Thursday, April 5, 2018

Isle of Dogs

                 How Much Is That Doggie on the Trash Pile?

                                                       Review by Ken Burke

                               Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): In a slightly-futuristic, mostly-fantasy-based Japan a powerful, evil mayor of a large city (who comes from a heritage of dog-haters) has declared canines are now a menace to their society because of an outbreak of dog flu so they’re all to be transported to the offshore dump, Trash Island, with the first to go being Spots, the beloved pet of the mayor’s 12-year-old-nephew.  After all the dogs have been removed, the kid steals a small airplane, crash lands its on the island in search of Spots, a difficult task because while the dogs he meets have their in-group-conversations translated into English for us (the audience) he can’t communicate directly with his new helpers, the leader of which, Chief, is a stray wary of humans to begin with.  Added to this situation, a scientist has discovered a vaccine for the flu but he’s killed by orders of the mayor to preserve the canine quarantine with a plan to then destroy all those dogs once he’s re-elected.  An exchange-student-investigative-reporter secretly uncovers his nefarious plans but will she be able to act effectively against the local power structure even as the boy continues to search for his lost pet?  Like other Anderson films, this one has an oddball sensitivity (with depictions of Japan that may be offensive to some, especially as the American student could be understood as a savior for this “foreign” culture) but if you can flow with the offbeat humor, the large cast of well-known-voices, and the stunning visuals created mostly through stop-motion-animation I think you’d find Isle of Dogs to be a wackily-amusing-diversion (with relevant commentary about governmental corruption, including its obsession with deporting “undesirables”).

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: In a fantasy version of Japan 20 years from now ruthless Mayor Kobayashi (voice of Kunichi Nomura) of fictional Megasaki City (he’s descended from a long line of cat-loving, dog-hating Kobayashis whose ancestor was defeated 10 centuries ago by a young warrior who then encouraged the domestication of his beloved canines) responds to an outbreak of dog flu (accompanied by snout fever) by banning all of these animals to nearby Trash Island (they’re carted out on a pulley system, then dropped onto the garbage).  In a symbolic gesture of “sacrifice” Kobayashi decrees the first victim of his edict will be Spots (Liev Schreiber), prized pet/guardian of nephew/ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) whose parents died in a train crash.  Determined to retrieve his dear-doggie-pal, 6 months later (by which time all local canines have been sent away), young Atari steals a small (barely functional) airplane which he crash lands on the putrid island in search of Spots but instead meets the somewhat-alpha-clan of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and their leader, Chief (Bryan Cranston), the only one who was previously a stray rather than a house pet (thereby having a distrust of humans but with inner-drive to re-inspire his companions when their spirits sag).  When they find a locked cage with a skeleton inside the assumption is Spots simply starved to death (a bit fast to deteriorate down to bones-level, but—hey!—this is a fantasy story rendered in a combination of stop-motion and digital animation with talking dogs so you have to grant a good bit of creative license), but that outcome’s called into question so the 6 of them (Chief eventually has a change of heart) set off to search other realms of these forlorn trash heaps in hopes of finding Spots, after fending off a team of humans and a vicious mechanical dog sent by the Mayor to retrieve Atari, as well as Chief getting additional encouragement to find Spots from an attractive purebred, Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson).

 Meanwhile, back on the mainland, foreign-exchange-student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig)—a pushy American (what else could she be?) from Cincinnati, OH—stirs up her fellow students, then the local public at large with intrepid-investigative-reporting about corruption in Kobayashi’s administration which reaches its height when scientist Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) and his assistant, Yoko Ono (Yoko Ono—Anderson’s open to doses of postmodern flair), have developed a cure for canine flu (along with a treatment for snout fever) but he’s poisoned by Kobayashi in order to honor his ancestors by keeping the dogs quarantined.  Tracy gets help from Yoko in procuring a sample of the virus antidote while Atari and the dogs continue their search for Spots with the wise aid of Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton), only to be confronted by Kobayashi’s thugs, aided by several of those mean mechanical mutts.  Rescue arrives in the form of Spots and his large pack of dogs, after which we learn through flashbacks that Chief (now bathed by Atari so his dingy darkness is now light-colored-fur) is actually Spots’ long-lost-brother, sent into the streets after an unintentional-yet-regrettable-family-incident, while Spots was released from his cage by the pack he now commands so it was another dog’s skeleton we saw earlier (Atari had the key for that cage, though, so I forget how it got transported back to the other end of the island).⇐

