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.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Moonrise Kingdom, a 2012 feature that lets you know, from its very first frame, that it is the work of filmmaker Wes Anderson.  The quirky, bittersweet tale of a pair of star-crossed 12-year-old misfits who enact a plan to run away together, it is a film that draws heavily on the entire repertoire of its indie-icon director; all the familiar elements are here, from the visual style of vivid colors and symmetrically-framed shots to the thematic elements of dysfunctional family structures and ritualized personal mythologies.  Drawn in from the start by the methodical introduction of its characters (another Anderson trademark, here cleverly assisted by the use of Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” on the soundtrack), we are transported to a world at once fantastical and mundane, a nostalgic landscape of mid-century middle class life transplanted to a remote New England island setting; it is a place where the comfortable trappings of civilization exist in the midst of a verdant but unpredictable wilderness, a delicate balance reflected by its inhabitants’ constant struggle to contain the unfettered dreams of childhood by enforcing the rules of the adult world.  Here, the local scouting organization seems to carry as much civic authority as the police force (which appears to be comprised of a single officer), a meteorological researcher takes on the role of mysterious, omniscient sage, and the larger social order is dictated by a tenuous connection with an outside world represented by various austere personages mostly present only at the other end of a telephone line.  Within these oddball, darkly whimsical surroundings, Anderson unfolds a coming-of-age story, told from the perspective of the two children at its center, in which it becomes clear that the adult characters, for the most part, are the ones who must break through the barriers created by the frustration of their own youthful fantasies; the grown-ups are the ones who must “come-of-age,” and only then can the children- who think and behave in a highly adult fashion, or at least their attempted approximation of it- truly be allowed their childhood.  This inversion of formula, in which the juvenile protagonists serve as catalysts for the transformation of their adult counterparts, is certainly nothing new: it has been explored in films ranging from early classics like Chaplin’s The Kid to contemporary blockbusters like Super 8; in particular, Anderson’s film seems to draw heavily on that mid-century classic of the genre, Disney’s The Parent Trap.  This, however, is in no way meant to imply that Moonrise Kingdom is derivative or full of clichés- on the contrary, thanks to Anderson’s characteristically disarming wit and pseudo-subversive charm, it is as fresh and surprising a moviegoing experience as one could hope.  It’s probably the best Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tennenbaums; and, of course, though the gifted director may take the lion’s share of credit for its success, it is a combination of elements provided by a worthy group of collaborators.

To begin with, the screenplay, co-written with Anderson by Roman Coppola, is full of the kind of offbeat delights we have come to expect from this director: populated with characters simultaneously familiar and unique, comprised of inventive circumstances and conceits through which the story and its various sub-plots flow, and infused with a magical tone that nevertheless keeps ever-present the potential for serious real-life consequences; the proceedings never lose their underlying weight, but they are peppered with humor throughout, ranging from the dry to the morbid, and usually unexpected; and the abundant heavy-handed symbolism (place names like “Summer’s End,” a tree house impossibly positioned at the top of a very tall tree) is treated with such good-natured irony that it comes across as clever instead of just obvious.  Anderson’s trademark visual style is captured with an almost-surreal crispness and color by cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, and likewise contributing to the distinctive look of the film is remarkable work by Art Director Gerald Sullivan, Set Decorator Kris Moran, and Costume Designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who together create an eclectic style that resembles a collision of the catalogues from L.L. Bean and Eames Design Studio.  As for the soundtrack, Anderson relies both on charming original music by Alexandre Desplat and, as always, a mix of obscure-but-familiar recordings- this time mostly eschewing his usual pop/rock choices for classical selections by Britten (the aforementioned piece as well as others) and Saint-Saëns, juxtaposed with the mournful crooning of Hank Williams.

Of course, it is the ensemble cast that must ultimately bring Anderson’s cinematic symphony to life, and each member, without exception, is right on key.  Edward Norton is tremendously likable as the plucky and earnest scoutmaster; Bruce Willis, as the local police captain, plays nicely against type while still taking advantage of his image as a tough man of action; Frances McDormand and Anderson perennial Bill Murray manage to capture the percolating bitterness of a long-embattled couple without making them unsympathetic; the ever-divine Tilda Swinton radiates a kind of institutional anti-Mary-Poppins vibe as a no-nonsense bureaucrat known simply as “Social Services;” Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman (another Anderson stalwart) bring their own distinctive gifts to smaller roles; and an array of young actors contribute a spectrum of personalities as the scout troupe that gets caught up in the action.  Despite this impressive collection of performances, however, the shining stars of Moonrise Kingdom are Kara Heyward and Jared Gilman, as the two pre-teen lovers around which the story revolves.  Each underplay their characters with surprising skill and maturity, capturing the dispassionate detachment affected by these antisocial youngsters while still conveying the sweetness that lurks beneath it, and complementing each other’s work with a chemistry that is rarely seen in screen pairings between seasoned adult professionals; it’s their show, and it is a testament to their talent (and their director’s) that, despite being surrounded by a gallery of all-star heavyweights that includes two Oscar-winners and several other nominees, nobody even comes close to stealing it from them.

