Isle of Dogs (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
As a visual exercise, it cannot be denied that “Isle of Dogs” excels. Its stop-motion animation is a dream to observe even without sound, the dogs are aww-shucks adorable (even the ones that bite), images unique to Japanese culture inspire curiosity, and there is courage in employing different styles of animation when, for example, we are watching something through a television or looking into someone’s memory. And yet, like a typical Wes Anderson film, the technical excellence is unable to overshadow the fact that it left me cold emotionally. While not an intolerable experience, I was not invested in its core story.
The picture is supposed to be a love letter to dogs, why dogs are a man’s best friend. In a world where all dogs are exiled to a place called Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu, it is bizarre that the material offers minimal emotion. Dogs and people shed tears during would-be moving situations but instead we end up studying how the tears look rather than actually feeling the moment. This cerebral approach might have worked given a sharper a screenplay with something important to say about humans’ relationship not just with domesticated dogs but all animals that we must share the planet with. The elements are there: bureaucracy, the media, politics, science, and rebellion. But they are not put together in a way that tells a grander story of why there is a natural bond between man and dog.
The voice cast is impeccable. Particularly enjoyable are the dogs that Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) meets when he crash-lands his plane onto Trash Island in the attempt to locate and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). It is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog who does not trust humans. Cranston plays the role not as a voice but as a consciousness, so to speak. I felt he really embodies the sadness and loneliness of a dog who survived in the streets following a tragic incident with his former owners. Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum round up the ragtag team who end up aiding in the boy’s mission.
Most distracting is a near pointless subplot involving a girl from Ohio named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who is compelled to expose Mayor Kobayashi’s devious plan (Kunichi Nomura) in order to get re-elected. I found the girl’s look to be odd and unpleasant. Perhaps the point is for the American exchange student from Ohio to stand out visually, but I felt her extreme look neither fits nor complements her surroundings. Her headstrong personality matches her extreme looks, but nearly every time the attention is on her and away from the dogs, the material verges on boredom. This character is classic Anderson: it must exist simply because it is quirky without necessarily being of service to the story. Take away Tracy’s scenes and recognize we can get to the same destination.
I give credit to the writer-director for creating a work that I know he is happy with. Sometimes you just feel that a filmmaker loves his project, and I feel it is the case here. Visually, there are hundreds of details worth putting a magnifying glass over, studying, and appreciating. Many filmmakers of poorer caliber settle for skeletal details—even within the realm of animation. For me, however, I require another level of quality. In this case, it is the emotional kind because the point is to tell a story of man’s relationship with dogs. Predictably, because I am familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre, it is most frustrating that his latest work is so unfeeling still.
Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Although technically proficient because it is able to create an illusion that the film is shot via one long take, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” does not command an absorbing story. It reminded me of a typical Wes Anderson work: all style, no substance; all glamour, no soul. For that, I claim that this film will not stand the test of time.
Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play in order to be taken more seriously—both as an actor and as a person. His most recognizable role was playing a superhero back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and has been on a downward spiral of being forgotten since—at least in his mind. As the play gets closer to opening night, problems arise, starting with the lead actor needing to be replaced because of an “accident” involving a stage light falling on his head during rehearsal.
I always felt like I was watching actors performing rather than getting to know their characters as people first and then as thespians. I get it: It is supposed to be a self-aware comedy that lampoons the business. Thus, a certain level of hyperbole is expected. Still, there is a way to write the screenplay in such a way that we are drawn in, a part of the joke, instead of being kept at an arm’s length. Its charm, on the level of technique from behind and performance in front of the camera, proves evanescent. Around the thirty-minute mark, I found myself bored stiff. Ninety more minutes to go.
Perhaps the problem lies in having so many co-writers (the director, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó) having worked on the material. Because it wants so badly to introduce multiple subplots, many scenes come off extremely forced. Sam (Emma Stone) is having daddy issues and may or may not be back to doing drugs, Lesley (Naomi Watts) does not feel fulfilled even though she has reached her dream of being a part of a Broadway play, and Mike (Edward Norton) touches just about everybody’s nerves because he is too much into method acting that to describe him as “obnoxious” is putting it lightly.
The problem is that even though we learn information about the characters, it does not mean that depth comes naturally. This limitation is magnified by the fact that these characters are juggled like clockwork and I could tell three or four scenes away when the camera will return to them. One of the most frustrating things about sitting through a movie is having an exact idea what will happen and when. If our imagination is ahead of what is in front of us, that is a sign that maybe what we are seeing is a waste of time.
