Ant-Man and The Wasp(7/9/2018)

2014 was not a good year for Marvel.  That was the year that Avengers: Age of Ultron came out and proved to be a rather unruly mess, and that was followed by a strange little movie called Ant-ManAnt-Man is to date the third lowest grossing Marvel film after The Incredible Hulk and the first Captain America and to those in the know the final film kind of lived in the shadow of the fact that Edgar Wright was once going to direct it.  I wasn’t a fan of that movie either.  Of course it was a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie so there was enough quality control going on that it certainly wasn’t “bad,” but there were a lot of elements that didn’t really work and it just seemed like kind of a lame exercise in the grand scheme of things.  I was especially put off by one aspect of Ant-Man’s powers, namely the way he could punch people while miniature and have them react as if they’d just been given an uppercut by a heavyweight fighter.  That doesn’t make sense.  Even if they did have incredible strength while miniature the fact that it’s channeled into a small space like that would make Ant-Man piece into the bad guys like a bullet not hit them with blunt force trauma.  It breaks the laws of physics dammit!  Still, in 2018 Marvel is on a roll and I suspected that they had enough momentum to improve on their last effort with the sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp.

The film is set two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War but before the events of Avengers: Infinity War.  After having been arrested for breaking the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been on house arrest this whole time.  Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have apparently also been on the run this whole time because it was their technology that was used in Scott’s breach.  At the film’s start his sentence is only days away from being over but for some reason he suddenly finds himself having a strange dream about Hank and Hope and in a semi-delirious state calls them using a burner phone that he had hidden and tells them about it.  Something like a day later he’s suddenly tranquilized and moved to a secret lab that Hank and Hope have been building where they hope to enter sub-atomic space to rescue Hank’s lost wife.  But not long after they all find themselves in a run-in with a mobster named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and then they’re accosted by a strange masked combatant that seems to phase in and out of reality and it becomes clear that they’re going to be in the fight of their life.

The title of Ant-Man and The Wasp gives equal billing to Hope but don’t be fooled, this is still very much a story told from the perspective of Ant-Man, which is perhaps to be expected given that he’s more of an audience surrogate than Hope.  Hope is given a costume this time around and gets to participate in the action sequences as The Wasp but narratively she more or less shares her storyline with her father, who could just as easily be considered a co-star with the other two.  That aside the movie generally has a clearer picture of its characters than the original film did and the fact that it has its origin story stuff out of the way gives it a lot more time to act as something of a romp.  Most of the comic relief cast from the previous movie like Michael Peña and T.I. are back and Randal Park has been added as a delightfully nerdy FBI Agent who’s meant to be overseeing Scott’s house arrest and just steals every scene he’s in.  People who are frustrated by the fact that so many superhero movies tend to end with fights against super-villains that are about to set loose some world ending calamity will likely enjoy the fact that this movie involves a fight against some rather low level thugs led by Walton Goggins (who’s very much in “Vice Principals” mode here) and even the more traditional superhero foil called Ghost proves to be less eeeevilll than most Marvel villains.

In general Ant-Man and The Wasp is a clear improvement over its predecessor, it seems to have a bigger budget, it more clearly knows what it wants to be, and its cast has gelled considerably.  That said I still think this is one of Marvel’s weaker franchises, some people might like the film’s lighter tone, but I think Marvel movies are already plenty light to begin with and the Ant-Man movies bring that lightness to the point of feeling downright disposable.  This one in particular seems to really think that its tone can excuse away some pretty obvious plot-holes like the FBI’s incredible inability to keep tabs on Scotts home.  This all feels particularly inconsequential given the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, which only really comes up here during Marvel’s patented post-credits sequence, but the film otherwise does not feel terribly important to the greater MCU storyline.  The decision to release this a mere two months after Infinity War seems particularly curious given that there are no Marvel movies lined up at all for the fall and I’m guessing that there would have been a much bigger shortage of escapist entertainment like this during that season.  Having said all that, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that this isn’t worth seeing because it probably is at least if you’re an MCU fan.  These movies are basically never bad and this one isn’t either.  It’s a neat action movie and most audience members will get what they came for.

