Movie Review: The Isle of Dogs

Jack Handey of Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts,” fame once had a great prank idea for kids, guaranteed to traumatize them for life: i.e. driving them to the aftermath of a fire, and telling them that Disneyland – their original destination – had burnt down. (And if it was late, driving them back home without going to the real Disneyland.)

Or you could simply make them sit through the first twenty minutes of “Isle of Dogs.” Boomers had Bambi’s mother being shot by hunters on the big screen to make them bawl. Gen-Xers had Atreyu’s beloved horse drowning in the Swamp of Sadness to reduce them to a puddle. Now here comes a movie guaranteed to have the current generation of youngsters sobbing hard enough to melt their Milk Duds – or so I first thought. It does get better, but whether this will erase the scars it first inflicts on sensitive kids might be questionable. (Of course, adult viewers being fully mature and hardened will not have this problem – right?)

Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” his new stop motion film, has a grim kickoff indeed. The setting is Japan where an evil leader (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) decides to deal with a virulent strain of canine flu by shipping all the dogs to an isle full of garbage and radioactive waste. His twelve-year-old nephew (Koyu Rankin) who Liev adopted as an orphan several years ago, is distraught at losing his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber), and sallies forth on an airplane which crashes onto Trash Island. Here Koyu is befriended by a pack of dogs, including Chief (Bryan Cranston) who does not fetch or anything like that because he is a stray. The other dogs are former house pets, and for maximum heartstring tugging, we get a scene where they all discuss their favorite food. For a love interest, there’s the lovely Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson) who doesn’t have much to do but does get a couple of scenes where she flirts with Bryan, the most romantic canine scene since Tramp and Lady fed each other spaghetti. The dogs and Koyu team up in order to vanquish evil, which makes for some sweet bonding and discovering of long-lost litter brothers. The dog kind, that is.

Back on the mainland, a serum is soon discovered to stamp out the canine flu, but this doesn’t mesh with Kunichi’s re-election plans, so this news is suppressed. However, an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig), who has a blonde Afro big enough to hide a St. Bernard in, enlists her peers in a quest to rescue the dogs. The story does – spoiler alert! – have a happy ending. Originally, I thought Wes Anderson might have had some buried trauma when it came to dogs, as both “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and “Moonrise Kingdom” have a scene where a canine meets an unfortunate violent demise. But “The Isle of Dogs,” ends with the heroes rewarded, the villains punished, and “levels of graft and corruption reduced to acceptable levels.”

The Isle of Dogs,” has plenty of Anderson stalwarts, all of whom do a great job. The movie is an unruly brew featuring Terry Gilliam-ish animation, insights into the dog-human bond, animal experimentation, a plot to exterminate dogs forever, a millennial protester who insists, “I must prove my conspiracy theory!”, haiku, and a last minute kidney transplant. It will definitely achieve one thing among fans and detractors alike: They will want to go home and hug their pets.






A Look Back: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

A quick question. When a filmmaker decides to improve upon the original source – such as a children’s book – is it really necessary to add dark psychological overtones? Specifically, does the target audience – in the case of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on the book by Roald Dahl and directed by Wes Anderson, really care if an Oedipal slant is inserted? My guess is no, but like Tim Burton’s remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (also based on a Dahl book), it received it anyway. The good news is that Mr. Fox’s (George Clooney’s) conflicts with his eccentric son (Jason Schwartzman) don’t detract from the movie, even though adding a backstory about Willy Wonka being estranged from his dad was, in several senses, excess baggage.

Like classic fairy tales such as those from the appropriately named Grimm’s, many of Dahl’s children’s books feature horrifying parents or guardians. The titular Matilda (of the book and movie starring Mara Wilson) gets told by her used car salesman dad (Danny DeVito), “There’s nothing you can get from a book that you can’t get from television faster.” The beloved grandmother who teaches her grandson about “The Witches,” and loves him just the same after he’s enchanted into a mouse, however, is a exception. So too, are Mr. Fox and his wife (Meryl Streep) whose brood of youngsters is shrunk in the movie into one son, although soon a houseguest arrives, their overachieving nephew (Eric Chase Anderson). But there’s bigger problems than quasi-sibling rivalry afoot because Mr. Fox, now a journalist, still longs for his old life raiding nearby farms, particularly those belonging to the mean-spirited, dim bulb trio of Bean (Michael Gambon), Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) and Bunce (Hugo Guinness). When circumstances force the Fox family out of their home at a tree base, and George, with his family and friends is forced into warfare, with the trio, it’s up to Mr. Fox to use every bit of his ingenuity to keep them all from starving.

