Movie review: “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson movies are the cinematic equivalent of licorice—a flavor so divisive that its fans are regarded with incredulity, even suspicion by its detractors. If you are in the latter camp, nothing in “Isle of Dogs” will change your mind: Anderson remains as devoted as ever to the twee stylistic idiosyncrasies that define his movies: limited color palettes, fussily symmetrical shot compositions, and deadpan delivery from absolutely every actor, at every moment, always. No other director could make “Isle of Dogs”, because it wouldn’t occur to anyone else to try—it is Anderson’s second film using stop-motion animation, a painfully slow and physically finicky process that takes a certain degree of insanity even to attempt. Think “changing a 737’s oil with an eyedropper” and you’ve about got it. If I were asked to make a stop-motion film, the result would be thirty seconds long, involve two characters in a single room, and take thirteen years to achieve. With Wes Anderson in charge, the result is… different. A dizzying array of backdrops and sets compose Trash Island, a futuristic garbage dump to which the mayor of Megasaki, Japan, has banished all the city’s dogs. It seems Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) is a cat lover. His ward, the twelve-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), feels differently. To find his banished dog Spots, he has stolen a plane, crashed it on Trash Island, and teamed up with refugee dogs Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). In any other director’s hands, this plot could threaten to become cloyingly sweet: wisely, Anderson keeps Trash Island bleak and hopeless, a place where the sky veers from dull silver to pollution orange, never pausing on anything resembling blue.

Strangely, the results are beautiful: every frame could be framed, from the compacted cubes of trash stacked in neat geometric arrays to the patterned paper collages indicating cuts to the movie’s many plays-within-plays. Noting the heavy-handed use of lanterns, geishas, outlines of Mt. Fuji, and other classic Japanese imagery, several critics have gently noted that we are, if not in the absolutely clear outfield of cultural stereotype and appropriation, at least skirting its edges. I think that’s very close to accurate, but given that this is a Wes Anderson picture, made with analog technology and an old-fashioned aesthetic, I am going to call his slightly overenthusiastic homage by an old-fashioned word: Japonisme. That’s what happened when the Impressionists got their first look at the art objects flooding out of a newly opened Japan, and went completely apeshit. Van Gogh and Renoir and Manet and Monet and Cassatt and Whistler all went in on the trend, giving their best interpretations of the Japanese aesthetic. Because they were geniuses, the results were some beautiful paintings. However, because they were not Japanese, and therefore lacked the cultural framework with which to fully understand what they were looking at, the results were not Japanese art. They were beautiful, colorful examples of what white Westerners saw when they looked at Japan—blind spots and all. I was reminded of that trend during the scene where Atari, greeting the dogs of Trash Island, enthusiastically explains his predicament in Japanese. The dogs look at each other in puzzlement. “I wish we understood his language,” one says. Anderson’s choice to partially translate the movie—the dogs speak in English, but only about half of the Japanese speech gets translated, by interpreter or on-screen captioning—means that we still get a sense of Japan as somehow unknowable, stubbornly resistant to foreign understanding. That’s an odd thing to emphasize in a movie meant to be an homage. I liked the movie, and found myself carried along on its current rather effortlessly throughout, but looking at it in retrospect, I have to admit that those in the anti-Anderson camp (where I assume they feast nightly on strong licorice) might have a point. I am curious to know what we’ll all think in thirty years.


Carrie Fisher

It’s a cliché to say of any actress that “you feel like you could be friends with her”. Usually, that feeling of accessibility is formulated as carefully as Coke: add two parts recipe- and lifestyle-focused magazine articles to one part romantic comedy lead role, season with one public heartbreak or klutzy episode on a red carpet, and boom. Instant celebrity friend. Jennifer Aniston is the ultimate celebrity friend; more recently, Jennifer Lawrence has taken her crown. Others have tried and failed: Anne Hathaway by being annoyingly perfect, and Reese Witherspoon by revealing herself to be a drunk-driving, tantrum-throwing terror. There are a lot of ways to fail at being America’s celebrity friend.

