ISLE OF DOGS**** Dog gone wonderful


THIS IS ANOTHER stunningly inventive, richly original and thoroughly charming movie from Wes Anderson. It’s insightful, very witty and beautifully shot. Executed entirely in stop motion animation (that most tedious of movie making styles that took Anderson almost two years to finish) the story is located in Megasaki City, a canton of Japan, sometime in the near future. There the humans mainly speak Japanese (subtitled when you need it; more often than not you can get the drift of the conversations) and the dogs ‘speak’ American.

And there, the town is run by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura from “the Grand Budapest Hotel”), a cat lover, and petty demagogue with the snarl and viciousness of a Mafia don. Mayor Kobayashi has decided that due to a (largely fake news) canine epidemic, humans are no longer safe from dogs. His fiery rhetoric demonizes man’s best friend, all of which are rounded up, caged and shipped off to a deserted island that’s the city’s polluted rubbish dump. Put it another way: The dogs are treated like garbage

What he didn’t reckon with is Atari (Koyu Rankin), his 12 year old adopted and heavily guarded ward. Spots, Atari’s state appointed guard dog has also been caged and shipped off; and Atari (having bravely stolen a battered puddle jumper aircraft) journeys to the island in search of his friend. He’s an unlikely hero: kinda nerdy, family to the dastardly Kobayashi, and with no agenda other than to find his dog.

There he meets the lead pack (or in human terms, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum) along with that foxiest of dogs (Scarlett Johansson). After some inter-canine debate they agree to assist him in his search, and this group of underdogs begin their Odyssey

It’s not to abstruse to relate this story (of dog ostracism) to the populists’ demonisations and disenfranchisements of The Others and their need to cast them out, be they Mexicans, West Indians, Rohingya, Muslims or sundry refugees. Through cartoon exaggeration (and the fact that it’s a Japanese’s nemesis) Anderson summarises every modern tin-pot dictator, from Putin to Trump in his brilliantly realised Mayor Kobayashi. It’s done with the lightest of touches…without a trace of proselytising.

The whole glorious enterprise is energised by what’s obvious in the title (when spoken aloud). Atari, his secret admirer Tracy (Greta Gerwig), and his pack of canine helpers are all driven by the shared values of loyalty and nothing more complicated than the need for love and companionship. They form a Quixotic coalition of samurai driven by this love and the need to do what’s honourable and right. It’s a simple thought that, expressed in a more conventional tale, would simply seem banal. But in the unassuming form of a ‘child’s cartoon’, the cliché “love conquers all” assumes a significance that elevates it to something both touching and timeless.

Anderson wrote the movie with his regular collaborators, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura along with producer Roman Coppola and a grab bag of outstanding art directors and animators: Curt Enderle from “the Boxtrolls”, Paul Harrod, Adam Stockhausen (who also ‘did’ “Ready Player One”) and modellers Charles Fletcher (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”), Ian Mackinnon (“Mars Attacks”) and others.

He’s also brought together a dynamic troupe of actors to voice his creations (most of which were voiced as a group…as opposed to the modern approach of solo v/o’s cut together in a studio) such as Frances McDormand, Harvel Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe , Live Schreiber and Courtney B Vance (apart from those mentioned above)

There has been some carping about cultural appropriation. But it’s misdirected. With “Isle of Dogs”, the director has definitely been barking up the right tree.

 

ISLE OF DOGS. Dir: Wes Anderson. Written by: Anderson and Jason Schwartzman from a story by Kunichi Nomura and Roman Coppola. With: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel etc. Cinematographer: Tristan Oliver (“Fantastic Mr.Fox”). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”)

 

 

Advertisements

READY PLAYER ONE** A Rare Spielberg Miss


This well crafted, but essentially hollow piece of fluff is a well intended and, though full of kinetic whizzbangery, dreadfully dull movie about the dangers of mind-deadening escapism. It’s set a mere three decades into the future in an overcrowded, polluted world where people live one on top of the other in vast slum-like trailer parks made of old container crates. It’s a depressing place where life – work, friendships and escape – is experienced virtually via an immersive, fully networked game, Oasis (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersion Simulation).

In the game, everyone can become the self they want to be via their avatar (Bringing their “game faces”?). The story is set in motion by the discovery that the inventor of the game, Anorak (an underused Mark Rylance slipping into his now clichéd “avuncular” mode) has hidden an Easter egg: three keys that open magical doors. The first to find them wins all the riches and power of Oasis.

