Isle of Dogs is Typical Wes Anderson Fare

Isle of Dogs (2018)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Searchlight, 99 minutes, PG-13.

I have a love/meh relationship with Wes Anderson. Most of his work reminds me of a brilliant slacker student, the kind who should be getting straight A’s but is content to do just enough to get a B or B- and go home. There is always something about an Anderson film that dazzles me, but also things that make me roll my eyes.

Isle of Dogs marks Anderson’s return to animation, turf he first explored in his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is, in my estimation, a stronger film—perhaps because the Roald Dahl story upon which it's based has built-in edginess that Anderson couldn’t turn into detached irony. Anderson co wrote the script for Isle of Dogs and has claimed Kurosawa as an inspiration, though the visual style owes more to Japanese anime and the doll-like cartooning in films such as Despicable Me.

The story is fairly straightforward. A future virus has infected Japan’s dog population with bad cases of the sniffles, mange, and other symptoms that Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi claims will touch off an influenza pandemic among humans. To head it—or maybe he’s just a mean guy—the mayor decrees that his city will rid itself of all dogs, both feral and domestic. All are rounded up and shipped via automated cable dumpsters across the water to Trash Island. Various packs form, each fending for themselves. The conditions, however, are filthy and the dogs must forage amidst the daily trash deliveries to survive. Mayor Kobayashi is so masterful at propaganda that his actions are interpreted as having saved the city’s human population. Will no one remember his or her canine companion?

The mayor’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari will. He commandeers a plane and crash-lands on the island. He is determined to find his Bluetooth-enabled helper dog Spots and expose his uncle’s perfidy. This touches off a search for Atari, an attempt to hide successful eradication of the dog flu, and a race against the clock to ensure the mayor’s reelection so he can enact his plan to exterminate all dogs. Enter also an American exchange student, Tracy Walker (voiced by Greta Gerwig), who marshals a team of hackers and young people to expose the mayor’s corruption, remind everyone how much they used to love dogs, and prevent the holocaust of howlers.

Along the way we are taken inside anthropomorphic dog packs, especially one headed by Chief (Bryan Cranston sounding like George Clooney), a particularly scraggly mutt, a biter, and a former stray. He and his pack mates will be Atari’s guide across Trash Island and his intermediaries in encounters with other dog populations. Each dog pretty much takes on the personality of those who voice said pooch, a cast that includes F. Murray Abraham, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Angelica Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Liev Schreiber, and Tilda Swinton. Stil other celebrities lend their voices to humanized cartoon characters, including Frances McDormand, Courtney Vance, and Yoko Ono.

It’s all very cute and the dialogue is frequently witty, spirited, and snapped from the snarky end of the dog biscuit. There are also clever throwaway details. Check out the garbage contents; notice that there is usually a cat prominent when nastiness is afoot. You might also see similarities between some of Mayor Kobayashi’s rallies and scenes from Citizen Kane. There are winks and nods to 1950s Japanese sci-fi sprinkled throughout.  

The border between homage and appropriation is often a thin one, however. It’s hard not to observe that Trash Island looks a lot like the garbage-filled Earth from Pixar’s WALL-E, and some of the machines and other mechanical paraphernalia look familiar as well. It’s also pretty obvious that the story of kids, tweens, and teens saving the day is straight out of ‘toons such as Daria, Dexter, and Scooby-Doo. The animation style of Tracy Walker and others—barrel bodies with impossibly thin legs—is pretty much what we’ve seen in Despicable Me. Tracy is hard for me to take on several levels. First, her round face, freckles, oddly shaped torso, and red Afro strikes me as grotesque. Mostly, though, I wondered why we needed an American girl to do what a Japanese character could have done. Is this just conservative filmmaking—something plugged in to make sure Americans won't view it as a “foreign” film—or backdoor Great White Hope paternalism?

Perhaps you think I nitpick. I actually liked the film; I just didn't love it. I thought it half clever, but as always, Wes Anderson did just enough to collect his B. The last time he actually got an A was 1998, when he made Rushmore. It was offbeat, original, and lovable. Isle of Dogs is a bit like Chief; it wags its tail but the bite does not match the bark.

Rob Weir



BlacKkKlansman a Spike Lee Masterpiece

Directed by Spike Lee
Focus Pictures, 135 minutes, R (language)

Spike Lee has made a lot of good movies, but I was starting to wonder if he’d ever again make a great one akin to Do the Right Thing (1989). BlacKkKlansman is such a film. Ironically, its narrative structure, style, and feel make it the most conventional film Lee has ever made. A second irony lies with the fact that it is, in many ways, both a prequel and a sequel to Do the Right Thing.

