Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★

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A Wrinkle in Time

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writers: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell


A Wrinkle in Time is a noble, well-intentioned film with a lot to root for. It marks the first instance of a female African-American director helming a $100 million fantasy blockbuster, it boasts a richly diverse cast, and its central message is about love and acceptance of yourselves and others. Good intentions however do not a great film make, and those intentions can even work against the film when they take precedence over story, character, sensation, and everything else that makes for great cinema. So strong is this film’s desire to celebrate liberalism and to be inspirational that it cannot help but lead its viewers by the hand at every turn and ensure that none of the morals get lost on them. The film is quite clearly targeted at a young audience of 6 to 12 year olds and isn’t embarrassed about it (nor should it be), yet it doesn’t seem to trust them enough to rely on their own imaginations and to learn the lessons through inference. The movie spoon-feeds us its rhetoric so forcefully that its message of empowerment and affirmation loses all power and meaning, making for an unfulfilling watch.

The film tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid), an introverted teenage girl with low self-esteem. She possesses a curious, inquisitive mind and an unfathomable fascination with the world around her that she shares with her scientist father Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared without a trace four years ago. Since then Meg has lived a withdrawn and lonely life; she underperforms at school, has no friends to speak of, and she lashes out when attacked by her bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). While Meg and her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) continue to mourn their loss, her prodigious, six-year-old adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), relentless in his optimism, provides a source of joy and comfort for them both. These early scenes are the most affective in the whole movie as we get a strong sense of the affection that Meg shares with her family and of her adolescent troubles.

Meg soon learns that her father is still alive and that he has been lost in space ever since solving the mystery of the tesseract, a mode of travel that can cross dimensions. She, Charles Wallace, and would-be boyfriend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) are invited to help search for him by three celestial beings. These are Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatter-brained, unearthly woman who hasn’t quite mastered keeping her thoughts to herself, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations attributed to such great thinkers and artists of the world as Shakespeare, Buddha, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who towers over everybody else and looks as regal as a deity played by Oprah ought to look. She reveals that Meg’s father is trapped on the planet Camazotz, home of the dark force known as the IT, and that it is up to Meg to find and rescue him in a journey across time and space.

The adventure that follows however doesn’t feel very adventurous. Meg doesn’t so much set out on a quest as she does get carried along one (by a flying lettuce creature no less), get told what to do, and be reminded at every turn about how special and extraordinary she is. Even when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must make it on their own in the third act, the conclusion still feels far too easy considering the universe-shaking, existence-threatening stakes that were set up. It would be like if Frodo simply flew to Mordor on the back of an eagle with Sam and Gandalf showering him with praise and support the whole way and then ultimately defeated Sauron by learning to love himself. I get that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that in order for a story with a quest to feel like an adventure, a journey with obstacles and trials has to actually take place. There is no sense of urgency propelling them from place to place and no tension in the tasks they must complete. The movie is instead so focused on validating Meg as a heroine and making sure that the children who relate to her are empowered by her victory that it neglects to make the journey itself all that interesting.

If the intention was for Meg to be a passive participant in a fantastical voyage like Alice or Dorothy that would be one thing, but here she is built up to be a chosen one upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. “Be a warrior”, says Mrs. Which, obviously not intended in a literal Joan of Arc sense but rather in an emotional sense, yet still a role that requires Meg to be more assertive and active than she’s allowed to be. The film doesn’t seem to trust that Meg’s positive qualities will make themselves evident to the viewer if displayed through actions and instead must assure us whenever possible that she is a great person capable of great things. Even when her wits and scientific know-how actually help to get them out of a spot when they’re caught up in a twister, the movie still has to stop for a second so that Calvin can remark on how incredible Meg is. Reid for her part delivers a remarkably confident performance and does a terrific job of showcasing Meg as the complex and flawed character that she is. I wish this film showed half as much confidence in depicting her arc.

What’s equally as disheartening is that the film’s visuals and style are shockingly weak given what DuVernay has proven herself capable of crafting as a director with films like Selma. There are some neat looking visuals such as the designs of the three Mrs. Ws and the orange corridor where Dr. Murray is trapped, but then there are others that just look bland and unoriginal. The dark forest where the kids wind up upon reaching Camazotz looks like any other foreboding forest you’ve ever seen. The use of CGI in the cave in the scene with the balancing stones and with the aforementioned flying lettuce creature is so fake looking that they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Disney Channel TV Movie. Even when we get a nice-looking setting like on the planet with the resplendent grass, shimmering lake, and colourful flowers, we don’t get to appreciate them much because DuVernay makes continuous use of tightly framed medium and close-up shots with seldom an establishing shot. The staging of each scene is often so awkward that it almost seems like some of the performers are acting in different films. It was only in the creepy, nightmarish neighbourhood scene where we see a row of children bouncing their basketballs in unison that I was reminded of what a great director DuVernay can actually be.

I really did want to like this film because I like what it’s trying to be. I like the message that it wants to convey, I like that it takes chances and risks and tries to do something a little different, and I like cast and crew involved. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are still fun to watch even in their roles as glorified exposition spouters, Pine continues to prove himself the most versatile of the Hollywood Chrises, and Reid is a star in the making. There’s even a fun Zach Galifianakis cameo to enjoy. I did find Charles Wallace pretty insufferable, but a lot of people seem to like him so maybe that’s just me. A Wrinkle in Time however is simply not a good film. The story is incoherent and not compelling, there isn’t nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance, and the liberal ‘believe in yourself’ rhetoric is so constant, generic, and is hammered in so much that the ultimate lesson loses whatever power it might have had in the original L’Engle novel (which I have not read). I suppose the film is fun enough that it might work alright for its target audience, especially those who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented on screen, and maybe for them that’ll be enough. All that I, a 25-year-old white guy, can really say is that it didn’t work for me.

