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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: In our previous installment, we talked about how Marvel managed to keep itself afloat in dark financial times by licensing its properties to other companies across different media platforms, which led to many Marvel characters being distributed to different film studios. This was a move that saved the company while causing other issues down the line, but even when playing from a disadvantage, Marvel’s lawyers knew how to build in failsafes. After the mixed box office reception to Ang Lee’s meditative but pretentious and reviled 2003 film Hulk, Universal Pictures failed to produce a sequel within the appropriate timeframe required to retain the rights to the character (which, as you may recall from Brandon’s Fantastic Four review, was the reason Roger Corman’s notorious FF film exists). The rights to the character reverted to Marvel, with Universal merely distributing. Writer Zak Penn, who had written a previous Hulk treatment script ten years before, was brought on to write the first draft of the script for The Incredible Hulk, which was initially planned as a sequel to Ang Lee’s film. The 2006 and 2007 trade papers referred to the film as such and stated that the character of Bruce Banner had been recast with Ed Norton, while heavily implying that everyone else would reprise their roles. The script Penn turned in was designed to begin welding together the larger interfilm universe, which means it was very nearly the case that the Lee Hulk was technically the first MCU film.

Ultimately, this bullet was dodged when Marvel eschewed the sequel nature of the project and instead chose to treat this as the MCU’s introduction to the Hulk. There are still some parts of the final draft that are obviously left over from earlier versions (General Ross at one point states, for instance, that Banner has been on the run for five years—the same length of time between the Lee film and this one). Gone are the melodramatic contemplations of Lee’s film; gone too are most of the elements of the Hulk’s origins, replaced with a montage sequence played over the opening credits that encapsulates how Banner and the Hulk came to exist and borrowing extensively from the imagery of the 1970s Incredible Hulk TV series.

Norton himself performed an overhaul on the script, and the reportage and history of what happened next are contentious. Some articles printed at the time seemed to state that Norton had edited the script with the studio’s blessing, and he claimed to have edited it so extensively as to deserve a writing credit. To this day it’s not entirely clear why he went this far (although the potential to collect royalties as both an actor and a writer certainly makes it worth an attempt), but there was hostility behind the scenes, with Penn upset that Norton was claiming he “wrote” the script and the WGA having to get involved, ultimately siding with Penn. Although Norton isn’t named for this contribution in the film’s actual credit reel, the publicity surrounding the issue made it a moot point, and the fact that Marvel had recast the Hulk yet again by his next appearance in 2011 does strongly imply that Norton might have been considered a problem, even forgetting that he already has a reputation for being difficult to work with. Still, the new and improved Incredible Hulk was well-received in its day, with most criticism comparing it to the previous film and praising its improvements. But, would and can it be appreciated now, as a film so distanced from the failures of its predecessor that it can’t simply be judged as being better than it? Can it be enjoyed as a solo film, divorced from its context for fans of the MCU and Marvel Comics in general?

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twostar

Brandon: Okay, I have so many questions about just what in the living fuck is going on in Not-Ang-Lee’s Hulk movie, but I guess the most pressing one is about the film’s quality. Is it a hot mess, a hopelessly mediocre bore, or a mixed bag floating somewhere between either extreme? Is it possible that it could be all three?

Even having just watched The Incredible Hulk for the first time, I have no idea where to land on a solid assessment, which isn’t a good sign in terms of the film’s overall quality. It’s at least pretty easy to point out what doesn’t work here. The casting is all wrong, first off.  Any “Hey that’s not Ed Norton!” awkwardness that must’ve cropped up when Hulk reappeared in the first Avengers film was well worth the transition into Mark Ruffalo’s reign as the Angry Green Giant. Norton is far from the only miscast role (any movie where Liv Tyler is more than a supporting player raises an instant red flag for me), but because he plays the titular beast, his presence is a huge drag on the film. I genuinely enjoy Norton as an actor & he’s engaging enough in Bruce Banner form, but his CGI Hulk incarnation feels entirely removed, like it couldn’t possibly be the same person as Banner. That’s not an effect you want in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde situation. Another easily recognizable flaw is the film’s CGI itself, which is so excessive, empty, and flat that I can’t believe the Marvel folks (successfully) gambled to bring the character back in The Avengers. And that’s not even to mention some leftover late 90s/early 00s visual cheese (including a Matrix-like view into the Internet) that could’ve been lifted from such shitfests as Swordfish or XXX or, hell, the also seemingly-outdated Iron Man from the very same year. At some point the MCU became the cutting edge in superhero cinema (especially considering how the still on-going, seemingly endless parade of grim Dark Knight knockoffs choose to dwell in the past) but in 2008 it felt at least five years behind the times.