Lee tells the improbable but true story of Ron Stallworth, who in the early 1970s became the first African-American officer on the Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD).  Early on, Ron (John David Washington) suffers all the expected indignities of a pioneer. Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) tells Ron that he’s the Jackie Robinson of the CSPD, a role that entails being alone, putting in time in the mind-numbing records office, and turning away from the racist guff of Patrolman Landers. He also carries the Robinsonesque burden of representing all African Americans and proving that they belong at the table. Ron is up for the job in many ways, not the least of which is that, though he sports a sizable Afro and looks the part of a countercultural rebel, he’s actually a military brat, has always wanted to be a cop, and is about as straight an arrow as you’ll find in the quiver. Before long, Ron makes detective.

A newspaper recruiting ad for the local Ku Klux Klan prompts Ron to make an impulse call for information—the vague goal being to investigate its activities. The call goes well; as Ron reminds Bridges, he’s fluent “in both white and jive.” Meeting recruiters face-to-face, of course, is another matter. Thus begins a scheme so crazy we’d not believe it had it not actually happened. Ron does all of the phone calling and behind the scenes work, but his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) masquerades as Ron on the ground. It’s a very dangerous game. Ron wears a wire—that the KKK didn’t do a body pat down is incredulous—and Flip is a Jew who must master the Klan’s full hate speech repertoire, including its anti-Semitic rants.

But wait, the story gets more remarkable. Ron’s own consciousness is shaken, if not stirred, by a Kwame Ture speech he’s casing undercover, and that’s also exactly where he’d like to be with a Colorado College student he meets. She’s no easy conquest, though. Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) is an Angela Davis-like firebrand who is president of the Black Student Union and conversant in Black nationalist theory.

Talk about your balancing acts! Ron is simultaneously scripting Zimmerman, courting a Black nationalist while posing as a construction worker, and ingratiating himself (in absentia, of course) into the top ranks of the Klan, including buttering up Grand Imperial Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). Before the narrative part of the film concludes, Lee also treats us to dangers galore, plots thwarted ad launched, heart-stopping action, and Ron’s one-day assignment as Duke’s bodyguard.

John David Washington is quite good as Stallworth. He strikes a nice balance between determination, playfulness, and vulnerability. Ms. Harrier is even better as Patrice. She brings to the screen something that’s been lacking in too many past Spike Lee films: a strong, independent Black female in control of things other than her sexuality. It may sound odd to say this in a film focusing on Black characters, but Adam Driver’s performance is the best of all. He portrays a secular Jew for whom all manner of truths begin to dawn, including the connectedness of all oppressions. Yet he also has a commonsense center and makes no bones about not wishing to be a martyr to anyone’s cause. It would be a travesty were Driver not a Best Supporting Actor nominee.

The same goes for Spike Lee for Best Director honors. Lee has learned that sometimes less is more. I couldn’t help but think of how BlacKkKlansman reminded me of a take-up-the-cause John Sayles film. Lee does something, though, that often stumps Sayles: he makes his villains complex rather than cardboard cutouts. No simplistic “deplorables” here; Lee shows the Klan as venomous and incendiary, but he subtly gives us varied reasons for individual hatreds: economic marginalization, alcoholism, feelings of powerlessness, fear of cultural change, the lure of tribalism, low IQ, sociopathic tendencies, and even just a desire to be “helpful.” Lee doesn’t ask us to like Klansmen or feel sympathy toward them, but he does suggest you need to know your enemies to counter them.

Letting us down easy isn’t a Spike Lee trait. If you’ve seen Do the Right Thing you’ll certainly remember its powerful post-riot postscript: a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. repudiating violence, and Malcolm X’s famed “by any means necessary” warning. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee reprises such sentiments, but in images rather than words. Watch what he does with a freeze frame zoom shot when Ron and Patrice answer a late-night knock at the door. Watch again what happens to images of the American flag as the credits roll.

I called this a prequel because it’s set in the 1970s and Do the Right Thing in the 1980s. It is also a documentary-style sequel. Lee released the film into theaters on August 10, the one-year anniversary of Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent. The heinous David Duke was the keynote speaker. Lee appends footage of the rally—still more deftness from Lee. It is first a reminder that the same hatreds that led Ron Stallworth to take on the Klan and Lee to make Do the Right Thing remain. There’s also footage of Donald Trump making vomit-inducing claims that there were “bad” people on both sides of the Charlottesville tragedy. Lest anyone accuse Lee of being a hater as well, there is a dedication to Heather Heyer, the white woman mowed down by a white supremacist.

