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”)

 

 

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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”)

 

FRANCES HA: Marvelous


frances-ha-greta-gerwig-film-review-noah-baumbach-noscale

FRANCES HA IS a rare gem of a movie that manages to capture a genuine sense of real people living real lives and sounding like real people. Director Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”, “The Squid and the Whale”) is one of the new school of Indie New York directors who delivers the kind of naturalism of approach that lulls you into the feeling that the camera isn’t there and that Greta Gerwig (the eponymous Frances) isn’t really acting at all.

The movie focuses unsparingly on the life of Frances, a young, semi-employed, generally penniless, often awkward, embarrassing, charming, determined choreographer. We follow her relationships – friendships, not romances – her dreams, her successes and failures. And, with incredible precision in the scenes he selects to build his narrative, Baumbach and the brilliant Gerwig help us form an understanding of and great empathy with this less than heroic, but thoroughly endearing character.

Unlike the typical Hollywood fare which tends to be strongly plot driven with a few character touches thrown in to keep our interest, “Frances Ha” is all character driven; the vignettes of her life that we see, like a peek into a series of moving snapshots, only loosely add up to a ‘story’.

Essentially her quest to find permanence in a career of dance, which is about as chancy a career as acting or ‘art’, and her strong bond with her life-long friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner -best known for her part as Francesca in “The Borgias”) are the threads that knit the narrative together. But, like life, it’s a very loose narrative – it wanders here and there as it builds to a quiet, fanfare-free resolution.

ha friends

Frances’ character approaches life with such a carefree naiveté and sense of joy that there is a delightful absence of strum und drang. Where other movies could so easily have drifted into drama and angst, this one manages to engage its audience without the need to resort to cheap tricks and theatrical angst.

For this, credit must also be paid to Baumbach as writer. The dialog feels real – it’s how people talk; the relationships in the story feel like real relationships, not ‘set-up’s’ to make a greater point.

The movie is shot in black and white, which felt initially a little bit self-consciously arty (apparently Baumbach is a strong fan of Woody Allen… and there is a lightness of touch and tone that is certainly reminiscent of this other great New York director), but soon enough becomes invisible. Baumbach explained that he shot it in black and white to “boil it down to its barest bones…to create an immediate history and a kind of instant nostalgia”.

That’s probably a lot more pretentious that the resulting movie.