Is Isle of Dogs Appropriative? (and is that even the right question)?


(L to R): Wes Anderson, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schrieber, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura. The Photo is from Wikipedia where it is credited to Diana Ringo

As promised, I wrote this follow-up piece on Isle of Dogs. To see my original (conventional) review, click here.

Before even going to see Isle of Dogs, I knew it was the subject of controversy. Shortly after its release (almost a month ago now) Justin Chang of the LA Times wrote a review in which he suggests its cultural “sensitivity is lost in translation.” The sirens went off in my head: was Isle of Dogs “Cultural Appropriation!!!?”


I scoured the internet for references to what Chang meant, but only now read his original article. Reading his piece helped reveal that we are in a culture obsessed with buzz-words and categories. Chang’s review in fact balances praise for the film with criticism of how its Japanese subjects are portrayed. Most notably, Chang never explicitly uses the word “appropriation” to frame his disappointment (though I should note that this language does come up more in his discussion with fellow film writer Jen Yamato, also included in the link above).


But in our society of categorization and buzzwords, discussions like the one above are often reduced to the question of “appropriation” versus “appreciation.” Appropriation means using concepts from a marginalized culture in a way that is disrespectful to the source. For example, promoting offensive “cowboy and Indian” tropes by dressing up as a generic indigenous person for Halloween. Appreciation, needless to say, is the opposite of this: it implies reverence and thorough-engagement with the culture that one borrows from.


Chang’s main criticism of Isle of Dogs is its use of language: the dogs speak “dog,” but it is dubbed into English. The film’s humans, meanwhile, primarily speak Japanese. In his original conception of the film, Anderson had decided that this Japanese would not be dubbed, giving it a level of authenticity. This is where Chang sees a problem. Anderson has made numerous films about white people, (a few stand-alone characters are exceptions), and gives those people a chance to express themselves. In Isle of Dogs he has finally made a film about not-white people: and yet, because of his decision about language, the Japanese humans are not given a chance to express themselves.


What Chang has identified is no doubt, on its surface, a problem. There are two potential responses to this. One is that Anderson is not silencing his Japanese characters but simply maintaining a  subversive relationship to language politics by making a film that is not exclusively catered to English audiences. This defence is not particularly strong given that, according to some of the film’s critics (this is a matter I cannot comment on) the Japanese dialogue is not very interesting: it is written to be simple enough that English speakers who do not understand it are not missing out on much. Furthermore, as I will discuss later, Anderson waters down this prima facie subversive use of language by regularly employing (non-subtitle) translator-technologies.


That said, I do find the second defence for Anderson’s use of language to be more convincing: it is that Isle of Dogs is, well, a movie about dogs. Humans cannot understand the nuances of dog barking, but can often figure out more or less what dogs are getting at. In Isle of Dogs this logic is flipped to apply to humans.


Isle of Dog’s other big “cultural appropriation” problem is the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student, who critics of the film point out is yet another example of the white-savior trope (ie a white character who singularly solves the problems of a non-white society). While Walker is not the film’s action hero (that role is split between Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and the dogs), her ideas and spunk are the determining factors in the lead-up to the film’s climax. In short, the “white savior” problem pretty indisputable.


It should be noted, however, that the experience of watching Isle of Dogs is not conducive to seeing Walker as a white saviour. Her initial appearance in the film is somewhat of a joke. Despite Anderson’s initial vision of making his human characters speak un-subtitled Japanese throughout his film, his desire not to hide all of his dialogue behind the language barrier led him to concoct various ways around his no-subtitle rule. In one case, a retro-translation device narrates a phone call between Mayor Kobayashi and his associates. In government presentation sessions, simultaneous translation is provided by an interpreter in a booth (Frances McDormand). The interpreter’s existence is effectively a break-the-fourth-wall joke, as while she exists in the movie’s universe, she only serves to benefit English-speaking audiences rather than any of the film’s characters.

Both the radio and the translation booth fit well into the Anderson universe of beautiful,  vintage artifacts. Every time Anderson introduces a new translation technology audiences are left to marvel at the absurdity of it all, thinking: why is he doing this, wouldn’t subtitling or dubbing have been easier (redundancy/arbitrariness is, of course, yet another charm of the Anderson universe as seen in the opening to The Grand Budapest Hotel)? When, finally, Anderson imports an American human in his world, he is simply taking this redundant-technology joke to the extreme.


