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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Lady Bird

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig


Lady Bird has a note-perfect opening scene that accomplishes more than some movies do in their entire runtime. It features the titular Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sitting together in a car. They are on their way back to their home in Sacramento after visiting a state university and are both in tears as they listen to the final seconds of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath audio book. In that brief moment they are emotionally in sync with one another, but that changes as soon as they start talking about Lady Bird’s future. Despite her mother’s wish that she go to an affordable in-state college, Lady Bird is impatient to leave Sacramento and travel to someplace like New York, “where the culture is”. This erupts into an argument that Lady Bird ends by jumping out of the running car. It sets exactly the right tone, packs so much humour and conflict in the mother-daughter exchange, and ends in such a jarringly unexpected way that if Lady Bird had ended up being nothing more than a five-minute short film, I still would have been satisfied.

There’s plenty more to come though. We next see Lady Bird being fitted with a cast on her arm and proceed to follow her as she completes her final year at school. Over the course of that year Lady Bird joins the school’s theatre programme with her best friend Julie (Beannie Feldstein), she dates two guys, good-mannered Catholic boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and rebellious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and loses her virginity, and she conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to Columbia behind her mother’s back. She also learns a few things along the way, like how much her family is struggling financially ever since her father was laid off, forcing her mother to work double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, and how much she still has to learn about life, love, and herself. This is not a plot driven story; it works more like a chain of short episodes in the life of 17-year-old Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, on her passage into adulthood, detailing the lessons, troubles, and pleasures she experiences along the way.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and based largely on her own experiences as a Catholic teenager in California, there is a definite sense of time and place to this film as well as a strong authentic voice. The film is set in 2002, where people are still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it’s just one of many reasons why Marion is so apprehensive about her daughter moving to New York City) and where the modern digital age hasn’t quite fully arrived yet. By setting the film in her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig is able to create a backdrop that feels both lived-in and intimate, partly through her use of impeccably-cast character actors such as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leave sound, memorable impressions in their few minutes of screen time, and also through the investment in detail that could only have been provided by one who has lived this life. From the subsiding middle-class lifestyle that the family lives to the Catholic rituals practiced at the school to the specific atmosphere of the city of Sacramento in 2002, the film is filled with features from Gerwig’s life that she is able to depict in a personal and familiar way with a few little touches.

The key relationship at the heart of this film is that between Lady Bird and her mother. Far from the docile Irish girl she played in Brooklyn, Ronan is utterly boisterous as the restless, defiant Lady Bird. As a character who is impatient for her life to begin but still doesn’t quite understand that she doesn’t yet know what she doesn’t know, Ronan hit that perfect balance between acuity and naiveté and is able to be sensitive and vulnerable while still being impulsive and imprudent. Metcalf meanwhile plays her exasperated passive-aggressive mother with a truly profound sense of world-weariness and maternal affection in equal measure. That she loves her daughter is never in doubt, but she doesn’t always know how best to express it and oftentimes doesn’t have the patience for her teenage angst on top of everything else she has to deal with. There is a scene near the end that focuses squarely on Metcalf’s face for a prolonged, unspoken take in which her performance reaches a moving, heartbreaking peak. In their scenes together the mother and daughter are constantly playing jump-rope with the line between familial harmony and antagonistic quarrelling, as in one moment where they go shopping together and switch from having a heated argument to cooing over a pretty dress in one second flat.

Lady Bird is a thoroughly enjoyable film full of humour, insight and heart. It can occasionally be a little too repetitive and is sometimes a little evasive when faced with a moment that threatens to be too hard-hitting or upsetting. But then that evasiveness is pretty characteristic for a film where the main character throws herself out of a moving car in order to escape an argument with her mother. While I cannot fault a film for being true to its own character, there were still one or two moments where I would’ve liked to see Gerwig follow a moment through and see where it led. Anyway, none of that is a slight against the many things that the film does well. Lady Bird treats its story with much honesty and authenticity, Ronan continues to shine as one of the best young actors working today and brings much humanity and warmth to what is often an unlikeable character (and ditto to Metcalf), and the film at its best is irresistibly funny and affective. I hope this will be the first of many films in Gerwig’s career as a director.

