Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

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Power Rangers (2017)

I cried during a Power Rangers movie. I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of or embarrassed by, but it’s true regardless. The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Their gradually-earned cohesion as a team of superheroes who sport what look like full-body bike helmets & drive robo-dinos through the streets of their home town looks an awful lot like nearly every generic action thriller released in the wake of the ongoing MCU & Transformers franchises, but it means so much more here than it does in the similar, but lesser work of its contemporaries. Just thinking about the film’s, “Together we are more” tagline gets me a little emotional. The only way you can earn that kind of genuine outsiders-vs.-the-world pathos is by investing real time & genuine effort in character work before your teen heroes suit up & kick alien ass, which is exactly what makes Power Rangers such an overwhelming success.

Now that I’ve gotten that confession about my idiotic blubbering out of the way, it’s time to admit that this is still a deeply silly film adapted from even sillier source material. It takes a long while before the audience gets to see fully-costumed Power Rangers battling their sworn enemy Rita Repulsa and her rock monster army of “puddies,” but the film announces the silliness at its core right out the gate. The very first scene in Power Rangers involves a prank that escalates to one teen jerking off a bull and another crashing into several cop cars. Off-handed references to cramming crayons into assholes & masturbating in the shower similarly cut through the heavy-handed teen drama, despite its team-building training montages and its campfire confessions about what’s been getting the poor lot down. From there, Power Rangers embarks on a daring journey of cobbling together several genre-disparate films from cinema past: The Breakfast Club (where a group of alienated teens on weekend detention struggle to relate to peers outside their respective social circles), Explorers (where kids stumble into an out-of-this-world adventure after discovering a real-life space ship), Chronicle (I have no idea what that one’s about; it just sounds right), and so on. Just about the only movie Power Rangers doesn’t resemble in some way is the 1995 feature Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which arrived during a very specific era of ooze-obsessed children’s media. Instead of that film’s purple slime, you have to settle for a little post-Dark Knight grim & grime, but the 2017 version does find its fair share of heightened camp within its few recognizable actors: Elizabeth Banks as a drag routine version of Suicide Squad‘s The Enchantress, Bill Hader as a pot-bellied robot named Alpha 5, and Bryan Cranston as an all-knowing, floating alien head named Zordon (not to be confused with Zardoz), who more than vaguely resembles the Engineer aliens from Prometheus. And by the time the whole thing reveals itself to be a feature-length ad for Krispy Kreme donuts, the emotional resonance of its character-driven build-up is an absurd thing to have to reconcile with its campier tendencies.

The machinations necessary to set the cookie cutter plot in motion aren’t all that interesting to recount. Five teens gather at an operational gold mine for various personal reasons, discover color-coded Infinity Stones/Coins, board a buried space ship, and wind up staging a battle against a 65 million year old mummified alien and her gigantic, liquid gold prometheus. It’s all simple enough. Much like how Lucas Black spent the entirety of Tokyo Drift searching inside himself for the ability to drive sideways, these teens come together to look inside themselves for the ability to “morph” into their inner Power Rangers & form Voltron to defeat the evil, donut-eating space alien. If I were a little more academic and a lot more frivolous I’m sure I could mount an argument about how the team of horny teens’ initial failure to morph is metaphorically related to their frustrated inability to achieve orgasm. This subtext almost becomes explicit in a transition where the Yellow Ranger’s campfire confession of her closeted queer identity is immediately followed by Rita Repulsa appearing under her sheets and roughing her up in her bedroom. The truth is, however, that the gang’s transformation into an ancient, transferable line of intergalactic superheroes isn’t nearly as well thought-out or thematically rich as the various revelations of their troubled home lives, nor does it need to be. Beating up giant golden monsters in dinosaur-shaped mech suits is rad enough on its own not to require any such justification. This is a superhero origin story about a group of teens saving the world by learning to perform a communal, pro wrestling-style suplex on a giant space alien baddy. How much more plot do you really need?

I’m of two minds about the 2017 Power Rangers movie. On the one hand, I was totally on the hook for its emotional character work where isolated teens console each other with lines like, “You did an awful thing. That does not make you an awful person,” and discover a newfound sense of community among themselves. At the same time, I was tickled stupid by its robo-dino battles, donut-flavored ad placement, thrash metal Tai Chi, and self-deflating meta humor, like when Hader’s pudgy robot declares, “Different colors, different kids, different color kids!” Overall, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. In the long run, it’ll likely lead to nothing more than a handful of forgettable, diminishing returns sequels. I still bought right into what it was selling, though, just like I greedily ate up every other recent reboot of similar bullshit media I loved as a kid: Ghostbusters, GoosebumpsTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. Maybe that makes me a sucker & a rube, but this rube had a good laugh and a good cry at a kids’ movie this past weekend, which is more than anyone should have been able to ask for out of a property this old & this inane.

-Brandon Ledet