Berlinale 2018 Diary #1

On Film / The Daily — Feb 15, 2018

Think of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and pink pastels, purple uniforms, and the occasional splash of red may come to mind, offset by the ochres and faded wood grains of the scenes that frame the main story. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)? Yellow and lush greens. And Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s second stop motion animated feature after Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009; rich oranges and browns): black and blood red. All skies are white-ash gray, the under-lit election rallies have a heavy 1984 air about them, and the main setting is the isle of the title, a dumping ground where grimy rats scamper over the mounds of garbage, mosquitoes hover, and emaciated dogs, ticks wandering unattended through their ravaged fur, fight over maggot-infested scraps discarded by the distant city of Megasaki.

Anyone expecting that the Japan of Wes Anderson’s imagination might be as serene and just-so as an Ozu pillow shot is in for a rude surprise. For one thing, Anderson has said that he’s drawn inspiration primarily from Akira Kurosawa, whose Dodes’ka-den (1970), by the way, is set in a shantytown atop a garbage dump. For another, it’s 2018.

The set-up is simple, the political allegory overt, but the story gets complicated. Some viewers may be grateful that every twenty minutes or so one character or another halts the relentless storytelling machinery for a quick summing up. But in brief, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has exiled all the dogs of Megasaki to the aforementioned isle under the pretense of a set of alternative facts involving an outbreak of snout fever. His adopted nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), heads to the isle in a tiny single-engine plane to find his beloved bodyguard dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). When he crashes, he falls in with a pack of five canine friends, Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), gossip-loving Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and the lone stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston). Back in Megasaki, the vastly outnumbered members of the resistance led, interestingly enough, by an American foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig), struggle to expose the conspiracy behind the dogs’ exile and the truth behind the murder of Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who, with his assistant, Yoko-Ono (Yoko Ono!), has found a cure for dog flu and snout fever. A good number of subplots and side stories fray from that main thread.

For all its darkness spiked with terse moments of gore, some of it comic, some of it not, Isle of Dogs is a delight. The bonds between friends are genuinely moving (and the glassy eyes of these characters can be remarkably expressive), the deadpan enthusiasm with which plans are laid out and maps are drawn up (reminiscent of Sam Shakusky’s in Moonrise Kingdom) is endearing, and, as always with Anderson, above all, the design is enthralling. Besides looking to the Japanese cinema of the twentieth century and the woodblock prints of the nineteenth, Anderson unabashedly mixes and matches technologies at will. Robot dogs seem to have been wheeled in from a sci-fi B-movie dating back decades. The rounded edges of the 4:3 television screens flicker in black and white, while broadcast studios have a late fifties, early sixties feel to them. Computers, some with eighties-era lines of green text, others capable of truly futuristic light shows, can be hacked, but they also print out punch cards. Because punch cards are cool, especially when they’re adorned with what appears to be letterpress text—red again—in both English and Japanese.

Having shown us his version of the life aquatic, taken us on a bumpy spiritual journey to India, and explored the dark heart of Mitteleuropa, Wes Anderson now gives us a cartoonish yet complex vision of a place where things can change for the better. And for the sake of honor at that.

The Berlinale’s Forum will be presenting Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, which premiered last month at Sundance. I gathered reviews, interviews, and so on at the time, so here I’ll just briefly add to the chorus: Madeline’s Madeline reconfirms Decker as one of the most innovative and exciting filmmakers around. Even if that sense of revelation one felt seeing her first two features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, isn’t quite as vibrant as it was when they appeared all but simultaneously four years ago, she retains that singular approach to surfaces, objects, rooms, faces that seems to render them visible for the first time. The air itself breathes, alive with light. There’s a lusty restlessness to this film, borne of a long process of honed improvisation, that makes the news that, for her next project, Decker’s ventured into VR hardly a surprise.

And yes, it’s Helena Howard, around whom this film has been organically cultivated, who’s the revelation this time around. But Miranda July as Madeline’s mother and Molly Parker as a theater director are outstanding, too, as opposing forces, each staking a claim on Madeline in a series of manipulative microaggressions, some intentional, some not, that drive Madeline toward the promise of the film’s title.

Also coming up in the Forum’s program is Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson’s The Green Fog, which premiered last April as a sort of commissioned project for the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Green Fog saw a limited run in the States last month, and James Kang has gathered reviews at Critics Round Up.

