. Regardless, every meticulously-composed frame of The French Dispatch is jam-packed with detail, dizzyingly technical, and maximalist to a fault.

The story itself, presented as a series of vignettes dramatizing the articles of the titular magazine’s final issue, is as shaggy as the cast is massive; I spent much of the film wondering why I wasn’t connecting with it emotionally as I did with The Grand Budapest Hotel and Anderson’s other highlights. And then, days later, it hit me: The French Dispatch isn’t really about the stories it tells, or the writers who tell them, but a celebration of the craft itself — the joy of a creative enterprise (inspired by The New Yorker) where everyone feels like they have a voice, and the satisfaction of sharing it with the rest of the world.

That’s a pretty high-minded way of saying that it’s a story about stories. While each section has its highlights (Benicio del Toro as an incarcerated painter, Timothy Chalamet’s student revolutionary, Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin analogue), the film is revealed to be more than the sum of its parts. My favorite interlude, it turned out, was Owen Wilson riding around on a bicycle, narrating the history and charms of the film’s tweely-named setting, Ennui-sur-Blasé. Dispatch is a Francophile’s dream, but intensely pleasurable for any fan of Anderson’s work — a progressive feast for the eyes and ears.

Last Night in Soho

Whether George Romero or Michael Bay, Edgar Wright is always unabashed about his influences. Few directors are as clever when it comes to remixing genres. Last Night in Soho is his darkest film to date, directly inspired by the giallo films (“Spaghetti Slashers”) of the 60s and 70s — a blood-soaked riff on Midnight in Paris centered on Eloise (a brilliant Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who is drawn through her dreams into the neon-drenched London of the Mod era.

But this is no ordinary time travel story; Eloise sees through the eyes of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young singer who tumbles into a dehumanizing hell while searching for her big break. There are twists and turns and it’s all a little pulpy, but Wright (with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) makes an effort to play it totally straight — at times to the film’s detriment. The technical craft on display, however, is awesome. Wright deploys an array of in-camera trickery (duplicate sets! Doubles! Texas switches!) to sell the effect of Eloise and Sandy occupying the same space, aided in perfect synchronicity by the actresses themselves. Soho might be hit or miss as a “perils of nostalgia” thriller, but as a visual stylist, Wright is still in rarefied air.

The Harder They Fall (Netflix)

“These people existed,” declares the opening text of Jeymes Samuel’s revisionist Western — people like the outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), Black cowboy Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), sharpshooter Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beets), and lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). That most of these people never crossed paths, much less were in rival gangs, is beside the point; it’s a veritable Avengers of multiracial Old West figures, and Samuel has a grand old time bouncing them off each other in increasingly violent ways.

More Tarantino than John Ford, The Harder They Fall is stylish, certainly, and I’m glad it exists; it’s also overlong by about twenty minutes and seemingly cast for hipness than to honor the legacies of the historical figures it depicts — who had much better things to do with their time during Reconstruction, I think, than slaughter their fellow freemen. It’s probably not my place to question Samuel’s intentions (and I do think he’s a director worth watching), but that part of it didn’t sit right with me.

Nine Days

A high-concept, meditative feature debut from Edson Oda, Nine Days makes a fascinating companion piece to Pixar’s Soul; similarly interested in not the Great Beyond, but the Great Before, and how much of what makes you you is innate, rather than nurtured or formed. Winston Duke plays Will, who spends his days documenting the lives of the souls he has appointed to Earth. He sits before a collection of cathode-tube televisions, scribbling notes as he watches Life happen in first person. When one of his charges, a talented violinist, is killed in a (possibly suicidal) car accident, Will begins to question everything about what gives our lives meaning, while simultaneously undertaking a strange and emotional audition process for all the wandering souls eager to take her place.

The stakes for Emma (Zazie Beets), Kane (Bill Skarsgard), Alexander (Tony Hale), and the rest couldn’t be higher: Only one gets to have a life. For the rest, oblivion. Will charges them to find solutions to hypothetical moral dilemmas and record their own observations of the people on his screens; their burgeoning understanding of the world, and of human nature, expands our own. Oda’s pacing is deliberate, and the cinematography from Wyatt Garfield is appropriately otherworldly. But it’s the performances that must transcend the staginess of Nine Days’s conceit, and the Yale-trained Duke especially delivers, right down to the film’s exuberant, if bittersweet, final shot.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Amazon)

Apparently, we owe our modern-day fascination with cats to an eccentric English painter. If the film offered nothing else, that knowledge alone is worth it. Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a tragic figure, a polymath with a hairlip, an illustrator by trade, who caused a social scandal in 1880s London by marrying his household’s governess Emily (Claire Foy), ten years his senior, shortly before she passed away from cancer. Decades later, he would be institutionalized, allegedly for schizophrenia (though that is disputed). But in between, his anthropomorphized drawings of cats — inspired by Peter, the stray that he and his wife adopted — would sweep the country, inspiring one and all to see felines as not just utilitarian mouse-catchers, but clever and charming creatures worthy of “household pet” status. So the next time you clean out your furball’s litter box, thank Louis Wain.

The film, however, is a slight affair, with director Will Sharpe and writer Simon Stephenson leaning heavily on whimsy, more a reflection of Wain’s work than of the deeply troubled man himself. The film’s strongest passages involve his relationship with Emily, possibly because with so little public knowledge, that required the most writerly invention. There is one exceptional scene, shortly before her death, where the two embrace each other in tender conversation in an unbroken take lasting several minutes; you can see the shape of the film Electrical Life could have been if Cumberbatch and the rest were given rein to mine it for pathos, not just affectation.

Quick hits:

  • Not much to say here just a couple of weeks after my last post, except: Succession is incredible; Doctor Who is a mess; please let British Baking Show’s Jurgen & Giuseppe have their own travelogue series; Foundation remains a struggle, but I quite liked the Y: The Last Man finale, and hope it’s not really the end.

Looking ahead to… Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar frontrunner, Belfast, takes us back to his childhood… Get everybody and the stuff together, because the John Cho-starring Cowboy Bebop adaptation is finally here (Netflix, 11/19)… Will Smith is coming for Oscar in Williams family biopic King Richard (HBO Max, 11/19)… Lin-Manuel Miranda directs the tick, tick…BOOM! musical with Andrew Garfield (Netflix, 11/19), then composes the songs for Disney’s Encanto (11/24)… The Wheel of Time begins to turn on Amazon (11/19)… the new MCU series Hawkeye spreads holiday cheer (Disney+, 11/24)… Ridley Scott SZN continues with the assuredly campy House of Gucci (11/24)… Peter Jackson’s three-part Get Back docu-series looks wonderful (Disney+, 11/25)… How To With John Wilson returns for more awkwardness (HBO, 11/26).

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