 Chief agrees to assume the duties of Atari’s guardian so Spots can stay with his impending family of pups by way of Peppermint (Kara Hayward) while Mayor Kobayashi’s just been re-elected by a manufactured landslide (ironically paralleling similar recent “triumphs” by the Presidents of Russia and Egypt in our world, even though this movie was long in preparation, presciently-prior to such current events) after which he intends to exterminate all of the Trash Island dogs; Tracy interrupts his victory broadcast with the reality of Watanabe’s canine flu cure, just as Atari, accompanied by legions of dogs (who’ve come back to the city on a cluster of barges), arrive to confirm her story.  A shamed Mayor Kobayashi undergoes an immediate moral awakening but his consistently-cruel-henchman, Major Domo (Akira Takayama), goes about the act of releasing the Island-wide-poison anyway, thwarted at the last minute by a hacker-friend of Tracy’s which turns the poison onto the island’s human invaders, killing them instead.  Still, both Atari and Spots are injured in the ensuing melee with Domo’s thugs, as Atari’s remaining kidney fails only to be saved by a donation from his uncle before the former Mayor’s taken away to jail (along with his retinue) for admitted crimes, with Spots assumed dead.  However, he’s merely in hiding underneath Kobayashi Manor enjoying a comfortable life with Peppermint and their offspring while Atari inherits the mayorship (and a romance with Tracy), allowing all of the now-healthy-dogs to return to the city.⇐

So What? Anderson admits this story occurs in a Japan of his imagination, inspired much more so by his love of elements of Japanese cinema (especially from the 1960s) than by anything much intended as historical or cultural accuracy.  This approach has garnered great praise from much of the North American critical establishment (reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes give it 92% positive responses, Metacritic responded with their usually-lower-but-in-this-case-still-very-supportive 81% average score; more details in the Related Links section far below), although Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times questions whether this movie’sa sincere act of homage, or a clueless failure of sensitivity? [Producing a form of] marginalisation, effectively reducing the hapless, unsuspecting people of Megasaki to foreigners in their own city.”  Part of Chang’s complaint comes from Anderson’s decision to present this movie as if everyone (except Tracy) is either speaking Japanese or dog, with most of the Japanese not shown in English subtitles (although the Mayor’s comments are translated into English by a reporter as his public events are broadcast [not clear why this would happen unless for some unexplained reason his appearances are seen by English-speaking-communities in Japan; of course, it’s really for the benefit of American movie audiences but’s somehow supposed to be part of the movie’s actual environment; yet, there can be no other rationale except target-audience-convenience for the dogs to be speaking in English—supposedly their barks are being translated—so, again, there’s a lot about the conceptualization here you just have to flow with if you wish to enjoy itor not, for those who find cultural-appropriation-problems with Anderson’s decisions]), so for viewers like me there’s a good bit being said that I can’t follow, although the actions on screen keep the narrative flowing in a most-easily-comprehendible-manner.