The defence of Tracy as an Andersonian-technology-joke, however, can only go so far. Were her appearances brief, or were she a more bumbling hero she would come across as the technology gag she was conceived as. Tracy, however, crystallizes into the film’s resident Hermione Granger.

That all said, does Anderson “appropriate” Japanese culture? Or, despite the Tracy Walker mess-up, does he appreciate it? Again, I find this an unhelpful binary Some critics might say he is appropriative rather than appreciative, as in depicting Japanese architecture and culture without developing deep Japanese characters he is objectifying Japanese society. This point can certainly be raised to suggest that Isle of Dogs does not “appreciate” Japanese culture as deeply as it could have, but I don’t think it adds up to suggesting that the film is “appropriative either.” Anderson is a filmmaker known for his aesthetic. That he draws more upon Japanese imagery than on Japanese personalities does not make him appropriative, it simply means he made yet another Wes Anderson film, this one set in Japan.


Anderson’s Japanese-human characters also do not fit neatly into an appropriation-appreciation binary. While these characters are not necessarily deep, they are not cultural stereotypes either. While some may draw parallels between Mayor Kobayashi and Japan’s fascist past, the character strikes me as far more directly analogical to Donald Trump given his fear-mongering speeches, and given that his political opposition comes from a Science Party (“dang Democrats and their climate change.”). Furthermore, Mayor Kobayashi is showed to have a soft spot as the film reaches its conclusion.


Another character worth noting is the student who Tracy Walker confronts in her first scene. He responds to her with cocky skepticism in mildly-accented-fluent-English. While this minor character’s brief existence does not in itself cleanse Tracy Walker of her white-savior-status, he does address the worst elements of this trope. In engaging with Walker he challenges one of the characteristics of white-saviors: that are voices for a “voiceless,” “helpless” population. While it is still problematic that she alone knows what it takes to save Megasaki, her school mates existence makes clear that Walker doesn’t have to be the only one who could save their city.


When discussing films, the concept of cultural appropriation often goes unseperated from the #OscarsSoWhite movement. While both are concepts that deal with race, however, they are not synonymous. A film cam not “appropriate” any elements from non-white cultures, but still have a whitewashed cast. I’m of the view that cultural-appropriation-based critiques of Isle of Dogs are misguided, but simply because they are using a not-quite-right word. Does Isle of Dogs appropriate from, ie, disrespect Japanese people or culture? I wouldn’t say so. Does it adequately represent Japanese people? I wouldn’t say it does that either.


I can understand where the concept of Tracy Walker comes from. She was born out of the Andersonian script’s need for translator-technology, and, as the story-team grew attached to her, was further imagined in the western cinematic tradition of spunky girls: she’s orphan Annie-meets Lady Bird. It’s this kind of implicit bias that movements like #OscarsSoWhite expose. The idea of a translator was a good one, but why couldn’t she have been an American exchange student of color? Why not a Japanese American? Why not (here’s an Andersonian idea) a Japanese student with a distinct, intricately designed, steam punk outfit who has methodically read every Victorian classic, and, as such, speaks idiosyncratically-fluent English?


Isle of Dogs exists in the context of a world that has grown conscious of Asian under-representation in cinema. As such films about Asian societies that to do break this trend are subject to particular scrutiny, even if as individual works they are not problematic. Isle of Dogs is not a particularly nor singularly problematic film, and should be enjoyed for the innovative piece of animation that it is. That said, we cannot let our affection for this film get in the way of having important conversations about cinema. We can enjoy Wes Anderson films while also hoping that actors like Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura and (why not) Yoko Ono continue to get cast and challenged in them.


Isle of Dogs (2018)

Written and Directed by: Wes Anderson

IsleOfDogsFirstLook       A 12-year old boy (Koyu Rankin) with superficial resemblance to Le Petit Prince crash lands on an island of trash. He meets a team of stray dogs classically named King (Bob Babalan), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), Rex (Edward Norton) and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Four of the dogs eagerly assist the teary-eyed boy on a quest to find his own dog, Spots (Liev Schrieber). Chief, by contrast, is reserved, but we can foresee that he has a soft exterior. What I have just described probably sounds like a children’s movie.