Wade Watts, aka Parsival (Tye Sheridan from “X-Men Apocaypse”), and his team of fellow avatars set out to find the keys. Standing in their way is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn…”Rogue One”), nasty minded CEO of a conglomerate that makes most of the virtual reality equipment used in Oasis.

I guess if you’re in to gaming, “Ready Player One” may be your thing. But the whole enterprise, cutely studded with pop movie references (Spielberg’s own Easter eggs) feels more like a virtual movie than a real one. People run, have virtual car chases, things morph into other things, they earn credits, lose credits, gain added lives. Whatever.

Problem is, the thrills aren’t particularly thrilling, the adventure isn’t particular adventurous and the world so meticulously created (by Adam Stockhausen) feels like a (very) poor man’s version of James Cameron’s “Avatar”. Because no matter how much the story switches between the virtual and the real, the people never quite emerge as actual people that you give a damn about.

Oasis is clearly meant to signify (and warn of) the end state of today’s zombified gamers and social media residents. And in the end, the “ta-da” moment of revelation is that it’s better to live in the real world than the fake one, where the players have lost the ability to connect. And this, the movie concludes, is a bad thing. You think so? This is the profound conclusion “Ready Player One” builds toward? Really? That’s it?

All that time, money, labour and Spielberg-ean expertise has lead to that momentous insight? Surely “Ready Player One” is a very clever con. It’s a movie-like experience helmed by a Spielberg avatar. For the genius who gave us Saving Private Ryan, Jaws and Indiana Jones couldn’t really have masterminded this!

It’s definitely a brilliant movie. But only if you live in a virtual world. Meanwhile in our own dystopian era, the truth is out here: Spielberg has been body snatched.

 

READY PLAYER ONE. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Zak Penn (“Lego Marvel’s Avengers”), Ernest Cline (from his novel). With: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”), Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Wiithe, Mark Rylance. Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminiski (everything Spielberg’s done). Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen (“Isle of Dogs”, “Bridge of Spies”)

 

 

 

I, TONYA**** Miracle on Ice


THE DELIGHT OF this movie (apart from Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s compellingly well acted portraits) is that it’s a master-class of tone.

The first delight is that it’s a refreshingly anti-sports movie (And perhaps it needed an Australian -Robbie- to have the guts to produce such). Hollywood continues to force feed its catharsis-hungering audiences with an abundance of sports movies in which plucky underdogs triumph against all odds (and accompanied by soaring scores).

I Tonya is a wonderful round-up of (actual) no-good, staggeringly stupid scumbags who formed the dubious eco system of Tonya Harding’s failed bid to win an Olympic ice skating Gold.

It’s a “bio pic” of Harding’s troubled life leading up to “The Incident” in which her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted in the run up to the games. Tonya didn’t herself assault Kerrigan, but the shocked world blamed her. That was their truth of the matter. Finally, here was a moment of real, newspaper-selling drama in a sport whose only drama comes from the odd fall now and again.

Though the movie is punctuated by the skating and the competitions (with extraordinary CGI that makes you really, really believe that Margot Robbie is herself an Olympic quality ice skater) its focus is on Harding’s bone poor, red-neck life. As a child, she’s horribly emotionally abused by her mother…an unsmiling, bitter, chain smoking, potty- mouthed harridan, whose idea of encouragement is to denigrate and insult her daughter. (It’s a great role for Allison Janney and well deserving of her Oscar).

Mom’s emotional abuse soon turns physical with Tonya’s boyfriend/husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan, Logan Lucky) with whom she shares a destructive, violent relationship. He cuffs her around; she tries to shoot him; they break up, they make up. She bleeds, masks it with make up and still she skates on, wooing audiences with her 3 1/2 turn pike. Hers is a world of relentless violence.

As she says, “I’ve been beaten up all my life; she (Kerrigan) gets one small touch and the whole world goes berserk”

It’s funny.

The narrative flow of the story is tied together with interviews (based on their actual words) of the key players and pitch-perfect asides from Tonya, who turns to the audience from time to time to comment on the action. The characters and their actions are so outlandish, so irony-free, so out of whack with the Happy American Family idea the Olympic committee is looking for, that the heart-breaking trauma and tragedy of their lives is served up in a tone of absurdist, sometimes slapstick, comedy.

