Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Ayoade in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar


During the last week in September, over four successive days, Netflix quietly released a quartet of new adaptations of Roald Dahl short stories by writer/director Wes Anderson: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison. Had I remembered that this was happening, I would no doubt have caught them on the days of their debuts, and these mini-movies – the first one about 40 minutes long, the others roughly 15 – can certainly be enjoyed individually. But my forgetfulness, in this case, turned out to be a blessing, because I instead accidentally watched all four consecutively and in sequence, and am convinced that, taken as a whole, they might mark the pinnacle of Anderson's career to date. I never imagined that the sensational Asteroid City would merely rank as the filmmaker's fifth-finest achievement of 2023.

When I say I “accidentally” watched the shorts en masse, that's only because I started Henry Sugar very late at night when I was already tired, and presumed I could get through it and maybe one more before nodding off. Five minutes into Dahl number one, it was clear that sleep absolutely wasn't an option until I had polished off Anderson's four-fer in full. There was never any question that the auteur would do justice to the author. With apologies to fellow Willy Wonka fans, Anderson's stop-motion-animated Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably the all-time-best screen adaptation of Dahl (until maybe now), and Anderson has cited the late British writer's stories as inspiration for the literary bent of The Royal Tenenbaums and the Russian-nesting-doll structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson's obvious affinity for Dahl's works, however, is only part of what makes this Netflix quartet unmissable. Because in addition to providing renditions of the author's output, he appears to be offering a personal take on the author himself – or rather, he's inviting you to actively think about the author in tandem with his stories, and the image of Dahl we're left with is a profoundly, fascinatingly complicated one.

But first the fun, given that Anderson's Dahl shorts are nothing if not exquisitely entertaining. They're also like nothing the writer/director has previously attempted – which shouldn't be a surprise, considering that no other living American talent, with the possible exception of Spike Lee, has proven so adept at delivering new ways to look at movies. Each of the four films is presented, more or less, as a stage play with all of the seams showing. Set pieces are visibly rolled on and off. Voiceless stagehands appear to supply or remove props. The mechanisms responsible for “visual effects” are in plain view. (In Henry Sugar, simple painted boxes make it appear as though seated figures are floating 18 inches above the ground.) Characters routinely address the audience, and in repertory fashion, actors not only portray multiple roles over the course of Dahl's tales, but multiple roles within individual tales. Yet this isn't theatre so much as a series of vividly detailed readings that incorporate play-acting as a side benefit. When the film's narrators recount their sagas, which they do with rapid-fire velocity, Anderson has them speak all of Dahl's “I said”s and “He replied”s and such; while you'd miss out on the visual panache, you could keep your eyes closed through the whole of this achievement and, in terms of narrative, not miss a thing. It's no insult to call this collective project the first Wes Anderson that could, in full, be successfully replicated as a podcast.

Rupert Friend and Asa Jennings in The Swan

Because Anderson's Netflix films are all connected by Dahl's writings, it makes sense for Dahl to also visually connect them, and the first person we see and hear in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the author himself, as played by the (reliably) mellifluously voiced Ralph Fiennes. The actor will go on to offer introductions, occasional interruptions, and/or conclusions to all four shorts, and if it's an instant thrill to see M. Gustave in an Anderson for the first time since Grand Budapest, it may be a bigger one to see Henry Sugar designed just like Grand Budapest, except with Fiennes being the first, rather than the last, of the Matryoshka dolls. Fiennes' author, whom we'll usually see seated in his writing hut wearing a Cardigan and slippers, begins his tale of 41-year-old bachelor, cad, and inveterate gambler Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), who soon takes over the narration. He tells of his chance discovery of a book by a Bombay doctor (Dev Patel) detailing his encounter with a man who could see without the use of his eyes. Then the doctor begins narrating his book, explaining how the magically gifted Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley) proved his miraculous powers. At which point Khan begins narrating, revealing that the gift was acquired through meditation techniques learned from a guru known as The Great Yogi (Richard Ayoade).