★★★★

Jackie

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Writer: Noah Oppenheim


Of all the American presidents, Kennedy is perhaps the most mythologised. After a less than three-year presidency that came to a sudden, tragic end, he is remembered by many as one of the greatest in the country’s history. The Kennedy administration is often seen as a lost golden age for the country, a time of hope and endless possibilities. So strong is his this idea that the spots on his record such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his notorious womanising have done nothing to tarnish it. Kennedy’s legacy has been such a driving force in American history that it’s easy to forget that it is ultimately a myth. Although Kennedy was indeed an impressive man and a good president with great ideas, his legacy carries a sense of idealism and romance that no real person could possibly embody. Camelot, as it came to be called, is an idea that his since immortalised the memory of John F. Kennedy. This film tells the story of the legend’s author, Jackie Kennedy, the President’s beloved and equally impressive First Lady.

Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) set out deliver this message to the world when she summoned Life journalist Theodore H. White for an interview a week after her husband’s death. The film provides a fictionalised version of this interview with a journalist played by Billy Crudup. Thus we are given an account of Jackie’s days as the First Lady. The film follows her from the early days to her famous TV tour of the White House to the day of the assassination. As her brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) takes control of the situation, Jackie must all at once process the terrible shock that has occurred, work out how best to mourn the man who has inspired so many conflicting emotions within her, and decide what role she must play in defining the late president’s legacy. To this end she seeks guidance from such confidantes as Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).

In the days following the President’s assassination the First Lady’s state of mind is disordered and fragmented and the story’s structure reflects that. The film jumps back and forth in time and creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of a woman going through an unimaginable crisis. Before, she was a dutiful wife whose whole identity was defined by her husband’s pursuits and ambition. Upon his death she no longer knows who she’s supposed to be, she only knows that she cannot be her own person. She still has a duty to perform and her grief and distress is secondary to that of the country. Privately she finds that she must confront her feelings towards her husband, a man whose life dominated her own and who was unfaithful to her, in order to grieve and mourn him. This is something she has to do alone as she finds herself largely neglected by those who are more concerned with the political effects of this tragedy. Upon the death of the nation’s leader the need to swear in his successor as soon as possible is so paramount that hardly anyone notices the widow sitting in the adjacent room on the plane still wearing the dress stained with her husband’s blood.

Natalie Portman is a tour de force as the bereaved First Lady. Her speech and expressions are wonderfully deliberate as she conveys a character putting on a performance, donning a number of masks depending on who Jackie needs or is required to be. In the 1961 documentary she is the gracious, glamorous host introducing the world to a new kind of White House with a new kind of president. At Kennedy’s funeral (which she makes sure is elaborate enough for the President to be remembered like Lincoln, rather than forgotten like Garfield and McKinley), she is the strong, devoted wife putting on a brave face for her children and the public. With the journalist she is the composed, antagonistic narrator, adamant that not a single word will be printed without her approval. The moments when her masks drop and we see her true vulnerable self are devastatingly affective as are her moments of endurance and determination as she takes control of her own life and her husband’s legacy. The astonishing layers Portman brings to the character as she balances the complex, often-conflicting motivations and emotions are simply breathtaking.

“This will be your version of what happened” says the journalist as he begins his interview with the First Lady. This is a film that has set out to tell Jacqueline Kennedy’s story on her own terms and it does so without convention or sentimentality. Oppenheim’s screenplay is startling in the liberties it takes, depicting Jackie in her most private, vulnerable moments. The movie is by all means a fiction, in that it isn’t based on any credited sources, but the profound insights it conveys through this complex, fascinating woman are still deeply moving and strikingly authentic. Equally striking are the visual aspects from the beautifully intimate cinematography to the alluring costumes, as well as the mesmerising score accompanying them. Jackie is a wholly remarkable film that defies the conventions of the traditional biographical films that tend to emerge around awards season. It is a captivating, challenging and stunningly sincere picture of grief, identity and myth.

★★★★★