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If you’ve been sitting around waiting for a Wes Anderson film featuring a stop-motion cast of animated dogs, influenced by Akira Kurosawa and the guys who made Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer … your wait is over!

Isle of Dogs is one of the strangest—and coolest—experiences you will have in a theater this year. Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation (after 2009’s excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox) is another visual masterpiece, and while the story goes a little flat for stretches, the film is visual splendor during its entire running time.

Two decades in the future, Megasaki, a fictional Japanese city, is ruled by the evil Mayor Kobayashi (the voice of Kunichi Nomura). Kobayashi is a cat person, and after the nation’s dogs come down with a strange strain of dog flu, all canines are banned to Trash Island to live out their days, scavenging through garbage and rumbling in the junkyards.

Kobayashi’s nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), misses his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber), and sets out to find his beloved pet on Trash Island. The island is occupied by various dog gangs, one of them consisting of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Whether it’s live action or stop motion, you can count on Anderson’s usual gang of performers to show up—and welcome to the Wes Anderson party, Bryan Cranston!

There’s some squabbling among the gang members for leadership honors, with Rex often calling for votes that the rebel Chief always loses. When Atari shows up on the island, Chief winds up spending the most time with him—and he learns a little bit about bonding with a boy, as dogs do.

There’s a very sweet “love your dogs” message at the center of Anderson’s story, which he wrote with story contributions from Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Nomura. This is one of the rare Anderson films in which neither Schwartzman nor Owen Wilson appear.

Of course, there’s a budding love story, with Chief coming across Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), who, unlike Chief the stray, has papers and can do tricks. (A bit in which Nutmeg reluctantly shows off a few tricks provides some of the film’s best laughs.)

The story elements are secondary to how damned good this movie looks. While Fantastic Mr. Fox had a better overall story, Isle of Dogs is, hands-down, the best-looking stop-motion-animation film ever. Each one of the dogs is a marvelous creation, and their human counterparts are just as amazing. Anderson and crew get extra credit for taking fight scenes and explosions to a new level through their use of what appears to be … cotton?

This is a Wes Anderson film, so, yes, you are going to see a stop-motion-animation kidney transplant with a bird’s-eye view. Hey, it wouldn’t be a PG-13 stop-motion Wes Anderson film without something like a detailed—yet somewhat tender—kidney transplant toward the end of it, right? The man is a beautiful nut.

Other voices that show up include Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono and, most notably, Greta Gerwig as Tracy Walker, an American exchange student with a crush on Atari.

Much of the film is spoken in Japanese with no subtitles, but it’s never hard to understand what is going on. (Thankfully, all of the dog barks have been translated into English.)

With every passing second of this movie, I was thinking, “How the hell does Anderson even think this stuff up, let alone get it onscreen?” This movie is a feat that will never be duplicated. I seriously doubt anybody in the future will make a movie that reminds us of Isle of Dogs. It’s off in its own, unique cinematic zone.

Isle of Dogs is showing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

One of the summer’s best bets isn’t in theaters; it’s on Netflix.

David Wain and Michael Showalter have finally birthed their Wet Hot American Summer prequel as an eight-episode Netflix series. However, I see it more as a four-hour movie feast of dick and fart humor.

The film takes place in the same year (1981) as the film did, but this time, it’s the first day of camp rather than the last day. Everybody has returned, and there has been no effort to make the likes of Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler look any younger. Oddly enough, Paul Rudd, A.D. Miles and Michael Ian Black somehow look younger than they did in the 2001 film.

New additions to the cast include Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm and Jason Schwartzman, and they make the day at Camp Firewood all the more special. Ken Marino’s character is even more of a virgin than he was in the original (he punches his own cock a lot), and Christopher Meloni’s Gene the Cook is living a lie with a secret identity. We also find out how his can of vegetables attained its voice.

Because this is set in the ’80s, toxic waste, bad gym shorts and “Weird Al” Yankovic all play prominent roles. If you hated the original film, you will hate this, and I feel sorry for you. If you regard the original as one of the funniest movies ever made, as I do, then this stuff is heaven—and we need more.

New songs include the Pat Benatar-like “Heart Attack of Love” and Paul Rudd’s searing rendition of “Champagne Eyes.” Paul Rudd singing is something to be cherished.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are charming as Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in this obviously whitewashed look at Disney’s attempt to get the movie rights to her book.

We all know that Disney succeeded, but many don’t know that Travers was quite the holdout. The movie splits time between the Disney/Travers business and Travers’ childhood, where we find out that much of Mary Poppins was based on her troubled father (Colin Farrell) and actual nanny.

B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are wonderful as the Sherman brothers, who made Mary a musical, much to the chagrin of Travers. The movie takes a lot of artistic license with the situation; even though Travers is depicted as difficult, she was far more adversarial in real life, and never approved of the movie. (Those animated penguins!)

Still, the film is much fun to watch, with Hanks and Thompson making it all very worthwhile and heartwarming. Shockingly, Thompson was super-snubbed when it came time to hand out Oscar nominations, as was Hanks. In fact, only Thomas Newman’s score received an Oscar nom from this film.

Special Features: Some deleted scenes are of interest, especially one between Hanks and Thompson when Travers has decided to leave without giving approval of the film adaptation. There’s also a cute scene of the real Richard Sherman leading the cast in a round of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Still, this package is a bit lacking. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are charming as Walt Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in this obviously whitewashed look at Disney’s effort to get Travers’ approval to make a movie out of her book. Of course, most of us know he succeeded, but many don’t know that Travers was quite the holdout.

The movie splits time between the Disney/Travers business and Travers’ childhood, where we find out that much of Mary Poppins was based on her troubled father (Colin Farrell) and actual nanny. B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman are wonderful as the Sherman brothers, who made Mary into a musical, much to the chagrin of Travers.

The movie takes a lot of artistic license with the situation. Even though Travers is depicted as difficult here, she was far more adversarial in real life—and never approved of the movie. (Those animated penguins!) Still, the film is fun to watch, with Hanks and Thompson making it all very worthwhile and heartwarming.

Saving Mr. Banks is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews