Isle of Dogs (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Isle of Dogs (2018)

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A boy falls downward
Among abandoned canines
They will soon fight back

Wes Anderson wrote the screenplay for and directs Isle of Dogs, which stars Bryan Cranston and Koyu Rankin.

Wes Anderson's niche of whimsy by way of dry dialogue and meticulous visuals already found a successful animated venture in The Fantastic Mister Fox.  After Isle of Dogs, I would be content if Anderson never made another live-action film.  Isle of Dogs is - without question - his most brutal film and a surprise considering his humor lends more to melancholy than violent reality.

Anderson's appreciation for world cinema has never been more thoroughly integrated into the substance of his film. There's an extensive list of Akira Kursoawa references throughout Isle of Dogs, but Anderson is not content to rest on the laurels of one Japanese master. In Anderson's unblinking look at violence I thought most often of Masaki Kobayashi, whose samurai films and humanist epics rivaled Kurosawa in length, style, and the depths humans must go through to adhere to their moral codes.  The moments of quiet recall Yasujirō Ozu alongside a quiet running gag of cats appearing in the corners were Ozu's red teapot might have. Anderson goes beyond Japan, calling on The Plague Dogs (the British-American animated follow-up to the childhood-wrecking Watership Down), 101 Dalmatians, and the food preparation of Korean cinema à la Oldboy.Another way of putting it is that Anderson learned from the criticism he faced for The Darjeeling Limited. That film was an unabashed love letter to Indian cinema that still relied on its white protagonists to be the anchors and his eventual attempt to turn that trope around fell flat. This time he pulls cinematic references from across the globe and infuses plot beats with his signature dry humor to make a wildly creative melting pot. Isle of Dogs is beyond anglo-centered storytelling, a point made through several humorous and dead serious moments where white children's lack of understanding Japanese culture threatens to undo progress before it has a chance to begin.

The adage of judging humans as they treat their pets is evident in Isle of Dogs' vibrant and dirty color palette (itself an ode to Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den). Within the palette, it also shares a sensation of beings trying to find dignity in environments engineered to strip it from them.  The dogs stand out against the piles of trash that humanity has doomed them to as the humans as the humans struggling against their corrupt government fade into the abyss of their metropolis. It also gives Anderson room for some amusing group character movements as the main dogs bring their curious attention to characters or perk up to dialogue.

When they fight Anderson pays tribute to one of the oldest animated tricks by obscuring the figures in large clouds of dust and limbs but presents the results in unusually direct fashion. One early clash has a stray lose part of their ear after fighting over maggot-encrusted scraps, the often bloodied body of Chief (Bryan Cranston) a figure of brutal existence looms over the rest of the pack, and the determination of little pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) wincing through the pain of a head wound left open to darkly comic extremes.  Despite being an animated film, the consequences of inhumanity toward human and animal alike have more mortal weight than the spirited action in Anderson's previous film The Grand Budapest Hotel. This approach reaches its pinnacle in an extended seafood preparation sequence that makes the ethical distance between modern consumption and the deaths of living creatures painfully clear.

Children and animals pay for adult cruelties as the cruelty comes easy when the deadly results remain out of sight. This isn't cause for despair and, charmingly, Isle of Dogs adopts the optimistic stance that adults got us into this violent cycle so maybe we shouldn't look to adults to get us out of it.  The music by Alexandre Deplat makes for a phenomenal punctuation to that idea, propelling the revolution forward with outstanding percussion and flutes that sound like a prelude to a storm.So much of Isle of Dogs had me prepared to call it Anderson's best if not for a colossal issue summed up in a single line of dialogue, "You'll meet a bitch named Nutmeg." As a bit of Anderson-esque dry wit it's lacking, and as an example of Anderson's shallow use of women characters in Isle of Dogs it's sadly representative. They're dogs, yes, and if you want to take the line as the literal definition of bitch then you'd be correct in a narrow vein. But aside from one human woman, who - to be fair - also bears the brunt of being the criticized anglo perspective, the sparse women characters are romantic ghosts who receive chunks of their development through Chief's imagination. Anderson is usually better than this, yet Isle of Dogs reminds us that his debut Bottle Rocket featured a romance ending in sex with a woman who couldn't speak English to the man wooing her.

Isle of Dogs is so nearly excellent that it's frustrating to settle on "very good". I at least take heart that both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs respond in some way to criticism of his earlier films. He's got a transcendent animated film in him, the question is when he'll balance his talents to get it out.

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Wes Anderson.
Starring Bryan Cranston and Koyu Rankin.

Posted by Andrew

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