Tag Archives: edward norton

“Isle of Dogs” a lot of fun

Wes Anderson makes the same movie again and again, just in a different format. For some filmmakers (Tim Burton), the formula has become stale and tedious. For Anderson, with his kinetic style and dry wit, it’s still fun for the time being.

“Isle of Dogs” tells the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young boy and ward of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). After dogs are deemed a public health crisis after a string of diseases is associated with them, all dogs in Japan are shipped to a trash island far away. Atari runs away from his home, steals a plane and flies to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Shreiber). He befriends a group of dogs including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who agree to help him find Spots. Chief, the only stray of the group, is a reluctant ally and resents humans for what they’ve done, but as he grows to know Atari, his emotions change.

The film is a visual feast, with the swift camera pans accentuated by the vibrant colors and smooth animation. Anderson has always done a good job of focusing the viewer’s eye to his subject and exemplifying the film’s emotions through the actions on the screen. Whether it’s a closeup of a character’s eyes as they come to a realization or a chaotic zoom in to emphasize a shocking turn of events, he uses film composition to keep his stories interesting and heartfelt.

He also continues to display his unique wit and charm. The main characters have interesting personality quirks and story arcs and the script keeps the action going at a brisk, never-boring pace. Things move fast and the audience is rewarded for keeping up with his trademark jokes.

For Anderson though, his repetitive style is beginning to border on unoriginality. There are enough differentiations in theme and plot to keep his films interesting for the time being, but like many others before him, his movies are all starting to feel the same: dysfunctional family, long lost relatives, quirky side characters, prestige vs. instinct quarrels, blatant yet funny dialogue, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. There is a risk that he may soon seem to be parodying himself and that would demean his otherwise strong stories.

And a continuous problem with Anderson in all of his movies is his lack of female characters. Not only are they not protagonists, they are distinctly lacking everywhere onscreen. The vast majority of his characters are white males. And the women of the story serve mostly as companions or sex objects (not in an overt, callous way but in a matter-of-fact way). They are distant and detached or committed to a cause past thought of their own lives. It would be interesting for him to branch out not only in his style, but also his cast list. Many of the roles in his films could indeed be women characters, but he has trouble writing that way.

Ultimately, “Isle of Dogs” succeeds not only as another strong Anderson film that fits into his canon, but also because it mirrors current events. It’s a story about the outsider who benefits society, about government manipulation to find a common enemy to consolidate power, about abusing the environment and leaving our children messes and trash, about the importance of science and reason over preconceived biases and about our basic communication with nature, respecting and cultivating it. It’s a beautiful story that exemplifies what Anderson does best.

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‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ a solid work of craftsmanship

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tells the story of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor known for playing the superhero Birdman in a number of films, as he tries to stage a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a last desperate plea for true artistic brilliance. He is forced to deal with a dwindling budget, his demanding agent (Zach Galifianakis), squabbling actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his recently-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), all while tackling the little voice in the back of his head that continually reminds him how much of a failure he has been throughout his life (which also just happens to be his Birdman alter ego).

The film creates the illusion that it was shot in one continuous take, various effects used to hide the cuts. By removing the cuts in the film, the viewer is forced to stay with the characters continuously, never having the luxury of an edit to escape the drama onscreen. At times, this becomes a bit of a show-off technique and distracts from the plot, some of the scene transitions a bit overdone, but the effect is nevertheless compelling and commendable for a movie of this type.

Michael Keaton steals the show for his portrayal of Riggan. His own self-doubt echoes in every frame of his performance. The rest of the cast is also very good, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who portray their incredibly flawed characters with a strong degree of empathy.

The film is able to balance comedy and drama in a very compelling way, keeping both in check as Riggan breaks down over the course of the film. It is an incredibly raw vision of life, full of love and hate for the self, for others and for the world. Films that are able to balance both humor and tragedy carry a richness with them that creates an encompassing feeling for the viewer, and Birdman, with a few tonal discrepancies, handles this balance very well.

What is most interesting about Birdman however, is how many themes it manages to juggle without toppling over into incoherence. The film is about how self-love and self-loathing are equally present in ourselves, the inability of true works of art to overcome works of pedestrian violence and sex, how pressure and failure can drive you over the edge, how motivations can actually mean little in the grand scheme of things, how an age of instant media can create sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake, among a list of other things. Indeed, there are so many interpretations from just one viewing that multiple screenings are sure to elicit further theories. The film rustles inside the viewer’s head, and that is all an audience member can ask of a movie nowadays.

