ADIFF Review: Isle of Dogs

 

 

Cian Geoghegan enters a dystopian doggie future in Japan.

 

Many long winters have passed since Wes Anderson’s snowy epic The Grand Budapest Hotel stormed theatres across the globe. This is the longest gap Anderson has taken between films to date – four years. It’s not out of commercial exile, as the filmmaker has only found more and more success the more and more idiosyncratic his style becomes. He has turned auteur-driven filmmaking into a franchise of sorts. 

The world has changed greatly in the four years without a new Wes Anderson joint. The fascist spectres looming in the background in Grand Budapest were once just a further burst of the writer-director’s imagination. Now, their inclusion seems eerily prescient. The rise of far-right politics in both Anderson’s home country and Europe, the home continent of many a stylistic influence, leaves a sharp impact on his new film, Isle of Dogs. Anderson has always used his fantastical worlds to understate a deeper emotional anguish. Here, everything is fantastical – the anguish is found in how close the supervillains are to reality. 

The plot is simple – Atari, the young ward of a corrupt mayor embarks to the Isle of Dogs, to where the canine population have been exiled following a dog-flu scare. His mission: to rescue his dog Spots. Our cast of outcast “alpha-dogs” (Bryan Cranston among Anderson regulars – Norton, Murray, Goldblum and Balaban) take it upon themselves to guide him across the island, the mythology of which is textured, tragic and largely unspoken. 

Displaced people, bigoted leaders, child activism – Dogs makes The Post look like a narcoleptic journalist submitting assignments months past the due date. Given the massive timescale required for a stop-motion feature, many of these real-life parallels are just happy accidents. The most affecting such accident may be Greta Gerwig’s character Tracy, an Ohio foreign exchange student with the energy to overthrow as many political oligarchs as there are hours in the day. The shooting in Parkland, Florida and the subsequent activist movement on behalf of surviving students occurred a week shy of the film’s Berlin premiere, yet these strands of art and life clash in a way that is not just coincidental, but profound and necessary. 

Cool your jets on the ideology, though. All this political allegory props up a film of immense watchability. Jokes whip past at breakneck pace, with running gags drawing incessant giggles from the wholly adult audience at my screening. The music keeps the tone light as well. The nostalgic indie tunes typical of Anderson strum along, helping us forget how much this beautiful trash island probably smells. 

Despite working mostly in live-action, Anderson seems a student of animation in Isle of Dogs. The constant barrage of dog jokes from all angles recall the childlike giddiness of Aardman animations. The quiet moments mirror the best of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The footprints of Japanese filmmaking are left beyond the limits of animation. The shadow Kurosawa casts over the film cannot be understated.  

It’s fitting that a film so thematically concerned with inclusivity and multiculturalism would serve just shy of being a bilingual picture. From the film’s earliest moments, it is clear we are witnessing a worldly film that is as much Japanese as it is American. Large portions of the film will play diametrically different to Japanese audiences, as the film audaciously focuses on Japanese characters speaking Japanese without subtitles. The viewer doesn’t feel left in the dark – if anything it endears them to the dog characters (“I wish somebody spoke his language,” one of Jeff Goldblum’s many zingers) The film’s identity is firmly planted in the far East. Weaved within the stop-motion is an ingenious visual effect dancing between rotoscope, cell-shading and hand-drawn animation. Art inspired by the Edo period is all over the film – particularly in the unapologetic exposition-dump of a prologue. Those who thought, that post-Budapest Anderson’s style was destined to collapse under its own whimsy if pushed to any further extreme, will be pleasantly surprised. A taste of the far East is just what Anderson needed to keep his style fresh. 

The stop-motion on show is joyously (and sometimes deceptively) simple. The human characters are toy-like. They recall Robot Chicken more than Chicken Run. Use of practical effects carries on from Fantastic Mr. Fox – cotton clouds the skies and obscures the many dogfights with a busy haze. In terms of character design, the dogs have no right to be as distinct as they are – their personality are as thin as the scrawny inhabitants of the island, after all. Yet when one scene sets the canine cast in silhouette within an igloo of discarded bottles – a directorial decision made as if on a dare – we instantly know who is who. It helps that the warm glow of the scenery makes it one of the most beautiful scenes in a film of beautiful scenes. 

The film seems to appeal to the kid in all of us, but the filmmakers seek to steer clear of actual kids. The MPAA have slapped a PG-13 on the film, prompting many to call foul, but I can see their reasoning. Sparse moments of language, gallows humour and bizarre gore add character to the film, but will keep it from reaching the widest audience and having an impact on the kids it so clearly wants to save the world. 