Except, early in this “children’s movie” a dog’s ear is ripped off, and we see it in its bloody glory (violence against dogs is a recurring motif of Wes Anderson’s: needless to say there’s a beautiful, dark irony to referencing the subject into this film). We also learn that the dogs on his trash island are exiles, deported by dictatorial, strong-willed Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), victims of (albeit cartoonish) harsh, populist bigotry. Finally, we are given strong reason to believe that the boy, Atari’s, dog Spots is no longer alive. Suddenly, this film no longer sounds like a children’s movie.

This is an issue Wes Anderson acknowledged at a Q&A, saying it was a question he and his team grappled with in the plot development process: they considered that their film would be quite disturbing for children. Anderson and the audience, however, questioned the dichotomy of thinking of films as being for children or adults, noting the role of anime in Japan. While an audience member pointed out that in America animation is either Frozen or South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut anime films appeal to a spectrum of audiences, and even (eg Spirited Away) straddle the children’s-adult line in uncomfortable ways akin to Isle of Dogs.

While anime was perhaps an influence on Isle of Dogs (Anderson cited his interested in Japanese filmmakers like Miyazaki as the reason for his setting Isle of Dogs in Japan), there is something distinct about Anderson’s approach to not-for-kids animation. As a filmmaker coming from the American context, and as someone whose last animated feature was a Roald Dahl adaptation, Anderson’s decision to make his film not exactly kid-friendly has a (somewhat) shocking affect. Anderson is aware of this tonal quality of his work, and thus doesn’t miss an opportunity to be playfully shocking. A recurring motif in the film is dogs getting into fights. These scraps are covered up by cartoon dust clouds. On the one hand Anderson is depicting his cute doggie characters as fighting, thus disrupting the illusion of his movie being for kids. On the flip side, he covers up the fights with a Looney Tunes style visual-aid, disrupting his adult-darkness.

Isle of Dogs can thus be said to have a distinct aesthetic: a little bit cute, a little bit scrappy, much like its stray protagonists. This aesthetic juxtaposes nicely with Anderson’s established practice of depicting quirkily colourful, yet meticulously organized backgrounds. One of the film’s iconic scenes features the dogs examining a bag of “food,” which is in fact a maggot covered collection of scraps. The food items are meticulously lined up in the bag, and are named one-by-one, complete with adjectives, by one of the dogs. This makes them beautiful, even as, from multiple sensual perspectives they are thoroughly unappealing to human and dog-stomachs alike.

Plot wise, Isle of Dogs is a bit simple, which is not necessarily a bad thing given the film’s pseudo-children’s-movie styling. While it opens beautifully with reference to a heroic young warrior standing up to ancestors of Mayor Kobayashi who wanted to wipe out Japan’s dogs, this legend is never revisited over the course of the script. Mayor Kobayashi’s own anti-dog policies are portrayed “as corruption,” rather than part of a deranged, multi-generational ideology. The uneven depiction of the mayor may have several explanations. Perhaps, like The Shape of Water, Isle of Dogs wants to reference oppressive politics, without muddling its script in the details ideology. Perhaps Anderson wanted to make vague anti-Trump illusions (Kobayashi is not only an anti-dog bigot, but his political opposition comes from “The Science Party” (perhaps reference to Trump and his party’s persistent climate change denial)), while still making his film enjoyable to audiences of all political persuasions.

One might also assume that since Anderson is an aesthetic-driven filmmaker, he saw Kobayashi not so much as a depiction of real world politicians, but as a politician-doll in the elaborate dollhouse of his movie. This third argument makes sense when one considers some of the more effective parts of Kobayashi’s portrayal. For example. there is one scene where the members of Kobayashi’s administration are introduced one by one, as he meticulously explains his devious anti-dog plot. This scene is comedic rather than sinister as it comes across as a gleeful imagining of what cartoon, corrupt politicians could look like, rather than a realistic depiction of an evil scheme. Another example of Kobayashi being a mere “dollhouse villain” comes when a dynamic speech of his is interrupted by an electric sign announcing that it is time for the opposition party to respond to offer a rebuttal. While the opposition (Science Party) is clearly not given a meaningful chance to challenge Kobayashi’s rule, that is given this tokenistic avenue to interrupt Kobayashi is a credit to Anderson’s imagination of the absurd nuances that could exist in a futuristic, oppressive polity.