***1/2 out of Five   

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Leave No Trace(7/7/2018)

Usually for me a decision to go to the movies is something planned weeks in advance.  I keep an eye on release schedules for the big movies, I monitor festival buzz for the small movies, and I generally know what’s coming and when.  Every once in a while though I can be surprised a little by something, which is what happened with the film Leave No Trace.  I never saw a trailer for the movie and while I can see now that it did play at Sundance I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about it at the time, possibly because the title and basic concept don’t stand out a whole lot.  So the film was completely off my radar when I suddenly saw that it would be playing at my local limited release theater and when I googled it two things stood out to me: 1. It was directed by Debra Granick, who had a big breakout with 2010’s Winter’s Bone before sort of disappearing afterwards, and 2. that the movie had a 100% rating on Rottentomatoes.  Now I know a lot of people don’t think terribly highly of Rottentomatoes and a movie certainly shouldn’t be judged in its totality by having a good or bad score on it, but any way you cut it managing to get 120 film critics to agree on something has to mean something.

The film is by and large the story of a father and a daughter.  The father is a man named Will (Ben Foster) a veteran who suffers in some way from PTSD and whose wife appears to have died at some unclear time in the past for reasons that are never explained.  As the film starts Will does not own a conventional home and has opted to live at an illegal campsite in a national park in New York with his teenage daughter Tom (presumably short for “Thomasin” a name she share with the actress who plays her, Thomasin McKenzie).  The two have managed to survive a long time more or less off the grid and Will seems to have pretty effectively home schooled Tom along the way.  However this way of life comes under threat when someone spots Tom and the next day police arrive with dogs to locate the two of them.  The next thing you know Will and Tom are forced to justify themselves to Child Protective Services and fight to stay together.

“Family that shuns a conventional lifestyle and lives in the woods” has become something of a sub-genre as of late.  I’m sure there are even earlier precursors but I first remember a story like this coming to cinema screens with the 2007 documentary Surfwise, about a family that raised their kids in an RV that toured various beaches.  I believe there was another film along these lines called The Glass Castle but the film that probably told a story like this with the most commercial success lately was a film called Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortenson as a widower father who has to defend his rights to raise his kids in the woods and homeschool them rather than enroll them in school or give them normal shelter.  In terms of high concept the similarities between Leave No Trace and Captain Fantastic are pretty clear but the movies actually have pretty different tones.  I think Captain Fantastic was technically an independent movie but it didn’t really feel like one.  It occasionally examined the negative effects of raising kids like this but it also wants people to see the family as kind of cute and let its audience decide the morality of it all.

Leave No Trace is perhaps a more realistic look at what a life like this would look like and almost has the opposite problem of not really explaining why anyone would find this kind of life so appealing.  Captain Fantastic was pretty upfront about that family’s motivations: the parents were hippies who had political qualms with modern life and was more than happy to expound on this at length.  Here the father’s motivations are left a bit more unspoken.  I wouldn’t call Will entirely apolitical but he certainly doesn’t seem like someone who’s inclined to have the family celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday.  Instead the implication here seems to be that Will’s inability to live in a house with running water seems to be a function of his PTSD.  One imagines a backstory where he came back from the war, stares at a cereal aisle like Jeremy Renner’s character from The Hurt Locker, but unlike him can’t re-enlist because he’s got a daughter who would be more or less orphaned if he did.  Tom by contrast mostly seems to be completely on board with this life but it’s not clear at first if that’s because she truly loves the outdoors or if it’s because she loves her father and doesn’t know what she’s missing from society.

