Isle of Dogs (2018)

IsleOfDogsFirstLook.jpgIt only became apparent to me after the fact that Isle of Dogs sounds quite close to “I love dogs.” You might even say there was a certain amount of forethought in this play on words. However, the pun only works in English as the Japanese pronunciation of the comparable kanji is “Inu ga shima.” Here we have the inherent beauty and simultaneously what some would deem the problematic nature of Wes Anderson’s latest film in a nutshell.

It’s necessary to lay out how I come at Isle of Dogs because it does contribute to how I perceive it. I’m Japanese-American. I’ve lived in Japan. I know some of the language though it’s an admittedly meager amount. However, I’ve invested in the culture and care about its people and fostering cross-cultural bonds. That’s part of the reason I was drawn to live there for an extended period of time, more than any pop culture infatuation with anime and manga. In those regards, I’m very much American. I also revere Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi and all the rest as most cinephiles do. There you are.

Wes Anderson is someone that I genuinely admire for his aesthetic though I would never necessarily sing his praises needlessly. He doesn’t need me to defend him nor do I look to. Still, when I consider Isle of Dogs I do not see a superficial homage. As with everything he does Anderson’s film feels fairly meticulous and the stop-motion creation is phenomenally precise. Beyond that, it’s infused with Japanese tradition. Certainly, there are markers that some might deem superficial like Taiko or sumo or cherry blossoms (さくら). They are all present. 

Thus, I do worry about people who have not interfaced with Japanese culture or the people. Specifically, the character of Tracy (voiced by Greta Gerwig), the foreign exchange student, feels problematic. I’ve met some folks like her where they let their own personalities take control of every situation and there seems to be no sensitivity or give and take. 

Because they don’t seem to have any sense of the culture they are in or at the very least they expect others to play by their rules. Hence why many Americans including myself are only fluent in one language. An example springs to mind of Tracy wandering into a bar and hollering at the man behind the counter in English that she wants chocolate milk. Then she berates a Japanese scientist (voiced by Yoko Ono) for not doing anything in opposition to the rampant government corruption. Again, in English. 

It was fascinating that I watched the film with an audience where the majority were Japanese so they were not ignorant of their country like Tracy or I might be. But how about viewers in another pocket of the world or even back home where I come from? The audiences saw a different movie altogether with different nuances and connotations.

Some people have noted rightly that a lot of the Japanese dialogue is lost because as the opening disclaimer notes: “The humans in this film speak only in their native tongue (occasionally translated by bilingual interpreter, foreign exchange student, and electronic device). The dogs’ barks are translated into English.” Except for the dogs, that’s a large margin for error.

Even the words of the little pilot, the intrepid boy Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) are all but lost on the dogs who don’t speak human and for me as well because, again, my Japanese leaves much to be desired. But the bottom line is that he almost always intuitively knows what the pack of alpha dogs is doing. 

They have a connection. He is looking for his faithful guard dog Spots (voiced by Liev Schrieber) who has been cruelly deported by his distant uncle Mayor Kobayashi in his effort to rid the dystopian Japanese city of Megasaki of infectious dogs. Spots was the first of many canines to be deported to the putrid rubbish pile of Trash Island. There you have the film’s plot but it relies on the fact that the boy and the dogs work together.

It goes back to that core tenet of society that dog is man’s best friend. And strip away any amount of visual artistry or cultural layering and that fact remains universal. Kobayashi is a cat person and we surmise his decision was merely a vendetta against canines (going back generations) more than any scientific evidence would suggest. 

To be honest, it never feels like Anderson is putting out a giant placard with film references at least not like Tracy with her megaphone. If anything the film conjures up one of Japan’s great national heroes the faithful dog Hachiko. Any traveler to Tokyo will recognize his statue in Shibuya but he is a cultural icon — emblematic of the same bond expressed in this story.

It’s still an Anderson film and as such, I never get emotionally connected with the material (actually maybe I take that back; stop-motion dogs suffering is heartbreaking to watch) nor do I gel with his very personal idiosyncrasies all the time.