Originally, Dahl had intended to have Mr. Fox solve his problems by having him burrow under and rob a supermarket. However, his American publishers were concerned that that would send the wrong message – that stealing is acceptable – so they fixed things by suggesting that Mr. Fox rob the original villains of the tale. Though they were afraid that Dahl would take offense, he actually loved the change and accepted it without argument. In the movie, ultimately, Mr. Fox winds up “borrowing” from a supermarket, but suitable revenge is also taken on the three bad guys. Capturing the magic of the original source is a challenge for any director wishing to bring a children’s book to the big screen, but the filmmakers do an excellent job here.

A Look Back: Moonrise Kingdom

If you’re a troubled young adult in a Wes Anderson movie and live on an idyllic island in the sixties in what appears to be some kind of lighthouse, to where would you run if you felt misunderstood and under-appreciated in your family? Well, if you’re watching “Moonrise Kingdom” and grew up, like me, in a regular house in New England suburbia, you might consider this question beside the point. What 12-year-old would really be upset if they were told that they could live on an island with plenty of boating, swimming, fishing and wilderness, as long as they had access to certain decade specific comforts? But if you were trapped with three younger brothers who enjoy the music of Benjamin Britten, your mom (Frances McDormand) was having an affair, and your father was none other than Bill Murray wearing plaid pants and equally clueless, this might seem a good idea. Such is the plight of Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who longs to be reunited with her pen pal (Jared Gilman), an orphan she met during a play performance the preceding summer. As they have kept in passionate touch via the US Postal Service, and he’s not that popular with the other Scouts, Jared is equally eager to see her, and so an escape plan is hatched.

The movie is chock full of symbolism starting with Kara’s binoculars and continuing with a myriad of symbols that should thrill any English teacher. Jared, who is a member of the Khaki Scouts (I guess they didn’t want a lawsuit from the actual Boy Scouts) and staying at a camp, brings the survival camping stuff, while Kara totes along her cat, enough food for it, her brothers’ (battery operated) record player, novels about orphans and yes, the binoculars. Kara, though she has issues with her family, does have a very different perspective on the concept of orphanhood than Jared, whose mother is deceased and whose foster family wishes to return him to Social Services (as embodied by Tilda Swinton). But the two are clearly soul mates, so it’s easy to root for them when they take off, leaving a host of clueless adults behind including Bill and Frances, Jared’s scoutmaster Edward Norton, and police chief Bruce Willis. Tilda wants to return Jared to a juvenile care facility which will give him electroshock (perhaps the fact that he starts fires while sleepwalking might have something to do with it), and is the most adult of the group (which isn’t saying a great deal), so the stakes are high. As Bill and Frances seem only vaguely aware they have a daughter, one might think that putting Kara in the care of Social Services might be a good thing too, but that would be another movie altogether.

Edward’s Khaki Scouts (referred to by Bill as “the beige lunatics” with good reason) attempt to track down Jared and retrieve him, a standoff involving lefty scissors and a dog which does not meet a happy end. However, after Jared is taken into custody by Bruce, and Kara is retrieved by her family (it’s possible her brothers are happier to see the record player than her), the Scouts have a change of heart and decide to help the two reunite. This involves Jason Schwartzman who runs another scout camp and has the power to marry the two teens, although not in a binding legal sense. After explaining that he was in a movie called “Rushmore” when they were toddlers so that explains the chuckles of recognition from the viewers, he does the deed. Then it’s back to more symbolism when the two take refuge in a steeple, and Jared gets Mother Nature’s version of electroshock treatment. But it all ends well, with Bruce given (I think) permanent custody of Jared, and the two allowed to see each other when they want. The characters spend a lot of time drifting around like patterns on a screensaver, occasionally interacting, but it works if you like those sorts of quirky films.

A Look Back: Rushmore

When you think of adolescent outsiders on film, the last quality you expect them to have is boundless school spirit, but that’s just the case for “Rushmore’s” Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), who’s a member of every society on his private school campus, including the Beekeeper’s Society. “Sharp little guy,” comments Bill Murray, after he gives a chapel talk and is waylaid by Jason afterwards (trailed by his young chapel partner, Mason Gamble). “And he’s failing everything,” replies the headmaster (Brian Cox), who isn’t (like most private school headmasters on film) portrayed as a one-dimensional prick. “Rushmore,” directed by Wes Anderson, who co-wrote it with Owen Wilson, is a bit of an odd school – there’s none of the adult stock characters you’d expect, including the inspirational teacher. Well, actually there’s a teacher (Olivia Williams) who attracts the attention of both Jason and Bill, and she does inspire them – but not exactly to greater scholastic and moral heights. “Rushmore” features a main character who is a playwright, and the movie itself takes place in three acts.

