CVIndependent

Mon02172020

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the third feature film by writer-director Martin McDonagh.

It’s also his third masterpiece.

Three Billboards also marks another astonishing film achievement for Frances McDormand, who will drill into your chest cavity and do all kinds of crazy shit to your heart as Mildred, a justifiably pissed-off mother who has a few issues with the cops in her town.

It’s been five years since Mildred’s young daughter was raped, killed and burned by unknown murderers. Mildred, who isn’t even close to getting over the tragedy, spies some old, dilapidated billboards on the way home and gets an idea. After meeting with a sloppy advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones), some guys are commissioned to put alarmingly provocative signs on those billboards.

Those signs call out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a well-meaning but emotional man who, for various reasons, is not on his best game. He challenges Mildred, claiming the billboards aren’t fair. Her retort: In the time you took to come down here and piss and moan about the billboards, another girl could’ve been butchered.

There’s no better actress to portray Mildred—with her steadfast, emotionally raw determination—than McDormand. More than two decades ago, McDormand took home the Oscar for playing Marge Gunderson in Fargo—playing one of the nicest law-enforcement individuals the movies have ever seen. Mildred is the opposite of Marge: Kindness and hugs and Arby’s aren’t big on her mind. She wants her daughter’s killers brought to justice, and she’ll burn buildings down with people inside them to get the investigation going.

Yet somehow, Mildred is just as likable and worth rooting for as Marge. That’s because McDormand is a fearless master, and she’s a shoo-in for another Oscar nomination—at the least. Mildred says and does things in this movie that will leave your jaw hanging open, and McDormand makes all of these extremes believable and almost reasonable. There’s so much happening behind those piercing eyes. It’s the kind of performance that only comes around once a decade.

What takes this film to masterpiece levels, beyond the technical brilliance that McDonagh always delivers, is that McDormand is joined by a cast that hits every note. Harrelson caps a great year as the lawman. John Hawkes is memorably nasty as Mildred’s abusive ex-husband, while Jones manages many surprises as the billboard man, and Peter Dinklage makes the most of a few scenes as a town local with eyes for Mildred.

Oh, and there’s yet another Oscar-caliber performance from Sam Rockwell (who starred in McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths) as racist, momma’s-boy deputy Dixon. There aren’t too many character actors alive who could make Dixon frightening, sympathetic, funny, disgusting and worthy of redemption all at once. Dixon, the town drunk and racist homophobe who has a thing for throwing people out of windows, undergoes a transformation that is some kind of movie miracle. That’s because Rockwell, like McDormand, is one of the best.

That’s also because McDonagh knows how to write a script that keeps you in it with every line. While the film is, in part, a murder mystery, the crime takes a back seat to watching these folks play off of each other. There are scenes in this movie that will emotionally knock you on the floor. There’s one particular moment that is so heartbreaking, and so shocking, it’s a wonder anybody managed to get it on screen.

The year isn’t over yet, but it’s a fair bet to say this one is going to be topping a lot of award lists, adding to McDormand’s legacy and giving Rockwell the sort of high profile recognition he’s always deserved. As for McDonagh, not many directors have come out of the gate with three masterpieces in a row. He’s in an elite class of filmmakers—and he’s just getting started.

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

So Hail, Caesar! is a film with virtually no plot, but it gives Joel and Ethan Coen a chance to adapt the styles of films from the ’40s and ’50s into their weirdo universe?

Hell yeah. Sign me up!

The Coen brothers bring a blast of creativity to early 2016 with a movie that, frankly, had a lot of their fans (including myself) a little worried. Its release was moved out of the 2015 award season and dumped into February—usually a cinematic graveyard. It wasn’t screened for critics until a couple of days before its release, a tactic usually reserved for the likes of Deuce Bigalow and Transformers movies, not the Coens.

In truth, this movie probably will score the highest with diehard Coen fans—those who react with glee to the notion that it takes place at a studio called Capitol Pictures. That’s the same fictional place where Coen creation Barton Fink suffered writers’ block all the way back in 1991.

While there are obviously nods to Barton Fink, the film Hail, Caesar! feels most like from the Coen collection is The Hudsucker Proxy, another period piece that featured fast-talking caricatures, unabashed silliness and astonishing period detail. Like Hudsucker, Hail, Caesar! features a bunch of great performers playing with great writer-directors in a movie that looks great.

It follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio enforcer at Capitol Pictures tasked with keeping stars out of trouble and assuring moving pictures stay on schedule. In the middle of filming a biblical epic, huge star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Hollywood communists, who demand $100,000 in ransom money.

Mannix must figure out how to get his star back while dodging two gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, in increasingly hilarious wardrobes), navigating the latest scandal of studio star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and comforting director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who has had a marble-mouthed stunt actor named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forced into his romantic comedy.

The plot is paper-thin, but it does give the Coens a chance to do their quick interpretations of old-timey movie Westerns, screwball comedies, Esther Williams-style pool epics, overblown Bible movies, Gene Kelly-type musicals and more. The film includes of short homages to all of these cinema genres, and each one of them is a total blast. The movie features communist writers in a manner far less serious than the recent Trumbo.

The Coens have a way with making minor moments so grandiose. While Hobie Doyle waits for a date, he opts to play with his lasso in a way that reminded me of the kid in Hudsucker sampling a hula hoop. Fiennes and Ehrenreich have an exchange over a simple movie line that is easily one of the funniest things the Coens have ever put to screen. A close second is a moment involving a scarf and Coen staple Frances McDormand. And if you don’t laugh when Clooney’s Whitlock beholds the Christ, well, there’s something wrong with you.

In a show-stopping homage, Channing Tatum does career-best work in an On the Town-like bar sequence that has him dancing and singing up a storm. It’s at once gloriously perfect and seriously demented—the kind of thing only the Coens could pull off.

I wish the Coens had a lot more time on their hands, because it would be a delight to see the further adventures of Mannix, Hobie Doyle and DeeAnna Moran. They each deserve their own movie. Hail, Caesar! gives total silliness a grand treatment, and reminds us that nobody does silly better than the Coens.

Hail, Caesar! is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Promised Land wants to be a message movie, but it's too messy to deliver that message coherently.

Originally slated to be Matt Damon's directorial debut, it was instead directed by his pal Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), who, with this and last year's mawkish Restless, finds himself in a bit of a slump. Although Damon relinquished the director's chair, he shared screenwriting duties with John Krasinski, and both have big roles in the film.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a likable corporate pawn for a natural-gas company who is sent to a farming town with a mandate to sell the community on allowing its presence. That presence would mean a lot of "fracking," a natural-gas extraction process that involves deep drilling—and some possible environmental side effects.

Steve is presented as a virtuous fellow who looks to do well and get ahead. He's just about to get a big promotion, and with a wisecracking co-worker at his side (Frances McDormand), he's set to sell fracking to a town filled with differing opinions on what to do with the land. Some, like Paul (Lucas Black), are looking for a big payday, while others, like Frank (a well-placed Hal Holbrook), look to get in Steve's way.

Also looking to get in Steve's way is Dustin (Krasinski), an environmentalist who claims that fracking wrecks farms and kills livestock. He posts pictures of dead cows around town and playfully intimidates Steve at local bars. He even makes a move on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the small-town girl Steve has his eyes on.

Is Promised Land trying to preach that fracking and natural gas are bad choices? I really couldn't tell you. The film is more preoccupied with giving us a nice, happy, pleasant outcome for Steve. Van Sant wants you to leave this movie thinking Damon's Steve is just swell—even if he did put people's livelihoods and land in jeopardy.

There's also a big twist that is nothing but a screenwriting stunt to throw viewers off-course. It completely undermines any "message" the film is trying to deliver, and comes off as something that would never, ever happen.

It's too bad. I liked the idea of Van Sant tackling a simple farm-town story—but the Damon/Krasinski screenplay betrays him in the end. Damn your pen, Matt Damon!

Damon's acting is OK. He's playing somebody similar in mannerisms to the character he played in We Bought a Zoo. (He wrote Promised Land with Krasinski while taking breaks from making Zoo.) His acting is better than his writing. The same can't be said for Krasinski, who both writes and acts badly here. Love the dude on The Office, but I'm lukewarm on him at the movies thus far.

As for McDormand, she rises above the material and makes her moments worth watching. The same can be said for DeWitt, who made a habit this year of showing her face in movies unworthy of her. She also starred in the mediocre Nobody Walks, the lousy The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Watch. (I am one of the few critics who actually liked that one.)

Promised Land left me feeling weird, and I don't think that was its intention. Sure, it made me curious about fracking, but the film chickened out and failed to deliver a meaningful statement on anything. Van Sant has made an awkward movie that will be fracking forgotten by this time next year.

Promised Land is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews