By Alex McPherson

Moody, enigmatic, and unnerving, director Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” is a stylistically ingenious ghost story — featuring Tilda Swinton in dual roles — albeit one that doesn’t land all the emotions it aims for.

The film centers around Julie Hart (Swinton), a filmmaker traveling with her mother, Rosalind (Swinton, with a luscious wig), and her adorable dog, Louis (Swinton’s actual dog), to a countryside hotel in Wales to celebrate Rosalind’s 80th birthday and to surreptitiously write a screenplay inspired by Rosalind’s life.

Rosalind used to spend time at this sprawling estate as a child when her Aunt Jocelyn owned the building during World War II; she associates memories of both joy and sadness within the aged walls. Still, however, the hotel isn’t exactly the most inviting abode — surrounded by jagged woodlands and perpetually draped in a thick fog that threatens to consume anyone within reach. The blustering wind howls through the foundation like a spirit’s cry for help and release.

Upon arrival late one evening, Julie and Rosalind appear to be the sole guests staying there — with only a hilariously passive aggressive receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies) to greet them. Julie has other things to worry about. These include being able to learn more about the woman she’s spent so much time trying to connect with, yet knows so little about, who she’s mining for her own creative endeavors.

Their usually banal interactions about Rosalind’s experiences, or what to simply order for dinner, allude to deeper anxieties and insecurities. Additionally, whenever Julie tries to focus and write, she’s interrupted by strange noises emanating from somewhere in the hotel, as if the building itself is a living entity trying to dissuade her project. 

A mystifying tale ensues, but Hogg (whose previous filmography includes the somewhat autobiographical “Souvenir” films) isn’t interested in scaring viewers. Rather, “The Eternal Daughter” uses its eerie atmosphere to explore themes of grief, acceptance, and the creation of art itself — of how it works as a preservation of memory and a means to confront life’s challenges.

“The Eternal Daughter” thrives off slow-burn paranoia that immerses viewers into Julie’s increasingly disoriented headspace. From ominous bumps on the floor above, to machines suddenly whirring to life, and doors literally groaning as they shut behind Julie, Hogg succeeds at creating an off-kilter environment that keeps viewers on edge. 

Jump scares are nowhere to be found. Rather, thanks to tactile sound design, distanced yet meticulous cinematography by Ed Rutherford dripping in gothic stylings, and a creepily melodic score by David Saulesco, “The Eternal Daughter” is a psychological chiller that has absolutely no qualms about alienating viewers with short attention spans. It’s deeply immersive from start to finish — letting viewers cautiously wander Julie’s unfamiliar surroundings with her, as she slowly searches for some unknown source that grips her thoughts.

Of course, Swinton’s performances (as both Julie and Rosalind) are exemplary: understated and subtle. Julie’s a tormented character — immersed in her filmmaking work, to the detriment of her social life, without children of her own, and grappling with the reality that Rosalind won’t be with her much longer. She also feels guilty about secretly recording their conversations, “intruding” where she feels she doesn’t belong. Swinton captures Julie’s high-strung demeanor while also showing the widening cracks in her facade. 

Rosalind, on the other hand, is concerned about Julie, but keeps her true feelings subdued — illuminated in brief remarks that, despite their plainness, hit the sensitive Julie like a truck. The bizarre nature of the casting decision quickly fades away, as Swinton fully inhabits both characters and renders them distinct, yet cut from the same cloth nevertheless. It underscores the idea of Julie being unable to separate herself and her well-being from her mother — for better and worse, she struggles to accept the inevitable. 

Hogg’s screenplay succeeds (for the most part) at weaving dark comedy and pathos into the proceedings — the aforementioned receptionist’s weirdly aggressive reactions provide much of the comic relief, as does Louis, one of the best canine actors in the business. A benevolent groundskeeper named Bill (Joseph Mydell), on the other side of the spectrum, exudes warmth and kindness. He stays in touch with his late wife via memories associated with each room in the big house, and tunes us into Hogg’s grand schemes. 

A central theme of “The Eternal Daughter,” in fact, revolves around the ways we stay connected to loved ones who pass, and the ways that self-expression can function as a way to free ourselves of regret and make peace with the past. Julie, in trying to finally connect on a deeper level with her mother, must also confront her own tormented psyche, and art provides a prime medium to do so.

