Isle of Dogs (2018): Overlong Beginning Leads to a Good End

Wes Anderson is one of my Top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter). How does this film stand up compared to his other works? It is good, I loved the visuals and characters, but it doesn’t have the depth as some of his other works and it never reaches greatness, even though it is really good. The location and characters are wonderful with some beautiful homages to Kurosawa, and the main cast is wonderfully quirky with the main character arc being solid. So for my non-spoiler thoughts, this definitely gets a strong recommend.

The film was directed by Wes Anderson, who also wrote and was one of the producers of the film. With the other producers being Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

The story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) a young Japanese boy and ward of the new authoritarian Mayor. He travels to the Isle of Dogs to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) on the Island after all dogs are exiled there due to the Dog Flu. Five dogs help on his quest, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) being the stray who hates humans but must learn to trust Atari for them all to survive the quest. As the quest unfolds a conspiracy is revealed on the Isle of Dogs and Megasaki City.

The Pros:

The Animation and Visuals – The film is done in highly detailed, beautiful stop motion animation. Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry is on full display, as each character and their emotions stand out like drum beats on the screen. You can tell that Kurosawa inspired Wes Anderson, and the making of the film. Both directors are good at using wide open spaces to tell stories of travel, and color to express life and death. We get all of that in this film.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack, like the visuals, takes a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, from the quiet openings with stark drums, and the emphasis on percussion. Alexandre Desplat captures the world so starkly, bringing the characters and scenes to life.

The Pack – The Pack is wonderful. Goldblum’s Duke is a gossip and hears things, Murray’s Boss is kind of oblivious and likes wearing trinkets, Norton’s Rex is the default second-in-command and sometimes leader, Balaban’s King is the washed up ex-celebrity dog who goes through bouts of depression, and Chief is their tough battle-worn leader.

Chief’s Arc – The main arc of the movie belongs to the stray, Chief, who goes from hating humans to becoming Atari’s new bodyguard. His story is believable too, with a dog he likes (Nutmeg) first suggesting he give the kid a chance, and ending with the Atari caring for him as he goes from covered in black soot, to looking just like Spots. He was my favorite character, and I loved how as standoffish as he initially was. There were reasons behind it, just like his transformation made sense due to Atari’s compassion. By the end, he’s the main connector between humanity and the dogs.

Atari and the Mayor – The Mayor is a distant relative of Atari, and for some reason really hates the dogs (it is implied that his ancestors did, and of course they loved cats). In the end Atari’s love for the dogs changes his heart. He does what he can in the end to stop the dogs from being destroyed due to that last minute change of heart. I liked Mayor Kobayashi in the end, he was a great antagonist and had a level of complexity to him.

Okay: The Foreign Exchange Student / The Student Arc – Tracy Walker leads her class in saving the dogs on the Island. My issue with this was that we never get what brought her to Japan, so it gives a bit of a white savior vibe to her interactions, especially since the other students are never given words. I’m still putting her at okay as Tracy was a compelling character, the downside is she could have been anyone, and I would have preferred she’d have been Japanese like Atari.

What About the Cats? – I’m putting this as okay as the film could have become overcrowded if we had the cats speaking. I also wanted to know the cats motivations. It implies they are the leaders of Japan, but it never does anything with it. The cats never have a voice, and it takes away from the overall point. They weren’t even needed, since the focus was on the dogs.

The Cons:

The Japanese are Only Given a Voice Through Limited Translation – This ties into Tracy and the students. Most Japanese never get the chance to speak, or be understood, as they are filtered through translation. This wasn’t needed at all. I think it was meant for us to focus fully on the story of the dogs, but the story of humanity and the dogs is interconnected, so both should have their voices fully heard.

Pacing – The pacing is the biggest issue, about 20 minutes in I was exhausted (I walked from Ready Player One to the awesome indie theatre, Salem Cinema, for this double feature). This may have been a contributing factor to how slow it felt, and why it took me out of the film early on. It is slow, even though the payoff later is fantastic.

This was a film that I really enjoyed, and captures so much of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. From the characters and their detachment, to the fight against the stronger enemy (Atari against the government), and the quirky characters (mostly the dogs)… If you are a fan of Wes Anderson, you will love this film. If you aren’t a fan, or haven’t heard of him… I’d still recommend it. This is an original story that may take a while to reel you in, but once there you’ll be hooked.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

The Shape of Water (2017): A Transcendent Romantic Fairy Tale

   “The Shape of Water” might end up being my favorite film of the year. This is a film that is beautifully told and reminds me of “Beauty and the Beast,” meets “Amelie” but with so much more going on than either of those stories. This is a film where every character, whether minor or major matters and out of it we get a compelling love story that is so much more. This is a story about characters who aren’t given a voice (both literally and metaphorically) finding their voice and from there, a level of transcendence or change within themselves or their situation. The cast was wonderfully done and for my non-spoiler thoughts…I can’t wait to watch it again. This is easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best work, and given that he was co-writer and co-producer as well as the director, this story was clearly his vision and it is beautiful. Seriously, check this film out if you get the chance.