Bill has three sons, two of whom are twins Jason’s age, and who do not respect, connect with, or even like their father (the fact that he gave them rhyming first names may have something to do with it). When he asks if Jason will be attending their party, one points out in disgust that there will be girls there. But Jason actually has more serious problems than lack of social assets, as he is called into the headmaster’s office early on and informed that he is a class away from flunking out of Rushmore, to which he wound up receiving a scholarship based on a play he wrote. Jason may look like your typical movie dork, but he has cojones of brass – suggesting that Brian add the option of a post-graduate year so that he won’t have to leave the school. But he gets distracted when he finds a library book which leads him to try and arrange for an aquarium to be built for Olivia. He also manages to keep Latin from being dropped from the curriculum.

Bill, who is tapped to fund the project and is shown in the ultimate movie symbolism of submerging himself underwater in his pool, finds himself falling for Olivia, too, and soon he and Jason engage in a series of one-upmanship pranks, which lead to Jason leaving the school and having to go to a public one. Undeterred, Jason continues to stalk Olivia, who has a nice doctor boyfriend (Luke Wilson) already. But eventually, both Jason and Bill reconcile and do some growing up. Jason writes and directs another play, which makes a coda to the film, and even finds an age-appropriate love interest (Sara Tanaka). The film ends with a dance, but not the typical high school prom that would appear in a mainstream movie.

“Rushmore” does not have any scenes where the hero gets up in front of his peers and makes a speech about values because it isn’t always necessary for this to happen in order for the viewer to realize that the character has grown and changed. Instead, Bill and Jason, who at times appear identical in age and maturity, take some steps back and then finally, a few forward. Jason greets the audience of the play with the news that there are earplugs available if anyone needs them during the presentation, introduces his father as a non-neurosurgeon, and even apologizes to Sara for being a jerk. So the film does end, after all, on an optimistic note.



A Look Back: The Royal Tenenbaums

A famous writer (Tolstoy) once claimed that happy families were all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This may be true, but it also seems like each unhappy family in a Wes Anderson film has at least a few similarities, such as the children all being precocious and their parents loving them, but not always having the healthiest way of showing it. This is true of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which features what might qualify as a dysfunctional family. When this came out, I assumed the clan’s surname was symbolic and had something to do with fir trees because “Oh Tenenbaum,” is “Oh Christmas Tree” in German (or at least it was in my piano book as a kid). But no. Tenenbaum was just chosen because the director liked the name. “Royal” is the name of the patriarch (Gene Hackman), and as the viewer quickly learns from the narrator (Alec Baldwin), he is not exactly a candidate for Father of the Year.

The Tenenbaums consist of Royal, his wife (Anjelica Huston), and their three children, who grow up to be Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson. As children, they displayed a gift for financial analysis, playwriting, and tennis respectively, but as adults, they seem stuck – both in their relationships and in their pursuits. Also part of the plot is their neighbor and friend, who grows up to be a novelist, played by Owen Wilson and still retains his hero worship of the family even as he becomes famous himself. Since Gene moved out when the kids were growing up, Anjelica has dedicated her life to nurturing them, but now she’s starting to look for a life of her own – which may mean a romance with her financial analyst, played by Danny Glover. This does not sit well with Gene, who suddenly decides that he wants to be closer to his family. The problem is, however, that since his sins range from stealing young Ben’s savings to regularly reminding Gwyneth that she’s adopted. no one is especially eager to reciprocate.

His children aren’t thrilled to have their absent dad reappear because they’re dealing with issues of their own: Ben has lost his wife and now behaves like Captain Von Trapp to his two young sons; Gwyneth is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage with psychiatrist Bill Murray; and Luke is having meltdowns on the tennis court. Owen is now an alcoholic, and still carries the torch for Gwyneth. All these problems will come to a head after Gene claims he has cancer and moves back into the house. He does have success in connecting with his two grandsons, starting with the line, “I was thinking about grabbing some burgers, then hitting the cemetery,” and initiating them into a series of antisocial behaviors montage-style. By the end, there is a reconciliation of sorts, but it will take a suicide attempt, an accident, a dead dog and some acknowledging of uncomfortable truths to get there.

The story takes place in New York, but it’s not exactly a modern-day NY, like the characters, it seems to be stuck in an old-fashioned time warp. Each character has a secret, though how meaningful it ultimately is varies. Some have to face up to their problems; others have to realize that they aren’t that significant in the first place. By the end of the movie, this unhappy family is a little less unhappy and a little more on the way to something – perhaps happiness, perhaps just plain acceptance of each other’s flaws, which then may give them the confidence to do something of real significance – or perhaps not.