Act three brings on another classic Andersonian climax, wherein all the dominoes set up so meticulously get to fall. Something about this ending seems a tad too neat, however. Anderson’s tightly constructed narratives have never contradicted the emotional truth lying beneath for the sake of cohesion, but in this case, he comes dangerously close. Teetering on feeling unearned, the film’s final moments are a tightrope-walk. Themes of anti-corruption and transparency come a hair too close to being betrayed for this critic’s liking. 

Isle of Dogs is another instalment in Anderson’s hot streak, an animated film with personality and purpose to spare. The film is a crucial commentary on today’s climate, with visuals so beautiful as to make you forget how trenchantly political it all is. In what may be the Wes Anderson film both most and least concerned with the goings on of our world, he pulls off yet another impressive trick with grace. Good boy. 

 

 

Isle of Dogs screened as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21 February – 4th March)

 

 

 

 

 

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JDIFF Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Stacey Grouden checks in to Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Hotel, which had its Irish premiere at the weekend as part of the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

 

In an early scene in Wes Anderson’s latest film, a girl admires the stone bust of an author, famous for his book, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Through a series of flashbacks to 1985, 1968 and the 1930s, broken into chapters, we uncover the colourful story of its past, as told by its eccentric owner and former employee, Zero Moustafa (Abraham) to the author of the novel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, a lush Alpine resort in the fictional European nation of Zubrowka in an alternate 1930s, is run by the gently flamboyant concierge M. Gustave (Fiennes). A hit with the establishment’s more mature female guests, Gustave’s relationship with one particular lady, Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Swinton), comes under close scrutiny when she is murdered and her will bequeaths to him a priceless painting, ‘Boy with Apple.’ Together with his loyal lobby boy, Zero (played as a young man by Tony Revolori), Gustave takes the painting and flees, desperate to clear his name and avoid the same fate as his late former lover.

Fans of Wes Anderson’s characteristic style won’t be disappointed as it retains the same storybook aesthetic for which he has been variously praised and criticised. The characters are lavishly costumed and the world beautifully realised in a series of decadent sets. Similarly, the film is divided into chapters, not only recalling his use of the same technique in The Royal Tenenbaums, but reminding the audience that we are hearing this story from the author, as told by Zero, to the author’s younger self. This structure – a frame within a frame within a frame – is often echoed in the composition, with deep halls, twisting staircases and rows of balconies outlining the characters in action.

But while a common argument about his films is that this quirky, distinctive style comes at the expense of substance, the narrative and thematic content here is deceptively rich. Ostensibly, The Grand Budapest Hotel sees Anderson presenting a postmodern and very entertaining twist on the 1930s-style detective story. But this structure, along with quietly elegant performances by Abraham and Revolori as Zero, see it elevated to a poignant memoir, an ode to times past, and to dearly-departed mentors. This can be seen not only in how the film presents M. Gustave as a long-passed, old-world gentleman, but is also perhaps a nod to old Hollywood, to Hitchcockian escapades on trains, Great Escape-style prison breaks, and the artisanal glamour of a well-designed, densely-detailed set-piece.

But the introspection offered by this many-layered approach would fall flat without the strength of its central performances, and while a number of Anderson’s staple actors make appearances – Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, among others – Ralph Fiennes steals the film as M. Gustave H. Achieving the subtle distinction between delivering a huge performance without being over-the-top, Fiennes balances his theatrical gravitas with his rarely-executed gift for comedy, making it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Just like a concierge, his performance adapts to every new situation with aplomb and never misses a beat.

Lively, but with moments of unexpected darkness, tension, and poignancy, The Grand Budapest Hotel is well worth a visit.

Click here for further coverage from the 12th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

 

 

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Cinema Review: Moonrise Kingdom

DIR: Wes Anderson  WRI: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola  PRO: Scott Rudin, Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales • DOP: Robert Yeoman • ED: Andrew Weisblum • DES: Adam Stockhausen • Cast: Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Jared Gilman, Kara Hyward

A filmmaker like Wes Anderson is in a tough position. His visual style and direction is so well-known, so unmistakably his, that for him to try something different would be akin to committing career suicide. He has built up a reputation of making quirky films with colour-drenched scenes and razor-sharp dialogue. Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t break the mould in terms of his previous work. And yet, it is by far his most accessible film to date. The story takes place in the summer of 1965 on New Penzance Island, off the coast of New England. Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hyward) are two odd children who decide to run away together for a period of time. Sam, who is a Khaki Scout and wilderness expert, escapes from his summer camp and meets Suzy. Their plan is to retrace the steps of the local Native American migration. The scout master, Randy Ward (Ed Norton), takes his troop out to locate the runaways – along with the help of local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).