As I mentioned before this is Debra Granick’s first film in eight years since directing the Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone, a film that perhaps unfairly became better known for introducing audiences to Jennifer Lawrence than it did for its direction.  Personally, I liked Winter’s Bone but I did think some of the hype around it was a bit overblown.  It certainly had an interesting setting but it often felt like it didn’t have much going for it beyond its anthropological observations about Middle America.  This new film has its Hell or High Water moments where it stops to make comments about rural America in decline but it doesn’t feel like the movie is merely a pretext to witness these communities and really does keep the focus on the characters for the most part.  That’s probably the right choice but I still don’t necessarily think this is a story for the ages or characters that will live on with me too long after I’m done watching the film even though they’re very well written and acted.  It lacks the veneer of genre that probably helped Winter’s Bone gain a wider audience so I don’t know that this is going to be as much of a breakout even though I largely consider it a better movie.

***1/2 out of Five

Solo: A Star Wars Story(5/27/2018)

Four months ago I went to a packed screening of Black Panther, which was a pretty memorable night at the movies for everyone involved for a lot of reasons but one moment that stood out to me was something that happened before the movie even began.  That moment came during the trailers when, in a moment of Disney corporate synergy, they played a trailer for the new Star Wars spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I thought the trailer looked pretty good all told.  It had some neat images and looked pretty fun, but when the trailer ended I overheard something.  A girl who sounded like she was about nine or ten sitting a row or two behind me said out loud “that guy doesn’t look like Han Solo.”  This was one of those moments where someone spoke up and said what everyone was thinking and it mirrored something I had tweeted a month earlier when the film was advertised during the Super Bowl: “The #SoloAStarWarsStory trailer looks solid, shame it has to be about a character called Han Solo who isn’t played by Harrison Ford.”  The thing is Han Solo isn’t really a very deep character, he’s an architype, and his appeal is largely focused on what Harrison Ford was able to bring to him.  What’s more there just seemed to be something kind of odd about recasting original trilogy characters like that.  Yes there were a few examples like that in the prequels like Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, but the age difference there was so wide that it feels like a whole different ballgame.  As such I wasn’t too excited about this, but at the end of the day it is a Star Wars movie so it’s not like I can just not see it.

Solo begins about ten years before Han Solo showed up at the Mos Eisley cantina in the original Star Wars and sold his services to an old man and a young farmer on a quest to find a princess.  This younger Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is revealed to have been an orphan raised on the streets of an industrial planet called Corellia.  There he and a girlfriend named Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) dream of running away from the planet and the gangster who they’re in debt to.  Unfortunately for Han his escape plan goes a bit awry and while he gets off the planet Qi’ra does not.  From there he swears he’ll come back with enough money to get her off the planet but first he finds himself enlisting with the Imperial army in order to become a pilot.  We cut to three years later where he meets a group of thieves led by a rogue named Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and plans to join his crew of outlaws but needs to find a way to impress him first.

Now, in my introductory paragraph I focused in on the question of how a movie about Han Solo can possibly be made without Harrison Ford and I was walking into the theater with my mind pretty thoroughly closed on the issue.  To Alden Ehrenreich’s immense credit, I found these worries pretty actively slipping away while I was actually watching the movie.  It’s not even that Ehrenreich is particularly impressive in the movie so much as the youth of the Han Solo seen here makes more of a difference than I expected it to.  He’s younger here and less cynical and it’s easier to envision him becoming everyone’s favorite smuggler than I expected from the movie.  He also manages to look more like a young Ford than I expected and the movie did a pretty good job of replicating the character’s slightly dated 70s hairstyle without making it look silly.

Additionally, I remembered about half way through the movie that Ehrenreich actually isn’t the first young actor who was tasked with taking on a youthful version of a legendary Harrison Ford role.  The previous actor with this task was the late River Phoenix, who at the age of 18 needed to become the young Indiana Jones during the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which we learn exactly what inspired most of that character’s trademarks like his hat, his interest in whips, how he got his scar, and where he got his fear of snakes.  Solo plays out a bit like that sequence but for Han Solo and expanded out to feature length.  We see how Solo became a pilot, met Chewbacca, met Lando, encountered the Millennium Falcon, and made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  It doesn’t get up to the point where he met Jabba the Hutt and became indebted to him but other than that it leaves basically no stone unturned in establishing most of the traits associated with the character albeit in a somewhat shallow way.