But, you know what? Complaining about comic book movies on the Internet is such a cliché at this point that I fell the urge at this point to mention that 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is far from a total wash. At the very least I appreciated that it sidestepped a by-the-numbers origin story narrative (perhaps in an attempt to learn from Ang Lee’s mistakes) & relegated Bruce Banner’s “gamma poisoning” past to a quick Hulk Cam montage during the opening credits. The movie also seemed to be well aware of how flat & false its CGI looked, making conscious efforts to hide its Hulking Out transformations in the shadows, the way an old school monster movie would. There are also some spare weird ideas here or there that make the journey almost-worthwhile (the blood gallery, a blood-contaminated bottle of not-Surge, and Tim Roth’s rival Hulk monstrosity Abomination come to mind), as well as some decent, humorous irreverence, like when Banner poorly translates his infamous catchphrase to “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.” I’d be a total liar, though, if I didn’t admit that my favorite moment of the whole film was Lou Ferrigno’s featured cameo as a nameless security guard. It’s a sublimely silly moment in a movie that could’ve used more of them. My picture of the writer’s room for The Incredible Hulk is Michael Bluth urging his son George Michael to “keep your head down & power through.” For all of its occasional virtues, the film often feels hopelessly dutiful, necessary to further the MCU narrative, but never establishing its own individual purpose.

In the end, I get the sense that The Incredible Hulk is a mostly forgettable entry on the MCU landscape. Mark Ruffalo’s re-casting of the role was honestly a godsend for the franchise. Norton is a gifted actor, but he was entirely wrong for the role, a feeling that’s only reaffirmed by my giddiness over seeing Lou Ferrigno’s appearance, since Ferrigno is The Hulk. Still, the film’s not quite bad enough to be outright hate-worthy like the dad rock soundtracked, wealthy D-bag fantasy fulfilment of Iron Man. If nothing else,  The Incredible Hulk is a difficult film to pin down. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t fully dismiss it.

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three star

Boomer: I hadn’t seen The Incredible Hulk since it first came to DVD over half a decade ago. During the intermittent times that I happened to have cable, FX never had quite the hard-on for re-running this film that it did for the first two Iron Man flicks and, about a year ago, Captain America and Thor, although I do remember a time when it felt like the Lee Hulk aired at least twice a week. As a result, I have more memories of watching that picture than this one. The 2003 film is in many ways a very flawed enterprise, although within the past year the internet at large has noted that it might be worth reappraisal; I’m not sure that I agree, as the film is almost inarguably a failure, but I also appreciate that the things that it attempted and failed at were weighty and introspective. It stands out because it tried to be an exploration of too many ideas: mad science experimentation, the lingering traumas of child abuse, military dominance, the interconnectedness and fragility of the ecosystem, and the duality of how two lovers exist within their relationships to and with their respective fathers, to name a few. Then, Lee paired those concepts with bizarre cinematic experiments like transitions and multi-angle shots inspired by the paneled nature of the comics page. It’s an attempt to fuse a superhero narrative with art film composition, but the demands of those two disparate approaches to film as a medium ended up making a muddled mess of ideas.

So, of course Incredible Hulk was more well-liked, although its concepts are smaller in their successes than Hulk was in its failures. Even at the time, it was noteworthy for its starpower, the one-two punch of Norton and Robert Downey Jr. both appearing in superhero movies in the same year going a long way to legitimize the growing MCU and the exponential growth of comic adaptations as a genre, paving the way for a decade that has seen both The Walking Dead and Jonah Hex brought to life. Of course, getting the star of such award-attracting fare as American History X and The 25th Hour was a good idea—that backfired on both sides of the camera. Norton intentionally plays up Banner’s social awkwardness and makes him seem like much more of a weirdo, imbuing the character with a lot of traits that make the performance seem overthought and out of place rather than organic. On the one hand, I want to praise the film for not attempting to play up Norton’s Banner as a hunky scientist and instead treat him as the kind of average-looking, highly-intelligent guy who spent most of his adolescence and adulthood in a lab. On the other hand, the film still expects us to buy that this kinda nerdy biologist had an intensely loving and powerful relationship with Betty Ross. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that I have difficulty accepting that Betty and Bruce would fall in love with each other, or that there’s anything unbelievable about them having had a relationship. I’m merely saying that I have a hard time buying that the relationship between them could be so sweeping, with him having a passion for her that fuels his desire to find a cure, even after five years with no contact.