The typical Hollywood fare would have played this story for all the gut-wrenching lachrymose drama it could muster. But that would be a false truth. For Australian director Craig Gillepsie (Million Dollar Arm), the truth is more like Theatre of the Absurd. For at its heart, this retelling of the Tonya Harding story is her story…her search for or at least her retelling of her version of the truth. In one of her asides, Tonya says: “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants”

The truth (in life?) is certainly not the typical cliché of “achievement despite adversity”. Truth perhaps lies in the desperate need for the powerful to exercise their power over the powerless: mother over child, husband over wife; even the Olympic committee over its athletes.

I Tonya is also story about the need for love (Tonya dearly wants to be loved…by her mother, her husband, her fans) and the thin partition that separates it from hate. The writing (by Steve Rogers of Kate and Leopold) is very clever. It never caricatures its characters: Jeff is a violent wife beater…but he’s also a man whose ambitions were thwarted by his sense of responsibility to Tonya and who will do anything to help her win (including of course, breaking the law). Tonya’s beastly mother is a person cursed by her inability to express tenderness but whose Dragon-mom’s devotion to her child’s extraordinary talent was clearly an expression of love.

And what a coming out party for Margot Robbie, who up until a year ago seemed just another puff of eye candy (About Time, Focus, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan). 2017 was definitely her year…first in Goodbye Christopher Robin and now this, which story she identified and shepherded to production. Robbie manages to hide her radiant beauty completely in the tough, me-against-the-world, battered scragginess of her character. The surprise is that she too wasn’t even short listed as an Oscar nominee.

Let’s see what 2018 brings for her

 

I, TONYA. Dir: Craig Gillespie, With: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson (Masters of Sex). Writer: Steven Rogers. Cinematographer: Nicolas Karakatsanis. Production Design: Jade Healy (A Ghost Story)

 

 

ANNIHILATION** Puffed Up Nonsense


ALEX GARLAND IS the director who brought us the extraordinary Ex Machina (and also exposed the world to Alicia Vikander). Ex Machina dramatized the chilling moment known as the singularity: when the machine becomes, essentially human. Mr. Garland has returned with his new movie: Annihilation.

It’s a movie with a problem: dismal audiences in the US and straight to Netflix here in Europe.
Why?

Annihilation submerges us into a world…an idea…where cellular reproduction…DNA…begins to go berserk. Is this a frightening take on what may be in store for humanity as it continues to muck with nature? Is man (even unconsciously) pulled toward self-destruction…as part of our human condition?

The story starts with the sudden and unexpected return of Kane (Oscar Isaac). He’s been gone for over a year on a super-secret mission. But now, much to the shock of his partner, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), here he is: discombobulated, unaware of time and hemorrhaging. Garland pulls you deeper and deeper into the mystery of his disappearance. Kane was one of several soldiers who had dared to enter The Shimmer: a vast blurry force field that is slowly growing and that is proving impervious to all attempts as understanding it. Lena’s, perhaps guilt-laden, search for an antidote to her partner’s critical condition leads her to volunteer to a small (suicide?) science expedition: four (female) scientists who are prepared to brave entering The Shimmer.

Once in The Shimmer, things immediately begin to go awry. After a week in, the team feel they’ve been there for mere hours; they encounter strange beautiful, mutant growths that cling to walls and trees; other-worldly beasts attack out of nowhere, slowly picking them off. Why would Kane have signed up for what he must have known was a suicide mission? Similarly, why did Lena and the other members of the team sign up? They too must all have known they’d never return.

Garland layers mystery upon mystery and keeps turning up the heartbeats of tension, notch by agonizing notch.

But here’s the problem: all this layered tension, the fascinating build-up really has nowhere to go. The story does not build to some moment of insightful revelation. About an hour into the movie, the story begins to sag. Even Natalie Portman, bringing her most “whatthefuckisgoingon” face can’t contain the rising bathos. What began as a thought-provoking exploration of the way we mutually affect/infect others with our burdens and ‘sins’ runs aground with a director who seems to have become as lost as his plot and his characters.

Basically nothing begins to make sense. One rule of sci-fi (any fiction for that matter) is that there be enough credibility to drive belief. We’ve got to believe that no matter how fantastical, these characters could be real people experiencing these strange things. None of this pertains in Annihilation. As the questions mount (Is there a thematic reason why all the scientists are women? Why aren’t there more chimera creatures? Why didn’t they camp in the obvious secure place in The Shimmer?), everything soon begins to feel as artificial and trumped-up as the faux forest they inhabit.