We're four narrators into Henry Sugar before the 40-minute short is even half over, yet the effect is the opposite of confusing. Employing only the mildest deviations from a word-for-word rendering of Dahl's story, Anderson and his performance chatterboxes keep the tale lucid and engaging from the start, and the director offers no end of subtly dazzling fringe touches: the graceful tracking shot that follows the theoretically blinded Khan through hospital corridors and down a staircase before he pops onto a bicycle and “rides away”; the clever editing that allows Sugar to appear in one outrageous disguise after another without a break in his conversation rhythm; the unhidden rear-screen trickery that reproduces the sight of Sugar driving at top speed and casually strolling down a boulevard. (Anderson, here, is effectively giving away how he pulled off Grand Butapest's hysterical ski-slope chase sequence.) Without spoiling the ending, it's safe to say that The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is the most charming, optimistic, and pastel-rich entry in the Netflix quartet – just what those who only know Dahl from Willy Wonka and Matilda and James & the Giant Peach might anticipate. Don't get too comfortable with the cheer, though. If you venture further into Anderson's fragmented opus, it ain't gonna last.

My favorite offering of the bunch, The Swan features Fiennes as Dahl again, along with a couple of unnamed stagehands and an almost entirely silent young male (Asa Jennings). Mostly, however, it's a one-man show, with Rupert Friend narrating and enacting the horrific saga of Peter Watson, a nature-loving youth nearly tortured to death by a pair of teen hooligans. None of Dahl's works, not even the ones aimed toward adults, are wholly unsuitable for book-savvy kids, and as I understand it, the filmed Swan is slightly less upsetting than the short story, as we're informed early on that Friend's narrator is the adult version of Peter and the child consequently didn't die at the hands of his tormentors. (In Dahl's text, apparently, that information is withheld until the climactic pages.) It's still a rough, grim tale, if one alleviated by a burst of heartening magic at the finale.

Richard Ayoade and Rupert Friend in The Rat Catcher

Yet beyond Anderson's ever-ticklish visual stylization, what make The Swan soar is the 15-minute tour de force delivered by Rupert Friend, who voices and acts the adult Peter, the child Peter, and the loathsome Ernie and Raymond. Lending startling emotionalism to the child's plight and deservedly snarky meta-commentary on the teens' vicious braggadocio, Friend, despite formidable competition, emerges as the shorts' MVP. (My biggest out-loud laugh during all four Dahls came from a sneering Ernie comment that Friend delivered in-character, and simultaneously satirized, while Peter lay bound on railroad tracks.) He's already been featured in The French Dispatch and Asteroid City; here's hoping, for Anderson and his future projects, he's now a Friend for life.

It's with third segment The Rat Catcher that the Dahl-ian ugliness really ramps up, and when character thoughts begin to become perhaps indistinguishable from the author's. This one is a simple story – aside from Henry Sugar, they're all simple stories – about a quiet town beset by rodents and the grubby exterminator who, like Robert Shaw in Jaws, agrees to kill them for a fee. With Friend and Ayoade representing the citizenry and Fiennes, in glorious shape-shifting form, as the rat catcher, Anderson's third narrative is shot in bleak, muted colors (as is The Swan) and grows as progressively repellent as its titlular figure. But due to Dahl's widely reported – and, as his family members have conceded, inarguable – history of racist and antisemitic verbiage, we can't help but equate the despised “sewer rats” as a stand-in for “Jews,” and see the hideous Rat Catcher as a stand-in for all totalitarians eager to rid the world of whomever, in their minds, constitutes “vermin.” (Fiennes' casting here is a diabolical touch considering that his screen breakout found him playing a sadistic Nazi in Schindler's List.)

Friend's and Ayoade's characters are suitably appalled by the interloper, whose vindictiveness and fury escalate the more he's outwitted by the rodents. But the creep never gets a proper comeuppance, either, and in the riveting The Rat Catcher, Anderson appears to be asking: How do we reconcile unquestionable skill – even skill, such as Dahl's, that has for so long provided great pleasure – with abhorrent moral failings? Is it possible to love the art while detesting the artist? These are questions so many of us have been grappling with over the years. Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey … . Does what we know about them personally negate what we feel, or did feel, for them professionally? Anderson's shorts may salute Dahl, but this collection is hardly hero worship. It's more like hero analysis.