But Carrie Fisher succeeded where others failed, precisely because she went about it completely wrong: by going publicly crazy. By talking about her crazy, by owning it, by picking an unpopular and misunderstood therapy and then talking about that. By owning her family drama and talking about that. By owning her drug addiction, and then talking about that, too. In general, America does not like women who talk too much about themselves (other topics, such as holiday recipe traditions, are fine). But Carrie Fisher never stopped talking about herself—she wrote several books on the topic, and a one-woman play, and as she got older she talked about that, too. She was un-shut-uppable on the topic of her personal truth: what it was like to get electroshock therapy, what it was like to get collagen, what it was like to be manic depressive, what it was like to fall in love with Harrison Ford when she was nineteen and he was married. (When she told him she was planning to talk about that, he said, “Lawyer.” She talked about it anyway.)

Carrie Fisher owned her entire life, and thus got out ahead of everyone else who could have wished to own her. Which (given that she was the privately cherished first love of an entire generation of straight men and quite a few women) was a lot of people. Even Jabba the Hutt wanted to own her, and he was a gigantic slug. But Carrie Fisher was her own person, a real human being, flawed and aging and fragile in all the ways celebrity best friends aren’t supposed to be. Which made her more than our cocktail buddy, more than our shopping pal, more than our confidante. It made her royalty.

Long live the Princess.

Movie review: “Joy”

Here is a partial list of the things you will see in “Joy”, that you won’t see in a lot of other movies:

K-Mart parking lots full of slush.
Styrofoam, used the way Styrofoam was used in the 80’s–liberally and everywhere.
Brown velvet upholstery.
Thickly carpeted staircases, like the way all your friends’ houses used to be when you were growing up.
Ubiquitously cheap cars.
Stained clothing.
Home Shopping Network jewelry.
The Home Shopping Network, period.
Soap operas.
Sparse and unprofessional home decor.
Thick, powdery 90’s foundation makeup.
Telephone bills.

Getting the picture? Do you remember this stuff? Because David O. Russell does, and increasingly he is making this world–the world of two-to-three-decade-old consumer goods, used in middle-to-lower class houses everywhere between the coasts–his home court. To watch “American Hustle”, “Silver Linings Playbook”, and now “Joy”, is to watch Russell carving out a directorial turf–Woody Allen gets Manhattan and Paris, Michael Bay gets Los Angeles, but David O. Russell gets *everything in between*. And holy shit, does he get it: no other current screenwriter has such a strong homing instinct for the precise details of American middle-class family dynamics.

Consider the opening of the movie: Joy is surprised by her dad’s unexpected return to her house. She lets him move in–of course, he’s her dad–but he has to take space in the basement, because Joy’s grandmother has the guest room. The side room is out, because that’s where Joy’s mother, who never leaves the house, mainlines her soap operas 24/7. Unfortunately, the basement is very crowded. Because Joy’s ex-husband lives down there, too. None of this is presented as “cute” or “quirky”; Joy is stressed, already late, and trying her best to manage her father; on his way in, he dumps a pile of laundry in her arms, kisses her on the cheek and tells her she has the “magic touch” for whitening clothes, then picks a screaming fight with her mother and starts to pick one with her ex-husband until Joy must literally separate them with a boundary ribbon of toilet paper. As she climbs the stairs from the basement, already resigned to being late for work, you can hear their inevitable argument ramping back up.

Does any of this sound familiar? Just off the top of my head, I can think of about eight women whose family lives are minefields rivaling Joy’s: I bet you can, too. This round-the clock  balancing act is what’s meant, in feminist discourse, by “emotional labor”; in five exhausting minutes, we see Joy caring for a mother whose clear mental illness she can’t afford to treat, accommodating a father whose emotional age hovers around 19, taking a scolding from her half-sister for allowing their grandmother to leave the house in winter to drive Joy’s two children to an event. When she has the epiphany that leads to her invention, her family offers begrudging support, larded heavily with jealousy, passive-aggression, and bad legal advice. Watching Joy try to keep her head above water would be compelling enough viewing, but Joy doesn’t want to just tread water–she wants to succeed at the American Dream. Tall order.

Luckily for her, she is in a David O. Russell movie. And all these note-perfect details should not distract you from the fact that David O. Russell writes fairy tales, fantasies in which scrappy underdogs yank themselves, by their bootstraps, into the stratosphere. The nostalgia impelling us into this world is driven by real details–we who lived through the 80s and 90s recognize the currency of brown velvet sofas and black elastic hair ties and QVC. We can smell Joy’s living room. But the American Dream that Joy is chasing died well before she was born, if indeed it ever was true. The real engine driving this train–driving Joy–is our shared wish that somehow, if we work hard enough, if we spin enough plates, if we have the Next Big Idea, if we never give up, it might come true again.