 

Wes Anderson has crafted a touching film that isn’t bogged down by the usual overbearing dialogue that plagues his other films. The film’s strength lies in both the chemistry between the two runaways and their story. While it is very innocent and eccentric, their story is more based in reality than other films Anderson has made. This doesn’t detract from that other-worldly quality that are his trademark; it means that their story is more easy to relate to. Where the runaways’ story is centred around first love, the relationship between Murray and McDormand is strained and reserved. However, the film cleverly eschews delving into it. Theirs is shown through what the child see and, as such, the true state of their marriage is kept suppressed from Suzy. As well, Sam’s home-life is only brought up later in the film as it doesn’t factor in until it is needed. Anderson’s use of the supporting cast is inspired. No extra screen-time is given to Murray, Norton or Willis needlessly. The film’s central focus is on the runaways and their adventure together – not the search parties that are looking for them.

 

Moonrise Kingdom is a gentle, heartfelt film that never feels like it’s anything but sincere. Willis gives a fantastic performance as the good-natured policeman who only wants to help Sam. As well, Norton excels as the earnest scout master, all salutes and quick-smart marching. Bill Murray is, admittedly, underused as is Frances McDormand. However, a scene featuring the two of them is particularly emotional when, exasperated, the two come face-to-face with the reality that they’re failing as parents. It’s true, Wes Anderson is working with familiar material here. The film has certain echoes of Lord of the Flies and Roald Dahl stories, however Anderson has put his unique stamp on a timeless story that is sure to win over his fans – and may win him some new ones as well.

Brian Lloyd 

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Moonrise Kingdom is released on 25th May 2012

Moonrise Kingdom – Official Website

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IFI present Wes Anderson Season

Writer-director Wes Anderson is arguably one of the foremost cinematic stylists working in American film today; his rigorous and distinctive aesthetic approach makes his films instantly recognisable. Look past the framing, colours and impeccable soundtrack, however, and you’ll find Anderson the artist is a desperate optimist with a heartfelt empathy for his oft-troubled protagonists. To celebrate the release of his new film Moonrise Kingdom on 25th May, that premiered to acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival just a few days ago, the IFI presents the complete set of Anderson features throughout June.

Bottle Rocket (June 2nd) started life as a 13-minute short (also showing) that sufficiently impressed for Columbia studio to bankroll the full-length version, Anderson’s debut feature. This sunny shaggy-dog story served as a handy calling card for Anderson, whose trademark style was already remarkably well developed. With his follow-up, Rushmore (3rd June), he really hit his stride, establishing himself as a major talent with this seminal school comedy of ill manners. Precocious blue-collar teen Max Fischer, as incarnated by Jason Schwartzman in his screen debut, is one of the great screen rebels and Rushmore is by turns unpredictable, droll, whip-smart and achingly tender.

The Royal Tenenbaums (16th June), Anderson’s dramatic comedy about a dysfunctional family of troubled geniuses is one of the key American films of the new millennium. A gleefully larger-than-life Gene Hackman excels as the disruptive paterfamilias with a formidable ensemble all struggling with the unresolved parental issues that blight so many of Anderson’s protagonists. A visual love-letter to New York City, and perhaps Anderson’s greatest work to date, the film begs to be seen on the big screen once more.

Anderson’s penchant for stylisation goes into overdrive with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (June 22nd), an elaborate fantasia on the high seas. Bill Murray, a key figure in Anderson’s oeuvre, uses his patented brand of ennui as the eponymous oceanographer Zissou on an eccentric but magnificently realised mission to eliminate the ‘jaguar shark’. On something of a world tour, The Darjeeling Limited ((June 23rd) brings the trademark Anderson aesthetic and unresolved familial issues to India with an unlikely trio of estranged siblings, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody, on a what’s meant to be a journey of self-discovery. However, all is not quite as it seems…

Fantastic Mr. Fox (June 24th), the season’s final film, is a faithful yet freewheeling adaptation of the Roald Dahl source material that fits perfectly with Anderson’s world. Our foxy hero (winningly voice by George Clooney) is torn between his past as a chicken poaching ne’er-do-well and his current life as an urbane family man. In the end, with Anderson, it’s always all about growing up.

Watching Wes Anderson Season Schedule

Bottle Rocket June 2nd 14.30
Rushmore June 3rd 14.30
The Royal Tenenbaums June 16th 16.10
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou June 22nd 18.30
The Darjeeling Limited (with short film Hotel Chevalier) June 23rd 16.30
Fantastic Mr. Fox June 24th 14.00
Tickets will be available from 28th May at the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or www.ifi.ie

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