There is more tonal variation than the trailer suggests in this sixty-two-minute “adaptation” (the filmmakers’ word) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the form of “footage repurposed from movies and television shot or set exclusively in San Francisco” (again, the filmmakers). While the frenzy of much of Maddin’s past work, inspired by his passion for films of the silent era, particularly the German Expressionists, and the ecstatic chaos of Maddin and the Johnsons’ previous collaboration, The Forbidden Room (2015), all go missing, there’s something of a slow motion slapstick sensibility at work. A sequence of bodies falling, for example, an extended series of “aieeee!” moments, ultimately undercuts expectations with an abrupt, anticlimactic thud.

The slapstick is slappier in Accidence, the ten-minute short that’ll precede The Green Fog. It might be seen as an homage to another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window (1954), albeit in one long take and with maybe a couple of dozen more windows. A crime is committed here, too, and evidently, not once but twice, and while we’re at it, the shenanigans on adjacent balconies, and those above and below, and behind the curtains, and in the shadows—not all of those look perfectly legal, either. Whether or not choreographing this multi-ring circus was as daunting as it looks, it’s the one of the two Maddin/Johnsons works at the Berlinale this year I’m most anxious to see again.


Updates on what others are saying about Isle of Dogs:

The Telegraph’s Tim Robey finds that “this is by some measure Anderson’s weirdest concoction ever, in all sorts of good ways. And it probably counts as his most daring, too. . . . Watching Anderson go this dark might take some viewers aback, but there’s remarkable beauty and a sober delight to his vision of creatures scrabbling for survival.”

IndieWire’s David Ehrlich: “The worse things get, the more fantastical Anderson’s films become; the more fantastical Anderson’s films become, the better their style articulates his underlying sincerity. Disorder fuels his imagination, and the staggeringly well-crafted Isle of Dogs is nothing if not Anderson’s most imaginative film to date.”

At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang addresses the potential “accusation of cultural appropriation, which on one level is an absolutely indefensible charge, being as there’s actually no reason that this story needs to be set in Japan other than it gives Anderson a whole new cultural coloring-box to root around in. And matters aren’t helped by the casting of exclusively white Hollywood stars in all the dog roles, when the dog roles are by far the best there are. But on a more immediate and visceral level, the meticulous dedication and joyous commitment Anderson displays to a set of aesthetics he clearly worships are to some extent self-justifying.” Besides: “No one could come out of Isle of Dogs with a sense of disdain for Japanese culture: Anderson’s Japanophilia is as infectious as snout fever, and peculiarly reverent, without a shred of condescension.”

“Anderson and his story collaborators, who also include Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, firmly eschew the Japanese cult of kawaii, or cuteness,” writes Jonathan Romney for the Guardian. “There is so much detail in the breakneck race from image to image that Isle of Dogs will reward multiple viewings as much as any Anderson film, visually if not narratively. Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist score is also a pleasure, mixing taiko drumming, laconic jazz bass and the occasional dash of Prokofiev.”

“Given the heightened complexity of Anderson’s cinematic environments, with their whirligig detailing and multitude of moving parts, animation was always a logical sidestep for America’s most artisanal auteur,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, “and Isle of Dogs doubles down on the nook-and-cranny meticulousness and mechanism fetish of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even the garbage in each frame . . . looks hand-picked by production designers Adam Stockhausen (as essential here as he was to the success of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom) and Paul Harrod.”

For David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter, “the unique charm of Isle of Dogs is its bottomless vault of curios, its sly humor, playful graphic inserts and dexterous narrative detours. Anderson breaks the story down into various parts with chapter headings (‘The Little Pilot,’ ‘The Search for Spots,’ ‘The Rendez-Vous,’ ‘Atari’s Lantern’) creating a literary structure that binds the discursive story together.”

“The spirit of Kurosawa lives on here (there’s even a decaying statue of Toshiro Mifune on Trash Island), while Ozu is referenced in the sheer precision of the framing,” writes Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan. “Atari is pure anime, while sequences from kabuki theater enhance the other-worldliness of the setting, which is delightfully contrasted with some very dry American wit.”

Isle of Dogs is actually a very quick-witted and incredibly current response what happens to certain sections of society when deceitful leaders are allowed to manipulate public fears to achieve power,” writes Thomas Humphrey for ScreenAnarchy. “Wes Anderson just came for Trump, via Japan—and you have to see it.”