But somehow, though the film’s cultural representations and relationship with Japan are flawed, nevertheless it left me more impressed than anything. It seemed like a degree of care was taken. And in the end, this story of canines has moments that unquestionably do resonate with me.

I thought I would have more problems with all the quality voice talent distracting from the story itself and it happened at times where I was stuck on Jeff Goldblum or Bill Murray but more often than not it didn’t seem like one voice stole the show. It was a story that involved many voices.

Some that we are able to understand, others that we can only gather bits and pieces of. But for me personally, rather than that being a deterrent I find it fascinating that the same film can play differently for different audiences and that native Japanese speakers can be in on the movie in a way that I never could.

It’s not that we don’t deserve to know that part of the story necessarily or need to be singled out because we don’t know the language but isn’t that one of the confounding things about culture and language? Oftentimes we don’t understand one another and need to find points of mutual understanding. Things get lost in translation and I think one could make the argument that this happens in Isle of Dogs purposely.

Certainly, Wes Anderson doesn’t know Japanese culture like the back of his hand. In an interview, he said he’s been to Japan some but his references were namely Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. And yet if that is true, it still feels as if he’s surrounded himself with some voices different than his own even if his typical ensemble is in place.

We have Kunichi Nomura with input on the script and voice duty for Mayor Kobayashi. More include Akira Takayama, Mari Natsuki, Akira Ito and then better-known names like Nojiro Noda, Yoko Ono, and Ken Watanabe. That’s not to mention the countless other Japanese contributors whose names scrolled by with the end credits.

Admittedly this is only my perception of the film but when I watch it, I never feel like it is assuming the primacy of the English speaking audience or if it is then that assumption gets slyly subverted. I mentioned already that the character of Tracy often speaks in English, in her opposition to Mayor Kobayashi or to the man serving up drinks at the bar counter.

The implicit understanding is that the Japanese characters understand the English being spoken but they choose instead to respond in their native language. So they have met us half way but have we met them? Learning Japanese is difficult, maybe even impractical, but growing our cultural literacy comes in many forms that would only assist in deepening our ties with one another. Only later did I realize that Tracy, the “white savior” as it were, essentially fails in her attempts. If anything she needs the help of an audacious Atari, his guard dog, and the nameless hacker from her school. Without them she is powerless.

As is often the case, certain people use their voices and assertive personalities to push themselves into the limelight unwittingly but those people would be nothing without the taciturn heroes who willingly stay in the periphery until they need to stand up. While Tracy turns me off slightly in fiction and in real life, it’s the others like Atari that resonate with me. Just as the tale of dogs in both camaraderie and loyalty rings a universal note.

However, I realize only now that I didn’t talk much about the actual mechanics and formalistic aspects of the movie but I’ve spoken my peace. Do with it what you will.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: Two articles that I found interesting on this topic were the following: What “Isle of Dogs” Gets Right About Japan and Justin Chang’s Isle of Dogs Review

 

Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

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30 minutes into Lost in Translation our two traveling misanthropes finally meet in the hotel lobby at the bar sharing a friendly exchange. They are two people who share one striking similarity — they are Americans in a foreign land — and they’re looking for a friend.

It’s a very pertinent film for places I’ve gone as an American who has traveled to Japan of my own volition but still as a bit of an outsider. Not because I am rejected or an outcast but for the very fact that there are obvious cultural and linguistic barriers in my way. I resonate with this film not so much because it takes on the point of view of the Japanese and empathizes with them but on the contrary, it focuses on those on the outside looking in. Like Bob & Charlotte and you and me in our manifold cultural illiteracies.

Bob is a big shot movie star. Probably not unlike Bill Murray. Big in the 70s and 80s but now his popularity is slowly waning as the years begin to catch up with him and he’s demoted to cameos. In fact, maybe Murray has fared better. Bob’s in Tokyo promoting Suntory Whiskey in their latest ad campaign. It’s good money but certainly not what he wants to be doing with his career.

He’s Suntory Time’s latest spokesperson. It’s the epitome of culture becoming completely muddled along language lines. My Japanese admittedly leaves much to be desired, but the Japanese director’s stage directions are full of passionate vision of what this scene will be, a shot out of Casablanca, full of emotion and heartache. The translation Bob gets is simply “He wants you to turn and look to the camera.” He feels like he’s missing something. Just as each reference that’s tossed haphazardly his way is never fully understood.

The Rat Pack, Bogart, Sinatra, Roger Moore, even Johnny Carson. Each of these names comes with so much more. But the context has been ripped away from them and appropriated and transplanted to different settings. It’s nothing to be up in arms about it’s simply the reality of our internationalized culture and it’s utterly befuddling to Bob. He can’t navigate it at all.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a recently married philosophy graduate who looks hardly a day over 20. Friends back home seem too preoccupied to listen as she calls them up over the phone. Meanwhile, her dweeby husband with a particularly whiny voice (sorry Giovani Ribisi) is consumed with his own career as a photographer and distracted by old acquaintances ( namely Anna Faris). He says he loves his wife but he certainly doesn’t spend much time with Charlotte. Her loneliness shows. She’s even hit the bottom of the barrel listening to CDs to discover the purpose of her soul.

Bill Murray’s characteristic deadpan cheekiness feels entirely at odds with the culture that he is thrown into where you’re forced to cook your own food (Shabu Shabu) and he dwarfs the national average in terms of height. Bob is the prototypical American movie star making his press junket of Tokyo but at the same time, he’s also oblivious that he forgot his son’s birthday again until he receives a reminder.

In fact, Murray never feels like he could be anyone’s best friend because he’d either be a flake or he’d never open up to you because he’s too busy making jokes in lieu of actual conversation. Still, maybe there’s a grain of hope.

Bob and Charlotte are totally adrift in the city. Lost in the sea of Tokyo and it’s really no fault of the city despite its astronomical population and unfamiliar customs. It only serves to magnify the real problem — a small-scale parallel to what is going on in their lives. Their problem doesn’t start with Tokyo. It starts with the person who looks back at them in the mirror. Though they come from two very different stations of life, their current state of affairs is all but analogous. Bob and Charlotte are in the midst of personal crises — the biggest ones imaginable — what’s life really about?

That’s why when they break out in conversation it means something. Of course, he leads with an extended joke, “I‘m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?”

Their meeting in the hotel lobby is a lifeline that they both willingly grab hold of and it leads them out into the world around them. They frequent the video game parlors, traverse Shibuya crosswalks, perform in late night Karaoke joints, and sit up talking with Japanese surfers as Tokyo’s bright lights illuminate the night air. Coppola even drops a nod to her significant other with Phoenix’s “Too Young” exemplifying the vibe around town.

The film hints at infidelity at times and Bob’s marriage is a flimsy one at best but the beauty of his relationship with Charlotte is that first and foremost it is a friendship and by the time they must part ways it’s heartbreaking. They’ve grown so close. But a hug can be as meaningful as any sexual relationship might have been. They genuinely care about each other. It turns out Bill Murray can be a good friend and one with wisdom and grace no less.

In its fleeting moments, Lost in Translation, captures just how horrible goodbyes can be. There’s so much you want to be able to say and nothing you can begin to say. In fact, Bob cannot leave it there and so he goes after her, tracks her down, and shares one final embrace and one last word. Both of them go their separate ways but there’s no doubt that Bob and Charlotte have grown and helped each other to a better place. It’s still a work in progress but that’s part of what life is about right? Living and growing alongside other people.

We can scour YouTube to come up with the latest and greatest, definitive enhanced audio video to tell us exactly what Bob leaves her with, although each one undoubtedly claims something different, or we can bask in that ambiguity which while so maddening in some way feels satisfying for the very same reason. Floating through Tokyo has never been so wistfully affecting.

4.5/5 Stars

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Lost In Translation (2003)

Lost_in_Translation_posterStarring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson with direction by Sofia Coppola, this film is set in the fast-paced, technological, and modern world of Tokyo, Japan. That is where Bob and Charlotte find themselves and they both are lost, simply going through the motions of life. He is a middle-aged, former movie star filming a whiskey commercial. She is a newly-married wife of a fashion photographer. Despite their age differences, they find out that they have a lot in common. Over the week they spend time together in Tokyo and become friends. When the time comes for Bob to leave neither one wants their time to end. They say goodbye but do not forget each other. This film was enjoyable because it portrayed two people who could be good friends without getting romantically attached, at least in the conventional sense.