In all, Isle of Dogs is a visually masterful effort, particularly as it makes use of its multiple genres of animation. Like its predecessor, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it can also be seen as a successful combination of established Andersonian visual techniques with broadly-appealing comedy. It is dark and playful and as such should capture the imaginations of a broad range of viewers from those who appreciate the unmistakably Andersonian tone of Nutmeg the reluctant-show-dog (Scarlett Johansson), to those who simply appreciate a good Yoko Ono cameo.


Note: Isle of Dogs was recently subject to some scrutiny in regards to the question of cultural appropriation. I will be following up with some views on that topic in a separate piece.


Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.

Bambi (1942)

Directed by (supervising): David Hand+many others

Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, etc.

Walt_Disney's_Bambi_posterDespite being a children’s classic, I only saw Bambi for the first time the other day. I knew the basics going in: it was about a deer, and that something tragic, certainly by kids’ movie standards, befalls him. Bambi is a simple film, and therefore the above description does it some justice. Nonetheless, it should be further noted that Bambi has a tone that makes it comparable to few other children’s films. It feels primitive, but not in a bad way.

Had I not done my research, I might have supposed that Bambi was the first ever Disney animated feature-film (it’s not, Snow WhitePinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo all predate it). Through the eyes of its young protagonist, Bambi uncovers the wonders of the woods, and these moments of wondrous discovery have a meta-quality to them. It is as if the animators are not just saying “look Bambi has found water,” but “look at how beautifully we can animate water.”

It is undeniable that Bambi is a film about its aesthetic. The turning of the seasons is another of its important plot points, and a source of the film’s beauty. This is especially noticeable as fall comes around and the animation is simplified to represent the chaos of a hunt. Bambi’s being an aesthetic-focused film is also seen in the way it uses music. Unlike its predecessors, Bambi’s characters don’t sing, instead (as seen in later films like Peter Pan), songs are performed by an invisible chorus. Such a song is used, for instance, to show the pleasant side of raindrops “drip, drip, drip go the April showers.”

But Bambi’s not being a musical simultaneously points to the film’s other provocative trait. Again, many will watch Bambi knowing a major, tragic, spoiler (one out of principal, perhaps absurdly, I won’t spell out). This tragedy has to be understood in context, however. A good point of comparison here would be Finding Nemo. The latter film includes realistic looking fish, living within a realistic looking environment, but within that environment it anthropomorphizes them as much as it reasonably can: a fish can read, and there are sharks that want to be vegetarian. Most importantly, however, it’s protagonist, Marlin, is neurotic. Marlin is not like other fish: a trauma leads him to become uniquely overprotective of his son. Bambi, like Marlin, suffers a trauma, and yet this trauma is not shown to impact Bambi’s psychology. The eeriness of what happens to Bambi therefore, is not simply that it happens to him, but that it is stripped of emotional weight: we are supposed to understand it as part of the life of a deer, and then forget about it. So why do characters as distinct as Snow White, Claude Frollo and Thomas O’Malley sing, but Bambi doesn’t? Because, unlike those and most other Disney characters, Bambi lives without an individualized sense of purpose and struggle.

The oddness of seeing Bambi in contrast to the numerous animated films about animals that have been produced since is that it does not have room for “deer who are not like other deer.” Bambi’s dramas are not the result of his own personality traits, but the inevitable outcome of his being a deer growing up in a world of predators and prey. While I honestly have no idea how I would have reacted to the film had I seen it as a child, in some ways I found it kind of disturbing. The name Bambi has become synonymous with a degree of personality: we think of the expression “Bambi eyes,” and thus associate with the name with gentleness, innocence, flirtatiousness, etc. Maybe there is no one way to be “a Bambi,” but “Bambi” is certainly a way of being. The original Bambi, disappoints or at least defies our expectations in this regard, however. His “Bambiness” is merely a function of his young childhood, and as he grows up he leaves his “Bambiness” behind and becomes indistinguishable from his father (who is himself somewhat of a blank canvass).