This film has already won the Grand Prix at Cannes. I can’t imagine you’ll see a better American film this year. You certainly won’t see a more important one. Expect BlacKkKlansman to win multiple Academy Awards early next year.

Rob Weir


Lean on Pete an Overlooked Treasure

Lean on Pete (2018)
Directed by Andrew Haigh
A24, 121 minutes, R (solely for language and a ridiculous rating)

The perfect antidote for a summer’s worth of mindless rubbish is to watch films that got drowned out by the Hollywood hype and money machine. Such a film is Lean on Me Pete, which was made for $8 million—chump change in movie production terms—but only earned a quarter of that at the box office. That’s not because it’s not a good film; it’s because it got relegated to festivals and art houses. And, of yeah, it was made by a British director who isn't afraid to poke holes in the myth of the Golden West.

Lean on Me Pete is a coming of age film, but not one cut from the private school/sunny beaches/rich parents/fireworks in the sky romance sense. Our protagonist is 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and the unfolding drama is viewed mostly from his perspective. He grows up mobile and semi-feral, courtesy of his widower father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who loves his son but is no one’s idea of a role model. Ray has recently uprooted Charley again, this time from a small rural town in Oregon to the seedy outskirts of Portland. Charley consoles himself in running, Ray in being unemployed, boozing, and womanizing. Theirs is the sort of home in which canned soup and cereal pass for meals, and the cereal is kept in the fridge to keep the roaches out of it.

Most 15-year-olds long for freedom; Charley just wants a normal life, though he’s not even remotely sure what that is. Charley has a good heart, but he’s woefully undereducated, has the table manners of a goat, and the naivety to believe his father can take care of him. He does, however, find that his new home is near a run-down horse track. There he meets Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), an owner and trainer, though his stable is of the sort that races at carnivals, country fairs, and tracks the likes of which Justify never saw and never will. Charley isn’t afraid of hard work and soon parlays $10 for shoveling horseshit into an apprenticeship with Del that will take Charlie to some of the aforementioned tracks.

Del turns Charley into a groomer and stable boy through classic on-the-job training. Del’s not exactly guardian-of-the-year material either, but he does teach Charley to eat properly and gives him semi-regular work, which is better than Ray can manage. Charley is hungry in every way a person can be famished: literally, emotionally, and psychically. He is outwardly stoic, but that’s such a thin mask that everyone sees through it. Del’s best life advice comes when Charlie begins to exercise the titular Lean on Pete: “Never let go of the rope,” a metaphor I invite you to stretch.

Lean on Pete becomes Charley’s de facto confidant, the silent partner in whom he confides his inner thoughts. In like fashion, Charley saddles up to Del’s jockey friend Bonnie (ChloĆ« Sevigny), as if she were a surrogate older sister. Problems abound: a horse is a horse, of course, of course—something Bonnie and Del repeatedly tell Charley. Lean on Pete is “just a horse,” says Bonnie, and he’s a  quarter horse at that, a short-race sprinter. Once Pete loses his speed—artificially enhanced when Del can get away with it—he’s off to a Mexican dog food factory.

Among the many virtues of Lean on Pete is that it’s never quite what you think it will be. Circumstances will send Charley and Pete on a long journey toward Wyoming, where Charley hopes to find his aunt. At this juncture you might be tempted to think of John Steinbeck’s epic Travels with Charley, with a nag pinch- hitting for a tail-wagger. Nope. This one is not a simplistic boy-and-his-steed tale. Nor is it an elegiac stroll across Big Sky country; it’s more sage brush and forays onto Skid Row, the latter filled with the desperate, not desperados. Charley’s coming of age saga is about survival, not identity formation, and that means it’s sometimes a harrowing story about a minor in peril.

Cowboy hats off to Andrew Haigh for resisting cheap sentimentality at pretty much every juncture where a less confident director would have tossed us nostrums and a goes-down-easy resolution. If you saw All the Money in the World, perhaps you already suspected that Charley Plummer has promise; watch him in Lean on Pete and all idle doubts vanish in the arid flatlands of central Oregon. Plummer presents as determined-but-uncertain, lanky, scuffed, and a bit gawky—a lost boy not yet adapted to an adult body.

This film is a real treasure and it’s a damned shame that it has been overlooked. See it and pass the word. It won’t win any Academy Awards come next February, but I can assure that it’s better than half of the films that will.

Rob Weir