I must say that this type of friendship intrigues me. It is understandable that if you go to a foreign country alone it would be nice to have someone you could at least converse with, without any barrier getting in the way. It might be at Narita airport for a moment, at a Hotel, or walking the streets of Shinjuku.  It would act as a comfort in a world like Tokyo that is so fast paced and high stress. These unusual circumstances could throw together two very different people, with little in common except the language they speak. That is something that does not happen every day.

Needless to say, after gaining the opportunity to visit Tokyo two years in a row it has given me some new insight. I can now wholly empathize with Bob and Charlotte because although I knew a few people, Tokyo is such a highly populated, fast-paced world that seems so easy to get lost and overwhelmed in. There is so much to see, so many lights, so many hurrying folks, so many subway lines, so many surgical masks, so much etiquette, and so much technology. True, some of my ancestors were Japanese but the language still baffles me, making it very easy to get “Lost in Translation.” Being in Tokyo it also helped me realize that it is not only tourists who get lost. It has been over 10 years since this film came out and a lot can happen in that time like more Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner.

Despite the westernization and technological advancement, Tokyo also has a time-worn aspect, and its people are often worn as well. They might not be lost because of a literal language barrier. However, they, like Bob and Charlotte, are often lost because they have difficulty getting close to their peers. Often they, like the two protagonists, seem to be searching for someone to talk to, but in their case manners keep others at arm’s length. Coppola’s film gained an even more personal note now that I have walked in these places and interacted with or at least walked alongside the Japanese people. They like anyone else can be “Lost in Translation,” it just might be a different type of “language” than what we struggle with. They too are humans who have their share of struggles, worries, joys, hopes, and dreams. Hopefully, this type of understanding will help us transcend any barriers so we no longer find ourselves “Lost in Translation.”

4.5/5 Stars

Zombieland (2009)

0e860-zombieland-posterI am not big on Zombie films and so I went into this one not expecting much a great deal. I still do not really like the Zombie genre but there were some decently funny moments here having to do with the rules Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has for surviving the apocalypse. The long lasting search for Twinkies, and of course a random cameo by a prominent funny man were a few more highlights. Woody Harrelson is good at playing the gruff type and Little Rock and Arkansas have a lot of personality which does the film a service. Remember rule #1: Cardio. Very important to survive during a zombie apocalypse if it ever comes to that.

3.5/5 Stars

 

What About Bob? (1991)

1f90d-what_about_bob_filmI was not sure I would like this film because honestly Bill Murray is not usually one of my favorite actors. However, his portrayal of Bob Wiley, a man with every phobia imaginable, is maybe his most lovable. True, he is annoying and neurotic, but he means well. In many respects he reminds me of Jimmy Stewart as Harvey because both characters were able to captivate most of the people around him. Only with Bob he got under the skin of one man and that man was his psychologist Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss). Bob tags along on Dr. Leo’s family vacation and that is where the conflict really gets started and the laughs begin. Every moment that the doctor loses his sanity continually builds up  until the stress of Bob is just too much to take! All in all this was a pretty entertaining film and I gained a new found respect for Bill Murray.

3.5/5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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The farthest Eastern boundary of the European continent makes the perfect landscape for a new addition to the quirky Wes Anderson canon. But more on that later. First our story.

It gains inspiration from the writings of forgotten Viennese author of the 30s and 40s Stefan Zweig. In fact, the author’s own plot device is used in this story of friendship, love, and murder. An inquisitive writer (Jude Law) from the 1960s becomes intrigued by the aging proprietor of the Grand Budapest Hotel Zero Moustaffa (F. Murray Abraham).

The rather mysterious figure is glad to tell his story and how he came to acquire the iconic hotel. And that’s where our real story begins, back in 1932, with concierge and small time celebrity M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). He is a dying breed of a man, full of culture, a bit effeminate, and known to wine and dine older patrons. He also has an immense affinity for poetry.