There are a number of ways to think about Bambi. One could think of it as being about the woodland-aesthetic, and its decision to star a de-individualized protagonist stems from that. Alternatively, one could posit the opposite theory: the creators decided a deer couldn’t be individualized, and as such Bambi became an aesthetic rather than a plot driven film. Thirdly, perhaps Bambi’s deindividualization is not just the result of a lack of anthropomorphization, but reflective of an old fashioned understanding of masculinity: boys are boys, then they man up and become men; protective, but emotionally distant men.

In short, there is something sets apart the experience of watching Bambi from watching other Disney Classics: it is not so much a story as it is the tracing of a life cycle of a deer. That said, readers who have not seen the work should not mistake my analysis for saying Bambi is an experimental oddity. It more or less has a linear plot, and, like many classic Disney works, it is brightened up via dynamic supporting characters: Thumper, a chipper bunny, Flower, a grateful-for-any-affection skunk, and the gentle curmudgeon Friend Owl. For those whose Disney education is Frozen and Moana, Bambi may feel somewhat unrecognizable, but it can still give children and film fans alike something to appreciate


The Films that Hooked Me: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis

As I eagerly await my chance to see Wes Anderson’s new release, Isle of Dogs, I look back on how seeing the trailer for his previous release sparked my interest in film and, eventually, gave rise to this blog. 

The_Grand_Budapest_HotelIt wasn’t long ago that I would tell you I didn’t watch movies. I didn’t watch TV either. This was not a conscious choice. Rather, I was raised in the kind of household where sitting in front of the TV for unregulated hours was forbidden. By the time I was in middle school I noticed a clear differentiation between myself and my peers. I watched the odd TV show or family movie that my family went to together because it was a good fit for all of us and/or because it was culturally significant (eg Pixar and Harry Potter films). By contrast, my peers were beginning to binge watch live action TV dramas like Lost, Heroes and various crime shows.


My alienation from film viewing was further developed, however, by the movies I did see. The movies that were supposed to excite me didn’t. I got no thrill out of watching action sequences, or the sappy endings to mainstream comedies.


I was twenty years old when my mind began to change. I don’t remember what film I was watching (Dallas Buyers Club would be my guess), but I remember seeing a trailer at Varsity Cinema that struck a unique emotion in me. That trailer was for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember thinking “I’m going to make a point of seeing that movie.” Yet that film was not an adaptation of a young adult series I’d enjoyed. It wasn’t a straightforward comedy with an easily explicable humorous hook either. It wasn’t even about a historical event or subject matter that was important to me. Rather, what struck me about it was precisely that I could not articulate what excited me about it. Sure it seemed amusing: the clips of Ralph Fiennes yelling “lobby boy!” gave off that impression, but I didn’t remember individual jokes. I remembered a melange of things: actors, colors, moods and that word “lobby boy.” In other words, it struck me as impressive as a, well, “film.”


Seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time was a mixed experience for me. I certainly found parts of it funny, but I also had questions. Why, for example, was the film’s opening narration about a writer, who appears in a flashback telling of how (in a flashback) he met the film’s protagonist (“lobby boy”) Zero Mostel, who (via a long flashback) tells the story that is essentially the whole movie? In short, what was the point of the writer, who in no way factors into the story’s action? I probably wouldn’t be bothered by this aspect of the film today, but at the time this narrative inconventionality was something I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for.


Around the same time as The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, another film hit Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Postertheatres. This one, Inside Llewyn Davis, attracted me for less mysterious reasons. It was a film about a folk-singer (I like to think of myself as a folk-singer). It was also written/directed by the Coen brothers, who I knew because they’d directed an adaptation of The Odyssey (O Brother Where Art Thou?).


In short, I was drawn to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, because of its many qualities as a work of art and Inside Llewyn Davis because it was a work by a known writer/director(s). Of course, had my life story been only slightly different, I could reverse those descriptions and they would equally be true. My discovery of Wes Anderson was as important as my re-acquaintance with the Coens. More important than my relationship with either of these directors, however ,was the new way they taught me to appreciate film.


In watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I found a bit of the old me. I liked the movie because of what it was about: because there were characters based off of Jim& Jean and Tom Paxton. Yet there were also frustrating elements to the film in that regard: Llewyn’s interest in pre-Dylan folk and the film’s anti-climactic ending. There were also things that the burgeoning new film fan in me enjoyed. The film incorporated a not yet famous Adam Driver as character that was very memorable, despite being insignificant to the plot. The film also used John Goodman in a similar regard. Goodman’s character has an eerie feel to him that briefly makes him seem like the film’s villain. In fact, however, he’s simply a quirky, self-promoting man with dehabilitating health problems.


