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: A Quiet Place

“I’m just a father with a good imagination. In my imagination, I lose my children every day.”

That’s the response author John Irving gave to a reader who asked how he, a father, could write The World According to Garp, a novel filled with lurid scenes of child-peril. Nearly every parent can identify with the experience of seeing the world as a giant death-trap, waiting to snatch away the children whose safety we need to ensure and whose innocence we want to prolong.

A Quiet Place makes those fears explicit, following a family of four still reeling from the loss of one child while preparing for the birth of another. Also, they’re surrounded by unkillable, super-fast beasties with incredibly sensitive hearing. Any noise louder than a gasp means instant death. And kids, any parent can tell you, are sentient balls of noise.

It’s to the credit of director John Krasinski, who also stars as the family patriarch, that we immediately buy into this premise and rarely question its “whys” and “hows.” Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen confidently move the camera through spaces occupied by the family, showing not only their day to day silent lives, but their familial interactions.

In fact, as impressive as the movie’s direction and world design may be, it’s really the film’s attention to family dynamics that makes it work. A Quiet Place takes time to show these characters as people trying their best to live together and support one another, lingering on kids playing games or the father teaching his son (Noah Jupe) how to fish.

Krasinski’s character, haunted by the loss of his child and desperate to keep his children safe, follows the usual “stoic dad” tropes, but finds new ways of interpreting the stock figure by limiting expression to looks of concern or silent shushing. As the mother, Emily Blunt gets far more to do, nurturing her children with a silly face or a soft hand on their heads, and later trying to deliver a child without making a sound.

But while Jupe’s job is mostly to react with worry to real or imagined threats, the standout here is Millicent Simmonds as the older sister. As a deaf girl living with both the guilt of her role in the younger brother’s death and a world where noise means instant death, the movie stacks a little too much drama on her character. But Simmonds manages to ground her character, making her adolescent rebellion as believable as it is ill-advised.

The movie works best when its set-pieces harness our own parental fears and our concern for these characters. But it also fails when it forgets how much we’ve bought into its rules. The monster’s hearing sensitivity fluctuates in the last act, and special arrangements become fuzzy.

This last part is particularly problematic, as the film too often loses track of characters while focusing on the threats facing others. Instead of fully engaging in the plight of those we see, viewers find ourselves distracted by the absence of others. Rather than build tension, this approach makes us frustrated with the characters. The most egregious example occurs when, shortly after an attack, mom and dad give one another a pep-talk about how their entire identities are built on protecting their kids. Instead of thinking, “Being a parent is tough and admirable,” we viewers find ourselves shouting (quietly, so as not to prompt an attack), “Go get your kids, morons!”

Fortunately, those moments are few, and the movie finds some new way to imperil a kid, thus triggering our protective instincts and getting us drawn right back into the dangerous world of A Quiet Place.

Review: Ready Player One

In The Society of the Spectacle, French theorist Guy Debord argues that mass culture MASTER CHIEF JUST SHOT FREDDY KRUEGER! which Jean Baudrillard further develops, most famously in Similarity and THAT’S THE BACK TO THE FUTURE THEME! But the most damning indictment of mass entertainment THE IRON GIANT! Adorno’s essay in A RUBIK’S CUBE! AN ATARI 2600! CHUCKY!

That’s kind of what it’s like watch Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One. Well, that’s what the good parts are like,  anyway. The bad parts, which fill out the movie’s entire back half, consist of little more than no-stakes action and treacle that you would expect in a parody of a Spielberg movie.

An adaptation of the cult novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One takes place in the near future, where some sort of cataclysm has put an evil corporation in near totalitarian control and leaves the commoners in a squalor they escape via a virtual reality game called “The Oasis”, created by enigmatic game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance).

Theoretically, there must be a lot of fun stuff to do in the Oasis, but nearly everyone’s attention is directed toward a series of three challenges that Halliday programed into the game before he died. Whoever completes that challenge gains control of the Oasis.

Nearly everyone wants to win the challenge, including Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays under the name Parzival (after the knight who went alone to find the Holy Grail). Owning the Oasis would give Wade the financial resources to live somewhere nicer than his trailer park in Columbus, Ohio. Conversely, evil businessman Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) and his megacorporation 101 wants those resources to ruin the Oasis with ads, thus gaining more money. And to get that money, he spends a ton of money on VR facilities and an army of troopers who play the game to win the prize and… make more money?

None of this makes sense if you spend too much time thinking about it, because at its heart, Ready Player One is a video game that all of us watch and none of us play. The good guys come together in avatars made of (Warner Brothers owned) pop culture properties and they fight generic looking bad guys to go get the things.