I did, however, find Keaton’s portrayal as a washed-up actor to be somewhat interesting. While the schizophrenic/“hearing voices” sort of mumbo jumbo is irritating, observe Keaton closely as he manipulates his face into portraying subtle emotions like fear and panic—that the play will not reach liftoff despite the amount of time, money, and effort he and his crew has put into it. Conversely, Keaton has a way of communicating exhaustion in fresh and exciting ways. Notice how he walks when he is by himself and compare that walk when he is around people. It is like putting on a mask around his entire body. Because Riggan wants the play to work so badly, he tries to communicate that everything is fine even though he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is a complete performance which helps to elevate the film.
“Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” caters to the in-crowd of theatre and fails to get the rest of the population who may not be as knowledgeable about the business, to care. To me, sitting through this film is like attending a therapy session where privileged people, who are not all that interesting to begin with, whine a lot for no good reason. There is a scene in which a character claims that there are real people out there with real struggles and real stories. I wanted to know about those people instead.
Bourne Legacy, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a retired colonel of the U.S. Air Force, is assigned to analyze, determine, and contain the damage that Jason Bourne started after information about the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs have been exposed to the public. He is also in charge of protecting the interests of the Outcome project which involves pharmaceuticals that have the capacity to enhance a person’s physicality and intelligence. Enter Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the select participants of the program who relies on the drugs for his training. His stock has run out and in his attempt to get some more from Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), he becomes Eric Byer’s primary target.
Imagine being struck by a bat on the back of the head and then immediately being asked to solve a rather complicated jigsaw puzzle. That is how I felt while watching the first act of “The Bourne Legacy,” based on the screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy, so early in the game but we are already neck-deep in the secret intelligence politics and seething frustrations of the officials in charge of trying to figure out who knows what and what can be done to prevent a bad situation from turning much worse.
The intercutting between Byer’s desperation to keep a lid on whatever is going on and Cross’ adventures in the snowy mountains of Alaska does not work because the latter is executed in a much more interesting manner than the former. Scowls and intense glares in a professional environment grow very dull quite quickly when the reasons behind the muted commotions and conflicting motivations are not always clear. I longed for the picture shift its focus on Cross and his interactions with an enigmatic man in the cabin (Oscar Isaac). There is a palpable tension between the two men, one friendly and the other reticent, because we are not quite sure how they are going to react to one another. One gets up from the table and our eyes are drawn to him, especially his limbs, because we expect them to duke it out any second.
Aside from the chilling killings in a research facility, the middle section sags like a deflated balloon. It is a mercilessly drawn-out rising action. The point where Dr. Shearing and Cross decide to work together has a slight sense of immediacy, but it feels a little bit too forced. For example, instead of being immersed in the duo’s struggles to go undetected at an airport, I was constantly reminded that I was watching an action-thriller because there are plenty of familiar elements designed to make us nervous for the characters like the two of them having to line up and get their boarding passes stamped. Of course they are bound to make it through the checkpoints. However, there is no surprise waiting for them–and us–once they do.
The momentum manages to pick up a notch with the scenes set in Manila. While the expected rooftop foot chase sequence proves underwhelming, the chase involving a motorcycle and a police car is an exciting wake-up call. I loved the way the film captures the place’s lack of space which renders the drivers impossible to safely maneuver their vehicles. When we are allowed to appreciate the lack of distance between the machines, there is a real sense of danger from the images shared.
“The Bourne Legacy” reshuffles familiar elements that have come to define the series. We know these elements work but it is the handling that it is ultimately lacking. If the intention is to reboot the series, I am not convinced that using the same bag of tricks is the smartest decision because Jason Bourne has cast such a large shadow, what once felt new is now hackneyed and formulaic. The resolution suggests that we will see these characters again. However, with such a lackadaisical resolution, if it is granted to be called as such, I cannot help but wonder if I really want to.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) expects it to be just another day of camping, leading, and teaching his fellow Khaki Scouts in Camp Ivanhoe. During breakfast, however, he notices that one of his students is missing from the table, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), the least popular among his peers. A letter of resignation is found in his tent, leaving everyone at a loss as to why he’s done such a thing. With a storm rapidly approaching, expected to arrive in three days, a search party is formed to get Sam to safety.
“Moonrise Kingdom,” written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, offers a distinctive style and vision, its images cutely retro, appropriately dyed with a golden yellowish tinge, so fitting considering its 1965 milieu. And while it is an absolute pleasure to look at because of the vintage clothing, old school gadgets, and its loving attention to nature, it has a voyeuristic element about it that at times it feels like looking into a personal memory of a boy experiencing his first romance with a girl named Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), his perfect, at least for the time being, other half in that both have their share of imperfections, weirdness, and awkwardness.
