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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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

Director: Martin McDonagh

Writer: Martin McDonagh


With all the acclaim and awards love his film has received so far, Three Billboards seems all but set to triumph at the Academy Awards this year. However some have come down so heavily against this film that it’s potential Oscar victory has drawn comparisons to Crash, a film often cited as the worst Best Picture winner of recent years. In either case Three Billboards is certainly one of those films that was destined to receive awards attention. It features a strong cast delivering explosive and quirky performances, the writer/director McDonagh is well-liked and respected, and its story speaks vividly about the world we live in. When a subject this topical is portrayed with such confidence as this movie displays, I think there often comes with that a certain presumption of truth that leads some viewers to accept what’s presented without scrutiny. Clearly there is something about the film that rings true to many viewers and feels timely but, the more I think about what it depicts, the more off it all feels to me.

The film takes place in the fictional Ebbing, a rural, southern town which some months prior saw the brutal murder of a teenage girl. Her grief-stricken mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), angry over the lack of progress in the police investigation, rents three billboards near her home which read, “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The billboards cause uproar in the town, especially with Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the well-liked police chief recently diagnosed with cancer, and James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a drunken, racist officer extremely prone to violence. While Willoughby resents the attack on his character, he nevertheless sympathises with Mildred’s grief and takes the whole thing in stride. Dixon, on the other hand, lashes out against Mildred and those who helped her, leading her to lash back in return. The conflict soon spirals out of control as Mildred and the residents of Ebbing become more and more consumed with anger.

While the film has proven divisive, most people seem to agree its strongest aspect is the portrayal of Mildred as a rage-filled, grief-stricken woman whose anger towards the town for its indifference towards her tragedy is released in a divine fury. In the wake of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement where it looks like the tide is finally turning on the perpetrators of sexual misconduct, there is certainly something glorious in Mildred’s wrath as she instigates an all-out war on the deep-seated misogyny of Ebbing. Although the town understands all too well the loss Mildred has suffered, there still remains an unspoken rule that she must remain silent and not allow her suffering to rock the boat. There is a clear status quo that ‘good men’ such as Willoughby, a mostly respectable man with a beautiful young wife (played by Abbie Cornish) and two cute kids but whose tendency to overlook the wrongdoings of his other officers enables the culture of rampant police brutality, have benefitted from and it is a status quo that the town wants to maintain (even if that means a teenage girl gets raped and murdered every now and then). Enough is enough, says Mildred, who has decided that she will not allow her daughter’s murder to become another sad episode in the town’s history for the residents to forget about; she is going to make sure that the extent of her grief is known whether the townspeople like it or not.

It is a powerful arc and McDormand sells it wonderfully. Her performance is raw and intense as a character who no longer has the patience to contain her pain and anger. Her bitterness has given her a hostile demeanour and a sardonic sense of humour, as we see when she baits the dim-witted Dixon and parries every insult thrown her way with something even more vicious and biting. I don’t think I was as blown away by McDormand as others were, in part because I’ve seen her play a deeper, more fully-realised version of this embittered, wretched, forlorn character in Olive Kitteridge, but it is a great performance none the less. I’m just not sure the story did justice to her character or what she’s supposed to represent. In previous projects like In Bruges McDonagh has had no qualms about writing politically incorrect characters behaving in politically incorrect ways, and in that film at least it works. But with Mildred a lot of these provocations seem like provocations for their own sake. She, just like many of the other characters, drops words like “nigger”, “faggot”, “retard”, and “midget” very matter-of-factly and all it serves to do is get a rise out of the audience. There is no introspection, no attempts to engage with the effect those words have when she uses them.

Things are even more problematic where the Dixon character is concerned. This is someone who we are quite clearly supposed to think of as deplorable; he is a pathetic, idiotic drunkard, an unabashed racist who is known to have tortured a person of colour in police custody, and an impulsively aggressive man whom we see commit acts of brutality. The film makes an attempt to adds layers to this character, establishing that some of his worst qualities come from having grown up with a bigoted and unaffectionate mother and maintaining that Willoughby sees Dixon as a good man deep inside (what leads him to think this, we never find out). The disinterest the film shows in engaging with the prejudices that Mildred may or may not hold extends to Dixon who becomes more central to the story around the half-way point and, even when he experiences a reckoning, it doesn’t happen in a way that challenges his bigotry. While I don’t agree that he is supposed to have redeemed himself by the end, there does seem to be a sense that his past transgressions such as the racially-motivated torture (we never actually meet the victim in question) do not ultimately matter. In fact the few characters we meet who fall victim to these prejudices (Amanda Warren and Darrell Brit-Gibson play the only two black residents of Ebbing we get to meet and Peter Dinklage plays the dwarf who has a soft spot for Mildred) barely amount to characters in their own right. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a hate-filled man like Dixon is incapable of redemption, but he doesn’t get to earn that redemption if the movie cannot muster the same level of empathy for his victims.

I got the sense that McDonagh was ultimately trying to tell a story about justice and retribution in a more spiritual than political sense, but his mistake was picking a setting that was completely alien to what he knows and tackling so many different hot-button issues that he didn’t have enough time to portray any of them adequately. The movie is about sexual violence, then it’s about police brutality, then it’s about miscarriages of justice, domestic abuse, racism, public defamation, and (in one scene) the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. I’m willing to believe the McDonagh did not intend to marginalise the suffering of people of colour in order to humanise a white man, but with a plot this overstuffed the unavoidable result is that something is going to be side-lined or trivialised, and in this case it ended up being matters of race. The missteps in this film’s handling of its subject matter can probably be attributed to McDonagh’s Irish origins. It’s quite clear that he chose this setting without fully understanding or appreciating its history of racial tension and it has seriously backfired on him. Maybe if the story had been set elsewhere (Three Billboards Outside of Galway?) it might have worked, but what we got instead was a misguided mess.

★★