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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Sausage Party

Cast: (voiced by) Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek

Directors: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Writers: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg


In the spirit of Pixar, which has provided emotional portrayals of toys, fish, robots and even emotions, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg posed what seemed to them an innocent question: what if our food had feelings? It did not take them long to realise how messed up that would be, leading to Sausage Party. By venturing into animation, Rogen and Goldberg have found a format that perfectly complements their juvenile and crass sense of humour. The film is able to be coarse and explicit while also being childish. Sausage Party is a movie that appeals to the immature thirteen-year-old in all of us. In a way, it’s a little like South Park if they took out the sharp social commentary and masterfully crafted humour. Sausage Party is vulgar, infantile and dumb and had me laughing in spite of my better judgement many times.

The movie is set in a supermarket called Shopwell’s where every food product dreams of being chosen by one of the gods who will take them to the Great Beyond. Among them is a sausage called Frank and a hot dog bun named Brenda who cannot wait to be chosen together so that they may finally consummate their relationship. However a jar of Honey Mustard who was chosen but then returned by one the gods hysterically declares that everything they’ve been led to believe about the Great Beyond is a lie. After telling Frank to seek out the Firewater, the Honey Mustard commits suicide. His death causes Frank, Brenda, Kareem the lavash, Sammy the bagel and the antagonistic Douche to fall out of their shopping cart and get left behind in the store. Douche is discarded and vows revenge against Frank. Barry, a sausage who had inhabited the same packet as Frank, is taken into the Great Beyond where he learns the secret that drove Honey Mustard to his death. Frank meanwhile leads the others on a quest through the supermarket to discover this terrible truth.

I’ve been dismissive of Rogen’s brand of humour before in such films as Bad Neighbours 2. Personally I’ve found that while these types of films often hold much potential for comedy, a lot of that potential does not get realised because not enough thought or craft goes into their development. The result of this lack of discipline is a bunch of semi-improvised bits and jokes that don’t really go anywhere. This is perhaps why I found Sausage Party to be a more humorously fulfilling experience, because animation is not a format that really lends itself to ad-libbed gags and spontaneous riffing (at least not to the extent that Rogan tends to favour). This was a film that demanded tighter scripting and the comedy is more consistent because of it. The animation also enabled the film to play around with some of the possibilities of visual comedy, as in one sequence that pays homage to Saving Private Ryan.

The humour is typically Rogen/Goldberg-esque and has plenty of stoner jokes, sex jokes, and just plain fucked up jokes with a plethora of food puns for good measure. There are countless ideas in this film from the lesbian taco played by Salma Hayek to the intoxicating effects of bath salts to the explosive finale that made me think “only the imagination of Seth Rogen could’ve come up with this”. I did think that the larger story the film was trying to tell about diversity, tolerance and faith was a little too hammered in and felt kind of unwarranted. It tries to do this in a number of ways such as the inclusion of a Jewish bagel and a Muslim lavash who clash over the differing ideologies until they come together in the weirdest, most shocking way imaginable. There are enough laughs to be had in their depiction of this theme (I had a good chuckle at the German beer declaring his intention to kill all the juice), but overall it felt to me like the film was trying to be smarter than it was or needed to be.

Sausage Party is an outrageous, crude, stupid film and is absolutely hilarious. It is a shameless movie that revels in its debauchery, obscenity and immaturity. Those who enjoy bad taste comedy will find much to enjoy in the film’s utterly disturbing concept, its explicitly graphic imagery that cannot be unseen, and its unrelenting, unabashed perversity and depravity. People will be offended by this film, of that I have no doubt. There are some who won’t appreciate the topical references and others who just won’t be able to handle the film’s more decadent aspects. However, as opposed to something like South Park, Sausage Party is by no means a mean-spirited film. It takes its shots but in truth this film is laughing at itself more than it is at anything else. Getting offended by this movie is a bit like being offended by a loudmouth child with a crude imagination; it’s futile. Sausage Party is a silly, childish film for grown-ups and is a lot of fun to watch.