 But wait, it turns out this movie also works better for Chang (cited in U.K.’s The Telegraph) than he intended for his initial comments to be taken: "I wasn't offended; nor was I looking to be offended,he wrote. "There are enough valid reasons to be offended by art without anyone having to go actively looking for them. The piece is a mixed, measured appraisal. If readers want to turn it into a battle cry, that's their problem, not mine." ¶ He added: "My chief issue – the handling of language – feels like the result of a compromise, rather than blunt negligence or a desire to give offence... I sincerely hope you enjoy the movie, as I largely did, despite my reservations."  Further, Emily Yoshida, in Vulture, interviewed a few native or fluent Japanese speakers who didn’t find the Japanese dialogue to be a problem nor much of the depictions of the country and its culture, however fanciful they were intended (although a few aspects of Anderson's approach are a bit off-putting for these viewers).  That’s not the only problematical area, though, with this other one being more of a concern: the presentation of Tracy as a “white saviour” as noted by Steve Rose in The Guardian (another U.K. publication, thus the British spelling regarding Tracy’s role), in the context of other choices Anderson offers in this current work (as well as in his previous ones) that can be interpreted as insensitive at best or racist at worst depending on who is making such accusations.
 I can speak not at all to the Japanese cultural aspects of Isle of Dogs, having no direct connections with that long-established-country short of what I share with Andersonan awareness of some marvelous Japanese films, from 1950s Kurosawa classics to more contemporary marvels of anime-adventures (although I admit I was a bit taken aback by an explosion on Trash Island producing a mini-mushroom cloud with all the connotations such an image carries for that nation after WW II conflicts, but I’ve seen such irreverence in previous Anderson films so it wasn’t truly out of character).  However, regarding Tracy, are we actually supposed to see her as an outsider-Western-hero necessary to rouse docile “Orientals” into action or is she intended to be a parody of such as presented in an ongoing parade of Hollywood caricatures possibly most epitomized by Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985)?  That’s an ongoing problem with parody or satire: when it’s mistakenly taken literally it just becomes the offense it’s intended to denigrate as if the absurdity on screen is meant to be accepted as promotion by the filmmaker (novelist, cartoonist, painter, playwright, musician, etc.) rather than a ridicule of such stereotypes (without such an understanding I think it would be difficult for an audience to watch all the blatant character-exaggerations—as well as patently offensive language—in Blazing Saddles [Mel Brooks, 1974] without breaking out into the same type of riot within that movie that brings its supposed plot to an abrupt halt).  Maybe it’s just naiveté clouding my perception here, but I don’t see Tracy as an intentional White savior (my spelling) on Anderson’s part; rather I think she’s intended to poke fun at the type of intrusive American who assumes she (he) knows best about determining the fate of other cultures (God knows we’ve been doing it in our own hemisphere and abroad for decades), although in this case—along with Atari and the dog army—she does prove to be crucially helpful in exposing the crimes of Mayor Kobayashi but even her intervention couldn’t have prevented ultimate disaster for Megasaki City’s canine population had it not been for the actions of her hacker friend.
 Taking all of the above into account, I think there’s a lot to like about this crazy movie from the complexity of the stop-motion animation* to the vast array of voice talent (including Frances McDormand [the TV broadcast interpreter], Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Courtney B. Vance [the movie’s occasional narrator], Roman Coppola, and Anjelica Huston in addition to the ones already noted)—further, for all I know the Japanese voices are just as noteworthy as these American ones, which might be an additional draw for this movie when shown in Asia, unless audiences there will, in fact, have the same objections about cultural appropriations as some Stateside critics do, but I’m guessing younger viewers there—likely the backbone of box-office-revenues, just as they are here—will find Anderson’s pastiche of well-worn-Japanese-depictions and references to be as amusing as I do when American culture is shamelessly used for easy recognition as seems to be the case (I haven’t seen it yet) with an abundance of 1980s references in Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg).
*Here’s a short video (2:53) with director-screenwriter Anderson giving you an anatomy of a scene, explaining how some of his imagery’s created through the visual magic of stop-motion-animation.

