Isle of Dogs

April 6, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

Looking back at filmmaker Wes Anderson’s past projects, one could argue the writer/director hasn’t been kind to man’s best friend.

In 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a wild-eyed Owen Wilson drives his Austin-Healey off the road and runs over the family’s beagle Buckley. Seemingly unaffected, the Tenenbaums replace the pet in a matter of minutes with a firefighter’s Dalmatian. In 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson writes in a scene where the young protagonist’s fox terrier Snoopy gets shot in the neck with an arrow. (“Was he a good dog? Who’s to say?”)

With all the canine casualties, it’s no wonder The New Yorker wrote an article a few years ago asking, “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?” Note 1: The death of these dogs has no bearing on the actual story. Both would still be great films if he had let the dogs live. Note 2: He lets Willem Dafoe kill a cat in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” so go figure. It’s a question Anderson puts to rest with “Isle of Dogs,” the second stop-motion animated feature of his career, after 2009’s fanciful “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Anderson undoubtedly matches his first outing in the genre with “Isle of Dogs,” a deadpan, dystopian adventure starring one of the most diverse cast of four-legged, animated characters since the Disney classic “Lady and the Tramp.” Its whimsical nature, of course, is unmistakably Anderson, so if he’s not your cup of Darjeeling tea, this won’t be either. However, fans of his idiosyncratic work will enjoy the wonderful world of wagging tails he has created with such exhaustive detail. It’s noteworthy, too, that “Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s most politically-themed picture to date, although one could argue that classism and fascism are covered effectively in “Rushmore” and “Budapest.”

In “Isle of Dogs,” the dogs of Japan’s fictional Megasaki City are suffering from dog flu and thusly banished to an island covered in trash, so the disease won’t spread to their human masters. The first of dog exiled is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the official guard dog of the city’s sinister Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and pet to Kobayashi’s 12-year-old orphaned nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). Committed to bringing Spots home, Atari hijacks a small plane and crash-lands it on Trash Island where he is rescued by a group of deported dogs who argue about whether they should help the boy find his pup.

For his pack of alpha-male mongrels, Anderson casts his usual, talented suspects — Edward Norton as Rex, Bob Balaban as King, Bill Murray as Boss, Jeff Goldblum as Duke, and newcomer to the Anderson roster, Bryan Cranston as Chief, a stray and de facto leader who reluctantly goes on the “Saving Private Ryan”-esque journey even though he knows it will probably mean their lives. On their way, they meet Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former show dog whose master Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) heads a group of young activists to fight against the “dog-hating thugs” spouting political propaganda and trying to conceal the creation of a cure for dog flu.

As in all of Anderson’s films, the soft-spoken and dryly sarcastic comedy is not really for moviegoers with a broad sense of humor or for the narrow base of Anderson naysayers who think his distinctive style only appeals to pretentious hipster doofuses. Anderson does what he does and does it incredibly well. Part of that, obviously, is the attention he pays to every single frame of his visual composition. Not only is the handmade artistry meticulous across the board, but Anderson’s eye for choreographed randomness is second to none. Even the animated fleas that scurry across a dog’s fur are impressive. Add another award-worthy score by Alexandre Desplat and some bold decisions by Anderson when it comes to translating the Japanese language throughout the film, and “Isle of Dogs” is something truly special.

While it has, for whatever reason, become sort of cool to jab Anderson for his eccentric directorial choices (there are plenty of parodies online that poke fun of him and his films), it’s not something admirers should worry about, especially since even cynics would say he’s at least consistent. If that’s something everyone can agree on, those on the right side of cinematic history should add “Isle of Dogs” to Anderson’s growing catalog of cleverness and quirk.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

If filmmaker Wes Anderson simply isn’t your quirky cup of tea – the handmade look and feel of his sets, the subtle and oftentimes dry humor, the eccentric overall nature of his characters – not much is going to change your mind with his latest opus, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” For fans of his authentic and whimsical work who really don’t understand what everyone else is missing, a trip with Anderson to the fictional Republic of Zubrowka (because in Anderson’s world Hungary would be just too square) is like an inclusive tour of his 10-year-long career. From his 1994 film “Bottle Rocket” to his prior art-house success, 2012’s Oscar-nominated “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson seems to have taken elements from his past work to fashion together another satisfying creation. It doesn’t top some personal favorites (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), but even Anderson’s middle-of-the-road entries should never be described as such.