Merry Christmas.

Movie review: “Love the Coopers”

OK so “Love The Coopers”.

This movie was marketed as the inheritor to “The Family Stone”–a modest, well-rehearsed actor’s piece centering on a mildly dysfunctional family, with faint overtones of “Love Actually”‘s spiderweb-like structure (where we meet all the characters first and discover their intersections later). And when you dig into the IMDb listings, you’ll find a lot of complimentary DNA for those claims: this movie is one writer, director, or producer away from “P.S. I Love You”, “Stepmom”, and “Sideways”, all of which were solid, character-driven movies. Unfortunately, it’s also one degree of separation away from “Safe Haven”, “The Story of Us”, “Kate and Leopold”, and “The Ugly Truth”–some of the worst, most misguided “romantic” movies made in the last twenty years. (Interestingly, it’s also one degree away from “August: Osage County”, which manages to be both.) With so much chaos in the family tree, and thirteen producers at the helm (you heard me. Thirteen. There were thirteen cooks in this kitchen), “Love the Coopers” is neither disaster nor triumph: it’s a festively wrapped box of hazard chocolates. Overall, there’s plenty to enjoy, as long as you don’t accidentally grab one of the truffles with toothpaste filling.

Good chocolates include: Olivia Wilde and Jake Lacy, whose chemistry is so immediate and delightful that they should be indentured by law, like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, to star in romantic comedies at eight-year intervals for the rest of time. Watching these two flirt is like shaking up a soda can to explosive levels before hiding to watch your victim open it–an exercise in fizzy, giddy anticipation. The nation needs you to take one for the team, Olivia and Jake. SAVE US FROM KATHERINE HEIGL AND GERARD BUTLER.

A smallish role by Anthony Mackie, nearly unrecognizable as a repressed, stone-faced cop. For other actors, this role would be a literal straight-jacket–for Mackie, it’s just another opportunity to wow us with his apparently endless reserve of understated emotion.

A stellar performance by the city of Pittsburgh, refreshingly photographed as an actual location with recognizable geography, architecture, and culture–not a badly disguised stand-in for New York, or (even worse) a vaguely American EveryTown.

Bad chocolates include:

A face-clutching voiceover track allegedly delivered by the dog and almost certainly added in post by a nervous producer who holds the American audience in such deep disdain that he actually thought we needed a fucking dog to spell out the plot for us with such helpful reassurances as: “How do all these people fit together? That’s my story.” and “Time was kind to Bucky at that moment.” Excruciating.

Weirdly, John Goodman and Diane Keaton, who (hamstrung by a script that keeps them yo-yoing between opposite emotional poles in an exhausting will-they-won’t-they-get-divorced dance centering on a trip to Africa they might or might not take) both turn in the first bad performances of their lives. It’s not really their fault. Olivia and Jake took all the chemistry at the outset of the movie and are even now using it to fuel the first manned mission to Mars.

A strange, queasy-making almost-romance between Amanda Seyfried and Alan Arkin, who is, at 81, for those counting, 2.7 times Amanda Seyfried’s age. It is supposed to be “gentle” and “innocent”. I submit to you that “gentle” and “innocent” stops at tongue-kissing on a hospital stretcher.

Okay chocolates include: a soundtrack that includes Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, but also Sting. We can’t have everything.

Which turns out, rather refreshingly, to be the message of the movie. We can’t have everything in life, and some of the things we will lose, fritter away, or miss out on entirely will really sting. But there is comfort to be found in the imperfect leftovers, so make yourself a sandwich and enjoy.

Try to ignore the moralizing dog.

Movie review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”

OK, so “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”. If you can hear me teeing up on the basis of that ludicrous title alone, then you know me well. If you have protective feelings about the books, you may want to seek minimum safe distance now, because it’s about to get ugly.

