Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs review by Guy Malone, Researcher

Three free tips about Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs:
1) don't expect a laugh out loud comedy;
2) if possible, see it on a big screen;
3) if you're not a Wes Anderson fan, don't see it at all.

Anyone who saw Anderson's only other stop-action animated film, the wildly entertaining and intact Fantastic Mr. Fox (based on a Roald Dahl story), could be forgiven for expecting a daffy, wickedly comic plot.  Isle of Dogs is a more subversive, truly fractured fairy-tale, and the humor is positively arid.  That's where point two kicks in: Anderson is a world-builder, and his is a richly-detailed worlds are filled with nuance and nonsense; this film, more than any other WA opus, is a jaw-dropping original.  Which brings us to point three; any enjoyment one feels is dependent upon a prior appreciation of the auteur's trademark sensibilities and eccentricities.

At the top, we are informed, in typical Andersonian fashion that "All barks have been rendered into English."  Knowing this, plus the fact that almost all spoken Japanese goes untranslated, and that the narration is presented by Frances McDormand and Courtney B. Vance, we are thus prepared to once again enter Wes-World.

The setting is the Japanese city of Megasaki 20 years in the future.  In response to a suspicious dog flu epidemic, authoritarian--and cat-worshiping--Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has decreed that all dogs must be exiled to nearby Trash Island.  In a magnanimous gesture, the Mayor includes Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guardian/pet of his 12-year old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).  Atari commandeers a vintage plane and chugs off to rescue Spots.  Meanwhile, on Trash Island, a pack of exiled dogs--Rex (Edward Norton), a self-professed "indoor dog"; Boss (Bill Murray), a softball team mascot; Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a stammering gossip; King (Bob Balaban), of Doggy Chow commercial fame; and Chief (Brian Cranston)--scrounges for meals and wistfully recalls their past lives.  All, that is, except Chief because while the others came from caring environments, Chief is a stray, a stray who doesn't like people, and who admits to being a biter.

After crash-landing, Atari makes contact with our pack of pooches, and even with the language barrier, the dogs want to help the 12-year old boy, all except Chief.  As usual, though, the pack puts the motion to a vote, and as usual, the only dissenting vote is Chief--ironic for the pack leader to never get his way.  Thus begins the major plotline.  Along the way, Chief is smitten by the beautiful Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), they receive guidance from the sage Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and his sidekick, a pug named Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who understands TV.  They encounter a band of wild dogs, led by Scrap (Fisher Stevens), the scarred Gondo (Harvey Keitel), and Peppermint (Kara Hayward).

Meanwhile, on the mainland, a scientist who has developed a vaccine for the "dog-flu"or "snout-fever" or whatever scary name the Mayor is using, dies from poisoned wasabi, compliments of Major Domo (Akira Takayama), the Mayor's Karloffian henchman.  American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) has been following Atari's story, having developed a crush on him, and learning of the scientist's death, she rallies the forces of her high school newspaper staff and starts to unravel the plot.  As she rallies her forces on the mainland, the dogs develop their own plan, and soon the plots join up in a typical WA wildly ramshackle conclusion.

Anderson's touches, obvious to those who love his films, are in abundance; for example, if you translated Isle of Dogs to "I Love Dogs," you are tuned into Wes.  Some are less obvious: Star Trek fans will appreciate a section of the film, entitled "The Search for Spots" (Spock?).  The end credits have Angelika Huston voicing the "Mute Poodle."  Perhaps more than any of his other films, Isle of Dogs is chock full of happy Easter eggs like these.  Also, more than any of his films, this one seems more disjointed and haphazard.  I will see it again, though, and even a third time, because I want to wring out all of the understanding I can muster.

Our film partners had their own immediate takes: Ambrose pointed out the all-too-real-world reference to institutional racism as employed through the Mayor's scapegoating, paranoia, and xenophobia to rationalize deportation.  And if one wanted to find further references, the poisoned wasabi seemed very, erm, Putin-esque.  Some critics complained about the appropriation of Japanese culture, but we see it more as homage.  Another of our film group recognized the influence of Akira Kurosawa.  And it is true, Wes Anderson does idolize the great director as well as animator Hayao Miyazaki.  We must also remember that Kunichi Nomura (yes, he also gave voice to Mayor Kobayashi), helped Anderson write the story, along with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman.  Even considering the political and cultural weight, in the end, Isle of Dogs is the story about the enduring love between people and dogs.  The dogs in the story are not beautiful (except for Nutmeg); they are scruffy and dirty, the intricate detail of animators endearingly captures every bit of disheveled, dirty dog.  Alexandre Desplat is an award-winning composer, nine times nominated for his beautiful soundtracks to films like The Shape of Water, for which he won an Oscar.  Around his buddy Wes, though, he is equally creative (he also won for Grand Budapest Hotel), but he gets a chance to go off the rails, and we get treated to both Japanese Taiko drums and Prokofiev's Troika.  And speaking of awards, Wes Anderson just set the bar for animated films at the 2019 Academy Awards:
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale

Black Panther: Have We Turned the Corner?