In “Grand Budapest,” Anderson uses an assortment of flashbacks cutting from the 1980s to the 60s and again to the 30s to tell the story of how Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s aging owner, came to take possession of his fine establishment after working as a lobby boy there decades ago. Under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in a role unlike anything he’s ever done), a faithful concierge employed during the hotel’s glory days in the 30s, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) gets mixed up in family affair when Madame D (Tilda Swinton), one of the wealthy female hotel guests Gustave takes special care of (wink), dies and bequeaths to him a priceless painting much to the chagrin of her extremely serious family (Adrien Brody plays her irate son). When Gustave is accused of actually murdering Madame D, he and Zero set out on a mission to prove his innocence, which includes evading an evil assassin (Willem Dafoe) and the local police (Edward Norton plays Inspector Henckles). It also features an outrageous jail break that could only be invented in Anderson’s head.

As silly as Anderson’s past films are, “Grand Budapest,” with its crime-caper narrative, feels even more madcap than, say, a group of stop-motion mammals digging underground escape tunnels in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The “Keystone Cops”- atmosphere, however, isn’t a bad thing to see in an Anderson film. If anything, it keeps the story moving swiftly and on edge. So, along with the pastel-colored designs, the dollhouse appearance, and detailed imagery, Anderson packs his film with kooky chases and vaudevillian-esque comedy.

Finding some of his vision from the work of German American director Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson can take the most random film references and styles and build on them to mold his own cinematic flair. It might feel typical to those who can’t differentiate between Anderson’s more entertaining albeit mature storytelling, but there are plenty of new nuances in “Grand Budapest” that continue to elevate his filmmaking charm and spark more artistic inspiration.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.

For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.

Moonrise Kingdom

June 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray
Directed by:
Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Written by:
Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbauns”) and Roman Coppola (“The Darjeeling Limited”)

I couldn’t help but feel conflicted as I was turned away from a sold-out showing at the local indie theater. I’ve logged hours perched firmly atop my soapbox pontificating about how people in this city should embrace independent film and stop ignoring one of the most important theaters in town. Yet there I stood, totally annoyed that after coming to dozens of showings where I’ve literally had an entire row to myself, a 10:30 screening that I wanted to go to was sold out. But what else can you expect when a film from arguably the most popular independent film director comes to town. In his first live-action film since 2007’s “The Darjeeling Limited” director Wes Anderson is back with the summer camp coming-of-age love story “Moonrise Kingdom,” a film that feels decidedly Wes Andersonesque, while also exploring new territory.

In the summer of 1965, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) escapes from a summer camp led by overbearing Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton). In escaping, he plans to meet his misunderstood penpal Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) in a field and escape together. After Scout Master Ward and Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) discover that they are missing, they team up with the group of Khaki scouts from Sam’s camp and a local policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) set out to find the young runaway lovers.

It is no secret that Anderson prefers sticking to a familiar group of actors to headline his films. While Anderson invites back some familiar faces such as the oft-used Murray and Jason Schwartzman, “Moonrise Kingdom” features surprisingly few veterans from his previous films. For the first time in his career, Anderson doesn’t make use of Owen Wilson in any capacity. Instead, we see veteran actors such as Willis, Norton, and McDormand step into the fold. None of these secondary characters aside from Murray’s are particularly memorable, but Norton delivers the best performance as a scout leader that takes his job too seriously. Perhaps the most interesting difference from Anderson’s previous films is its heavy reliance on unknown kid actors. Fortunately for Anderson, Gilman and Hayward are able to soak up Anderson’s trademark quirk like a sponge. Although this is the first acting credit for both Gilman and Hayward, their lack of experience might have actually served them well. Even though their chemistry is strong, much of the humor and the highlights of the film in general in the film comes from the awkward interactions between the tweens.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is not a particularly hilarious film, but its subtle comedic moments work more often than not. The film takes a while to get its bearings but finds its footing once the audience starts spending time with Sam and Suzy in the wilderness. Despite its slow start, “Moonrise Kingdom” culminates in perhaps the most intricate, exciting and large-scale climax that Anderson has ever attempted, even making use of a few special effects (minor ones; we’re not talking Michael Bay-level here).