★★★★

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Cast: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Writers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo


Often when an actor is cast to play an iconic character such as a superhero, it is very difficult for that actor to break away from the role. This is something that Mark Hamill learned when his post-Star Wars career found little success due to his identity being so strongly linked to that of Luke Skywalker. Similarly Bela Lugosi gave such a stellar performance as Dracula that he was forever typecast and cursed to live out the rest of his career playing minor parts in lesser horror films. Michael Keaton suffered the same fate when he left the role of Batman behind in 1992 only for his career to be met with modest success afterwards, an experience that doubtless provided him with a valuable insight into the tortured unhinged psyche of washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson.

Riggan, a role that surely must have been written specially for Keaton, is a former movie star whose career peaked decades earlier when he played the iconic superhero Birdman. Having experienced little success in the years since he left the role behind, he makes a last-ditch effort to save himself from irrelevance, obscurity and mediocrity by writing, directing and starring in a theatrical adaptation of Ray Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This proves to be a tortuous ordeal as he pours everything he has into this production and is faced with family issues, difficult actors, a disdainful critic, and his own deranged mind. His thoughts are constantly at war with one another as he battles with the abusive voice of his alter ego Birdman and his grip on reality loosens as he imagines himself to be a super-heroic figure, performing feats of levitation and telekinesis. Riggan undergoes a psychological breakdown and a lamenting downfall befitting a hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, an appropriate comparison given the inclusion of Macbeth’s soliloquy later on in the film.

Keaton delivers the performance of his career as he impeccably portrays the fanatical personality of Riggan Thomson complete with the erratic mood swings, the conflicting personalities and the desperation of a man at the end of his tether. Riggan finds himself in a despairing state as his ego is constantly undermined by antagonistic forces. There is the abrasive actor whose undercutting criticisms challenge Riggan’s creative vision. There is also the pompous New York Times critic who resents Riggan for his impudence and ignorance. Most demoralising of all is the cruel voice of Birdman whose abuse constantly puts Riggan down and who insists that he is out of his depth and must return to the glory days of Birdman. So extreme is this inner turmoil that the lines between Riggan and Birdman become blurred and one starts to wonder whether the two are even interchangeable.

Iñárritu’s direction complements Riggan’s rapid and irrational mentality as he shoots and edits the film to look like one continuous take, crammed with paranoid shakes of the camera and schizophrenic close-ups. The camera moves haphazardly from room to room and follows character after character as hours or even entire days fly by in a single motion. This is a film that never stops moving and that never allows the audience to feel comfortable. The chaotic and frenzied tone that Iñárritu conveys deftly hides the fact that every scene must have had to be precisely timed and rigorously choreographed in order for them to be properly captured. The inclusion of an original score played mostly on the drums also adds to the hectic tone.

Although Birdman is very much Keaton’s film the supporting cast is also worthy of praise, particularly Edward Norton and Emma Stone (who, perhaps not coincidentally, are also famous for starring in superhero films). Norton plays the brilliant but unstable and hot-blooded method actor Mike who constantly challenges Riggan as a writer, director and actor, and who actively insists on drinking real gin and on being threatened by a more realistic looking gun while on stage in order for the act to “feel real”. Stone plays Riggan’s daughter Sam, a recovering drug addict who resents her father, despite not quite knowing why, and who lashes out because of him. Both actors portray their characters with great intensity and fury while also allowing some humanity to balance out the absurdity. The cast also includes Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and producer trying to stop everything from falling apart, Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress finally getting her big break on Broadway, Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s discontented girlfriend, Lindsay Duncan as the critic who has set out to destroy Riggan, and Amy Ryan as Riggan’s ex-wife who perhaps knows him better than he knows himself.

Birdman is a challenging film that raises many questions. How much of what happens takes place in Riggan’s head and how much of it is real? Are Riggan and Birdman separate personalities or are they one and the same? What happens at the end and what does it mean? These questions are never given any explicit answers and perhaps they aren’t supposed to. After all it isn’t called The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance for nothing. Half of the fun is in not knowing. Regardless, Birdman is an immensely creative and compelling film that invites the viewer to not just watch, but rather to experience a story. It is a unique and unusual film that can understandably be daunting or even frustrating for anyone more preferential towards films with traditional narrative structures. Having only seen it once I cannot claim to have completely figured this film out and maybe I never will. However I can claim to have been exceedingly fascinated, mentally stimulated, and thoroughly entertained by this film and I look forward to the prospect of watching it again.

★★★★★