Isle of Dogs (2018)

isleofdogs_poster_trailerToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

For fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson, the arrival of a new movie by the quirky auteur triggers an excitement akin to that of a ten-year-old boy opening a highly-coveted new toy at Christmas.  For them, something about the director’s style conjures a nostalgic glee; the puzzle-box intricacy with which he builds his cinematic vision combines with the detached whimsy of his characters to create an experience not unlike perusing a cabinet of curiosities, bringing out the viewer’s inner child and leaving them feeling something they’re not quite sure of for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on.

Those who love his work – and there are a lot of people in this category – find it immensely satisfying.

Those who don’t are left scratching their heads and wondering what the point was to all that tiresome juvenilia.

Anderson’s latest, “Isle of Dogs,” is likely to meet just such a split in opinion – and this time, thanks to accusations of cultural appropriation, marginalization, and outright racism, it’s not just about whether you like the directorial style.

His second venture into the field of stop-motion animation (the first was “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009), it’s an ambitious fable set in a fictional Japanese metropolis named Megasaki, twenty years into the future.  The authoritarian mayor, the latest in a long dynasty of cat-loving rulers, has issued an executive decree that all the city’s dogs must be exiled to “Trash Island” – including Spots, the beloved pet and protector of his twelve-year-old ward, Atari.  The boy steals a small plane and flies to the island, where he enlists the aid of a pack of other dogs to help him rescue Spots from the literal wasteland to which he has been banished.  Meanwhile, on the mainland, a group of young students works hard to expose the corrupt mayor and the conspiracy he has led to turn the citizens against their own dogs.

In usual fashion, Anderson has made a film which expresses his unique aesthetic, marked with all his signature touches: his meticulously-chosen color palette, the rigorous symmetry of his framing, the obsessive detail of his visual design, and the almost cavalier irony of his tone.  These now-familiar stylistic trappings give his movies the feel of a “junior-adventurer” story, belying the reality that the underlying tales he tells are quite grim.  The cartoonish quirks of his characters often mask the fact that they are lonely or emotionally stunted – and the colorful, well-ordered world they inhabit is full of longing, hardship, oppression, and despair.

“Isle of Dogs,” though ostensibly a children’s movie, is no different.  Indeed, it is possibly the director’s darkest work so far, and it is certainly his most political.  Though it would be misleading to attribute a partisan agenda to this film, it’s not hard to see the allegorical leanings in its premise of a corrupt government demonizing dogs to incite hysteria and support its rise to power, nor the social commentary in the way it portrays bigotry based on the trivial surface characteristic of preferring dogs to cats.  Make no mistake, despite its cute and fluffy surface and its future-Japanese setting, “Isle of Dogs” can easily be read as a depiction of a world possessed by the specter of Nationalism, and a clear statement about life – and resistance – in Trump’s America.

In terms of visual artistry, Anderson has outdone himself with his latest work.  The painstaking perfection of the animation is matched by the overwhelming completeness of the world he and his design artists have executed around it.  Myriad elements from Japanese culture are used to build the immersive reality of Megasaki (and Trash Island, of course), and the director adds to his own distinctive style by taking cues from countless cinematic influences – Western and Eastern alike.

Of course, the film’s setting and story invite comparisons to the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa – whose iconic Samurai movies were an acknowledged influence.  Anderson mirrors the mythic, larger-than-life quality of those classics; he uses broad strokes, with characters who seem like archetypes and a presentation that feels like ritual.

These choices may have served the director’s artistic purpose well – but they have also opened him up to what has surely been unexpected criticism.

Many commentators have observed that, by setting “Isle of Dogs” in Japan (when he himself has admitted it could have taken place anywhere), Anderson is guilty of wholesale cultural appropriation, co-opting centuries of Japanese tradition and artistry to use essentially as background decoration for his movie.  In addition, he has been criticized for his tone-deaf depiction of Japanese characters; his choice to have their dialogue spoken in (mostly) untranslated Japanese serves, it has been said, to de-humanize and marginalize them and shift all audience empathy to the English-speaking, decidedly Anglo actors who portray the dogs.  There has also been objection to his inclusion of a female foreign exchange student as the leader of the resistance, which can be seen as a perpetuation of the the “white savior” myth.

Such points may be valid, particularly in a time when cultural sensitivity and positive representation are priorities within our social environment.  It’s not the first time Anderson has been criticized for seeming to work from within a very white, entitled bubble, after all.

Even so, watching “Isle of Dogs,” it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a movie about inclusion, not marginalization.  It invites us to abandon ancient prejudices, speak up against institutionalized bigotry, and remake the world as a place where there is room for us all.

It’s a message that seems to speak to the progressive heart of diversity.  Whether or not the delivery of that message comes in an appropriate form is a matter for individual viewers to decide for themselves.

For Anderson fans, it will probably be a moot point.

Advertisements

The Happys (2016)

mv5bodnkztmwngutzgy4mi00ndkylwjkzmytmzy5mgu0m2mxodu0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtexmtgxnw-_v1_sy1000_cr006661000_al_

Today’s cinema adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

There’s no shortage of movies about fresh-faced out-of-towners coming to “the big city” to make all their dreams come true, only to have their naiveté stripped away by a few hard knocks from harsh reality.   In a substantial percentage of those movies, the big city in question is, of course, Hollywood.