There’s plenty to like about “Moonrise Kingdom.” It’s charming, unique and occasionally pretty funny. Devotees of Anderson will be comforted by the familiar overhead and panning shots, offbeat humor, and the fantastic presence of Murray. Even with its highlights, however, something feels unspectacular and minor about the film from the get-go. It’s a good film and a worthy entry into Anderson’s catalog, but “Moonrise Kingdom” feels more like a summer fling than a modern classic tale of young love.

Get Low

August 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek
Directed by: Aaron Schneider (debut)
Written by: Chris Provenzano (“Thank You, Goodnight”) and C. Gaby Mitchell (debut)

In the opening shot of “Get Low,” we see a house engulfed in so many flames it would be virtually impossible for anyone to escape a fiery death. However, when the silhouette of a male figure manages to get out of the house and run away, you know that person has a story to tell no matter how long it’ll take him to do it.

In “Get Low,” Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall (“Tender Mercies”) is in top form as Felix Bush, an elderly man living alone in Tennessee during the 30s who has kept a secret for years and has finally decided to tell anyone who’s interested in listening what he’s buried inside him before it’s time to be buried himself.

The revelation, however, will come on his terms. When Felix visits a funeral home run by Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his young associate Buddy (Lucas Black) it’s for a specific purpose. He wants to throw a funeral party for himself and wants to invite everyone that has a story to tell about him.

To ensure a big turnout (mostly because everyone is scared of him and his reputation as “Old Man Bush”), Felix announces he will leave all his land after he dies to the winner of a raffle at the event. With business not going so well for the funeral home (“People are dying in bunches everywhere but here,” Frank says), Frank sees an opportunity to make some money and agrees to help Felix plan for his unusual get-together.

Directed by first-timer Aaron Schneider, “Get Low” is a modest Southern folktale about atonement, grief, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality. Leave it to Duvall to take a character that could have come off as a small-minded grump knocking at death’s door and bring him to life. Murray, too, is a joy to watch as he stays just above the wave of melancholy that sweeps through the tone of the entire picture.

The rustic feel and slow pace of “Get Low” might not be for everyone, but if you want to see a master like Duvall craft a fine performance it might be a good idea to hitch a ride to the countryside. It’ll definitely be an inspiring journey.

City of Ember

October 21, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan
Directed by: Gil Kenan (“Monster House”)
Written by: Caroline Thompson (“Corpse Bride”)

You could watch “City of Ember” and think of it as a metaphor for our current economic crisis or you could simply watch it as a human version of “Fraggle Rock.” Either way, there are some great ideas and mythology somewhere inside the story, which stay buried as deep as the city where the film is set.

After the world ends, the underground City of Ember is where the remaining population moves so that mankind can continue to live. Those who have created the city, known as “the builders,” have set a clock inside a small metal box along with the secrets of the outside world, so that after 200 years underground, the citizens would know what to do when their time below the surface of the earth was up.

But as the box changes hands over the years from mayor to mayor, it is somehow misplaced. With city continuing to get older and more fragile and their generator (the only source of electricity) on its last leg, the citizens of Ember come together to try to figure out a way to save their home before the frightening daily blackouts become permanent.

Little do the people of Ember know that a little girl named Lena Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), a descendant of a past mayor, has found the box tucked away in her senile granny’s house. Although Lena is not quite sure of the box’s history, she would like to tell someone about her discovery, but is worried that the city’s current corrupt leader, Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), could have different plans.

It’s not Murray’s finest hour as he and other talented Academy-Award winning actors like Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”) and Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) are sorely underused. Sure, they’re only secondary characters but screenwriter Caroline Thompson doesn’t give them anything worthwhile to do. Instead, the story focuses on Lena and her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) as they search for a way out of the city by following a map they find in the box and piece together.

While the first half of “Ember” offers some neat concepts, director Gil Kenan only skims the surface. I’m not too sure how Jeanne Duprau’s book is different, but in the film version there’s not enough magical moments inside the city and all that is left is a plodding trip to the outside world. Why leave so quickly when the most interesting things are underground? By the third act, “The City of Ember,” somehow becomes another “Journey to the Center of the Earth” with these characters moving in the opposite direction. It might be good enough for water park ride enthusiasts, but not for someone who wants a little more spirited adventure.