Skip to main content

All in favour of Chief fighting the robot dog, say ay.

Isle of Dogs
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I didn’t have very high hopes for Isle of Dogs. While I'm a big Wes Anderson fan, give or take the odd picture (The Life Aquatic just doesn’t do it for me), the trailers almost felt like they were intended as a patience-testing parody of his quirky tableau style. Plus, I wasn't enormously keen on The Fantastic Mr Fox, although that may just have been my wanting a respectful adaptation of Roald Dahl's story, rather than one Wes'd up to the max. Yet this, his sophomore animation, is as a very pleasant surprise. Perhaps because it allows him free rein, without impressing himself on someone else's material. Most of the criticisms aimed at the picture have some validity, but they're very much outweighed by its significant merits.


Devised with regular Anderson collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, who appeared in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the director's idiosyncratic story idea and setting – a near-future Japan in which an attack of "snout fever" among the dog population has seen them exiled to Trash Island, where they must fend for themselves – provides a canvas to explore typically oddball characters, the majority of whom are of the canine persuasion. 


Indeed, the humans barely get a look in, aside from the resolutely impassive Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), nephew of the mayor out to rescue his guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), and Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), the solitary white protagonist out to prove a conspiracy in operation. There's also a Boris Karloff-alike villain, Major Domo (Akira Takayama), who seems to look like that apropos of nothing.


Anderson commented of overlaying the political real world onto various themes in the picture ("Every day we were working on this movie we’d see something in the newspaper and we said, 'that is what we’re writing about'"), but really, most of these elements, of corruption/corporate control, immigration, scapegoating, inhumane imprisonment and torture, don't need the current global environment to resonate, and arguably only the immigration one feels trenchantly of-the-moment. I was put in mind at points of a less terminally-depressing The Plague Dogs, in fact, one with a sense of humour and, if not sunny, an upbeat disposition.


It’s been suggested that Anderson's curious, hermetic world building has on this occasion exposed a degree of perhaps not prejudice but white privilege ignorance, through his aforementioned decision to feature a white saviour who galvanises the undemonstrative Japanese. Then there's also that the (oppressor) Japanese are portrayed in their own language while the (oppressed) dogs speak English. While I can certainly see the reasoning, such a conclusion seems motivated to highlight the filmmakers' choices in the worst possible light; it's a movie designed principally for an English-speaking audience, so Anderson required non-English speaking humans to carry his conceit of identification with the mutts first and foremost. As for the national stereotyping on display, that's more symptomatic of the way cartoons/comedy always go (broad strokes); it comes across as fairly innocuous in this instance. 


To be honest, I was more concerned by the potential prejudice against cats, since the nefarious politicians are all seen with cats beside them, and that this would be another anti-feline screed (see also Cats and Dogs). Anderson did, after all, mutilate a moggy with something approaching savage glee in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fortunately, they aren’t revealed as being behind the entire plot, and Anderson attests that Coppola at least is a cat lover (Anderson remains in between and Schwartzman is a dog hound). 


Mostly, what makes Isle of Dogs irresistible is the interaction between these noble, heroic hounds, with fine vocal performances courtesy of the Anderson repertory (Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Fisher Stevens, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton) as well as a several notable additions, chiefly Bryan Cranston as Chief and Scarlett Johansson as Nutmeg (as with Her, she's a much more effective performer when you can't see her perform). Anderson being Anderson, there's a great deal of drollery, as well as sudden violence ("Sheesh, Igor. I think he chewed your ear off"), such that when Rex, Boss, Duke and King enter a trash compactor, it's entirely feasible that they really are about to be killed off. Keitel gets one of the best, most affecting moments – also darkly comic – informing Chief why he's out of order to call the dogs at the Canine Testing Plant cannibals. 


Where does this rank in the Anderson oeuvre? It's closer to the relaxed amble of Moonrise Kingdom than the firing-on-all-cylinders knockabout of The Grand Budapest Hotel, or the touching dramedy of The Royal Tennenbaums, but Anderson seems to be configured for producing slight pieces of work. It's how he tells them that counts, and Isle of Dogs is delightfully told.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…