This simplicity isn’t bad in itself, but this movie is ugly, certainly Spielberg’s ugliest since Hook. Spielberg knows his way around an action scene, and there are plenty here, including a sequence in which Wade drives the Back to the Future DeLorean through a racetrack, perused by both a Jurassic Park t-rex and King Kong. The camera swoops around the vehicles and the track and the monsters, set to Alan Silvestri’s stirring recreation of a John Williams score.

It might be all very impressive stuff, if it wasn’t CG. By this point, there’s nothing exciting about seeing what programmers can do with their very expensive computers. Spielberg deserves credit for making sure that we can always tell where the principle characters are in relation to one another – a skill not everyone has, to be sure – but the images are so ugly that we’d rather not look at them.

Worse still, they’re in a video game, so nothing really matters. When Kong nearly smashes Wade’s partner Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), we don’t feel a thrill or concern. If she “dies” she just comes back to life. The movie makes half-hearted attempts to ground the stakes in real life, but the action in these sections is so over the top and silly, it’s hard to discern between the two.

The movie’s attempts at a moral are just as flimsy. There’s a lot of talk that basically boils down to “it’s good to take chances with people in the real world”, but all of this comes in a form of catechizing Oasis founder Halliday. Players repeat to one another Halliday’s favorite movies and books to look for clues, and our heroes learn how to overcome the challenges by basically avoiding the mistakes Halliday made in his real life. Mistakes that basically boil down to “he needed to take chances with people in the real world.”

Of course, most people aren’t watching the movie for its story or its philosophy. They’re watching it to see references to stuff they like, and there’s lots of those. And a lot of them are fun, including a surprising sequence based on The Shining.

But if you made grimace at that thought, then you get a sense of how the movie even screws up the references. The Shining isn’t really the sort of thing that lends itself to a video game romp. Nor does the Iron Giant, who shows up here battling monsters and, yes, even shooting people with his gun.

Even the references, then, fail. Because the movie doesn’t even honor what we love about the stuff it purports to love.

Like the action or the sentiment or the philosophy, the references in Ready Player One show up to give you a momentary visual jolt, and then to forget before you start to think or care about them.

 

Review: Unsane

Tired of being held against her will at Highland Creek Behavioral Center, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) — the frazzled protagonist of Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane —pulls aside a nurse and, in her sweetest voice, thanks the nurse for her care and cooperation, and asks if she could call her family to explain that she’ll be detained for a few days.

The nurse sees right through Sawyer’s ploy, as do we viewers. We’ve already watched with our own eyes Sawyer pull the same move on a coworker and we’ve watched her behave erratically with a date. So no matter how much she insists that she does not belong in a psychiatric home, that she only wanted therapeutic help for trauma from an intense stalker, we don’t believe her.

And that’s kind of a problem, because the last few years have taught us the importance of believing women about their fears and abuse. At its best, Unsane grapples with this issue of trust, turning the iPhone on which Soderbergh shot the film into an unreliable narrator and raising epistemological questions about how we decide who to believe.

It’s disappointing, then, that the movie does no more than suggest these ideas before abandoning them for rote thriller story.

Unsane occasionally asks us to think about what evidence we believe and what we dismiss. The camera shows Sawyer lying to people and admitting to suicide plans, things that make us think she belongs in an institution. But later, Soderbergh’s camera lingers on a room that Sawyer just left to capture people talking about her behind her back or to show us an orderly messing with her meds.

Moving his iPhone in a mechanical manner or positioning it at odd angles, Soderbergh gives the film a surveillance footage appearance, which not only reinforces the sense of paranoia, but also the limited perspective, reminding viewers that we’re always looking at things through our own personal lens.

Soderbergh gives us plenty of frames to help guide that personal lens, in the form of characters who claim to know what’s going on. SNL actor Jay Pharoah is particularly good as a Highland Creek veteran who may be an undercover reporter, as is Joshua Leonard as the orderly that Sawyer believes to be her stalker. These explanations serve as a Rorschach test for viewers, as our preferred explanation says more about our assumptions than it does the actual plot.

That is, until, the movie more or less explains it all. By the time we hit the third act, all truths are revealed, and hunter and hunted play out their roles in a dutiful, if unimaginative fashion.

This shift diminishes the film, not just because the slasher-esque final act is boring, and not just because the first act questions were so compelling. It’s disappointing because Unsane evokes real-world fears about violence against women and the public’s reluctance to believe victims, and subordinates them to nifty iPhone tricks.

Soderbergh has shown himself to be a smarter filmmaker than that, even in his popcorn flicks. Unsane falls short of the standard set for himself, but is even more disappointing for failing to fully address one of the most pressing issues of our time.