Moonrise Kingdom is one of those rare movie experiences that creeps up on you.  After seeing it, I knew I liked it immediately, but it wasn’t until it had sunk in overnight that I realized just how much.  There is a lot to take in: a plethora of details that Anderson meticulously arranges, just as his characters often arrange the contents of their suitcases or the objects on their desk; and just as those everyday items are transformed into talismans and icons by their owners, so too are all the pieces of Anderson’s movie invested with a significance that gives them a subliminal, cumulative effect when woven together into the whole.  By the end of Moonrise Kingdom, you find that you’ve been moved on a level so deep, it doesn’t even have a name, and you didn’t even know it was happening.  It’s a feeling that makes all the delights of the previous 90 minutes seem even more rewarding.  Sadly, in a season full of mysterious alien beings and comic book action heroes, this little film is likely to be overlooked by a majority of moviegoers.  Don’t be one of them: go and see Moonrise Kingdom as soon as possible; it will likely be only the first of many times.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: We Need to Talk About Kevin, the disturbing and controversial 2011 feature based on Lionel Shriver’s award-winning 2003 novel of the same name.  Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, a woman haunted by memories and repercussions as she attempts to come to terms with the horrific acts committed by her teenaged son.  As directed by BAFTA-winner Lynne Ramsay, the film draws us in from its very first moments with arresting visuals and an enigmatic soundscape, unfolding its nightmarish story through a non-sequential progression of scenes and images that gradually piece together like the shattered fragments of Eva’s life. It’s riveting stuff: Ramsay (who also co-wrote the screenplay with husband Rory Kinnear) keeps us engaged and unsettled throughout, saturating us with stylish imagery marked by an ingenious use of color (with a decided emphasis on red, maintaining an ever-present suggestion of blood), layering in just enough foreshadowing and clues to conjure a growing sense of dread over the inevitable conclusion, infusing each scene with an atmosphere of resigned melancholy and foreboding, and dominating the proceedings with an uneasy silence which is only broken by spare, terse dialogue that shocks and pierces as much as it informs.  As we observe Eva’s disjointed recollections and her nightmarishly surreal day-to-day life, we find ourselves drawn into her psyche; forced to face the uncomfortable- and unanswerable- questions raised about the culpability of a parent in the wrongs committed by their offspring; and in the end, the biggest question may be how to find a resolution, a sense of closure which can permit the lives of those left standing to go on-  and if, indeed, such a thing is even possible.  With all these psychological themes in play, one might be tempted to consider We Need to Talk About Kevin to be a complex drama, but make no mistake about it: this is unquestionably a horror film, the kind of nightmarish thriller that is rarely made these days.  It follows no pre-molded formula, and there are none of the expected clichés of the genre: no sudden shocks, no scantily-clad female victims screaming as they flee through the dark night, no oceans of gore (for all the red flowing across our eyes, there is very little blood or violence onscreen, with Ramsay opting instead to paint the horrible pictures in our imagination where they are infinitely more disturbing).  This is not some schlocky shocker designed for a teenagers’ date night, but rather, like other great adult horror films of the past such as The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, it is an exploration of evil in our lives, of how it manifests and what might be its causes; but unlike the aforementioned classics, there is no suggestion here of supernatural forces- the responsibility is placed squarely on human shoulders, with implications that are far more chilling than the presence of any demonic scapegoat.  It would be easy, in the wrong hands, for Kevin to veer off into the realm of exploitative trash; but not only is Ramsay well-equipped for the task, she has the considerable benefit of Tilda Swinton in the central role.  Swinton has proven many times that she is one of the most electrifying screen performers working today, and here she solidifies that reputation with a stunning, solid portrayal of a woman for whom the joy of motherhood has been inverted into a nightmare.  With a minimum of dialogue, she conveys Eva’s harrowing journey with masterfully subtle changes in her continuous expression of dull shock, bringing home the frustration, the terror, and the loneliness created by the growing comprehension that her child is a monster and she alone can see it.  It’s a tour-de-force performance, and its failure to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress- particularly when it was recognized by virtually every other major awards organization- was surely one of the great injustices of Oscar history.  Supporting Swinton’s magnificence is John C. Reilly, likeable but obtuse as Eva’s husband, a man whose doting denial helps to enable the ever-escalating sociopathy of their son and drives an immovable wedge into their marriage; and a shining turn by Ezra Miller as the title character, who skillfully avoids the temptation of playing for sympathy- this is no misunderstood, angst-ridden adolescent, but a young cobra smugly and gleefully coiling up for a fatal strike.  Mention is also deserved for Jasper Newell, as the six-to-eight year-old Kevin, who eerily projects a malicious menace beyond his years, somehow making the younger incarnation even more frightening than his future self.  In addition to the stellar cast, Ramsay is aided in her vision by superb work from her technical collaborators: an eerie and atmospheric score by Johnny Greenwood (of Radiohead) meshes seamlessly with the carefully orchestrated sound design by Paul Davies; the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey provides some of the most vividly realized images in recent film memory, into which the simple-yet-striking costume design of Catherine George is brilliantly coordinated; and the editing by Joe Bini is a masterpiece of visual juggling, managing to maintain a steady flow throughout a narrative which freely jumps forward and back to multiple periods in time.  It is a shame- but not a surprise- that We Need to Talk About Kevin has yet to recoup the $7 million that was spent to make it; you can chalk it up as yet another sign that the contemporary film market is driven by an increasingly less sophisticated mindset, but this would be a difficult film to sell in any era, really.  It is a psychological thriller that dares to address deeply disturbing issues which most of us would prefer to keep out of sight and out of mind, and watching it is a grim and unrelenting experience which may leave you disturbed for days afterward.  If that sounds as good to you as it does to me, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film you must not miss.