★★

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons


In the two and a half decades that Hollywood has been attempting to adapt video games into movies, the results have been mixed to say the least, ranging from weak to underwhelming to awful to batshit insane. There are a few in there that are pretty fun to watch despite (or maybe because) of how flawed they are (I would cite Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft as one example of this), but so far there still hasn’t been an all out success. However, I think that Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider has brought us one step closer to realising that dream. It has its flaws, but for me this movie felt life the most competently made, narratively engaging, emotionally affective adaptation so far. The bar is admittedly very low, but I walked from Tomb Raider feeling like I had watched a good, exciting movie that had more thought and creativity put into it than anyone could have expected. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.

Based in part on the 2013 game that rebooted the franchise, the movie follows Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) a young Englishwoman with a privileged upbringing who stands to inherit her father Lord Richard Croft’s (Dominic West) business, wealth and estate following his disappearance. Believing her father to still be alive, Lara refuses and makes a living on her own as a bike courier. In the film’s first action scene we see Lara racing on her bicycle through the streets of London in a ‘fox hunt’. As she navigates the winding streets and dodges all the cars and lorries in her way, her stamina, quick-wittedness, and endurance are put on full display, as is her reckless nature. This incident gets her into trouble and she is bailed out by her father’s business partner Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas), who reasons that the time has come to let her father go.

Upon gaining access to a puzzle box left by her father however, Lara is led by a breadcrumb trail of clues to a secret chamber in the family tomb. There she finds a message from Richard detailing his research into Himiko, a mythical queen who was said to possess extraordinary powers over life and death. Richard, anticipating that this expedition may get him killed, warns Lara to destroy his findings and not to come searching for him. There are no prizes for guessing what Lara does next. She sets out for Hong Kong in search of her father and hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), captain of the Endurance, to escort her across the Devil’s Sea to the island of Yamatai. On the way there, the ship gets caught in a violent storm and Lara is swept away and washed ashore. There she is found by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the leader of the expedition to locate Himito’s tomb and the man responsible for her father’s disappearance. Lara escapes and, lost and alone on the forbidding island, she must survive the perils of the jungle and learn the truth of what lies within Himito’s tomb.

In the game that provided the basis for this film, a greater emphasis was placed on Lara Croft’s character than in previous games and Vikander does a wonderful job of bringing her to life. This Lara is a more emotional person than action heroes are usually allowed to be. The affection she feels for her father is strongly evident, as is the pain she feels in his absence. She is both intelligent and sensitive and those are both sides of her character that the film is as keen to explore as it is her strength. The first time we ever see her kill a man, it is a moment that upsets her on a deep, personal level and she isn’t able to shrug the deed off the way that a more standard, one-dimensional action lead would be able to. It’s fairly typical of action films with female leads to try and make their protagonists stronger and tougher (i.e. more masculine) by giving them the clichéd personality traits we’d expect from a strong and silent killing machine like those Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to play. This movie however puts more thought into its main character’s emotional experience and presents the act of killing as an event that actually matters to someone who feels empathy.

Vikander also delivers an intense and committed performance, making you feel the physicality of every blow she’s dealt and every muscle she strains. What sets Lara Croft apart from, say, Wonder Woman is that she doesn’t have the strength or the constitution to overpower her opponents with ease. The movie thus has to devote much deliberation into figuring out how a woman can plausibly win the upper hand against foes who are physically bigger and stronger than she is and finds the answer in her speed, tactical thinking, endurance, and grit. This is indicative of the level of thought and the attention to detail that the previous Tomb Raider movies lacked and makes for a more compelling film where the physical and emotional experience of its main character is more visceral and more deeply felt. There are a ton of great action scenes that follow, the best of which for me was when Lara gets swept away in a river and narrowly avoids going over a waterfall by clinging herself to a rusted Second World War fighter jet hanging precariously over the edge. Her delivery of “Really?” as she sees the plane start to fall apart is worthy of Indiana Jones.

The movie does have its shortcomings here and there. There are a number of supporting characters who show promise in their first scenes but who never really get the chance to shine. Goggins, who is usually irresistibly enjoyable and wildly charismatic when he plays villains, is pretty forgettable as Vogel. A man who has spent years away from his family in search of Himito’s tomb and has lost his humanity somewhere along the way, there is a tragedy to the character that the movie never finds the time to explore. Another is Lu, a character who suffers from the same abandonment issues as Lara (having lost his own father in that same expedition) and who forms a non-romantic relationship with her built on shared experiences and mutual respect. He is pretty much sidelined in the film’s third act. There are also issues with plotting as the film takes a while to get going and is wont to drag when there isn’t some action taking place.

Still, even putting aside the standard set by video game movies, Tomb Raider is an overall well-made and often thrilling film. It has an emotional core in Lara’s journey as a character and her relationship with her father, and that gives the movie a point of focus that is so often lacking in these adaptations. The absentee father is no stranger to films of this type (even Indiana Jones tackles this theme), but it feels fresher here for having a daughter as the protagonist rather than a son. The efforts of Vikander and West also play no small part in making the story feel that little bit more affective. There is more effort at work in this film than was needed and it pays off not only in Lara’s character and story but in the action scenes as well. While there is still a ways to go before video game movies cease to be a cinematic punch line, Tomb Raider shows that the potential is definitely there. It is compelling, action-packed and surprisingly touching and it also brings to life one of pop culture’s most iconic and badass heroines.

★★★★