I have a minimal standard for movies, and it’s this: if a film cannot distract me from my aggravation over having gotten a speeding ticket on the way to the theater, the movie has failed in its purpose. (If you’re a careful driver, you can swap out the speeding ticket for any sufficiently irritating condition: a headache, an uncomfortable seat, an annoying moviegoer.) This movie not only failed the test as a film, but if boiled down to its essence, might not pass the test as a commercial. I’m told millions were spent making this movie, but I submit to you that millions were spent promoting this movie, which is different. If millions were spent on those drab and featureless sets, those uninspired and plastic-y looking costumes, and those intensely artificial, computer-glossy CGI terrors, then perhaps someone should have lit them with more than a guttering glowstick, because we can’t see any of it. During the approximately sixteen hours spent in underground tunnels, I had to guess which character had died in each battle by who was sobbing afterwards—mid-melee, it was impossible to distinguish one leading actor from another, which, given that one of the leading actors is Jennifer Lawrence and another is a lesser Hemsworth, should not be a point of confusion.

Aboveground, the news isn’t any better. In a deeply dubious CGI landscape of copy-pasted buildings, as repetitive as the cactus-mountain-cactus background of a Wile E. Coyote film, the last surviving rebels infiltrate the Capitol, where, we are repetitively told, the sadistic gamemakers have laid thousands of elaborate deathtraps in “pods” throughout the city, creating the ultimate Hunger Games—an urban maze of mines. Finally, we’re getting somewhere—the Hunger Games series was always at its best when it was exploiting the tension between the reader/viewer’s desire to see Katniss and her friends survive the Games, and the uneasy knowledge that this desire makes them (the reader/viewer) little better than the hordes of shallow and bloodthirsty aristocrats for whose entertainment the Games were designed. This movie seeks an escape hatch from the uneasy double-bind—unfortunately for us, the escape hatch it chooses is, “Promise the Games, then make them unutterably dull.” In what felt like three hours of wasteland wandering, I counted not thousands of boobytraps, but three. One which shoots fire, one which shoots bullets, and one which releases a menacing “oil” of surprising physical properties—it alternately rushes forward like an avalanche, stops short of a main character’s boot, speeds forward again to engulf a tertiary character whole and screaming, then laps gently at another main character’s boot. Interesting oil. I wonder if we could use it to clear up some of the draggier bits of Game of Thrones.

To fill in the spaces and stretch this movie into two parts (because every trilogy must now be a quadrilogy), characters are given portentous monologues, somber orchestral send-offs, and endless amounts of time to sit in poorly-lit foxholes emoting at each other over banalities. One such stultifying conversation between Jennifer Lawrence and her love interest, a charmless Josh Hutcherson, centers on favorite colors. His is “orange. Not bright orange, but soft, like the sunset.” I’ve always been told that the boredom of war is one of its most insidious unpleasantries, but had never really grasped why until that conversation. When Donald Sutherland, as a gloating old-school villain, pops up on every screen in the country to twirl his mustache and gloat over Katniss’s supposed death, I can’t have been the only audience member who was relieved that someone, somewhere, far away from this deathless movie, was having fun.

New content, coming your way.

So I’m making two changes to the look and content of my blog:

First, to improve scaleability to mobile platforms, I’m changing themes. Hopefully my blog will now be easier to read and search on any device. If you see any major problems I ought to be aware of, let me know.

Secondly, I’m doing a content shift. After a few years of writing movie reviews for my friends on Facebook, I’ve noticed that those reviews are far and away the most popular posts I write. So, I’m going to start putting them here, starting with a massive upload of some of my favorite reviews from the past few years. Hopefully y’all will enjoy them, too.

Happy Saturday!


A six-year siege is hard on the eyes.
You spend so much time
standing and squinting through wavy summer air
and flurries of snow
trying to discern movements in, movements out.
New points of vulnerability.
(There are never any new points of vulnerability.)

It’s hard on the stomach, as well.
You eat the same food the soldiers eat,
because you have to set an example,
but soldiers eat extraordinary amounts of meat.
You long for oranges, and raisins, and tea.

A six-year siege is hard on the mind.
You go over and over and over it again.
How are they still alive?
Have our tacticians grown complacent?
Is there an end in sight?

Sometimes, you wonder if the city is even real.
Or just a shimmering mirage
against which you have been pitting all your energy for years.

So when it falls,
if indeed a mirage can really fall,
the news comes to you like the ending of a play;
a faint amusement, a sated curiosity,
before you rise and shuffle out into the night.