Hogg isn’t a stranger to such themes in her work, but “The Eternal Daughter” feels distinct in the way she crafts a full-blooded ghost story out of (somewhat pretentious) themes. Indeed, by lingering so much on unusual, seemingly minute details, “The Eternal Daughter” is a puzzle box that begs to be solved. The editing, cinematography, dialogue, and music all contribute to an overarching narrative that’s quietly complex. Hogg encourages patience and close inspection — building towards a reveal that’s suitably bewildering. 

The film’s construction also works to its detriment, though. By seeming so impenetrable, at least on first viewing, “The Eternal Daughter” sacrifices heft that prevented me from becoming emotionally wrapped up in Julie’s ultimately small-scale story. The effort the film requires to unpack doesn’t quite equal the payoff, rendering it more satisfying as a conceptual experiment than a gripping narrative. Still, though, for arthouse-inclined viewers, “The Eternal Daughter” will captivate, confuse, and leave them hungering for whatever Hogg has in store next.

Tilda Swinton

“The Eternal Daughter” is a 2022 drama-mystery directed by Joanna Hogg and starring Tilda Swinton, Carly-Sophia Davies. It is rated PG-13 for some drug material and the runtime is 1 hour, 36 minutes. It opened in theaters on Dec. 2 and is available on Video on Demand. Alex’s Grade: B+

By Lynn Venhaus

Visually stunning, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is wonder on a grand scale.

While attending a conference in Istanbul, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) happens to encounter a djinn, aka genie (Idris Elba), who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. She is a scholar well-versed in mythology and storytelling, and is highly skeptical – after all, so much folklore involving genies turns into cautionary tales that end badly. He pleads his case by telling his fantastical life adventures, and she’s beguiled. What happens next surprises them both.

Far from his Fury Road, risk-taking director George Miller leads us on a less-traveled path. With his flair for the unusual, Miller charts new territory  – his “Mad Max: Fury Road” won six Academy Awards in 2016, so of course the film’s technical elements are superb.

While I am not the biggest fan of the fantasy genre, I can appreciate the technical skill and the amount of difficulty in making it look seamless.

The work of cinematographer John Seale, who came out of retirement for the second time to shoot this movie (the first being Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”), is exquisite — the vibrancy of his framed shots is breathtaking.

The film unfolds like a novel. Miller collaborated on the screenplay with Augusta Gore, adapting A.S. Byatt’s short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” first published in the Paris Review in 1994. Like the British author Byatt, Miller puts familiar fairy-tale themes in a contemporary context, commenting on society along the way.

It borrows freely from “Arabian Nights,” that compendium featuring “One Thousand and One Nights,” which brought genies, or djinns, into the modern lexicon. Djinns in Islamic culture are often considered demons, but not here. There is a mystical charm to his powers.

Yet, the stories the Djinn weaves to plead his case are not as captivating as Elba and Swinton are. The pair is far more transfixing in bathrobes than the quixotic spectacles involving the Queen of Sheba and the Ottoman Empire, because those meander and such detours take us away from the film’s more interesting core relationship.

Oscar winner Swinton and Elba, who won multiple awards for his finest work in “Beasts of No Nation,” are endearing in their roles as lonely hearts whose solitary existence have led them to this crossroads. Elba could read my tax returns and I would be spellbound.

Alithea’s skepticism is relatable – it would be easy to dismiss it all as a mirage – but it’s not, and her new discovery is a joyful sojourn, particularly when she returns to her life in London. The two bigoted biddies who live next door are a hoot.

However, understand that the exotic panoply is necessary for the fanciful backstory. It’s just curiously not that engaging – a broad canvas of heroes, villains, royal protocol and expendables.

One thing about Miller, though, is that the guy always has a unique perspective – whether it’s a savage post-apocalyptic world of survival or a whimsical journey of a sweet little talking pig or dancing penquins. (After all, he won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature  for “Happy Feet” in 2006).

Swinton and Elba make us care about their characters’ outcome. Without them anchoring this film so skillfully, I would have checked out early. Still, it feels long even with its 1 hour, 48 minutes run time.

Come for the dazzling cinematic work, stay for the mesmerizing acting.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a 2022 fantasy-drama-romance directed by George Miller and starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. It is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence and runs 1 hour, 48 minutes. It opens in theaters Aug. 26. Lynn’s Grade: B.

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