Updates, 2/16: For Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, “such is the inventiveness, subtle homage, and kinetic drive of [its] opening two-thirds that it is unfortunate to see Isle of Dogs slip into an almost monotone sentimentality for its final act (I lost count of exactly how many characters welled up on screen). In place of that satisfying whole, however, it is still entirely pleasurable to once again get lost in Anderson’s signature wash of exquisite detail. I still can’t shake the image of a stop-frame kidney transplant shot from above or the fluid movement of two clay hands as they construct the perfect piece of poisoned sushi.”

“In some ways it’s difficult to define who Isle of Dogs is really for,” finds Hannah Woodhead at Little White Lies.

For Vladan Petkovic at Cineuropa, Isle of Dogs is “nowhere near its predecessor in terms of storytelling and emotional involvement, although it is certainly more ambitious in scope and more exotic in setting.”

Updates, 2/17: Writing for the Notebook, Adam Cook observes that “any film that tries to make a dog into a character or articulates a relationship between a person and a dog is usually fraudulent and clumsy. Leave it to Wes Anderson to find his own eccentric way to pay loving tribute in a fantastical, funny and moving stop-motion animated adventure.” That said, “Anderson’s reverence for and usage of Japanese imagery, artwork and cultural signifiers is transparently Orientalist, most regrettably a bastardization of the haiku for comic effect.”

“Brimful of brilliant, subtly inflected deadpan face-offs of one kind or another,” writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James,Isle of Dogs is a big leap up from Mr. Fox. The voice work and puppetry is combined in compelling fashion, giving the big close-ups of these lovingly mangy critters something more than Creature Comforts personality—just wait until you get to meet Gondo, the affronted leader of the island’s aboriginal dogs, who briefly occasions some of Harvey Keitel’s best work of recent years.”

Update, 2/22: “As ever with this filmmaker,” writes Anna Smith for Time Out, “symmetry is a hallmark, though both visually and narratively, this busy film lacks the serenity and jaw-dropping beauty of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Nor is Isle of Dogs as well-rounded and satisfying as Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Update, 2/23: “A lot of risks are taken in a movie that bridges countries, politics and species. The intricacy of Anderson’s craft is more tangible than ever, as a pattern of mirror images and opposing dualities punctuates the film,” writes Ella Kemp for Vague Visages.

Update, 3/9: “Anderson is hardly the first director you’d think of to captain a dystopian futurist allegory of xenophobia featuring feral, emaciated dogs,” writes Steven Mears for Film Comment. “But the meticulous auteur’s second foray into stop-motion animation becomes a compendium of his characteristic forms, flourishes, and frustrations.”

Update, 3/15: “To say that this famously detail-oriented director is at his best when working as a literal miniaturist, manipulating tiny puppets in impeccably built-to-scale worlds, is not to put down his nonanimated movies, many of which I love,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens. “But granting himself the freedom to create an entire visual world from scratch seems to give Anderson access to something that’s often absent from his obsessively rendered human tableaux. With the possible exception of Rushmore, it’s the Anderson films starring small assemblages of cloth, fur, and wire that have struck me as the warmest, the most emotionally accessible, the most real.”

Update, 3/18: “20th Century Fox are hosting a special exhibition of original sets and puppets from the film,” notes Hannah Woodhead at Little White Lies. It’ll be free to Londoners from March 23 through April 5.

Updates, 3/22: “The story of the abused animals of Trash Island evokes tales of pain and suffering like Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe,” writes Manohla Dargis. “Mr. Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, handles this theme unpersuasively, nodding at genocide only to skitter away and return to his embroidered visuals. Isle of Dogs is filled with exquisite illustrations, whimsical flourishes and nostalgic details—old-fashioned labels, computer punch cards—that thicken the texture of its imaginary world. But too often the movie feels overworked, fussy. And when an explosion darkens Trash Island, evoking the horrors of Japan’s past, Mr. Anderson feels like he’s circling a profundity he doesn’t know how to handle.”

Also in the New York Times, Mekado Murphy: “While some 500 dog puppets were made for the movie, here is a closer look at how four key canines came to life.”

“If Wes Anderson finally discovered evil in The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Isle of Dogs he attempts to bring it to his level,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “That earlier film’s Mitteleuropean marzipan levity was haunted, and eventually consumed, by the storm of totalitarianism and murder gathering outside its impeccably curtained windows. Genocide was just over the horizon. And in Isle of Dogs, it’s here—at least metaphorically. A splendid jewel box of a movie about rather grisly matters, the filmmaker’s latest represents another example of the clash between his playfully self-aware aesthetic and his growing obsession with our inhumanity.”

