Movie reviews: 'Isle of Dogs' cinematic, inventive and unforgettable
This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows the character Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston in a scene from "Isle of Dogs." (Fox Searchlight via AP)
Published Friday, March 23, 2018 5:16AM EDT
ISLE OF DOGS: 4 ½ STARS
Ever wondered what would happen if stop motion master Ray Harryhausen and Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa went to see “Benji” and then decided to make a movie? With the release of “Isle of Dogs” Wes Anderson, director of live action wonders like “Rushmore” and “Moonrise Kingdom” and the stop motion hit “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” offers up an idea of what that might have been like.
Once again working in stop motion, Anderson creates a fictional world, the Japanese city of Megasaki, twenty years from now. An epidemic of dog flu prompts the fear mongering Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) to forewarn that snout fever is about to spread to humans and order all dogs deported to a toxic wasteland called Trash Island.
Dog-zero is Spots (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the beloved pet of the mayor’s orphaned ward 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin). When he is deported, the boy makes the dangerous journey across the river in a prop plane to look for his dog. With the help of newfound mongrel pals, including the good-natured Rex (Edward Norton), former baseball mascot Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), the gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Chief (Bryan Cranston) and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Atari takes on the corrupt government.
“Isle of Dogs” is a fairy tale with a bite. Anderson, one of the most distinctive directors working today (or any day for that matter), brings a child-like wonder and unfettered imagination to bring this boy-and-his-dog story to vivid life. Gorgeous, soulful stop motion animation and Anderson’s trademarked banter combined with a timely story of deportation and exile makes for an unforgettable film.
The usual complaints about Anderson’s work, that it’s too detailed, too eccentric, will be levelled at this movie but I’d argue it is his obsessiveness that brings the creative magic. Subplots and flashbacks take the viewer on a wild journey but Anderson’s attention to every element, visual and narrative, guarantees the rambunctious story never loses itself in its own elaborate style.
There jokes throughout—even the title is a playful take on “I love dogs”—but just as important are the messages of tolerance. You will not see another film like “Isle of Dogs” this year. So effortlessly cinematic and inventive, it’s best in show.
UNSANE: 4 STARS
Steven Soderbergh's new movie asks a simple question, Is Sawyer Valentini’s greatest fear real or a delusion? Starring Claire Foy and Jay Pharoah, it takes the legendary director back to basics. Shot entirely with an iPhone camera, it only cost $1.2 million to make.
Foy plays Valentini, a businesswoman with an unhappy life. After a bad one-night stand leads to a panic attack, she consults a head-shrinker at a facility called Highland Creek Behavioural Health Facility. In their meeting she divulges something that has been plaguing her, a former stalker. Even though she moved 450 miles away he still haunts her mind. “Rationally I know this is my imagination, but I’m alone in a big city and I never feel safe,” she says, “not for one minute.” Tricked into committing herself—“There’s some more forms you need to fill out, it’s just routine”—she is thrust into a house of horrors, surrounded by troubled patients—like the belligerent Violet (Juno Temple)—many, like her, who are there against their will. Her pleas for release fall on deaf ears. Worse, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard) works in the psychiatric ward as an orderly. Or does he? “This man, he’s followed me all the way here from Boston. I’m calling the cops and I want him arrested!”
“Unsane” is a nightmare that stems from not reading the fine print. “They got meds,” says fellow inmate Nate (a terrific Jay Pharoah). “You got insurance. You talk, they find a way to get you committed and you stay as long as your insurance will pay. When they stop paying, you’re cured!” Sawyer’s situation is a political comment on insurance scams and locking up people for profit. It’s a #MeToo thriller—no one believes her stories of stalking—but really, at its heart, “Unsane” is a Gothic b-movie that owes a debt to “The Snakepit” and “Shock Corridor” with some “Gaslight” thrown in for good measure. It’s an examination of women’s voices not being heard of a crumbling medical infrastructure but mostly it’s about Sawyer’s world falling apart and her frustration at not being able to do diddly-squat to put it back together.
Foy is in almost every frame, bringing a frail yet steely presence to the role. She is more than a damsel in distress. By turning charming, cunning, ruthless and jittery, she’s a character designed to keep us guessing. Does she belong in the facility or not? “The Queen” star navigates Sawyer’s personality shifts, zigging and zagging, keeping the audience tantalizingly in the dark as to the truth of her mental state.
“Unsane” has a few clunky moments that detract from the overall feeling of paranoia Soderbergh builds throughout. Beautifully composed and edited “Unsane” still looks like it was shot on an iPhone. Often blown out or bathed in inky blacks it’s an aesthetic we’ve become used to from Instagram and social media videos and it brings and naturalism to the surreal story.
“Unsane” may be low tech but it’s not amateurish. Soderberg expertly builds tension to the point where Sawyer’s frustration is palpable.
FLOWER: 2 ½ STARS
“Flower” is a coming of age story in reverse. When we first meet the adolescent main character Erica (Zoey Deutch) she is already jaded by life. Her father is in jail and she is involved in a very dubious plan to earn his bail money. Over the course of time, she regains her innocence, flip flopping the usual teen movie formula.
Erica lives with her mom (Kathryn Hahn) and the latest of mom’s new boyfriends-turned-fiancées (Tim Heidecker) in the San Fernando Valley. A hellraiser, Erica and her pals Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) target older men to blackmail. When she has enough cash she hopes to buy dad his freedom. Her rebel-with-a-cause life is turned upside down by the arrival of Luke (Joey Morgan), her troubled soon-to-be stepbrother. Luke brings with him a dark secret that could change everything in Erica’s life for better and for worse.
No spoilers here.
The beauty of “Flower” is less in its wonky storyline and more in its effervescent performances. The down ‘n dirty indie—it was shot in just 16 days by Henry “The Fonz” Winkler’s son Max—focuses on Erica’s journey which rests comfortably in Deutch’s capable arms. The actress, best known for turns in “Before I Fall” and “Why Him?” navigates the film’s uneven tonality, hurtling over its implicit quirkiness to find the qualities that make us feel for Erica. Do we care about Erica the blackmailer? Not particularly. But we can care about why she resorts to blackmail and that’s where Deutch shines.
“Flower” is all over the place. In its quest to be unconventional it covers a lot of ground. It’s part quirky family drama, part rebellious teen comedy and even part “Bonnie and Clyde” but Deutch and cast, including Morgan as sad sack Luke and the always fantastic Hahn, breathe life into it.