Review: Isle of Dogs

Even the biggest Wes Anderson defender must admit that he’s not for everyone. His style might be unique, but he achieves it by narrowly focusing on bourgeois nostalgia and filling his movie with quirky geniuses, overly-designed tableaus, and 60s pop rarities. But only the most cynical contrarian won’t acknowledge that all of Anderson’s movies feature moments of genuine pathos, no matter how artificial the character or setting.

Every one of his movies, that is, except Isle of Dogs.

On the surface, Isle of Dogs feels like a textbook Anderson movie. Returning to the stop-motion animation he used in the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs features some of the most striking images of Anderson’s career, including a mini-prop plane crashed upon a pile of papers, the wreckage surrounded by a ring of burned orange sheets, a bulbous blonde perm sitting atop a feisty, freckled teen girl’s head. He fills the cast with actors familiar (Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum), inspired (Courtney B. Vance, Greta Gerwig), and, well… is this really the first time Yoko Ono’s been in a Wes Anderson movie?

It has all the right pieces, but Isle of Dogs feels like the piles of garbage and tech lining the film’s backgrounds: individual pieces may seem interesting, but there’s just too much for any one thing to stand out.

The problems begin with the story, which takes a simple “boy and his dog” plot and buries it under too much incident and too little character. Isle of Dogs splits time between two locations in near-future Japan: Megasaki City, where canine-hating Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) plans to eradicate dogs, and the Isle of Trash, a junkyard island occupied by Japan’s exiled dogs. When a pack, lead by the good-hearted Rex (Edward Norton) and the gruff stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), find Kobayashi’s 12-year-old nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) at the crash site, they agree to reunite him with his lost guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Along the way, the heroes uncover a centuries-long anti-dog conspiracy and encounter (among many, many other things) a team of adventuring super-scientists, activist teenagers lead by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Gerwig), and a dog resistance movement.

A master stylist, Anderson has proven himself capable of blending together disparate elements, but the many plots don’t just bog down the narrative Isle of Dogs – they dilute anything potentially interesting. Who wouldn’t love the idea of a gossip-hungry dog voiced by Jeff Goldblum or a modern dystopia modeled on 70’s sci-fi? That sound’s great, but the movie’s stuffed with so much stuff that nothing gets developed beyond those short descriptions. The best it can do is either fall back on thin character arcs, or individual moments of quirk.

And all that’s before we even get to the movie’s cultural politics. Critics smarter than me have already dissected these problems, so I’ll just underscore the issue with the language. While Anderson’s decision to cast Japanese actors in the roles of Japanese humans, who speak in their native language, might seem respectful, the effect creates a barrier for viewers. The dogs, all voiced by English-speaking Western actors, feel more human than the Japanese characters, who express themselves in either a language most viewers don’t understand or in grunts or growls. We relate to the virtuous English speakers, and subliminally see the Japanese speakers as inhuman monsters to be stopped or children to be saved.

Altogether, Isle of Dogs feels too precious, too quirky, and too middle-class white for its own good. It’s exactly the type of movie that the angriest Anderson detractor would imagine in the middle of the most unfair Anderson rant.

Review: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent, an animated production from directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchma, has two things going for it. The first, of course, is the irresistible story of Vincent Van Gogh — the troubled artist whose final 8 years of life produced erratic behavior, some of the most important works of the 19th century, and only one sold painting. The other is its visual style, which Kobiela and Welchman achieve by shooting live action footage, and then projecting it onto canvases, on which a team of artists paint with oil, in the style of Van Gogh. As a result, Loving Vincent offers something unique to animated cinema: the story of an investigation into the death of Vincent Van Gogh, told in the artist’s visual language.

It’s a can’t-miss idea that does not miss, but it doesn’t really satisfy either. While Van Gogh’s biography retains its tragedy and beauty, the quest narrative / murder mystery format employed by Kobiela and Welchman does little to augment the story. The film feels like video game, in which our protagonist — a postmaster’s son (Douglas Booth), charged by his father with delivering Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother and patron Theo — is sent to one character from another. After a few bits of choppy dialogue reveals each new character’s quirk, she or he launches into a soliloquy about Van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk), filling in a few details about the painter’s life before hitting a question that sends the postmaster’s son on a new quest to launch a new info dump.

Despite this mechanical structure, the character actors — including Chris O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, and Game of Thrones’s Jerome Flynn— dig into their monologues and give meaty recitations. However, the film’s visual style here handicaps its actors, blurring their initially expressive eyes and mouths with lines that replicate Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes, and losing their big gestures among the dark black lines.

Take the scene in which the postmaster’s son interviews Doctor Mazery (Bill Thomas). As opposed to the more ellusive Doctor Gachet (Flynn), Van Gogh’s closest living confident and the one who pronounced his death a suicide, Mazery is sprightly and ebbubilant as he argues that Van Gogh was murdered. Thomas puts in a loud and corporeal performance, and the yellow and blues coloring the conversation compliment its vibrancy, but the shuddering effect caused by the brush strokes shifting in each frame mutes the Doctor’s actions.

Ultimately, this effect renders the film too busy to be effective. Van Gogh’s expressive line work lent energy to his static images, but when the pictures move, the viewer’s eye cannot follow the picture to any stable focal point. A few establishing shots capitalize on the filmmaker’s technique, showing children playing along a village street or presenting a church in imposing black and grey. But the directors often cut too quickly to a new scene or character, forcing viewers to orient themselves in a whole new painting. It lacks the patience to match Van Gough’s contemplative tone.

With only a 94 minute runtime, Loving Vincent is a worth watching as an interesting experiment, even if it isn’t a wholly successful experiment.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Transformative Forms of Love (Renewed Mind Movie Talk)

Because I’m the sole writer, editor, and programmer (and, to be honest, viewer) of Renewed Mind Movie Talk, I’ve only done movies I like. Sure, I’ve skipped over some stranger flicks I enjoy in favor of something more popular, and thus more likely to gain viewers, but I haven’t spent time on a movie I didn’t like.

Until I did Beauty and the Beast 2017.

While I appreciated the way the story gave Belle more agency and undercut the “Stockholm Syndrome” problems in the 1991 version, I found it poorly paced, poorly acted, poorly staged, and (most distressingly) full of ugly CG.

After my first viewing, I would have happily ignored the movie from here on out, were it not for my brother urging me to use it on RMMT (in part, it must be said, to annoy his wife).

To my surprise, once I looked closely at the movie’s worldview, I found quite a bit to like. As I discuss in the episode, Beauty and the Beast 2017 imagines a number of different forms of love and their effects on people. More specifically, we see a move away from romantic love to more of an unconditional love. This treatment not only reminded me of Plato’s Phaedrus, but also St. Augustine’s Christian take on the idea of loving God’s image in other people.

So within this ugly and abrasive movie, I found something quite beautiful and compelling. Which kind of reminds me of a movie I saw once…