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ISLE OF DOGS: A Bit Mechanical But Not Without Its Charms

Opening this evening at an indie art house near me:


ISLE OF DOGS (Dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)

In more than one interview, Wes Anderson has specified that his latest stop motion animated film (his second following 2009’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX) was largely influenced by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and in a very Wes Andersony twist, those classic Rankin Bass Christmas specials like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reigndeer.”

It’s a suitably quirky combination for the suitably quirky writer/director/producer, and for the most part it works, but I couldn’t help from thinking that the execution of ISLE OF DOGS is a bit too mechanical to really take hold.

That’s not saying I didn’t enjoy a great deal of the film as it’s well made, has a rich voice cast, pleasing visuals, and some amusing ideas. And I know that the criticism “too mechanical” is an odd one to make as the machinery of Anderson’s style has been detectable from the beginning of his career in BOTTLE ROCKET, but I still found too many beats to be predictable, too many times that gags felt forced, and too many moments that were supposed to be emotional (I think) that made me think ‘meh.’

The narrative, which is set in Japan 20 years in the future, concerns a 12-year old named Atari Kobayashi (voiced by Koyu Rankin) who travels to Trash Island, where all of the country’s dogs have been banished because of a canine flu virus, to find his lost dog Spots.

Atari is helped in his quest by five mangy dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray, and Chief (Bryan Cranston). You see, an opening title tells us

Cranston’s Chief is the most dominant dog, and has the most interesting back story as he scoffs at the formerly domesticated others as he’s a stray saying things like “You’re talking like a bunch of housebroken…pets.”

Meanwhile, in subplot B, Greta Gerwig voices a pro-dog American exchange student Tracy Walker, who has a crush on Atari and leads a campaign against his evil uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), whilst finding out from Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono (voiced by Yoko Ono – that’s right) that a cure has been suppressed by the dog hating Mayor.

You got that? Well, it doesn’t matter as Anderson treats all these plot points so nonchalantly that they hold very little weight. I mean, that’s fine – everyone hits their marks, melancholy music plays, and it’s all played for maximum cuteness. If you’re a hardcore Wes Anderson fan, I bet this will be like the cinematic equivalent of crack cocaine, but being a more casual fan (I’ve only RUSHMORE once!), it was a pleasant but unremarkable experience. It felt like a great production design, and cast looking for a great movie.

But whatever your stance – don’t go see it for its cast. Sure, one of the most striking things in the trailers, posters, etc. is the sheer amount of its star power – Cranston, Norton, Murray, Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Harvey Keitel, Scarlett Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, Angelica Huston, and Fisher Stevens as Scrap (I so want that to be the new “and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver”) – but beyond Cranston, Gerwig, Norton and a few others, most of these famous folks don’t make much of a mark. I can’t remember a single moment that Murray owned, and I bet Johanssen recorded her lines in less than 10 minutes.

Although it felt a bit off to me, ISLE OF DOGS is not without its charms. The attention to detail (one of Anderson’s strengths) in the animation is superbly presented (despite how dire the landscape of Trash Island), and there’s some earned warmth between a few of the characters. I also loved how there were clouds of flailing limbs popping in and out when the dogs fought like in old cartoons.


It has come under some fire for criticisms of its appropriation of Japanese culture, but it never struck me as being anything but a respectful homage – except for the fact that Japanese-speaking characters aren’t given subtitles while a opening disclaimer tells us that all of the dogbarks have been rendered into English.

So his second stab at stop motion animation isn’t as funny, poignant, or memorable as his first, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, but Anderson has yet again succeeded in making something that nobody can do as well: make another Wes Anderson film. It
ll more than do until the next one.


More later…

LADY BIRD: Greta Gerwig’s Directorial Debut With A Difference

Now playing:

LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Not so long ago, Greta Gerwig was the indie film “it” girl. She acted in films made by the Duplass brothers (BAGHEAD), Woody Allen (TO ROME WITH LOVE), and her long-time boyfriend Noah Baumbach (GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, MISTRESS AMERICA). She even brushed up against the mainstream with her appearance in the awful ARTHUR remake with Russell Brand.