When the picture focuses on the duo’s excursions around the beautiful island of New Penzance, it is at its most engaging. The script, as should be expected from a Wes Anderson film, has its own rhythm, sometimes a bit obfuscated in that it challenges our minds to drill into exactly what is being communicated. The lack of range in terms of evoking precise emotions between Gilman and Hayward work because a case can be made that Sam and Suzy are still trying to figure out who they are. Sometimes I wondered if their idea of romance is a reflection of pop culture at the time which supports their mindset of running away together and living happily ever after. Their youth has a potent spark, fueled by their need to connect with someone willing to listen and embrace because they feel like outcasts in their respective worlds.
Unfortunately, the film entertains far too many subplots and each one is not given sufficient time to be nurtured. The only strand that works involves Laura (Frances McDormand) and Walt (Bill Murray), Suzy’s parents, who tolerate a near passionless marriage, deciding to stay together for the sake of their children. Their one scene in the bedroom, occupying different beds, communicates a sadness with an underlying air of apathy—an emotion that holds more bite than hatred—that it dares the viewers to wish they would lash out on one another. At least then they may not have to guess what the other is thinking. Despite their current unhappiness, we can accept the possibility that they were probably very much in love when they were young which directly ties back to the Khaki Scout and his pen pal.
What does not work at all is the affair between Laura and a Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the cop who leads the search. Their interactions are supposed to be comic but I found them boring and lacking in energy. Perhaps this might be attributed to the Captain’s Sharp’s story—which is too broad, not containing enough specific details to warrant belief that he is a beacon of hope even though he has had his share of problems.
Further, when the storm arrives in the back half of the picture, the chaos that ensues is only mildly interesting. It is off-putting that the balance between visuals and heart is thrown out the window, heavily relying on the strength of the former while the latter is slowly reduced to a footnote until it is convenient to wring out syrupy emotions for the audience. Director Wes Anderson has a habit of doing this to his projects and it is a great frustration.
American History X (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Edward Furlong) was taken to the principal’s office because he wrote a paper called “My Mein Kampf” in which it justified Adolf Hitler as a civil war hero. Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks), the principal, thought that the best solution would be for the two of them to meet every day, discuss current events, take what was going on in the world, and put them into perspective. Danny’s first assignment was to create a narrative about how his brother, Derek (Edward Norton), released from a three-year prison sentence the very same day, ended up becoming a neo-Nazi. “American History X,” written by David McKenna, was like swallowing a bitter pill that was good for you. I found it difficult to sit through not only because we were demanded to endure a lot of rhetoric pregnant with hatred, but because it also allowed us to question our own predilections toward discrimination, most of them we might not be consciously aware of, without beating us over the head about the toxicity of racism despite the characters inhabiting a diverse Los Angeles milieu. Regardless of our race, we’ve all experienced passing through a group of African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, or Asians ranging from teenagers to middle-aged and felt threatened in some way due to their appearance and behavior–wife beaters, pants hanging low, profanities being thrown around like prepositions–stereotypically considered as lower-class. The picture was essentially divided into two. The past was told in black-and-white while the present was in color. This was appropriate because in the past, Derek, under the mentorship of Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), considered it his duty to recruit impressionable, young white males who were tired of being scared and beaten by people of color. Derek’s speeches, whether it be out in public or inside his home while sharing a meal with his family (Beverly D’Angelo and Jennifer Lien as Derek’s mother and sister, respectively), were full of zealously executed offensive language disguised as logical reasoning. Although Derek was very smart, he adopted a “white versus non-white” mentality, just like the images we saw on the screen. On the other hand, the present marked Derek’s seemingly sudden change of heart. He wanted out of the neo-Nazi party for the sake of his family, especially when he saw Danny treading a similar path that he’d taken years prior. For a picture that relied on flashbacks to show the roots of Derek’s reformation, the pacing was rather brisk. The interactions between Derek and Lamont (Guy Torry), though awkward and drenched in silence at first, felt genuine as a whole because the screenplay used humor to seep through the cracks in Derek’s armor which eventually allowed him to open up and question. Furthermore, Dr. Sweeney’s presence, Derek’s former Honors English teacher, was utilized sparingly but to a great effect. It was a particularly dangerous type of character, especially in social message movies, due to the wise words that had to be imparted. Dr. Sweeney did not overstay his welcome. However, I wished that we knew more about the neo-Nazi mentor. From what I’ve seen, he didn’t seem such a magnetic presence, how smart young men would be drawn to his evil. Directed by Tony Kaye, although “American History X” touched upon but did not fully immerse itself in the complexity of bigotry in modern urban America, it is nonetheless emotionally involving and it dares us to look within. It argues that if we are brave enough look inside and happen to see something ugly in terms of how we treat others, it’s not too late to change. That message is an important first step.