“If there is a reason to cherish this often captivating, sometimes irritating, unavoidably perplexing movie, it's that its mere existence seems to defy rational explanation,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “It is by turns savage and soulful, mangy and refined, possessed of an unmistakable pedigree and yet boldly resistant to categorization. It's a shaggy Frankenmutt of a movie, dressed in artisanal fur and infested by bespoke fleas.”

For the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, Isle is “a gag machine with a characteristic tinge of melancholy that may well usurp Anderson’s last movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as his greatest visual and technical marvel—a movie whose every image is a miniature triumph of imagination and execution.”

Writing for Vulture, Charles Bramesco pinpoints the references in Isle of Dogs to Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), High and Low (1963), and Ran (1985).

IndieWire’s Anne Thompson talks with co-writer Roman Coppola—and with Anderson about Roman Coppola.

Updates, 3/24: “Hipsters can only ever approximate the cultures they mimic,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer, “and what I see in Anderson’s movies, with all their fussy production value and ornate style, is the same celebration of that hipsterish ability to curate an identity that everyone criticizing him sees. But I also see characters struggling to escape the inherent dissatisfaction of having to curate an identity, and that stands out. I love Anderson’s movies, but I’ve never really envied the people in them.”

“The movie looks closely at deportation, internment in a prison camp, and the threat of extermination—all from the perspective of the victims,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “No contemporary director delights like Anderson does in depicting military or quasi-military organization, its somewhat ludicrous yet deeply earnest and potentially very effective rituals and hierarchies. In that regard, Isle of Dogs is something like Anderson’s first John Ford movie—filled with the emotionalism of respect and principle, embodied in the dogs’ own organization and in their relationships with humans.”

“From a political perspective, it may be inadequate to defend Isle of Dogs on purely cinematic grounds, but let’s do that anyway,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “It’s a film of dazzling wit, visual flair, and invention, crafted on a level so far above the routine illusionistic perfectionism of most contemporary Hollywood spectacle that you come out buzzing as if—and forgive me if I add my own final dash of cultural appropriation—you’ve just enjoyed a heady shot of visual and comedic wasabi.”

More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5), David Edelstein (Vulture), Simran Hans (Reverse Shot), Odie Henderson (RogerEbert.com, 1.5/4), and Chris Klimek (NPR).

For Texas Monthly, Christopher Kelly asks Anderson “to describe what went into creating the movie’s detailed visuals, and he pulled back the curtain on the years-long process of bringing puppets to life and paying proper tribute to Japanese culture.”

At the Playlist, Gregory Ellwood listens to Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum chat about the movie and whatever else crosses their minds, while Matt Patches at Thrillist talks with Bob Balaban.

On the new Spoiler Special podcast (56’33”), Slate film critic Dana Stevens, culture writer Inkoo Kang, and Slate culture editor Forrest Wickman ask, “Why did Anderson choose to make a movie about talking dogs so dark? . . . Is the movie tone-deaf, fun, or a mix of both?”

Updates, 3/28: For Sean Burns, writing for WBUR, “the heart of the film is Cranston’s rough and rebellious mutt melting at the kindnesses shared by young Atari. It is in their interactions that Isle of Dogs taps into that sweet strain of innocence tinged with regret that is conjured by the best Wes Anderson films.”

More from Dan Schindel at Hyperallergic. Meantime, Sophie Monks Kaufman interviews Anderson for Little White Lies, and Belle Hutton (AnOther) and Rachael Steven (Creative Review) take a close look at the making of the sets, currently on view at The Store X on The Strand in London through April 5.

Updates, 3/31: “I’m of the belief that the phenomenon commonly known as cultural appropriation can be benign, even illuminating in the right artist’s hands,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “The thing is, Anderson hasn’t done anything in a while, if ever, to convince me that those are his hands.” She’s talked with three people fluent in Japanese and finds that “perspectives can vary wildly between Asian-Americans and immigrated Asians, and what feels like tribute to some feels like opportunism to others.”

Writing for the Atlantic, Nina Li Coomes argues that Anderson “relies on a long Western tradition of, intentionally or otherwise, rendering Japan as a mysterious land with an incomprehensible people and culture.”

And on the new episode of Represent (26’55”), Slate’s Aisha Harris and Mashable’s Angie Han discuss cultural representation in the film.