With so many such films already out there, it’s undoubtedly hard for any filmmaker to come up with a new angle on the subject.  Typically, even the good ones are predictable.

Going into “The Happys,” a new film about a young Wisconsin girl who moves to L.A. with her high-school-sweetheart-turned-fiancé after he is cast in a major Hollywood film, one might expect the same familiar patterns to be played out yet again.

At first it seems like pretty standard stuff; but writer/directors Tom Gould and John Serpe throw us a new twist almost immediately, when Tracy (Amanda Bauer) comes home to the couple’s new Los Feliz rental and catches Mark (Jack DePew) having sex with another man.  The two decide to stay together – they are too enraptured by their happily-ever-after fantasy to let it go; but though this seems to go well, at first, Tracy grows restless.  She begins to explore the local culture, developing a fondness for food trucks and striking up an intriguing new friendship with a reclusive neighbor (Rhys Ward).  Meanwhile, Mark finds himself struggling not only to keep his repressed sexuality from jeopardizing his relationship, but also from derailing his career in homophobic Hollywood before it has even begun.

Such a set-up could go in a lot of different directions.  “The Happys” could have been anything from slapstick comedy to bleak tragedy, but Gould and Serpe have chosen a middle path, and it suits their film admirably.

Establishing its identity squarely from the beginning as a “dramedy” with a comfortably quirky indie flavor, it floats between seriousness and humor at about the same levels found in your average rom-com.  It honors the struggles of its flawed characters by taking them seriously and treating them with fairness and dignity, but it’s not afraid of poking a little fun at their foibles, also.

It pushes furthest towards the direction of outright parody in its treatment of the movie business (an establishment which serves, after all, as the story’s only real antagonist) – but here, too, it works hard to avoid passing judgment.  Even Mark’s brass-balls agent (Melissa McBride), who pushes him to stay in the closet and use his girlfriend as a beard, is depicted with relative sympathy; she is, after all, only another cog in the wheel of the Hollywood machine.

“The Happys,” for all its overtures towards satire, is less interested in ridiculing the status quo than it is in overcoming it.  It gives us stereotypes we think we know – the devoted girlfriend who defines herself through her relationship, the closeted pretty-boy terrified of being found out, the mysterious recluse with a secret and a heart of gold – and makes of them a little community, letting them discover more about themselves through their interactions with each other and the larger world.  In the process, it opens them up and allows us to see parts of ourselves in each one of them.

In this way it bears more than a passing resemblance, both in form and in spirit, to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.”  Just as that book does with San Francisco, it revels in its Los Feliz setting (the film’s title is a reference to it), making the neighborhood itself into a character and ensuring plenty of enjoyment for locals who will recognize many of the locations.  There’s even an eccentric landlady – a former child star played to perfection by Janeane Garofalo – who acts as a sort of den mother, passing on wisdom and neighborhood history to her little family of renters.

It carries a similar message, too.  Each of its characters starts their journey with an identity dictated by outside expectations and spends the rest of the movie learning to recognize and embrace who they really are.  As one of the film’s minor characters sums it up, “the closer you get to your true self, the happier you are.”  One can imagine Mrs. Madrigal saying those exact same words.

“The Happys” inhabits a more confined space than “Tales,” though, with fewer characters, a less sprawling landscape (both geographically and culturally), and a lot less time to win us over.  As a result, some of it feels a little hasty; revelations come too quickly, as do realizations and reconciliations, and some of the plot contrivances stretch the willing suspension of disbelief a little too far (an unknown newbie actor from the Midwest landing a lead in an A-list Hollywood movie is just the first of several implausible plot points).

Still, it’s a movie with a lot of heart, along with a worthy and much-needed agenda.  Gould and Serpe address the issue of homophobia without being preachy or confrontational, opting instead to treat it with kindness and candor.  Mark, though he may be callous and dishonest, is also broken and unhappy, and the fact that we are led to empathize with him and even root for him raises this movie above the level of the many less-sincere attempts to confront such characters onscreen.

Likewise, in Tracy, the movie gives us a strong female protagonist whose growth from subservient mouse to independent woman presents her at every stage as a likeable, understandable person – not just some caricature of femininity.

Both these characters work, despite the occasional elision of their arcs, thanks to their heartfelt performances.  Bauer, in particular, gives a strong performance, carrying the bulk of the movie on her shoulders and making it look good as she does so.  The whole cast, in fact, does nice work.  Garofalo is a treat, as is McBride; Arturo del Puerto brings good-natured charm (as well as a dash of diversity, something the movie could have done better at including) as Ricky, a flirtatious Latino food truck operator; and young out actor Brian Jordan Alvarez has some memorable scenes as one of Mark’s co-stars, contrasting his openly gay persona against DePew’s tightly guarded artiface.

There are times in Gould and Serpe’s film when one wants it to go further – to sharpen its satirical teeth and bite harder into the toxic hypocrisy of the Hollywood system or to shine a harsher light on the psychology of the closet; but that’s okay.

Thanks the sincerity and positivity of its intentions, it offers up so many sweet and life-affirming moments that it is easy to forgive it for not making a deeper dive.