Black Panther—Have We Turned the Corner? by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

This movie has already been dissected, parsed, and mythologized.  What is there to say that hasn't already been said?  So, let's start with the obvious: a Marvel film released in February will get a huge turnout, no matter the circumstances; that Black Panther is also the first with a predominantly Black cast brings an under-served audience to join built-in mad Marvel fans, propelling BP to historic heights.  The studio also struck a smart, respectful note, making BP the atypical stand-alone Marvel outing--not even a cameo from another Avenger.  Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole expand Stan Lee's original hero into a relevant modern-day morality tale in which even the antagonist has an understandable point.

Eons ago, a meteor crashed into the jungles of Africa, depositing the mother lode of vibranium, a rare metal of uncanny properties.  The peoples that inhabited this land soon learned the tremendous powers of vibranium, and as the metal enabled great technological advancements, the culture grew into the nation of Wakanda.  The people had the wisdom to understand the importance of hiding their wealth from imperialists and other exploiters, so they concealed their entire region within the the verdant forest. 

Flash to present day. After the assassination of his father, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne to rule Wakanda to rule not only as King but also to serve and protect his nation as Black Panther.  Early on, the conflict is introduced by his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who wishes T’Challa to use Wakanda’s hidden resources to help oppressed people and assume its place as a world power.  A more immediate problem arises, though, when Wakanda is beset by a breach of secrecy: some vibranium has been stolen by arch-villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and will be sold to the highest bidder in Seoul.  T’Challa takes off, accompanied by Wakandan spy, and his true love, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of his elite all-female security force.  Assisting them remotely is his kid sister and scientific genius Shuri (Letitia Wright).  At the Korean casino where the exchange is to occur, they spot CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and everything becomes more complex.  The ensuing battle puts the strength and wile of all combatants, good and evil, on display.  It also serves as setup for the main conflict: between T’Challa and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), once the innocent victim of a wrathful mistake by T’Challa’s father, now a fearsome enemy bent on revenge.

No doubt, Black Panther will go down as one of the unqualified hits of the 2018 movie year, and that success also emphasizes the box office clout for high "status" films produced by and starring Black artists (add Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother and Forest Whitaker as the shaman to the list).  The talent on display in front of and at work behind the cameras provide both role models and ideals to which children of all races can aspire.  How can one not welcome such success? 

As laudatory as this is, we should temper our enthusiasm with a dose of big-picture reality.  So many have written about A) what a great film Black Panther is, and B) how it represents a turning point in the acceptance of status films representing and produced by the Black community.  Let’s examine it: Regarding point A: how great is the film?  Well, it is a Marvel film, so it’s well-executed, has tremendous CGI, and the script has a just enough humor to show it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  But it IS a Marvel film, so it’s graded on an easier curve by many critics, most notably Entertainment Weekly (who has graded only one of 18 Marvel films below a B-) and the Rotten Tomatoes fanboy critics, who treat Marvel movies and Star Wars entries like they are Citizen Kane.  Like most Marvel movies, there is no real sense of imminent peril; in the case of BP, it’s because vibranium is so powerful and versatile, and Shuri’s genius so all-encompassing, that deuses are ex machina-ing all over the place.  And while a compelling antagonist is expected, especially as played by Jordan, it is a surprise that Wright and Gurira in support outshine Boseman and Nyong’o's leads.  And what Marvel movie worth its salt would be without a final battle that’s ten minutes too long.  As to point B, we would be more willing to see a turning point in acceptance of high stature Black films had last year's excellent Best Picture winner Moonlight earned more that a paltry $28 million domestic gross.  Times change, you say?  Not so much: the expected box office juggernaut expected of the Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay treatment of the classic story A Wrinkle in Time never realized its potential.  So, have we turned the egalitarian corner with Black Panther? No, but it is a big step in the right direction.  Now, if T’Challa turns out to be one of the leads in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale
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