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.

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

Admire the charming and imaginative look and feel of director/writer Wes Anderson’s films over the last decade, but the Houston-born filmmaker wants everyone to know that when it comes to the projects he’s made over the years like “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” it’s the screenplay that is always the most important.

“Whatever the movie is going to be, it really comes from the writing,” Anderson told me during a roundtable interview at the SXSW Film Festival a couple weeks ago. “The actors invent their performances themselves, but they work with this script. A lot of it comes from what’s on the page.”

There’s plenty to work with from the pages of his new comedy caper, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which stars Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, a devoted hotel concierge accused of murdering a hotel guest who bequeaths to him a priceless painting. Her death sets in motion a splendid chase through the snowy backdrops of a war-torn Europe. For “Grand Budapest,” it began with writing Fiennes’ character first, although Anderson isn’t quite sure how all that creativity really comes together.

“This movie started with one character, played by Ralph, and figuring what that character was like and figuring out a story for [him] and then, eventually, having an idea for a setting,” Anderson said. “All the visual stuff came after the script was finished. It’s kind of a mystery how anybody writes.”

Along with Fiennes’ role in the 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges,” Anderson cast him based off a play he had seen him in called “God of Carnage” and a 2006 independent film he starred in called “Bernard and Doris” alongside Susan Sarandon.

“[Ralph] also knows the person, my friend, who [Gustave] is inspired by,” Anderson explained. “He had a sense of what the real guy is like. It was the combination and also being around him personally.”

As for killing off beloved pets in his movies (a dog meets its demise in both “Tenenbaums” and 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom”), Anderson quips. In “Grand Budapest,” he lets the pooch live, and instead proves that not all cats land on their feet when they hit the ground.

“Human actors often want to have a death scene to play,” he says. “So, in a way, it’s trying to share this opportunity with other animals. I’m just trying to write a good part for a cat.”

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

For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.

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.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

November 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”)

If it wasn’t for Spike Jonze and his beautifully somber retelling of “Where the Wild Things Are,” Wes Anderson would be the leading vote-getter this year as the director with the most imagination for his whimsical and detail-oriented animation “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Look behind you Pixar; this is a sly one.

Based on the classic Roald Dahl children’s book of the same name, which was published in 1970, Oscar-winner George Clooney (“Syriana”) lends his voice to Mr. Fox, a risk-taking carnivorous and clever newspaper columnist who promises his wife Mrs. Fox (two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep) that he will find another line of work after they are both caught stealing chickens.

Twelve years later, Fox is a family man with a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who he really can’t bond with, and a craving to return to his animalistic nature and go on another heist after a long hiatus. Call it a mid-life crisis, but Fox needs an adrenaline rush again. “I’m a wild animal,” is the reason he gives his better half when she finds out he and his loyal friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), an easily- influenced opossum, are scheming to steal from Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, three of the meanest farmers this side of the woods.

But while Fox is off jumping fences and getting ready for their “triple-header master plan,” Ash is left to fend with his own insecure teenage problems. His lack of self-confidence is magnified when his much more talented cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes for a visit and is immediately accepted by Fox as a member of his chicken- thieving crew.

Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, however, aren’t going to let one sly little fox outsmart them. Armed with dynamite, bulldozers, and rabid beagles, they go on a full assault against Fox and his family, who inhabit a tree across the field from where the farms sit. The farmers push them farther and farther into the terrain and force them to make an intricate series of paths to stay alive.

Masterfully crafted in a screenplay penned by Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), much of the writing duo’s snarky and sardonic dialogue works charmingly well coming from the mouths of fuzzy creatures who wear corduroy jackets and bandit hats and dance as silly as the Peanuts gang. There’s even a witty ongoing gag throughout the film where Anderson and Baumbach replace any expletives they would have used in one of their grown-up films with the word “cuss.”

Driven by old-fashioned stop motion animation, the style of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” looks like nothing you’ve seen in the past few years. It’s a handmade work-of-art with a wonderfully eccentric and heartfelt message about fathers and sons and what it really means to be “fantastic” when you’re just so different from everyone else. If Anderson has proven anything in his 15-year career, that would be the perfect sentiment.