• [The Daily] Berlinale 2018 Diary #1

    By David Hudson


    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.”

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