Much like Driver’s character, Goodman’s character doesn’t “matter.” Then again, no character in Inside Llewyn Davis really does: the film’s frustrating ending is the revelation that Llewyn’s story is cyclical (a trait also seen in the Coen’s An Irrational Man). As such, Inside Llewyn Davis is not just a narrative, but a diorama: a depiction of Greenwhich village and the universe around it from the perspective of one of the numerous folk singers who did not get to be Bob Dylan. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that John Goodman’s curmudgeony, jazz musician does not serve the function of a traditional villain. He fills an important place in the diorama, sitting in his sunglasses behind his chauffeur, and waiting to capture the viewer’s eye and imagination.


Speaking of dioramas, what film better embodies that metaphor than The Grand Budapest Hotel? While it is a story that takes its protagonists to numerous places, its true soul comes out in every utterance of that phrase “lobby boy!” It is the adventure of a purple uniform as much as it the adventure of its unassuming protagonis. The unfirom dashes through an exquisite pink hotel, which itself exists with in the mind of a man buried in a beautiful, key covered monument. Furthermore, while The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a thoroughly non-traditional story (unlike Inside Llewyn Davis it features a traditional villain), it too is peppered with characters who briskly come in and out (including Owen Wilson’s “Monsieur Chuck”), making them more funky-dolls in a diorama than characters in a story.


By the time I started film-blogging over three years had passed since I watched these films. They changed me, yes, but it wasn’t a change I became aware of at once. In the year following my seeing those titles I continued to see the occasional flick at the suggestion of a film student friend of mine. It took me 10 months before I truly began consuming film on my own. I lived near Toronto’s Bay St Video at the time, and when I had to watch Children of Men for an assignment, I decided to sign up for membership and rent the DVD.


Then, I began to rent more. I rapidly went through all of Wes Anderson’s filmography. I rented Linklater’s Boyhood, the Coen’s A Serious Man as well as a lot of JeanLuc Godard. Having never received a formal film education, I’m sure I missed out on some of the key innovations in Godard’s work. I did however come to appreciate its blatant characteristics: long shots of natural and industrialized environments, philosophical monologues often peppered with references to Marxism and history, and a lack of a traditional storyline: In other words, the oddness of Wes Anderson and the Coens’ approaches to narrative pales in comparison.


The challenge of learning to appreciate works like Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Adieu_au_Langage_poster.pngleft me with a strong desire to parody. For me the mindsets of wanting to parody something, and having genuine sense of affection for it are not too far removed from each other. Therefore, when I made a makeshift, imitation Godard film called “La Mort et la Famille” in the summer of 2015 (just under a year and a half since I’d the two titular films came into my life, and just under two years before I started blogging), it wasn’t just a joke: it was a moment of self discovery. There was (and still is) a lot for me to see, but suddenly I could say it: “I liked movies.”


There is a reason I realized I liked movies then and couldn’t before. For me, my ability to enjoy films if often rooted in my sense of connection with their director and/or writer. I cannot simply be an audience member being entertained (which is why generic, big budget fight scenes don’t do it for me); rather I wanted to admire and philosophize about the idea of crafting the movie before me. In parodying Godard I awakened a way of thinking that had been stirring in my head since I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer. I was now finally seeing films not as standalone pieces of entertainment, but as intertextual expressions of writer-directors’ imaginations.


It took another year and a half for me to first articulate this relationship, however. Moonlight and La, La Land were competing neck and neck for best picture, and in my social media world the competition was tense. This tension was of course political, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement motivating some of the support for Moonlight. To be clear, I agree with this cause and have no interest in arguing with its proponents, however, I did feel that this politicized environment lead to some misguided statements about La, La Land. For those judging the film through a political lens, La, La Land was a predictable repetition of the Hollywood-celebrating-itself trope. If that’s how one saw Damien Chazelle’s movie, I can indeed understand why one would feel it was inferior to Moonlight: a ground-breaking indie film about the intersections of race, sexuality and poverty.