Dev Patel, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ben Kingsley in Poison

We're actually given a road map through the Netflix shorts' ultimate design through their titles alone, considering that they start with Sugar and end with Poison. This final segment begins as a cheeky dark joke, with Patel's Indian narrator walking in on Cumberbatch's bedridden Brit and finding the man in a state of sweaty, immobile panic: He has woken to find a poisonous snake sleeping on his stomach, and any attempt to remove the creature will surely lead to a fatal, venomous bite. Patel's aide consequently recruits Kingsley's Indian doctor to assist, and what results shouldn't be ruined in advance. Suffice it to say there's a twist, and then a far nastier twist, and again, Anderson effectively employs Dahl's words and scenarios as a discreet indictment of the person who invented them.

Although Fiennes makes his fourth appearance as the author in this installment, it's easy to read Cumberbatch's prone victim as Dahl himself, and Patel's and Kingsley's good samaritans as the legion of Dahl fans who, perhaps like Anderson, had the rug cruelly pulled out from under them after they discovered who their literary hero really was. It's a sobering, rude-awakening end to Anderson's genius-level Netflix experiment – the cinematic equivalent of smelling salts – and a shattering wrap-up that brings to mind O. Henry. View Anderson's Dahl adaptations any way you can. View them all at once successively, and you'll be treated to the not-technically-a-movie movie event of the year.

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Fair Play


Written and directed by Chloe Domont, the psychological thriller Fair Play – currently streaming, like the Roald Dahl shorts, on Netflix – has such a great, sustaining hook that it almost doesn't matter that the film falls apart in its final half hour. Successful yet hardly prosperous Wall Street analysts at a Manhattan-based hedge fund, Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich) have been secretly dating for two years, and are now debating whether to make their relationship and new engagement official to their co-workers. Before they have the chance, however, Emily hears a circulating rumor that Luke might be up for a coveted position as a portfolio manager, news that's celebrated with, as usual for this couple, a lot of drinks and a lot of sex. Following a late-night meeting with her boss, however, it turns out that it's actually Emily who will be getting the promotion. He's happy for her. Or rather, he says he's happy for her. And for the remainder of the movie, we watch as pools of resentment swirl in Luke's eyes, Emily's attempts at consolation read (to Luke) as unbearable condescension, and the office's many alpha bros begin speculating on just how Emily landed that job, always within earshot of Luke.

Obviously, this setup is Juicy with a capital “J,” resembling something David Mamet might've written back in the days of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Oleanna – a heavily verbal battle of the sexes with threatening undercurrents of potential violence. And for a long while, Fair Play plays like that, with the added perk of Dynevor and Ehrenreich sharing gangbusters chemistry. From their first restaurant-restroom tryst that proves definitively that Luke is the rare straight male who doesn't freak out at the sight of menstrual blood, the actors share playfully raunchy chemistry; you totally buy them as hot young New Yorkers whose forced secrecy makes them unable to keep their hands off each other. (Harder to buy is that no one at their firm is aware of Emily's and Luke's commingling considering they live together; did one of the pair give their employer a false address?) They're equally believable, and equally sympathetic, after Emily's promotion is solidified and the lovers engage in a delicate tap dance around one another's feelings. Goaded, however, by the smartly cast Wall Street douchebags and Eddie Marsan (with an unidentifiable accent) as the horrible boss of your worst nightmares, the minor cracks in Emily's and Luke's “It's all good!” armor turn into major fissures, and Dynevor and especially Ehrenreich descend toward aching yet transfixing levels of emotional pain.

