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

 

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost_famous_poster1Almost Famous is almost so many things. There are truly wonderful moments that channel certain aspects of our culture’s infatuation with rock n roll.

It’s easy to become entranced with the opening moments, not necessarily because we are introduced to William, his protective mother (Frances McDormand), or even his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) who looks to leave the nest behind to go off and find herself. To steal a line from Simon & Garfunkel, she goes off, “To look for America” and we can ride the wistful waves of Paul Simon’s lyrics to understand exactly what she means.  But she also leaves behind a gift for her little brother under his bed. It’s easy to surmise that it’s drugs, something to “expand his horizons” but instead it’s so much more. It’s what this entire film hinges on: Music.

And when he opens the treasure trove of records his sister bequeathed him this is an initial kairos moment that also manages to be one of the most magical in the film–one that leaves goosebumps from sheer recognition. He flips through the albums. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on. Enough said. Each of these bands means so much to so many people as do some of these albums.

Almost Famous is at its best when it’s channeling those very things. Its soundtrack has the propitious fortune to include some authorized tracks from Led Zeppelin as well as Neil Young, David Bowie, and of course Elton John, his “Tiny Dancer” filling up the band’s bus with a chorus of voices in one of the most remembered sequences.

The film’s story is intriguing for the very fact that it has the potential to feel so personal in nature. It functions as a fictionalized autobiography of Cameron Crowe’s foray into rock journalism as a bit of a teenage prodigy from sunny San Diego who first wrote for Creem and then in the big leagues for Rolling Stone Magazine circa 1973.

That’s a narrative ripe with possibilities and anecdotes sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves music and there are certainly some of those moments. People jumping off rooftops into swimming pools their heads spinning on acid, tour buses crashing through gates to make a quick getaway from a horrible gig, and plane flights on the edge of death that elicit a long line of last-minute confessions.

But we are also reminded that life on the road is a grind, it can be dangerous too but more often than not it’s surprisingly dull. What happens to William (Patrick Fugit) is that he gets subjected to this life and far from changing, it simply changes how he sees these people. Ultimately, there’s a bit of disillusionment and alienation with getting that close to people you idolize. In many respects, he looks ridiculously out of place in this lifestyle of groupies, tour buses, backstage antics, sleazy hotel rooms, and sex, drugs, and rock n roll.  He’s too clean cut. Too much of a straight arrow. And that’s part of what’s interesting.

But while it’s easy to latch onto the trajectory of our character and care about his growth and maturity, the themes of Almost Famous feel muddled and not in a way that’s  enigmatic and mysterious. It just drops off at a certain point.

It’s almost transcendent, almost a masterstroke, almost captures our heart but it’s not quite there. Despite its best efforts it somehow still feels slightly removed from the moment it comes out of–a moment that now is easy to eulogize about as both electric and exciting in a way that the band Stillwater never is. Maybe that’s the point.

We can reiterate again and again that the music is phenomenal and while the situations had potential to be gripping they never quite reached that apex. Everything is quite satisfactory, it’s enjoyable watching this wide-eyed lad follow around this rock band, but there are moments when the film drags. Take the rock and roll out of these people and they aren’t altogether compelling. That might be an unfortunately cruel thing to say too.

But Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the famed rock critic repeatedly notes that rock is on the way out and this film seems to surmise as much. At times it doesn’t feel completely caught up in the throes of its time, it’s not caught up in the moment as if there’s this subconscious feeling that it will all come to an end.

On the reverse side, William lives life alongside some of these figures who are never truly all that magnetic or memorable whether Russell (Billy Crudup) or even the iconically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The name dropping and connections to others make them the most intriguing. Dinner with Dylan here, something from David Crosby there. Led Zeppelin fanboys, David Bowie’s manager, and so on and so forth. Those connections have cultural clout still but once again the fictional Stillwater were only almost famous. Their name whether in fiction or reality has been lost to time and there’s no aura to them. Because we have nothing to sink our teeth into.

Maybe it’s the very fact that the film does this so well that it feels unremarkable. It takes time on those who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of rock ‘n roll when the critics and pundits got together to write the narrative that would be accepted for a historical fact from that point forward.

However, Almost Famous also takes a particular care to show what it was and still is to be a rock star in this kind of volatile lifestyle always on the road. The fame and applause are amplified but so in many ways are the heartbreaks and ultimately the scrutiny that can either make or break you.  There’s no privacy in the general sense. But that’s the point, as a rock star you give much of that up. The question is, what happens when you’re in the middle ground? You’re not quite there but the journalists are still looking for their story, digging through your music, life, and affairs. No one has ever desired to be Almost Famous because, in some cases, you get the worst of both worlds.

4/5 Stars

 

Fargo (1996)

fargo1The Coen Brothers have always been an interesting case for me. I admit that there are still a lot of their films that I wish and need to see. Films like True Grit and Fargo I find thoroughly enjoyable or at least passable, but they do not completely resonate with me. However, I certainly respect them as writers, directors, and auteurs, because they know the lineage of film as a medium and they have their own unique way of approaching movies. It’s often clever, unique, and carries a wickedly funny tone no matter their subject matter.

Fargo is arguably their greatest work, following a kidnapping and murder investigation that involves Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis. William H. Macy is your standard Midwestern dupe Jerry Lundegaard, who makes an honest living selling cars. However, there’s another area of his life that’s not so honest. He’s in desperate need of money; we don’t know the reason, but he has resolved to hire two men to kidnap his wife. It doesn’t make much sense to the audience or the easily agitated crony Carl (Steve Buscemi). However, Jerry has a rich father in law with the necessary funds to bail out his daughter. And so it goes.

Except after the deed is done Carl and his taciturn accomplice Gaear get stopped by a highway patrolman and things are downhill from there. Murder, and blood, and more murder, all on a snowy Minneapolis evening.

The next morning pregnant cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) leaves her hubby and heads to the scene of the crime where she quickly pieces together the turn of the events. The search is on for the vehicle, and she questions a couple of prostitutes who aren’t much help except pointing out one of the men was “funny looking.”

Meanwhile, everything is falling apart on Jerry’s end with his father in law and he even gets paid a visit by Gunderson. When the drop finally does take place, Carl is livid when he is met by Wade instead of Jerry. He’s not messing around and neither is Jerry. Crime scene number 2 is set up. Carl finds a snowy locale to bury the payoff and heads back to the cabin, but he’s about had it with Gaear and the feelings are mutual.

Meanwhile, after a disturbing meeting with an old high school classmate Mike Yanagita (a rather troubling performance by Steve Park), Marge decides to question Jerry once again, and this time she gets somewhere. The reunion with Mike sets something off in her head.  Another tip eventually leads her to Gaear and his friendly neighborhood wood chipper. Being the pro-cop that she is, Marge subdues the culprit and gets an ABP out on Jerry which leads to his arrest. After a successful day at the office, it’s back to fast food and tv in bed with her loving husband Norm.

Fargo, to its credit, exudes a Midwestern charm thanks to all its colloquial “You betchas, darn tootin’s, heyas”, and so on. Perhaps most effectively it mixes the mundane and the violently shockingly in one pot of inspiration. The two-pronged story following two very different worlds somehow meets in the middle amidst all the improbability. The Coens start the film off labeling it as “based on a true story” and that opening statement had many people tricked. I myself was taken in the first time I saw it because however outrageous the following events are we trust the words of the filmmakers guiding us. And in the characters of Marge, Jerry, and most everyone else there is a charm or normalcy that feels so familiar. Thus, the Coens could get away with such outrageous plotting, because it so often felt grounded in truth.

4/5 Stars