Solo: A Star Wars Story comes out less than six months after the release of the divisive The Last Jedi, a movie that I was highly critical of.  That was a movie that took big risks, something I’d be in favor of in theory but decidedly was not in favor of the way they chose to go about it.  Solo by contrast is a movie that plays it safe.  If anything I feel like it should be the other way around.  The “saga” movies should be the traditional movies carrying on a tradition and these spinoff movies that people are less invested in should plainly be the place where they’re free to experiment but the opposite seems to have happened here.  Despite that, if asked whether I liked Solo better than The Last Jedi my answer would almost certainly be “yes.”  I might not have a great deal of respect for Solo but it doesn’t make the same kind of boneheaded mistakes that Rian Johnson’s movie did and it mostly succeeds at its rather modest goals.  On the flipside The Last Jedi, for all its faults, was a movie that inspired me to write a 3330 word review which remains a site record while I’m straining to even come up with a thousand words about Solo.  At the end of the day this is a fun movie, and when compared to any number of other summer movie it measures up.  However, people generally expect a bit more of an event out of Star Wars and that sense of excitement is what’s missing from Solo.

***1/2 out of Five

Blockers(4/5/2018)


I recently took a trip to New York City and was struck by a lot of things both big and small about the city but perhaps the most pertinent thing that jumped out at me was that the week I went there nearly every square inch of Manhattan Island seemed to be covered in advertisements for the movie Blockers.  The amount of advertising for the movie already seemed heavier than normal long before I found myself on the East Coast.  I’ve seen all sorts of TV commercials for it and Youtube seemed to put an ad for it in front of every video I found myself watching, but when I got to the Big Apple I was struck seeing that rooster logo on top of damn near every taxi cab and the poster posted above every subway entrance and also on every subway platform.  I’m sure that people who actually live in the city that never sleeps are used to this sort of onslaught of printed marketing but it seemed a bit novel to me.  Part of this might simply be that I noticed this advertising more than all the advertising for the likes of Truth or Dare because I already thought it was going to be a funny movie and was already king of thinking about seeing the movie.  But maybe the studio knew what it was doing because on the movie’s opening day I found myself unwinding from a busy day of walking around the city by going to the Regal E-Walk 13 on 42nd street to sit back and watch this mainstream sex comedy.

The film is set over the course of prom day and night at a high school in a Chicago suburb.  Specifically the focus is on a group of three longtime friends: The blonde cheerleader type Julie (Kathryn Newton), the athletic and somewhat wild Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and the nerdy Samantha (Gideon Adlon), who has been questioning her sexuality.  As the three are talking about their prom plans it emerges that Julie is planning to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time that night and upon hearing this Kayla decides that she also wants to lose her virginity to her date to “get it over with” and while neither girl tries to pressure their friend Samantha finds herself getting in on the “#sexpact2018” too despite minimal attraction to her male prom date, possibly in a desire to confirm her preferences.  What they don’t know is that their various parents have semi-accidentally intercepted their text messages about these plans. Julie’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena), and Samantha’s estranged father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) all decide for various reasons that they want to stop this from happening and thus become the “blockers” referred to in the title, which is an MPAA approved shortening of “cockblockers.”

Blockers has a bit of a challenge on its hands in that it needs to find a relatively plausible reason for three seemingly progressive parents in 2018 to go to such lengths to “block” their daughters from having sexual encounters something like three months before they go to the even more sexually charged environment that is college.  Of the three parents only John Cena’s character really seems to be going on this journey for the usual patriarchal reasons: his daughter is “daddy’s little girl” and her man-bun toting prom date seems unworthy of her.  The Ike Barinholtz character, on the other hand, seems to be against this whole panic in the first place and when he does get caught up in it it’s mainly because he thinks his daughter (who he knows to be closeted) is being pressured into the situation and the Leslie Mann character just seems overly attached to her daughter and her “blocking” quest is sort of a manifestation of her worries about losing her after it’s discovered that she’s planning to attend a college that’s out of state.  The movie also has a moment at around its midpoint where the Cena character’s wife steps in and gives a big counter-argument about what all these characters are doing.