Sadly, it all becomes too emotional. I felt a mild foreboding about 75 minutes into Domont's 113-minute film when Emily and Luke embarked on an epic shouting match that was certainly in the making, but one that was written and performed with the bluntness of an advanced-acting improv exercise in which the instruction was merely “If your scene partner is loud, go louder.” This sequence, in turn, led to a series of contrived scenarios in which one partner or another was humiliated as thoroughly as humanly possible, which then led to a number of segments in which pain was replaced by acts of retribution. It wasn't the ugliness of Emily's and Luke's escalating revenge that troubled me; it was its predictability. And by the time we reached the mic-drop conclusion in which sobbing that I thought was fraudulent turned out, I guess, to be legit, I no longer cared about Fair Play or its hard-working leads. That first hour of the movie, though, is awfully good, and I'll always be in the tank for Alden Ehrenreich, and Domont does pull off the feat of making the constant hedge-fund discussion not merely involving, but relatively comprehensible, which I always hugely appreciate in my finance-based flicks. To quote David Sedaris: “I can drink 18 cups of coffee and still collpase into sleep at first mention of the word 'dividend.'”

Jamie Fioxx, Tommy Lee Jones, and Mamoudou Athie in The Burial


I've scanned Jamie Foxx's filmography going back to 1992, and near as I can tell, before this year, he has never played either a fiercely loquacious preacher or a fiercely loquacious trial attorney. Given how gifted he's been portraying impassioned fast-talkers who absolutely Own a Room, how is that possible? And how is it possible that, in writer/director Maggie Betts' The Burial, Foxx is allowed to play both archetypes?

It's actually due to a technicality. In Betts' and co-screenwriter Doug Wright's legal procedural, which is newly streaming on Prime Video, Foxx portrays real-life personal-injury lawyer Willie E. Gary, who abandons his comfort zone – one documented on Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous – to represent 75-year-old funeral-home owner Jeremiah O'Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) in a suit against the monolith determined to run him out of business. As you'd rightfully expect, we're consequently given a number of scenes of Foxx's Gary showboating his way through opening arguments and cross examinations, and making courtrooms feel as lively as a Mardi Gras parade. But Foxx's initial introduction in The Burial, before we've even learned of Gary's profession, finds him energizing a Southern Baptist congregation as a guest speaker, eliciting joyous hollers and raised arms with his every praise-filled sentence. The scene is a kick, as is Foxx's subsequent peacocking whenever, in the film's mid-'90s setting, Gary is doing his best to approximate or surpass his better-known TV rival Johnnie Cochran. If only Foxx's energy had been applied to the rest of The Burial, which seemingly never met a genre cliché it didn't like, and which grinds to a halt the moment its script demands that Gary stop grandstanding and learn the value of a little humility. We don't need more humility in well-meaning middlebrow dramas about inarguable social injustices. We need more Jamie Foxx in aggressively loud suits with braying sing-song to match.

Still, disappointingly formulaic though Betts' film turns out to be, a hefty portion is salvaged through the strength of its ensemble. Jones is reliably, sublimely salty, and pulls off routines that would have bested plenty of others, such as O'Keefe's too-cute embrace of a hip-hop number that, naturally, proves his down-to-earth bona fides to the apprehensive Gary. Jurnee Smollett is ideally cast as Gary's opposing counsel, a brilliant attorney forced to turn stupid at the exact moment the script demands, as is Mamoudou Athie as a courtly assistant prosecutor who finds the critical piece of information required to win Gary's impossible case. (Seriously: Every single stereotype from 50-plus years of legal thrillers appears to be on display here.) Bill Camp is a hoot-and-a-half as the piggy head of the loathsome funeral-home conglomerate; Alan Ruck all but bleeds “Southern white privilege” as O'Keefe's initial head counsel. And I was nearly beside myself with joy to see O'Keefe's long-suffering wife played by the dearly missed Pamela Reed, whom I hadn't seen in a movie in more than two decades … until my mother offhandedly mentioned that she'd been seeing her on, like, a weekly basis thanks to Reed's involvement with NCIS: Los Angeles. (When in doubt about where your movie crushes of yore have gone, go to CBS first.) The actors aren't enough to bring The Burial wholly to life, but they're just enough to deliver a moderately crowd-pleasing courtroom entertainment. You'll just have to supply your own crowd.

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