It was under his leadership that the young, stoic bellboy Zero got his start. What an exciting beginning it was.  One of Gustave’s most faithful patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), dies suddenly and he is bequeathed the priceless painting Boy with Apple.

The family of the deceased is in an uproar led by belligerent son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Soon Gustave has become the strangest of fugitives as he is wanted for the murder of the old lady.

During that time, young love springs up and Zero meets the love of his life Agatha (Saoirse Roman), a spunky baker who returns his affection.

Now the imprisoned Gustave takes part in an escape attempt a la Le Trou except this rendition is successful to a degree. Faithful Zero meets up with his mentor, and Gustave turns to the only ones he can. The concierges from all the surrounding area. They oblige, getting the two fugitives away, but soon Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) is on their tails at a local monastery.

War is imminent and back at the Grand Budapest things do not look promising.  The ever fearless Agatha agrees to go fetch Boy with Apple, but she is soon spotted and pursued by the ever brutish Dmitri who tries to use his gun. That’s not a smart thing when all the rooms are full of quartered soldiers and a chaotic gunfight ensues.

In the aftermath, a second will is uncovered that makes M. Gustave the sole owner of the Grand Budapest and many other possessions that Madame D owned. In a Deja Vu moment, Gustave and Zero ride the train once again before getting boarded and questioned. Always the gentlemen, Gustave defends Zero who is targeted for his immigration status. It was in that way the story ends and returns to the young author and elderly Zero Moustaffa.

He never could bear to give up the Grand Budapest despite the toll of Communism. It’s not because of Gustave, but his dear Agatha who died only two years after. It’s his only link to the happiest times of his life.

What The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being is an odd mix of black comedy and romantic sentiment all wrapped up in an Anderson world.

His shots are often framed symmetrically and muted pastels abound as well as scaled miniatures, creating his always distinctive mise-en-scene. He is also a fan of a smooth moving camera often involving zooms.

Anderson is obviously a student of cinema and his film at times are reminiscent to 30s fair such as Grand Hotel and The Rules of the Game. He also channels another famed Viennese Ernst Lubitsch who was a master of highbrow romantic comedies.

Hotel also boast a superb cast comprising most of Anderson’s stock company. If there’s anyone who has been in more than one of his movies, they are probably in this one, even for just an instant.

So given the normal Wes Anderson flair or eccentricities, this film is visually pleasing and quite entertaining. It is a worthy follow up to Moonrise Kingdom, darling.

4/5 stars

Groundhog Day (1993)

01498-groundhog_day_movie_posterStarring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, this romantic-fantasy-comedy is about a conceited weatherman named Phil Connors who goes to cover Groundhog Day. After coping with the day once, Phil wakes up and goes through it again realizing he is in a time loop. At first since there are no consequences Phil memorizes every occurrence, takes advantage of situations, and romances any woman he wants. However, over time the novelty wears off and it soon gives way to monotony. He even starts committing elaborate suicides to get out of each day. However, as he continues to fall for his producer, Phil begins to change and decides to use all he knows for good. After one day he is the most loved man in town and surprisingly enough he finally is free. The concept of this film is certainly interesting and it brings up hilarious and thought-provoking situations. Phil Connors begins as a self-serving jerk, hits rock bottom, and finally finds redemption in showing kindness for others. And the best part is he no longer has to listen to I Got You Babe!

4.5/5 Stars

Tootsie (1982)

7425a-tootsie_impStarring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Terri Garr, and BIll Murray, this comedy film follows a fiery actor as he tries to find work. Despite his skill, no one wants to work with Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) and so he masquerades as a woman to get a job on a soap. However, soon he gets so caught up in his role as Dorothy, he cannot get himself out. His character is so popular on the soap that she is renewed forcing Dorsey to endure it even longer. Then he finds himself befriending a shy actress on the soap (Lange) while he starts neglecting another actress friend (Garr). Along the way he has many awkward moments and romantic entanglements. The worst of these comes when he must reveal who he is (only his roommate and agent know). At first it causes pain but ultimately honesty is the way to go. This film was reminiscent of screwball comedies and it had some very hilarious moments. I have to say Hoffman pulled it off.

4/5 Stars