The story slowly slips from “What’s going to happen next?” to “Where’s this story going?” And the answer, sadly, was a resolute, “Nowhere”

Garland seems to be a terribly thoughtful and talented director. Based on one movie. Let’s hope he’s not going to turn into that other one- note wonder, M. Night Shyamalan

 

ANNIHILATION. Dir: Alex Garland. Screenplay: Alex Garland (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer).  With: Natalie Portman. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Benedict Wong. Oscar Isaac. Cinematographer: Rob Hardy (Ex Machina). Production Designer: Mark Digby (Ex Machina)

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER***** Weird and Wonderful


A LONELY, INHIBITED, sexually frustrated woman develops a feeling of human empathy, which morphs into love for an extra-terrestrial, aquatic creature. “The Shape of Water” is a bold, weird fable of love and its opposite number, hate.

A compelling Sally Hawkins (“Paddington”) who miraculously combines mousy spinsterish reserve with raw sexuality is Elisa Esposito. She is a shy, mute cleaner whose lowly (social) stature and narrow circle of friends masks a huge generosity of spirit, and a stubborn fearlessness. Her opposite number is the always watchable Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland (notice the name: strict land), a dark, tortured soul, incapable of love and, like his severed fingers, rotting from within.

As her unexpected love for this strange creature blossoms, his all-consuming hatred for it deepens…as if, like the balance between matter and antimatter, love’s life-affirming power needs its balance of hate’s destructiveness.

It is clear from the very beginning that Elisa and her gay, ostracized friend (Richard Jenkins) live slightly off-centre lives… as if they’re both waiting for something to happen. Hers is one of routine and repetition: get up with the alarm, run a bath, masturbate, boil an egg, drift off to sleep on the morning bus, clock in, clean the floors of the vast cavernous mysterious government research centres where she works and return home.

His too is also one of routine, expressed by his by-the-book regimentation.

Their routines are broken by the arrival of a large, sealed tank containing a creature captured somewhere in South America.

Both Elisa and Richard respond to the creature with the curiosity it commands. Both want to know more about this strange being. But whereas her -human-curiosity leads her to try to understand and communicate with the creature (And that she is mute affords her a means of communication unconstrained by language), his – institutional- curiosity (He is a mere agent of an implacable and amoral army general) pushes him toward dissection and murder.

Her communication with the creature is all gesture. (Actions speak louder than words). And the gesture that soothes his savage beast is the offer of an egg. The symbolism of a woman offering him her eggs is not misunderstood. Their growing love is liberating (She must free the creature from its chains), life changing and life enhancing. And ultimately (for this is no child’s fairy story) sexual. The two become one, floating in a world of their own.

Thus it is with love…it is as wondrous as it is rare (They are the only ones in the story to find love)

But for him, the creature is the ultimate “other”…the “other” that, because it is not understood, is therefore threatening. It doesn’t look like him (He muses at one point that God looks human…or rather, God looks like a White man) and therefore must be tortured, chained up and eliminated. This is the only way institutions understand how to deal with “the other”, be they aquatic creatures or, for that matter, Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims…whatever.

But the pleasure of “The Shape of Water” isn’t just the story; it’s the telling of it. From the moment when the titles begin immersing us in its floating, undulating world of water, to the strongly accented shadows (of Dan Lausten’s cinematography) that shape every carefully orchestrated frame, director Guillermo del Toro conjures up an unique and very distinct world. That said, I felt at times that I could have been watching some lost Orson Wells movie. The texture of the movie has that same sense of visual craftsmanship and cinematic drama.

Sylvain Arseneault’s sound design also makes its presence notably felt…almost as though, in compensation for Elisa’s muteness, del Toro needed to give a clearly articulate aural voice to the movie. The sound comes across as a series of communicating layers: the clip clop of hurrying footsteps that synchronize with the thuds and clanks of machinery, the hoots and screeches of the outside world, the bubbling, gurgles of whooshing water…all knitted together by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle score.

So, was this worth “best movie” accolades? It is a masterful piece of pure cinematic bliss. And so, well deserving of its laurels. Personally I prefer the quieter, more tangibly real movies such as “Lady Bird” and the unrewarded “The Florida Project”.