This isn’t helped by the fact that Norton and Liv Tyler have no real chemistry either. The under-baked Betty as she existed on paper would seem incompletely conceptualized even if she weren’t acting as a foil for Norton’s overwrought Banner character, seeing as so much of her role is to be observed through a gauzy lens while in the path of destruction and let her hair blow in the wind. There’s a dissonance in the way that she and Norton approach the material and that gives neither anything to play off of in their intimate scenes; if they don’t seem to be passionate about one another, it’s difficult to accept that Betty would just leave the new relationship that she’s in and take back up with Banner as soon as he reappears after such a long period of time with no interaction. It would have been a more interesting narrative choice if she and Bruce had reunited and she had moved on in the meantime, but she still loved him enough to help him seek a cure. As a plot element, this would also leave Bruce emotionally compromised in a way that paved the way for the Hulk to emerge. Instead, she completely leaves behind all of her responsibilities, including a boyfriend she seems to be living with, to go on the run with Bruce.

It’s not that Tyler’s a bad actress (necessarily), but Betty is barely a character in this movie, existing solely to motivate the two men in her life: Banner, and her father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross. William Hurt turns in a slightly hammy performance as Ross, cartoonish in the way that a lot of notable actors were when appearing in genre pictures of the Aughts before they became the new normal. His obsession with revisiting the (arguable) success of creating the Hulk demonstrates such an intense lack of foresight that he’s impossible to empathize with, when he would be better served by a more nuanced approach. Tim Roth’s character takes this even further, and his generic compulsion to become More! Powerful! makes him one of the more unmemorable villains of the genre (although he’s not as bad as what’s coming next time).

Overall, even though this is a more objectively successful film than the much-maligned Lee Hulk, it’s also a more mainstream and flat one. It does not follow as a matter of course that a film becomes more emotionally compelling or better art simply because its narrative holds together better than another. Virtually every actor in the film feels miscast, and the film as a whole doesn’t demand or reward investment, which I felt that even Iron Man managed to accomplish. Despite the fact that it leaves the door open for several ideas to recur in the MCU, like Abomination, Tim Blake Nelson’s character (i.e., the future Leader), and Betty, none of these threads has been followed up on, so I give this one a solid “skip,” unless your appetite for metropolitan destruction is still going strong after destruction porn like 2012 and Man of Steel. It’s a fine movie, it’s just not necessarily worth your time.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I understand why Banner isn’t a developer of a gamma-based weapon in most of the adaptations; not only would that make it more difficult to empathize with him, we’ve already got a weapons designer who’s hard to like in the form of Tony Stark. Still, it is weird that no adaptation of the Hulk to date has used his actual origin story, at least to my knowledge. It’s like if every non-comic incarnation of Superman had his ship landing in a farm in Nebraska instead of Kansas; it’s not different enough to elicit fanboy anger, but it is unusual. Additionally, were it not for the fact that Hurt is set to reprise his role as General Ross in Captain America: Civil War (he can be seen in the trailer), this film could be almost complete dismissed from the MCU. Abomination and the Leader actually could be interesting foes to appear down the line, but it seems unlikely that Kevin Feige and company will drag them out of the mothballs after over seven years. The weirdest thing is that Betty has been virtually excised from the MCU as a whole, what with her never reappearing, Banner being recast, and Age of Ultron establishing a romantic relationship between Banner and Black Widow. I’m not really all that sad to see her go (sorry Liv, but I’m Team Jennifer Connelly for life), but it is worth remarking upon. As Civil War does look like it’s set to address the way in which costumed heroes/vigilantes are responsible for mass destruction, it’ll be interesting to see if Abomination’s path of destruction in New York will be referenced (it hasn’t been at all in either Daredevil or Jessica Jones), especially given that the responsibility for that damage falls on General Ross more than anyone else.

Brandon: Ugh, America’s favorite D-bag billionaire Tony Stark drops by in The Incredible Hulk‘s final scene to promise a crossover that ain’t coming for four more features. I’m hoping at some point I’ll warm up to MCU’s interplay between its individual properties, but so far it doesn’t amount to much more than Downey’s Stark or Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury ominously hinting at future payoffs in films where they don’t belong. Surely, there’s a way to incorporate these characters in each other’s universes besides arbitrary cameos with no in-the-moment narrative consequence, but I’m just not seeing it yet.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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twohalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.