Isle of Dogs

Year: 2018
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Koyu Rankin.

WRITTEN BY RHYS JONES

Wes Anderson’s 9th directorial venture, and his 2nd stop-motion feature, ticks all the boxes of what you’ve come to expect from the extremely unique Texan. You have your perfectly symmetrical shots, you have your whip pans, you have your lateral tracking shots, you have your borderline pretentious dialogue, and you have a cast to end all casts. The cast list above isn’t even half of the voices you hear in ‘Isle of Dogs’, and every character, in true Anderson style, leaves an impression in one way or another.

‘Isle of Dogs’ is set in a dystopian future Japan in which canine flu has infected every dog in the city and threaten to cross the species barrier and infect humans. As such, the dictatorial Mayor Kobayashi has banished every dog to Trash Island, including his ward Atari’s (Rankin) dog, Spots (Schreiber), and Atari takes it upon himself to fly to Trash Island to find and rescue Spots. On the island, he meets a ragtag group of dogs, lead by Bryan Cranston’s Chief, who offer to help Atari find Spots.

Immediately, the film’s stop-motion animation impresses you. In a superb opening credits sequence to the sound of Taiko drumming, as scored by recent Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, you see 3 drummers and the camera whip panning around them, and you realise that every single drum beat was stop-motion. Every time the drumsticks hit the drum, you know a human placed them there. The film is filled to the brim of astonishing animation that borders on arrogance, but stays just the right side of it to be impressive. There is a 2-minute sequence of sushi being sliced and diced, just because they can. Honestly, Isle of Dogs is an amazing feat of animation.

Adding to the stellar animation, the voice cast doesn’t disappoint. Cranston’s voice is impressive in any environment, but his gravitas adds to Chief’s highly defensive nature and proves to be a brilliant leading dog. In his group, Edward Norton’s Rex is the democratic voice of reason, Bill Murray’s Boss is the childlike, enthusiastic dog who at one point fully breaks the fourth wall in a moment of amazement, Jeff Goldblum’s Duke is the dog who, for the ‘Game of Thrones’ fans, is this film’s version of Varys as no rumour or bit of news escapes him, and finally Bob Balaban’s King follows orders as he is told, and is a fervent supporter of Rex, but sadly Balaban is relegated to a bit-part player as he simply doesn’t stand out against the vocal stylings of Cranston, Norton, Murray, and Goldblum.

This main group is the heart of the film, each of them has honestly tragic backstories of where they came from back in Japan, several of them missing the home comforts of dog soap and eating anything other than leftover trash dumped on the island. Anderson and company do a fantastic job on the island of merely showing you how things work without explicitly telling you what you need to know. There is a hierarchy in place – there are areas of the island dedicated to certain clans of dogs, there are rumours of cannibalism on the island, and so on. ‘Isle of Dogs’ does a brilliant job of fleshing out the canine world having been relegated to living in squalor.

It is a shame, though, that the other parts of the film, following Greta Gerwig’s Tracy Walker, a foreign exchange student fighting to bring the dogs back from Trash Island as she attempts to convince the city of a possible cure, aren’t so endearing or interesting. The impressive animation remains, but there is an over-reliance on narration and telling us exactly what’s happening. At the beginning of the film, we are told that the dogs’ barks have been translated into English and the Japanese characters all speak in their native language, crucially without subtitles, and the only translation into English comes through an in-film translator, voiced by Frances McDormand. I noticed this the most in the first third of the film; there is so much information to be given to us before we can get to the main story that it becomes overwhelming. McDormand delivers her tremendously long monologues reliably brilliantly as she translates speeches, but this becomes tiresome as the film progresses. There are sequences of the film where there isn’t any translation and we have to interpret what’s being said through visuals and body language. These scenes are superb as they manage to convey all the key information we need as an audience without explicitly telling us, and it forces us to engage with the film, it’s just a shame these weren’t more common.