The Best 25 Movies of the Last 25 Years Part 1

It was my brother’s 25th birthday last month and that got me thinking about the past quarter-century of moviemaking. When thinking about this list, I was surprised by an apparent lack of surefire classics comparative to other decades which may speak to Hollywood playing it far too safe recently, but I still had to make several painful cuts (sorry “Shawshank” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”). And there are still some very, very good movies here.  So without further ado, here are my top 25 films of the past 25 years (1992-2017).

25. Under the Skin (2014)

    A haunting look into the human experience, “Under the Skin” burrows into your psyche, making you wonder about the nature of existence. Jonathan Glazer’s film takes you into the mind of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) with no concept of human interaction and makes you experience life as if you were witnessing it for the first time, something not easy to do. It is truly surreal, beautiful and grotesque all at the same time.

24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

    Any number of Charlie Kauffman’s scripted-films could be on this list (“Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”), but I’ve decided to go with the film that most remember him for. Focusing on a guy (Jim Carrey) and a girl (Kate Winslet) after a rough breakup, they each undergo an experimental procedure to remove their memories of each other, but each memory needs to be individually extracted, and we watch their history in reverse order, seeing their evolution. A deeper project that explores the nature of love and memory and all the pain and joy that it brings, “Eternal Sunshine” perfectly balances the weird, the sweet and the comical into one film.

23. Fight Club (1999)

    “Fight Club” may be the signature anarchist film. Infused with creativity, the film, even twenty years after its release, is still a jaw-dropping experience of sheer ingenuity. It tells the story of the Narrator (Edward Norton) who meets a strange man selling soap named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Stuck at a dead-end job and working for corporate America, the Narrator needs to break out and with Tyler, they create Fight Club, a group that revels in simply beating each other night after night. But the club grows and grows, becoming something else entirely and something very wrong begins to affect the Narrator. Creating an avalanche of pop culture references and helping give rise to 1990s counterculture, the film is glossy and fun with an edge that burns in just the right way.

22. Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94)

Perhaps the most “classical” of any of the films on this list, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s three films (Blue, White and Red) illuminate the different themes of French nationalism: liberty, equality and fraternity. Whether it is the story of a wife who must come to grips with the death of her husband and daughter in a car accident, a man who is divorced because he can not consummate his marriage or the relationship between two people who have nothing in common, the threads of connection between all three stories elevates them to a richer meaner. They are a moving canvass of life.

21. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Despite being nearly non-stop action, “Mad Max: Fury Road” manages to imbue themes of environmentalism, loyalty, purpose and feminism into its narrative. With the world having fallen apart, Max (Tom Hardy) is alone, but finds himself abducted by a clan of biker gang thugs who take him a sprawling community dependent on a tyrant named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When Joe’s concubines are abducted by one of his subordinates, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Max finds himself entangled in a predicament that appeals to his sense of honor.  “Fury Road” is one of the greatest action movies ever made, a sprawling, thrilling chase through hell and perhaps a telling cautionary tale of our future.

20. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

A harrowing story of dedication, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” tells the story of two college roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu), in Romania who arrange to have an illegal abortion. Directed by Cristian Mungiu, the film is told in near real-time and in gripping detail. It is a treasure of suspense brimming with real-world issues.

19. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The foremost signature event of the 21st century are the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not far behind that is the death of the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Told in gripping detail through the eyes of fictional CIA operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film is a timecapsule of the post-9/11 mentality and all the history involved with that period. The range and scope of the film is breathtaking and the conclusion told in real-time brings the history straight to us.

18. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The last film of the great Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut” is an eerie look into raw sexuality and the bonds of marriage. Even so-so Kubrick towers above the work of many other filmmakers, and the director’s swan song film is still a treasure that leaves open so many interpretations. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) are sexually enticed by different people at a party in New York City. The episode leads to an admission by Alice that women are not as faithful to men as Bill would believe and the situation escalates as Bill is drawn into a world of sexual conquest, uninhibited desires and danger. It finds a way to dig under your skin in a way that is so purely Kubrick.

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