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: Nashville (1975)

nashville3What to say about Robert Altman’s Nashville? It has a lot of songs and music so it’s technically a musical. It has its smattering politics and Altman is typically one for subverting the norm so you could call it a satire. There’s romance, drama, in-fighting, and star power certainly, but that hardly gets to the heart of the film.

In fact, Nashville has an ensemble bulging at the seams with 24 individuals billed in alphabetical order and their names called out at the beginning of the film as if someone is trying to sell us an album. It’s a little over the top, feels superficial, and it’s a little pretentious. Maybe the director’s trying to tell us something. Over the course of the following minutes, Altman gives us a picture of a few days in the life of the country music capital of the world, and he shows us all sorts of people.

nashville1To name all of them would be tedious and would not give a whole lot of illumination as far as the plotting, but a few of the more prominent names are as follows: Barbara Jean, the sweetheart of Nashville, who opens the film receiving a warm welcome at the airport from her adoring public. But she is physically and emotionally fragile after recovering from a traumatic injury. Then there’s Haven Hamilton, who is an established country star, who still enjoys large popularity and political ambitions are on his radar. Jeff Goldblum, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Ned Beatty, and even Keenan Wynn all make appearances. So as you can see the cast is oozing through the cracks.

Their stories are constantly colliding, intertwining, and weaving in and out of each other. Making for a type of narrative that feels organic despite having a script. It feels like a realistic and truthful immersion into Tennessee reality. We even get appearances from a couple Altman regulars Elliot Gould and Julie Christie. Furthermore, it wasn’t much of a secret that the industry in Nashville did not take a liking to the film, but really is that any surprise?

Going into the film we already expect to get a look at the industry’s underbelly and we do, but it’s hardly seems sensationalized; it almost feels commonplace until the final moments. Singers griping, sleeping around, reporters ingratiating themselves to whoever they can find, and the general public coming from far and wide to be a part of the spectacle. It’s about what you expect from an industry that can be ruthless, superficial, and very rewarding to some. To those on the outside, it’s something to be fawned over.

nashville2The story is framed with the political campaign of the unconventional Hal Philip Walker of the Replacement Party. You can see his van going all across town proclaiming his wisdom to the honest citizens of Nashville. Most of them could care less about politics. Even in the closing moments at a concert in the park with a big flag patriotically displayed on stage with a giant campaign banner underneath, you get the sense that no one has gone there for political reasons. They want to hear Barbara Jean, Haven Hamilton, and maybe tolerate anyone else who comes up on stage. In a sense, that’s the American way wrapped up in a nutshell.  Taken in that light, the way that Altman ends his film is not all that surprising. There has to be something to break up the normalcy. Subvert all that is good and patriotic. Throw a wrench in the every day, because after all his whole film has revealed everything that besmirches the industry. It’s just that it usually stays under the surface or is thrown away to be trampled on or forgotten. Take the no-talent Sueleen Gay, who stubbornly tries to make it in an industry that doesn’t want her.

I’m the first to acknowledge that I’m not much of a fan of country, except if it’s someone like Johnny Cash. So overall I find the tunes of Nashville to be homely and often tiresome, although I do appreciate the fact the actors wrote most of their own songs supposedly. The one exception I cite is Keith Carradine’s memorable tune “I’m Easy” which works as a simple ballad reminiscent of a Jim Croce-type singer-songwriter.

However, I don’t get hung up on Nashville‘s music too much, because this film represents so much more to me. It’s about the intermingling of people and the analysis and dissection of the relationships that are so closely entwined with the country music industry. Whether it’s the insiders or the fans who make them big, Nashville is a thoroughly interesting view of America circa 1975. Some things have certainly changed, fashion-related and otherwise, but I think we can all agree that a lot of things certainly have not. Politics, music, and most certainly people essentially exist as they always have.

4.5/5 Stars

Jurassic Park (1993)

690f7-jurassicpark1Jurassic Park was yet another smash hit for Steven Spielberg back in 1993 and it, as well as the animatronics, stand up pretty well over 20 years later. It might feel slightly underwhelming at times, but it definitely still carries the ability to entertain.

Without giving away too much plot, although most should have already seen it, Jurassic Park plays out like a modern-day King Kong story. John Hammond (played by actor/director Richard Attenborough) is a white-haired billionaire with an eye for spectacle. He has put his money to good use (so it seems) pouring resources into a new sort of attraction. This is no Disneyland and as such the stakes are much higher.

He calls upon the services of a paleontologist Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) and a paleobotanist Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern)  to give the seal of approval on his grand endeavor. There’s also a nosy lawyer who is curious for the sake of his investors. Round out the group with an authority on Chaos Theory (Jeff Goldblum) along with Hammond’s grandkids and you have all you need.

These lucky few are the ones who get shipped out to a remote island off Costa Rica to see first hand the majesty of Jurassic Park. But rather like Frankenstein, Hammond does not know what he has created. What was meant to be good, turned sour all too quickly, except in this rendition of the story he gets a little help from a pudgy programmer who is looking out for himself.

There’s not much character development to speak of, but if you have real life dinosaurs terrorizing an island you do not need much else. Accompany it with a truly epic and iconic score from John Williams and you have something quite special and quintessentially ’90s. If kids did not want to be paleontologists before they undoubtedly did after Jurassic Park.

As Dr. Grant so aptly puts it, “Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together. How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

That is the general intrigue behind Jurassic Park aside from the awesome fact that we get to see a T-Rex, Raptors, and many other dinosaurs recreated. This is not necessarily a kids movie due to the intensity at times, but it definitely is meant for the young at heart. Those are the people who unashamedly love dinosaurs.  But then again who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

4/5 Stars