‘Isle of Dogs’, by and large, is very good. It’s constantly impressive with its animation and its impeccable set design, and there are sections of the film that rank up there with some of the best I’ve seen this year, mainly when the dogs are on screen. As the film progresses, the film focuses more on Chief and Atari’s building relationship and unfortunately forgets about Rex, King, Duke, and Boss which does remove my favourite part of the film which was the relationship and banter among the dogs.

‘Isle of Dogs’ stumbles occasionally when the dogs aren’t on screen, but this doesn’t
diminish the film as an impressive achievement in animation. Most importantly, ‘Isle of ‘Dogs is better than ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’  in my opinion. Yes, I went there.

RHYS’ RATING: 7.8/10

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Year: 2018
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes.

Written by Corey Hughes

British-Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh returns to the director seat in emphatic fashion with ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, his third feature film that follows the success of ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Seven Psychopaths’, a film that alludes to the conflicts of hatred versus empathy, and tolerance versus change. This, in short, is a triumphant outing for McDonagh, and is completely deserving of the tremendous buzz that it has been receiving during this competitive awards season.

7 months after the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, Mildred Hayes, played ruthlessly by Frances McDormand, challenges the local police authority when they fail to find a single culprit responsible for the attack. ‘Raped while dying. And still no arrests? How come, chief Willoughby?’ The three billboards ask a simple question: who is responsible for the death of Mildred Haye’s daughter?

Whilst the film seeks to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of Angela Hayes, this is not a mystery per se. Instead, this is a courageous tale of one mother’s dedication in seeking justice for her daughter, a justice not given to her by the local police department. With a few ‘fuck’ and ‘c**ts’ thrown in. (Yes, I censored myself. I’m not an animal.) This trademark use of explosive, vulgar writing is something that acclaimed writer and director Martin McDonagh is renowned for, and he holds no punches this time ‘round either. McDonagh’s prowess as both a playwright and a cinematic dramatist has resulted in a mesmerising fusion of drama and comedy; a film that is brimming with moments of laughter and melancholy, and a mosaic of compelling characters.

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At the helm of McDonagh’s piece is Frances McDormand, an actor not known for leading the screen, but more so for her supporting contributions, although that wouldn’t seem the case here. Her portrayal of the tortured Mildred Hayes is a fascinating one: she is not a good person, nor is she a particularly good mother, but what she lacks in manners she makes up for in grit, determination and complete badassery. A mother of a grief-struck son (Lucas Hedges) and a divorcee from an abusive husband (John Hawke), Hayes appears to be in constant battle with herself and those that surround her. Yet despite her fighting, unforgiving nature, she is not immune to emotion – she’s simply a mother seeking justice for her daughter. Whenever she breaks down there is a real sense of devastation, an accomplishment that must be applied to the remarkable talent of McDormand who is able to simultaneously make one laugh or cry. This is simply the perfect role for McDormand, who fits the role like a tightly worn bandana.

As for the rest of the cast, there’s a lot of excitement to be had. Whether it’s Woody Harrelson as the charismatic chief of police and loving father, or Lucas Hedges as the tormented son (a role not too distant from his performance in ‘Manchester by the Sea’), ‘Three Billboards is bursting with compelling characters; all of which given the necessary depth to flourish alongside McDormand’s lead. Yet I feel extra credit needs to be given to the immensely underrated Sam Rockwell, who this time ‘round plays an inexcusably monstrous police officer who embodies the societal anxiety of police brutality and racial prejudice that is far too prevalent in today’s current climate. Yet this totally unsympathetic character is graced with the most compelling arc within the movie, which to some may be an unforgivable decision made by McDonagh. Though, for me, this change in character is justified, a transition that is fuelled by his incompetence as an officer of the law, and by his understandable castigation from his local community. Rockwell captures this sense of divisiveness with ease, by bringing to the fore what could be a career-best performance.

At the heart of it all, McDonagh’s film is a hilarious, raunchy and poignant story of a mother’s unrelenting desire for justice. But more so, it is an intriguing psychological analysis of one’s response to tragedy, which in this case, is one fuelled by anarchic rage.

This is an utterly fantastic piece of work by McDonagh.

Corey’s Rating: 9.5 / 10