For me, however, La, La Land was far more than its theme. It was, well, a dazzling

LLL d 10_1990.NEF

Chazelle directing La, La Land

diorama: a magical realist extravaganza that guides its protagonists around a world so wondrous and vast that they end up with happy endings while still being miserably lost. That it was about Hollywood and dreams coming true was not what made it entertaining: Chazelle’s world-building skills were.

I used to be the guy who didn’t like movies. Then I became more like “everyone else” and learned to like movies. The 2017 Oscars reminded me that maybe I was still in fact not like everyone else. I never learned to watch movies in the way that others do: I’d rather developed a distinct hobby that was like that of the regular movie goer in that it also involved looking at a film on a screen.


I suppose I could have named this blog post after La, La Land or Godard’s La Chinoise. Other works including Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were also part of that process. That said, I’m going to take the Coen brothers’ approach of going full circle. I started blogging in May 2017, roughly within one month of my re-seeing and re-appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis. I still have a lot to work on: seeing more classics, improving my cinematic vocabulary, and finding more non-white male directors to count amongst my influences. That said, in this regard, I’m not the same person I was 4 years ago, so “…p…p…please Mr. Kennedy, don’t shoot me into outer space,” I hear they don’t have video stores up there.

Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation_(film)Written and Directed by: Alex Garland

I didn’t know much about Annihilation when I went to see it. I knew it was based on a book by acclaimed science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer, whose work I do not know well. I knew it was a science fiction piece and seen as a somewhat important release. I’d also heard it had received mixed reviews. As far as biases go, I was prepared to either like or be disappointed with the film. That’s the right mindset to have as a reviewer.

Quickly, and unsurprisingly, the film struck me as having dystopian qualities. We meet Lena (Natalie Portman), disoriented and under investigation. She is not in trouble per se, but she is in a dreary space. We next discover her profession: she is a biology teacher, a professor apparently, who speaks of cell development in a quasi poetic fashion.

At this point in the film, I was not impressed. I parsed that the film was accessible, yet relatively generic science fiction. The film’s character slowly began to change, however. Firstly, with the introduction of Lena’s brooding husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), and subsequently, as Lena finds herself on a seemingly hopeless expedition: to enter “the shimmer.”

As it transitions from its dark beginning to its defining middle and conclusion, Annihilation adopts several identities. One of its identities is as a film that responds to current demands for better representation in cinema. On her journey into the shimmer, Lena is accompanied by four other women, two of whom are women of color. In the scene in which this group is introduced, the fact that they are all women is plainly stated. A throwaway reference to one of them, a paramedic named Anya (Gina Rodriguez), being lesbian is also included. The scene raises interesting questions about what representation means. Annihilation , is not the Ghostbusters remake; it exists for reasons other than simply making representation happen. Nonetheless, the filmmakers clearly didn’t want this representation to go unnoticed, and as such announces its presence to the audience. In order for us to transition from an age of white male dominated cinema to an age of more inclusiveness, is it necessary for films to announce what they are doing, or is subtlety the best path? I don’t think I can answer that question in one sentence if at all. Annihilation, plays an interesting role in this discussion, however, in that its political moment is brief, making it more of a post-modern interruption than a dominant character train of the film. From that scene on, any further commentary the film makes on gender is done subtly. One interesting feature in the film is that Lena’s interrogation (which chronologically takes place after the main events of the movie) is conducted by a male led team, whereas when she arrives the film’s central research facility is female dominated. While this detail is never directly commented on, it is at very least, provocactive. Does it suggest that even when a marginalized demographic briefly experiences power, that a slight mishap can take it away again?

Another of Annihilation’s identities is as a Wizard of Oz like story: one that transitions from color to darkness. While there is no munchkinland in the shimmer, it has more in common with Oz than meets the eye (and the colourful appearance it shares with Oz certainly meets the eyes). Both Oz and the Shimmer are world’s the protagonist enter almost with the preset goal of escaping. Secondly, both worlds are escapes themselves: albeit Oz is supposed to be a Utopian one, where as the shimmer is an escape resemblant of self harm (a comparison made explicitly in the film).

Once in the shimmer, the film truly comes to life. One of Annihilation’s unique characteristics is that its “brilliant scientist” protagonist, is not a physicist/inventor, but a biologist. The first time we see Lena’s genius is thus when she looks at a selection of flowers, and observes the oddity of them growing on the same stem. This moment may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it in fact speaks to the larger character of the film. The flowers show what is “wrong” with the shimmer, and yet they are beautiful. We see this contradiction again as the protagonists study the fascinating teeth of an enormous crocodile that tried to kill them or marvel at beautiful plant structures that may very well be human corpses.