Bottom Line Final Comments: As has been the case in recent weeks other activities (opening of baseball season—go Oakland Athletics! [I’ve gone myself to one game already, but they lost, damn it! {no surprise; I just hope they make it out of the cellar this year}]—Easter with the in-laws, etc.) have left me with time only to attend one current cinematic offering so I’m glad it was Isle of Dogs (I’m also intrigued by Ready Player One though we’ll just have to see how that works out in upcoming days; in the meantime Ready …’s not hurting for income despite my absence, with a hearty opening worldwide debut of $186.5 million [almost $60 million from domestic—U.S.-Canada—venues]), which I didn’t have any intercultural problems with, but I’m not of any East Asian descent (one of the few areas of the world my somewhat-inconclusive-DNA tests have yet to assign me to, but maybe I should take a 5th one just to see if I can claim another continent) so I didn’t find anything offensive about it, although had I been Atari I might have had qualms about how much Tracy looks like Little Orphan Annie before cozying up to her, however admirable her quests for justice may be. (OK, you tightly-curled-whitish-blonds, fire up those nasty emails, even as my marvelous wife, Nina, had such a hairdo before I met her [except hers was red—well, it was white, she tells me, for a bit when her hairdresser completely screwed up, then had to dye it red, which then ran in the rain so she ended up with a shade of orange that would have made Ronald McDonald proud] so maybe I’d have found it more attractive on a less-strident-personality than Tracy—although I’m not sorry Nina cut most of hers completely off by the time we met [shallow on my part, I know, but there’s something about Tracy’s appearance that’s as off-putting to me as her presence is to some … Dogs’ critics, no matter how crucial she is for the ultimate triumph of this plot].*)  Tracy aside, … Dogs hasn’t been terribly attractive to audiences just yet with a mere $8.8 million in worldwide income ($6.4 million domestically) after 2 weeks in release, but it’s just now expanded to 165 domestic theaters so we’ll see if anything changes if its reach continues to grow.

*Please don’t find my comments as a coy denigration of Afro hairstyles on Black people, a wholly different lookvery appropriate and attractivebut to me not that transferable to White scalps.  (Maybe Anderson had such ideas in mind also, maybe he thought the hair made Tracy more distinctive in context, maybe I’m the only one who gives a rat’s ass about what Tracy looks like, maybe Anderson and I should just go off to Japan for awhile before filming or writing anything else.)

 Assuming you wouldn’t find anything terribly distracting about Anderson’s rendition of Japan or the inability to learn much from some of the non-translated-dialogue (which might help those adverse to subtitles to better appreciate such textual enhancements), I think you’d be amused by Isle of Dogs' subtle use of humor, varied personalities in its many human and canine characters (2,200 puppets were used, some as different sizes of the same characters), marvelous detail in the carefully-crafted-sets (250 of them), all put into a marvelous flow of action via the meticulous stop-motion-animation-process, its unique appearance falling somewhere between photography and computer-generated-animation (which has now virtually replaced hand-drawn-cel-animation except in “boutique” applications).  Yet, there’s an underlying seriousness about it also, speaking directly (however inadvertently) to the current worldwide crisis about immigration from ravaged lands to more prosperous ones accompanied by various levels of xenophobic-hostility toward such population shifts.  Therefore, to conclude this review with my usual Musical Metaphor for what’s been previously presented I’ll go with an idea that came to mind while watching … Dogs, Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” about a fatal crash of a U.S. Immigration Service airplane at Los Gatos Canyon near Coalinga, Fresno County, CA on January 28, 1948 killing the 4 U.S. crew members and the 28 “bracero” laborers (in the U.S. under a WW II-era agreement with Mexico to bring in field workers during our original labor shortage [a program continued until 1964], then send them home when certain crops were done for the season even as their contracts ran out).