The film was directed, co-wrote and co-produced Guillermo del Toro, co-written by Vanessa Taylor and co-produced with J. Miles Dale.

The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works at a secret government agency with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and sharing an apartment with her closeted friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her world is soon changed when a government agent Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a mysterious “asset,” a creature who changes Elisa’s life forever.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is that of the 1950’s of the United States but with fairy tale, fantasy and sci. fi. elements…both in how the story is presented and the amphibian man being so central to the plot, as well as the abilities he has. It is also a world full of twists since spies and government agents inhabit this cold world universe and the secret lab where most of the action takes place.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. From Octavia Spencer’s Zelda, who is Elisa’s translator and calls out how bad their situation is (as the help no one notices or cares about them, just takes them for granted), Giles, who understands Elisa’s love for the creature and helps protect them and both rescue the creature from the lab and getting them both the docks. He is the narrator. Michael Shannon’s Colonel is unhinged and broken and is sympathetic in that, even though he never stops being a threat and monster. Elisa’s and the creature’s romance drives the story and it is awesome. I loved how confident Elisa is in her sexuality and her attachment to the creature as well as the creature’s humanity slowly being revealed as he opens up to her. Doug Jones once again owns this alien type role he is in. I can’t wait to buy this movie when it comes out.

The Soundtrack and Cinematography – The soundtrack has a fairy tale and jazz feel to it, intermixed with this dark foreboding when we are at the lab and the Colonel is on screen. The cinematography is amazing too, it reminded me of “Amelie” with the use of color contrasts but focusing in on Elisa’s perspective. Alexandre Desplat did a great job on the soundtrack and I loved Dan Laustsen’s cinematography.

The Romance – The romance is the main drive of the story and it is beautifully done. It starts with Elisa and the creature touching hands separated by glass, to her leaving him eggs, to eating in his area with him and teaching him sign language…to his rescue and eventually having to let him go as he dies not being in the salt water but has given Giles back his hair and healed a wound he caused on Giles accidentally. The romance is the core of the film and because it illustrates different aspects of the characters and the world they inhabit.

Surrealism and Fairy Tales – The Fairy Tale element is revealed most profoundly in the opening shot where Giles is giving the premise of a monster who turned two lovers’ world upside down…as we see a drowned how with Elisa floating, as if sleeping in the water. There is other imagery like this that gives the film a surrealist element and from that the fairy tale elements of the love story are given more power in their presentation. I love stories like this (“One-Hundred Years of Solitude, most Haruki Murakami, etc.) and this is one of the best presentations of this type of story.

Fighting Adversity and the Voice of the Voiceless – This is a film about giving voice to the voiceless in both the literal sense (our heroes being a mute and an amphibian creature who cannot speak), Zelda, who is black lady with an oppressive husband and Giles being in the closet and kept out from the wealth he once bad before as the marketing world just sees him as a has been. Each of them are trapped (the monster) or oppressed in different ways in a society that ignores them and it is the rescuing and finally freeing of the monster that Zelda finally speaks up against her husband and calls the cops on the Colonel, Giles fights and defends the monster and Elisa and Elisa transcends as she sacrifices herself to save the creature and her cuts she received as a baby are turned into gills, she is reborn by the creature and free to be with the creature, something that would have never been possible before. It is also her drive that helps the others to change their lives too, as she is directly fighting to system by freeing their “asset.”

Okay: First Act Goes a Little Long – The only real criticism I could find with the film is the first third of the film does go on a little long, but it picks up the moment the rescue plan is put into action by Elisa and after that, it doesn’t stop…and it does a good job setting up the world so I can’t put it is a con.

I highly recommend “The Shape of Water.” This film is going to make my Top 5 films of 2017 and if you are looking for a film where you will notice more each time around, as well simply enjoying a beautiful fairy tale that gives voice to the voiceless and has wonderfully compelling characters, who each get full arcs. I cared about where each their arcs were going, even the villain as no one was as simple as they first appeared to be. The film was all about layers and reveals, both in the nature of the characters and the creature and the payoff of their arcs. Check this film out, if you haven’t yet. Guillermo del Toro has done it again and I can’t wait to see what masterpiece he makes next.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): A Fun Tale of Finding Freedom Through Struggles

Fantastic Mr. Fox

     “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is in no way the best of Wes Anderson’s work…but like all of his works it is a lot of fun and has some pretty amazing characters. There aren’t many characters in it, but the characters who do have arcs get the time and attention they deserve that shows just how complex they are as well as giving some great threats to face as they are all forced to grow.

      The film was directed by Wes Anderson who was also one of the producers and screenplay writers. The other writer was Noah Baumbach and the other producers were Allison Abbate, Scott Rudin and Jeremy Dawson. The story came from the same Roald Dahl book of the same name, which I hope to read.