Once Annihilation’s scenery grows colourful, its characters do as well. When we first meet Lena’s travelling game, we are left to wonder how many of them we will actually remember when the film closes. They seem indistinghuishable: one character multiplied to be 3 so that there are more bodies to scream and hold guns. Annihilation, ultimately does differentiate its characters, howeverm particularly Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who cannot mentally help herself. While in one case this character development follows a dramatic trajectory, for the most part these characters are developed at an appropriately realistic pace, making them not just memorable, but effective.

As it reaches its dramatic conclusion, Annihilation continues to become more dramatic, and replete with wonderful beauty. Another of its strong traits is that it regularly cuts to scenes of Lena’s life either in the past or in the future/present (where she is being interrogated). Most these time jumps is used to make a dramatic revelation about Lena’s story. While some may view this as cheating (ie not depicting the drama directly on camera) I see it as a fascinating narrative device: it gives the twists more weight in that we don’t see them played out, but rapper have them dropped upon us like an ice cube.

Annihilation’s merits as science fiction are questionable. There are a number of phenomenon in the film that go unexplained by the film’s brief address of its underlying scientific mechanisms. Nonetheless, if viewers do not look for ways to tear the film apart, they should not be disappointed in this colourful, heartfelt, dystopian drama.



The Beaver (2011)

Directed by: Jodie Foster Written by: Kyle Killen

The_Beaver_PosterRoger Ebert wasn’t quite impressed with The Beaver writing “”The Beaver” is almost successful, despite the premise of its screenplay.” In response to this comment I cannot help but ask, what premise is Ebert referring to? The Beaver features four main characters: a severely depressed businessman named Walter Black (Mel Gibson), Meredith his wife (Jodie Foster), his son Porter (Aton Yelchin) and Norah, the class valedictorian on whom Porter has a crush (Jennifer Lawrence). The Beaver is thus the tale of two romantic relationships, that are connected due to Porter and Walter appeared being part of a multi-generational chain of fathers raising sons who hate their fathers.


While I must admit I am not familiar with the intricacies of Roger Ebert’s tastes, something tells me it is not this premise he is referring to. Rather, it is the film’s more obvious premise: the Australian beaver puppet on Walter Black’s hand.


Ebert, it seems, is troubled by a trait that I quite enjoy in film: multi-tonality. He complains that whatever compelling seriousness is in The Beaver is ruined by the absurd premise of an adult man dealing with his depression by expressing himself through a hand puppet. In this respect, I will have to denounce Ebert’s reactionary curmudgeonness. The moments that The Beaver pushes us closest to the ends of our seat are in fact the moments when Walter takes his commitment to the puppet to the next level. Sure, we can accept that the puppet is part of his life, but is he really taking it out at work; is he really talking to it himself; is he seriously using it to have a threesome?


There is nonetheless some truth in Ebert’s reaction. The Beaver strikes me as a film that’s not sure if it wants to be indie or not. The film’s plot relies on Walter’s commitment to the beaver, and the other character’s bewilderment and frustration with it. There’s something about the degree of this bewilderment and frustration that undermines the film. It’s almost as if rather than boldly being a work with an unusual take on human psychology, The Beaver simply puts that psychology forward for the sake of it being taken apart and pulled back towards normalcy.


This problem is most apparent when one considers that The Beaver implies that Porter is at risk of following in Walter’s footsteps. While Porter has his share of self-destructive behaviors his storyline feels less inspired than Walter’s. In one scene, for example, he makes an inappropriate comment to a character about suicide. If Porter were written a little differently this could have been a defining moment for him: his problem could be that he is empathetic but is pathologically bad at expressing his empathy. His problem could also be that he has no filter. Neither of these approaches are used, however. Instead, Porter is simply a relatively ordinary, angsty-teen protagonist whose blatant expression of his feelings is used when the plot needs advancing.


So perhaps Ebert was right: The Beaver is almost successful. It makes a traditionally tough-guy actor vulnerable through his unique relationship with his puppet. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the film’s imaginative quality and this excellent premise is not played out to its full potential.