But, hey, I’m not complaining.
THE SHAPE OF WATER: Director/Writer: Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”). With: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spenser, Richard Jenkins. Cinematography: Dan Lausten (“John Wick Chapter 2”, “Crimson Peak”). Production Designer: Paul D. Austerberry (“”Pompeii 2014”, “The Twilight Saga”). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (“The Twilight Saga”, “Harry Potter”)

 

RED SPARROW** Fly in the other direction


THE “SPARROWS” REFERRED to in this entertaining (i.e Jennifer Lawrence in “a pretty little nothing you’re almost wearing” as 007 once commented), if godsmackingly silly movie, are young, patriotic Russians trained in the art of seduction. Or, as our heroine, Dominika Egorova, describes it, “whore school”. The action is set in modern times, though it has the feel of a 60’s spy thriller; as if the writers (Justin Haythe from a book by Jason Matthews) had suddenly read about Christine Keeler and John Profumo (Even the fuzzy dingy lighting of Jo Willem’s cinematography complements the dated, History Channel look of the film)

“Red Sparrow” is John le Carre by way of Harold Robbins.

Dominika was a much lauded ballerina, who, after a tragic accident and in need of money to support her invalid mother (you can hear the violin strings quivering in the background) is seduced by her Spymaster uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) into this line of work. From Dominika to Dominatrix in a heartbeat. Her seductive prowess leads her to an American agent (Joel Edgerton) who is in league with a Russian mole. Who’s the mole? Will Dominika’s manifest charms seduce the information from him or must we endure seeing his skin being slowly peeled from his body? Or is the entire plot a long-winded version of the cliché about revenge being a dish best served cold?

And do we really care?

Director Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games” trilogy) never manages to raise a tremor of tension but he does use his movie’s key asset -Jennifer Lawrence’s goddess-perfect body – to full effect. That said, she, like the rest of the (entirely Russian-free) A list cast (Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Lions) seem borne under…freighted with a crippling weight of ennui. They all read their lines without stumbling over them. Or giggling. And that must rate as some measure of achievement. Indeed, the only displays of what could pass for human emotion are when people scream as they’re tortured.

Sex and pain. Nudity and body parts. Welcome to this year’s first SM movie.

 

RED SPARROW. Dir: Francis Lawrence. Screenplay: Justin Haythe (“The Lone Ranger”). With: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds). Cinematographer: Jo Williams (“Hunger Games” trilogy). Production Designer: Maria Djuekovic (“The imitation Game”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”)

 

 

LADY BIRD***** Superb


OH WHAT A wonderful movie! “Lady Bird” is an intimate, honest, carefully observed story about that moment when the child emerges, fighting and kicking, as an individual…no longer just an expression of a parent.

“Lady Bird” is the name our eponymous protagonist, Christine, gives herself. She desperately wants to be a distinct, unique being; one free from the nagging dictates of her mom, for whom “love” and “control” are inextricably linked. The ‘crisis’ that the movie explores is that moment when the child’s need for freedom (wonderfully demonstrated when Ladybird throws herself out of her mother’s moving car) so easily becomes a zero sum game, where a victory for the one results in a terrible sense of loss for the other.

The irony in “Lady Bird” is that mother and daughter are quite clearly cut from the same cloth. They look alike (director Greta Gerwig is at pains to morph the profile of the one into the other to make her point) and they sound alike. But the moment must come when the assertion of self has to take precedence over the loving symbiosis that binds mother (and father) and child together. And it’s this moment that Director Gerwig (seems to) sit back and observe from a distance. She simply allows this domestic drama to unfold with seemingly little authorial prodding. She encourages us to engage with and identify the many multiple sparks of recognition that make this such a fascinating movie

There’s not a wrong note in the movie…which always shies away from Hollywood hysteria and refuses to overdramatize the everyday confrontations and crises of growing up and going away. Lady Bird’s schoolgirl crushes, her mock-heroic first sexual encounter, her (mainly) love (sometimes) hate relationship with her mother, all feel real.

We’ve all been there.

Oscar nominee Saoirse (pronounced Shear-sea) Ronan (“Brooklyn”) is just tremendous as Lady Bird. Her performance is quiet, understated and fully realized. There’s not an ‘acterly’ gesture in her performance. The same can be said of fellow Oscar nominee Laurie Metcalf whose portrayal beautifully balances the outside mien of the often stern, sturdy, tough, breadwinner with the private heart-break of any mom grieving over the loss of her child and the birth of the adult.

Greta Gerwig, who wrote the brilliant “Frances Ha” has only directed one minor production before (back in 2008). She’s clearly a major new ‘Indie’ force to be reckoned with. And what a pity a movie like this (honest, unpretentious, insightful, “real”), along with the absolutely under-appreciated “The Florida Project”, isn’t more lauded than the typical bloated, rah-rah-rah excesses of “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”.

 

Lady Bird. Dir. (and writer): Greta Girwig. With: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts. Cinematographer: Sam Levy (“Frances Ha”)