 Guthrie lived in NYC at the time, was appalled that the New York Times article about the crash didn’t list who any of the Mexicans were who died, simply referred to them as “deportees” implying they were illegals being sent back across the border (sound familiar, Mr. Trump?), so he supplied a few likely names as he wrote a poem about the plight of poor people recruited by U.S. farmers for vital work even as they were shunned about any other aspect of their existence (“My father’s own father, he waded that river, They took all the money he made in his life; My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees, And they rode the truck till they took down and died.  Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted, Our work contract’s out and we have to move on; Six hundred miles to that Mexican border, They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.  We died in your hills, we died in your deserts, We died in your valleys and died on your plains. We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes, Both sides of the river, we died just the same.”), music added later by Martin Hoffman.  In that Pete Seeger was the first to become notable for singing this song I’ll give you his version at (from the 1968 album Pete Seeger Sings Woody Guthrie) but you might also be interested in Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, performing it at Farm Aid 2000 in Bristow, Virginia (if you want more options you can just go to YouTube to find many other musicians’ takes on this famous editorial-song).  I realize the Isle of Dogs movie ends on a much more upbeat note than does Guthrie's “Deportee …”, but there’s a serious undertone as well to this movie’s narrative about repressive governments, manipulated elections, the power of the press to hold unscrupulous politicians to account, and the need to respect the inner-beauty of anyone who happens to be consigned to society’s dustbin just because he (or she) might look mangy on the outside, act hesitant to cooperate with societal expectations, because you'll never know what someone else has been through unless you’ve lived it for yourself.
SHORT TAKES (truly short for a change; please don't go into shock)
 One of the many pleasures of getting together with at least some members of Nina’s far-flung-family on holidays is staying overnight with my brother-in-law who has a magnificent home theater (who needs a dining room?), now further upgraded with a 4K JVC projector which gave us a chance to finally see (after rejecting the opportunity for months, generally in favor of more esoteric fare) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasden, 2017)—acknowledging we're some of the few on the planet who haven’t yet seen this sequel to the original Jumanji (Joe Johnson, 1995), where Robin Williams and others mostly released various crises into our world rather than being sucked into the game as in this new version (even though it’s still in its first run after 15 weeks, now having piled up about $946 million worldwide [about $402.9 of that from domestic theaters, making it #4 domestically for 2017 with a possibility of creeping up past Wonder Woman’s #3 position with its 412.6 million domestic dollars, $821.8 million worldwide]).  While this new version’s nothing but a fun adventure romp (with the effective casting of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan as teenagers turned into avatars of game characters desperately needing to preserve their lives in a most-hostile-environment) it was a pleasure to watch on what was certainly a big screen for a small room (with excellent surround sound), especially on a full (wine-enhanced) stomach (if this were an actual review I’d probably say 3 of 5 stars but that’s not part of the official, canonical Summary of Two Guys Reviews below in the Related Links section).  If you happen to still be in the minority who haven’t seen this current Jumanji … you still have a little time to do so as it remains in 783 theaters (but soon disappearing, I’ll bet) or take the DVD/download route.  If you’d like to know a bit more about it (beyond its RT status of 76% positive reviews, MC 58% average score), you could visit the official site and/or see this extended trailer (which could replace watching the full 2 hours if you prefer).  Maybe next time we meet I’ll have gone more mainstream again with Ready Player One or maybe I’ll still be coming at you from left field (hoping to make fewer errors out there than the Oakland A’s have been doing of late); please come back to find out.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about Isle of Dogs: (begins with 5:13 video "cast interview" of the primary "dogs" talking about their “character” personalities [voiced by their human counterparts]) (27:36 interviews with producer Jeremy Dawson, co-screenwriter Jason Schwartzman, actors Courtney B. Vance, Akira Ito, Koyu Rankin, Jeff Goldblum, and director Wes Anderson)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 59,644; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:


  1. zmovies - A timely political story. A very bad guy is in charge. He needs a scapegoat. Dogs are it. The dogs are all sent away to a kind of concentration camp. The dogs are just regular people-like dogs. They do need outside assistance. A good guy helps the dogs organize and overcome their oppressors and their human-like failings. It is beautifully told with characters and landscapes drawn from Japanese historical art style. The cast and the vivid landscapes are fabulous to see. And it is all believable.
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    1. Hi Unknown, Sorry I’ve been so long in getting your comment published and replying to it, but there was some kind of glitch so I wasn’t even notified you’d sent it in. In the future, I’ll go into my Blogspot mailbox once a week to make sure I’m aware of any submitted comments. You seem to have liked Isle of Dogs a good bit more than me, but I did find it generally enjoyable. Thanks for your comment. Ken Burke