“Foreigners creating images of Japan, whether through documentary or fiction, must negotiate a mind-bogglingly rich and complex indigenous visual culture,” writes Nick Pinkerton for Artforum. “Sam Fuller, shooting House of Bamboo (1955), claimed to have been influenced by Japanese scroll art in his CinemaScope framing, though the results feel as much like lurid EC Comics as Hokusai; while making his Silence (2016), Martin Scorsese tried to avoid aping Japanese directors’ style, feeling incapable of properly approximating them. With his boxy, straightened, planimetric perspectives, Anderson is naturally pre-inclined to connect with the artful constructions and exuberant, presentational artificiality that is often associated with the culture’s cinema and other moving image mediums.”

“But there are differences between Japanophilia and cinephilia,” argues David Fear in Rolling Stone. “I love so much in Isle of Dogs. I am moved by it. So why do I find myself cringing so hard at the way it reduces an entire nation's history and character to the equivalent of an album's deep-cut? Yes, it's easy to read what Anderson & co. are doing as an homage to his hermetic ideas of the land of the rising sun . . . It's a little harder to acknowledge that there's a tourist-y tone-deafness that comes as part of the package. Harder, but necessary. You don't get one without the other here.”

“A speech that Cranston’s stray Chief gives about literally biting the hand that fed him when he muffed a chance at a good home is among the most perfectly written, staged and played scenes in recent cinema,” writes Kim Newman for Sight & Sound. “The trick of absurdist comedy is often to know when to take an element (here emotional, but elsewhere in the film political) so seriously that it hits home without even abandoning a fundamental ridiculousness—which turns out to be a profound reaction to the state of the real world.”

Isle of Dogs is another utterly distinctive, formally brilliant exercise in savant innocence from Anderson, somewhere between arch naivety and inspired sophistication,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “I laughed a lot, not really at jokes, but at its hyper-intelligent stabs of visual invention.”

“I think I would love to do a story that was set in Dickensian London—somewhere around the Strand,” Anderson tells Gail Tolley in Time Out. Would he consider doing something for television? “I think the two things are merging together now. You can present what you do however you want—there’s the freedom to do whatever you like. So I expect probably at some point I’d do something that way.”

For AnOther, Daisy Woodward talks with “Murray, Balaban, Goldblum, and Cranston, as well as Schreiber, to talk all things dog and the sheer brilliance of Anderson, from his childlike imagination to this, his immaculately realised plea for compassion and respect in an increasingly hateful world.”

For the BFI, Lou Thomas looks back on ten “great dog films.”

Update, 4/1: “With breathtaking visuals and an uncanny eye for canine behavior, it transposes the kid-friendly charm of The Incredible Journey to the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Mad Max via the Japanese cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, Seijun Suzuki and, most notably, Akira Kurosawa,” writes Mark Kermode in the Observer. “For all the disease and hardship, this is a wonderful world, full of characters in whom we can invest our trust, sympathy and love.”

Updates, 4/6: “It's not news that orientalism exists, but it still seems like news to many that there's anything wrong with it, or that there is, indeed, a difference between, say, objectifying homage and legitimate cultural exchange,” writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. “The most telling thing about the conversations that have followed the release of Wes Anderson's latest film, Isle of Dogs—a movie that, whatever you think of it, is inarguably about Western assumptions about Japan—is the gap between the thoughtful and measured criticism (much of it from Asian American writers) and the outraged, outsized response to that criticism online.”

“I found it unexpectedly resonant with regards to contemporary society,” writes Ben Sachs for the Chicago Reader. “The central concerns of Isle of Dogs speak to a couple of hot-button issues: the rise of authoritarian regimes and the plight of refugees. I don’t know if Anderson intended for the film to be topical; movies, of course, take years to make, and the world in which filmmakers begin their projects isn’t the same as the one in which they release their finished products. Regardless, Isle of Dogs feels timely in a way no other Anderson film has.”

José Arroyo and Michael Glass discuss the “cinematography, compositions, lightness of touch, allegorical relationship to reality, and place in Anderson’s body of work. We also reserve particular praise for Bryan Cranston’s vocal performance and Alexandre Desplat’s score.” (28’06”).

Update, 4/7: “Over two decades, the meticulous Rushmore auteur has helped spawn an entire sub-genre of American cinema, a landfill site chocca with handlebar moustaches, melancholia and tasteful alt-folk music,” writes Louis Wise for the Guardian. “He has had a boggling influence over the rest of pop culture, too, on fashion, design, pop and social media.”

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