     The premise follows the story of Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) getting caught in a fox trap where Mr. Fox learns she is pregnant. She makes him promise if they escape to give up stealing food which he agrees to. They settle down in the Tree that is close to three dangerous farmers and are raising their son Ash as Mr. Fox begins to get back into the stealing business with their neighbor Kylie Opossum which gets more complicated when Ash’s cousin Kristofferson arrives making Ash feel like even more of an outcast as he is rejected by his father who pulls Kristofferson into his stealing plots. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: Production – Everything is miniatures and is done with stop motion animation making the film really unique and cool as the animals move like animals and it gives an organic reality to it you would be more hard pressed to find it was done with animation or cgi.

The Script – Wes Anderson’s script is quick and witty and he does a good job paying tribute to Roahl Dahl as there is a dark survivalist undercurrent through the script and the characters are all reckless in different ways as the war with the farmers gets more intense.

The Soundtrack – Alexandre Desplat does a fantastic job with this soundtrack and gives the world a very lived in feel while paying tribute to bluegrass and country which fit with the survival themes of the film.

Badger – Badger is voiced by Bill Murray and is Mr. Fox’s lawyer and he is the one who should have been listened to. He was right about how dangerous the house in the tree was by being close to the farmers and because he was listened to (and his client Mr. Fox harassed the farmers) he and the rest of the forest creatures became refugees. He holds Mr. Fox accountable and like Felicity forces Mr. Fox to take action to right the wrongs he did by his selfish actions.

Kylie Opossum – Is voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky and is one of the folks who sees the big picture in a lot of ways. He has a credit card and good credit, he is happy in his life but is pulled into Mr. Fox’s schemes because he above all else is a follower looking for identity and fun. In the end he finds both as he comes up with his catchphrase (like Mr. Fox’s whistle and wink) and dances with all at the end.

Ash – Ash is played by Jason Shwartzman and is a disgruntled teen through most of the film. His arc is accepting that he is different as he glares and spits a lot but he learns from his mom Felicity that weird runs in their family and when he makes peace with that he is able to accept responsibility in regards to how cruel he was out of jealousy to Kristofferson. His arc is the most solid as when he accepts himself he is able to have a relationship with everyone else around him and shows that it is the strange stuff about us that are part of what make us who we are.

Kristofferson – Kristofferson is one of my favorite characters. He is a calm, talented fox who does yoga who Mr. Fox adopts as a son by pulling him into his schemes. Kristofferson clearly feels grateful as he eventually gets caught by the farmers and used as bate to catch Mr. Fox. He makes peace with Ash as the end and teaches him to meditate. He doesn’t really have an arc but is mostly put together (more so than Mr. Fox) so others learn from his cool. He was voiced by Eric Anderson.

Felicity – Mr Fox’s wife Felicity is the character who is just as reckless as him until she is pregnant with Ash. We learn she always had that risk taking in her though and see that she sees beyond herself more easily than Mr. Fox as she cares for the forest refugees and pulls Mr. Fox out of himself to where he sees the consequences of his actions and works harder to care for others because of it. I really liked her character and Meryl Streep is fantastic.

Mr. Fox – George Clooney owns this role as his addiction to the thrill of the hunt and experiencing great food and drink lead him into trouble. He is a good person at his core but extremely selfish as the farmers were minding their own business until he began stealing from them again. He justifies it initially as he is a wild animal but when he’s reminded he’s also a father and husband he gets his act together and works on making the refugees a home. His arc is getting outside of himself and he eventually gets that as others risk for him forcing him in turn to risk for others.

Okay: Agnes – Is the fox love interest of Kristofferson who makes Ash jealous. She exists mostly as a plot device and isn’t much of a character sadly beyond supporting Kristofferson and eventually becoming friends with Ash.

The Other Minor Characters – There are Otters and Rabbits and a few other creatures who are mostly background. They have great design but aren’t memorable as characters, they aren’t bad either for what it is worth.

The Cons: The Farmers – The farmers are a good threat but they aren’t all that complicated. They are just defending their property and going to great extremes to do so. The fact that they aren’t complicated is one of the things I didn’t like as they weren’t super memorable and could be interchanged with any farmer threat in a film that follows the story of forest creatures…and they are as complex as their last names (Bean, Boggis and Bunce).

    This was an extremely fun film and my second time watching it. My favorite parts were the interactions between Ash and Kristofferson and Mr. Fox and everyone as he is a selfish guy who creates most of the conflict in the first place, and realizes it so much of his arc is trying to make amends. There are constant consequences and there aren’t really any happy endings…it’s bittersweet as the animals are living in the sewers now and the three farmers are still seeking their destruction, but it has hope. Part of what I always like about Wes Anderson films is how bittersweet they are as well as fun and this film captures both those things beautifully. If you like Wes Anderson, chances are you will like this film.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great.