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 in 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, and 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  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.

 

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Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Written by: Mike White Directed by: Miguel Arteta

Beatriz_at_DinnerWhen I walked into the cinema for Beatriz at Dinner, the film’s poster reminded me why I did not have high expectations for the work “The first great film of the Trump Era” reads the third quotation from the top. Having seen the trailer for the film I expected a work with decent-to-very good politics presented too directly and predictably to be interesting. The trailer, for those who haven’t seen it does (in hind-sight) a good job of summarizing the film, but it particularly focuses on the series misogynistic and racist comments made by Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) towards Beatriz (Selma Hayek).

I was ultimately pleasantly surprised, however. My concern was that the film would simply be a reproduction of Trump-like bigotry hurled at a decent, progressive, and mild-mannered latina protagonist: in other words, an extended conversation between good and evil. What I did not anticipate, however, is that the most captivating character in the work is not in fact Strutt, but Beatriz.

Beatriz is first seen caring for her pets: dogs and a goat, in a short but essential scene that gives us a sense of Beatriz’s intrigue independent of her role at the upcoming dinner party. Beatriz is thus already a developed character when the party begins. It is there that we see Beatriz develop another side of her personality: her rage: rage towards the casual racism of Strutt and the others at the party. Contrary to my expectations Beatriz’s rage is not just a stand- in for the collective rage of the many who participate in broader anti-elitist, and anti-racist struggles. Instead, Beatriz’s anger is deeply personal, shaped by her love for animals and her broad ambition to heal. Beatriz’s passions complicate her rage. She is unmistakably a leftist, but she is conflicted as to whether to live as a grounded hippy or a forceful revolutionary. This contradiction complicates her relationship with Kathy(Connie Britton) (the co-host/her one “friend” amongst the diners), in addition to causing Beatriz to feel great self-doubt.

Another of the film’s strengths is the obnoxiousness of the diners other than Strutt (this too is seen in the trailer, but it is overshadowed by Strutt’s bombast). Each diner has a slightly different personality (eg the immature young businessman (Jay Duplass)), yet eerily, none of them (Beatriz excepted of course) seem at all appalled by Strutt’s egotistical, macho brand of capitalism. It is also notable that the casual obnoxiousness of these guests goes un-criticized, while the mostly docile Beatriz is strictly reprimanded for her moments of impoliteness. An interesting nuance of the work is that there are moments where the only guest to see through Beatriz’s “rudeness” and engage with the meaning of her words is Strutt himself.

After watching the film I saw the poster again, this time noting that it features three guests: Kathy on the left, Strutt on the right, and of course a melancholy Beatriz stuck in the middle. Without giving too much away, I appreciated the significance of Kathy appearing on the film’s poster, opposite Strutt, as the two characters could be read as stand-ins for “the liberal” and “the conservative”—for Trump and Clinton.

Beatriz at dinner is no doubt a film of the Trump era, pitting an immigrant-Mexican-American woman against an outspoken conservative businessman. To brand the film as such, however, sells it short. Beatriz at Dinner is simultaneously a film about collectivist (eg anti-racism, environmentalism) political struggle, and a film about an individual’s search for belonging in a cruel world; Its depth and intrigue stems from how these two forms of struggle collide.

 

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Taking_woodstockWritten by: James Schamus, Directed by: Ang Lee

Bob Dylan…The Rolling Stones…these are the mythic figures in the world of Taking Woodstock; their auras shape the movements of the characters. Yet, strangely enough, in this world, we never see the faces of any Woodstock act, let alone Dylan (who didn’t perform at the actual event). As much as I enjoy cameo depictions of historical figures (such as the Presidents in Lee Daniels’ The Butler), taking Woodstock’s non-inclusion of musicians is an important artistic choice.

Rod Stewart, a last minute-no-show for Woodstock later said “seen one outdoor festival, you’ve seen them all.” If Taking Woodstock were about the actual musical icons of hippyism, it likely would have had to find magic where there was none; magic in performers playing songs for the umpteenth time that in themselves may not have contained very much counter-cultural wisdom. Instead, Schamus and Lee have created a film that captures what really made Woodstock a historically important event: its organizers and audience.

The film’s story is of the underdog ilk. On of its underdogs is Elliot Teichberg (stand-up comedian Demetri Martin), the young president of his (miniscule and folksy) town chamber of commerce, who attempts to save his family’s motel business by bringing Woodstock to rural Whitelake, New York. The underdog motif goes beyond Elliot, however. Elliot’s whole generation are underdogs, who gather to collectively form what will be known as Woodstock, despite the anger of Whitelake’s residents.

Watching Taking Woodstock in the age of Trump, sheds fresh light on some of the film’s features. The Teichbergs are a Jewish, and when Whitelakians become unhappy with the looming prospect of hippies destroying their town ,some of them express this by turning to anti-semitism. This is mirrored in how the rise of open bigotry in Trumpian America has been accompanied by a rise in anti-youth language (the bashing of “special snowflakes”).

But could there be a film like Taking Woodstock about this generation? What are millenials? Millenials may be defined by their critics who see them as phone-addicted, entitled, whiny avocado connoisseurs, but do millennials have an internal sense of identity? A common cause? Perhaps not, but the hippy generation(at least in our historical imagining) certainly did. Taking Woodstock’s saviours are thus not Dylan and The Stones, but the young people who idolized them; young people who champion peace and love, and stand strong in the face of opposition from older generations.

Taking Woodstock’s approach of telling the story of a generation comes at a cost. The film has a good ensemble of characters including an alienated, hippy-haired veteran, a transwoman security guard (portrayed not unproblematically, but still positively), and Elliot’s eccentric parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). None of these characters are developed or used enough due to the film’s lack of a story line beyond the festival’s happening. This underdevelopment is perhaps most problematic in the case of Elliot’s mother, a very-stereotypical Jewish matriarch.

Elliot’s character also remains shrouded in mystery, due to his character’s toned-down personality. The real Elliot Tiber (born Teichberg) was gay and attended the Stonewall riots. Taking Woodstock portrays Elliot as a diplomatic figure who can mediate between generations. Elliot’s preference for the ways of his generation, over the conservatism of older Whitelakeians is always depicted as awkward and subtle. Therefore when he kisses a man at a Woodstock party, it comes across more as him participating in an awkward dare than a sincere, liberating, and euphoric expression of his sexuality.

Elliot’s toned-down personality is nonetheless textually and politically significant. Despite his articulateness and relatively-straight-laced behaviour, even he is not fully able to bridge the generational divide and win the respect of older Whitelakians. This contributes to the film’s exploration of intergenerational conflict, and seems particularly relevant in a day and age when social-media has allegedly allowed us to live in political-bubbles, that make it even harder to speak persuasively to our political adversaries or even acknowledge that they exist.

Taking Woodstock is slightly on the long side, and does not have a story that will blow viewers away. At the same time, it is not dull, and its regular introduction of new, charismatic characters will keep viewers engaged, while the film submerses them into its broader celebration of counter culture and the generation that embodied it.