What makes the film a bit different from other comedies like this is that it basically has six principal characters, and they do a pretty reasonable job of building each of these characters despite how crowded it is but there are moments where corners need to be cut.  As this is a raunchy comedy of the post Apatow era the stories eventually do converge into a sort of sentimental climax and given the ensemble nature of the movie that means there are something like six different “meaningful” moments in the third act as each of the girls has to have a revelation with both their respective boyfriends and their parents, but the movie does manage to juggle all of these pretty effectively.  From a comedy perspective the movie probably could have benefited from a slightly more seasoned cast.  John Cena certainly expands a bit after having dipped his toe into the comedy waters with Trainwreck, but he still sort of feels like a budget version of The Rock, and Ike Barinholtz is mostly just transferring over his not overly memorable character from Neighbors.  The teenage cast mostly shows promise but they aren’t necessarily seasoned comic actors either.

Leslie Mann certainly fares the best of everyone here, but the material is mostly solid and director Kay Cannon does a good job getting the best out of the cast she was given, though I do think she would have done better to leave out some of the more gross-out gags that seem to be in here more out of obligation than real necessity.  The “chugging” scene seen in most of the trailers really did nothing for me and another scene where three people straight-up vomit from drunkenness despite being seemingly sober about an hour later felt like little more than an attempt to one-up other movies.  It really didn’t even need to be this way, if you look back on a movie like Superbad or even something like The Hangover there really isn’t really that much in the way of on-screen bodily fluids in either movie.  Even the diarrhea scene Bridesmaids was almost entirely done with suggestion.  Outside of those two scenes though the movie is a pretty solid comedy that manages to stay on the right side of stupid.  This certainly isn’t a new comedy classic, but it comes after a pretty long drought of respectable mainstream comedy.  In 2017 pretty much the only Hollywood comedy worth a damn was Girls Trip and even that didn’t really do a whole lot for me, so with this one movie 2018 has already beat its predecessor in this one regard.

***1/2 out of Five 

Ready Player One(4/1/2018)

Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there.  I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it.  There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well.  What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short.  Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book.  Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book?  Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not.  Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot.  This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century.  After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first.  One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in.  His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.

When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me.  Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself.  It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself?  That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s.  The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one.  For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong.  We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.

It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept.  For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day.  The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off.  It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty.  Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies.  Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once?  It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this.  The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff.  It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.

Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life.  The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars.  This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work.  The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix.  It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work.  Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large.  There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else.  I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged.  It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.

The human side of the story is… serviceable.  If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory.  The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game.  From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far.  In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story.  At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material.  By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis.  This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful.  I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.

***1/2 out of Five

Isle of Dogs(3/28/2018)


Over the years I’ve made it known in various reviews of family movies that I kind of hate children.  However, it should probably be known that my grumpiness does not end there, I also hate dogs!  In fact I hate dogs way more than I dislike children, who will at least grow up to be something less annoying one day while dogs will always be dogs.  I’ve never owned a dog even while I was younger and everything about owning one seems like a pain in the ass. You have to walk them everywhere, clean up all their shit, and listen to them bark all the time.  I have no desire to own a cat either but that seems like a much more reasonable prospects as they can pretty much take care of themselves outside of feedings and litterbox cleaning.  But really what annoys me about dogs is the way they seem to turn their owners into crazy people.  The way some of these “dog lovers” talk they seem completely delusional about how much these animals care about them.  They’ve got it in their heads that these creatures actually “love” them rather than that they’re doing what they’ve been trained to do over the centuries in order to get food from humans.  All this is to say that when I learned that director Wes Anderson was going to follow up The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stop-motion animated movie about an island full of talking dogs I found myself groaning a little as I could easily picture how easily that could turn into cutesy nonsense, but Wes Anderson has made groan-inducing ideas work before so I was willing to give it a shot.

