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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.