But now Gerwig tries her luck behind the camera for her directorial debut, LADY BIRD, which she also scripted.

No, it’s not about the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson who had that nickname, it’s about a 17-year old Sacramento high school senior with dyed red hair played by Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT, HANNA, BROOKLYN), whose parents gave her the name Christine, but she goes by “Lady Bird” and insists that everyone calls her that.

Lady Bird’s tense relationship with her mother, superbly played by Laurie Metcalf ( I don’t need to list her credits, do I?) is the crux of this movie which is set in 2002, when Gerwig was around the same age as its protagonist. That makes one assume that it’s autobiographical, but Gerwig claims that while she was born and raised in Sacramento, and went to an all-girls Catholic school there, the film is only loosely based on her life as many of the situations depicted didn’t happen to her.

We are introduced to Lady Bird and her mom, Marion, as they are returning home from touring a prospective in-state college, and we get a taste of what their emotionally strained life together is like.

While driving home, Marion lectures about where she and her husband Larry (a laid-back Tracy Letts) can afford to send Lady Bird, while our titular character says she wants to go where culture is like New York which makes Marion label her a snob. When her mother goes on a tirade about how her daughter “should just go to city college, then to jail, and then back to city college,” Lady Bird reacts by opening the door of the car and jumping out.

With a cast on her right arm on which she wrote “F*** You Mom,” Lady Bird signs up for drama club auditions at her High School, Immaculate Heart, with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and gets cast in a musical production. During rehearsals, Lady Birdstarts crushing on one of her fellow cast members, Danny played by Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and the currently playing THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI).

The couple date, but the courtship is cut short when Lady Bird catches Danny kissing another guy in a restroom stall. So then our heroine has eyes for Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a snooty, oh-so-deep musician who likes to say “that’s hella tight.”

Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle, but is saddened to find out that it wasn’t his first time. Moving on, after getting some rejections to schools she’s applied to, Lady Bird gets on a wait list for a university in New York, but keeps it secret from her mother.

On the sidelines of Lady Bird’s love life, is Jordan Rodrigues as her adopted brother, Miguel; Marielle Scott as his live-in girlfriend, Shelly Yuhan; Odeya Rush as the popular, pretty Jenna, who Lady Bird befriends to her BFF Julie’s chagrin; and Lois Smith, who has a few nice, warm moments as Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of our leading lady’s high school.

Because of its down to earth depiction of a hip artistically inclined young woman, who describes herself as being from the “wrong side of the tracks” going through the motions like going to a drunken party at someone’s rich parents’ house, and the politics of who goes with who to the prom, the film recalls the 1986 John Hughes teen classic PRETTY IN PINK and from what I’ve heard that’s on purpose (According to a Vanity Fair interview with Ronan, Gerwig pointed her towards that film, and Hughes’ SIXTEEN CANDLES before shooting).

LADY BIRD is a coming of age drama that doesn’t break any new ground but its low key tale of a young woman entering a new phase in her life is unpretentiously told by Gerwig, who appealingly doesn’t have her characters making snarky one-liners – consider her the anti-Diablo Cody, and this the antithesis of JUNO. Our  writer/director also brings out great naturalistic performances by Ronan and Metcalf that are both deserving of Oscar nominations.


Its a directorial debut with a difference, the difference being that it has a lot more artistic depth that I expected from Gerwig, whose onscreen presence as an actress can be a bit goofy, quirky, and often way flakey. 

Gerwig makes good choices when it comes to the film’s soundtrack as well, from Jon Brion’s subtle score to the Sondheim show-tunes that Ronan and Ledges sing, to the perfect-for-period snippets of Alanis Morrisette and Justin Timberlake. She even somehow makes the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” actually resonate and effectively evoke heartbreak in two different scenes. No small feat that.


More later…