Wes Anderson’s films generally don’t take place in realistic universes even when he has regular actors in them but when he goes for animation he really goes all out and this is not an exception.  The film takes place in an imagined near-future Japan where the dog population had become so out of control and afflicted by diseases that the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) signed an order to have all the dogs removed and sent to an uninhabited island filled with garbage and the first dog to go is his own family dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).  From there we flash-forward and start following a group of dogs consisting of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston).  Of those five Chief is kind of the odd ma… dog out as he was a stray dog before ending up on the island and has always rejected the notion that dogs should be obedient servants to humans.  The action really kicks off when a twelve year old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the adopted son of the aforementioned mayor Kobayashi, flies a small airplane to the Isle of Dogs in search of his beloved Spots and meets up with the film’s main group of canines who decide to help him out on his quest, which of course proves to be more dangerous than they expect.

Wes Anderson’s previous film to use stop-motion animation was of course his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that was generally liked by critics but was a box office disappointment.  I think where the studio went wrong marketing that movie was that they hoped that it was going to cross over to the traditional family film market more than it did, which was probably a mistake because the central joke of that movie, showing animals talking and acting like yuppies, was kind of going to go over the heads of most young people.  Personally, I liked that movie for the most part but that one joke it goes for over and over again did start to wear on me after a while and I ultimately think it’s a lesser Wes Anderson because of it.  This follow-up also has some of that “animals talk like human hipsters” joke as well, especially when Chief interacts with a lady dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but there is a bit more going on in this one on top of that.  The movie is a lot more interested in the ways that animals interact with humans than Fantastic Mr. Fox did, likely owing to the fact that this is about domestic rather than wild animals and it also comes up with more fantastical world-building owing to the fact that it’s set in this odd sort of dystopian Japan.

The Japan depicted in the film is of course a rather fantastical version of the country, in much the way that The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a sort of pastiche of pre-war Europe rather than the actual nation of Hungary.  I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically Japanese baked into this story about dogs being sent to islands, but Anderson’s fascination with the country clearly gives the movie a lot of its flavor.  Some of the film’s logic about all of this is a bit inconsistent.  A title card early on suggests that the film’s Japanese characters will speak entirely in their native language without subtitles unless translated by a third party, which is interesting but the movie so frequently finds exceptions to this rule that I kind of wonder why they bothered.  It’s also a bit odd that Anderson chose to make all his dog characters into essentially American characters by giving them names like Spots and Duke and having them voiced by Americans even though they’re theoretically supposed to be Japanese dogs.  The film also plays a bit fast and loose with how able certain characters, especially Atari are able to interact with these dogs and understand the human-like intelligence that Anderson has opted to give them.

I do wonder to some extent what Anderson is trying to say with this movie, if anything.  If you look at it sideways you could see something of an allegory in it to the Trump era in that mayor Kobayashi is essentially deporting these dogs and claiming to be doing so for some semi-sensible reasons while actually just being prejudiced against them because of his association with an ancient cat-loving samurai clan.  A lot of that is a bit in the background though and its foreground stories are a little more curious, namely Chief’s arc in which he rejects humanity only to then allow himself to become a servant to Atari in Spots’ place.  I would think that if Anderson was trying to afford human-like intelligence and dignity to these dogs that this story of a dog coming to accept this role as a servant to a human.  Maybe that’s supposed to be an allegory for “settling down” but the power dynamics of such a relationship is a bit different… or maybe that’s just the dog hater in me not finding this as cute as a normal person would.

Ultimately my final verdict on this comes down more to form than to message.  I generally like Wes Anderson’s early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the best, which are different from some of his later movies in that his style came more from film grammar, music selection, and acting choices than from elaborate set decoration and world-building and the more successful he gets the more he’s been enabled to make these heavily constructed films like The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel which feel increasingly detached from the real world.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do still like those movies and admire their audacity but I do still kind of miss that other Wes Anderson that we haven’t really seen since Moonrise Kingdom.  These stop-motion films are like that problem but turned up to eleven and are even further removed from the Wes Anderson I want.  But I would probably be doing myself a disservice by pining for Wes Anderson to deliver what I want from him rather than enjoying what he’s actually interested in delivering and there’s plenty to enjoy in Isle of Dogs.

***1/2 out of Five