(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m still not sure how or why I did an almost complete about-face on Wes Anderson’s work at the time of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I’m happy to report that Isle of Dogs doesn’t change my mind: It’s a whimsical, highly enjoyable film that continues to show why quirky filmmakers such as Anderson remain an essential part of the cinematic landscape. Boldly dashing into a fantasy version of Japan where a city has exiled all dogs to a nearby island, the film describes a group of dogs as they meet and provide assistance to a boy looking for his own dog on the island. As would befit an Anderson film, the setting is a blend of 1950s aesthetics, 1984s themes, 2010s technology and timeless shrink-wrapping. The stop-motion animation helps a lot in clearly establishing the off-kilter lack of realism of the premise, with new development being greeted with acceptance even as outlandish as they are. Robodogs? Sure, why not. The tone of the film is a quirky deadpan, sure to reach a few viewers and leave others completely cold. There’s some great voice talent in the mix, with Edward Norton in the lead. Unusually enough for someone who doesn’t take much interest in soundtracks, I found myself quite taken with the distinctive percussion-heavy score from Alexandre Desplat. As with most things with the film, reaction is likely to be idiosyncratic—I absolutely love some segments of the movie, and found myself grinning ear-to-ear at frequent moments, but I can see how it would not work for others. I’m not sure what possessed Anderson to give himself so entirely to Japanese imagery for the film, but I’m not sure it amounts to cultural appropriation—perhaps aesthetic tourism, finely observed and reverently respectful. I just know that it’s one of my favourite movies of the year, and one that I will enjoy revisiting before long. [February 2019: I tried showing Isle of Dogs to a group of cinephile friends as part of a pre-Oscar warmup, and the reaction was … divided. I still loved it.]
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Once in a while, it’s good to sip a pure dose of concentrated moviemaking skill. Something like Birdman, expertly directed, featuring top-ranked actors at their best, delving into weighty themes and doing it with a strong sense of style. A comic drama about a washed-up actor in the moments leading up to his Broadway debut as a writer/producer/performer, Birdman gets inspiration from the world of theater to deliver a film presented as one uninterrupted sequence, the camera gliding from one character to another, skipping forward in time and even presenting fantastical visions alongside its realism. It’s a giddiness-inducing piece of cinema, from the perfectly-cast Michael Keaton (playing a former superhero actor) to an equally-capable foil played by Edward Norton (making the most of a reputation as an abrasive method actor), with an unsettling drum-based score, carefully staged performances, a bit of magical realism, barbed pokes at Hollywood trends and enough laughs to make us forget that this may be a very sad story. It’s invigorating, hilarious, poignant, impressive and accessible at once. The inconclusiveness of the conclusion isn’t as annoying as it could have been, largely because the film delivers so many pleasures along the way. Easily one of the most striking films of 2014, Birdman earned its various Oscar accolades: writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu certainly knows what he’s doing, and can do it in ample style.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I had trouble enjoying writer/director Wes Anderson’s earliest films, but with 2007’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom, things may be turning around. I’m not the same person who saw Anderson’s first films as they appeared in theaters, obviously, and Moonrise Kingdom is a lot like Fantastic Mr. Fox in that it takes Anderson’s fascination for the twee presentation of flawed characters and puts them in a more broadly accessible context than, say, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Simply put, here we get kids acting like adults rather than adults acting like kids and that makes a huge difference: As Moonrise Kingdom follows the repercussions of two 12-year-olds eloping together, the film feels charming, comic and affectionate at once. A strong cast of eccentric adult characters (Bruce Willis as a policeman, a pitch-perfect Edward Norton as scoutmaster, hangdog Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton as a social services meddler) acts as a good foil for teenage protagonists Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Moonrise Kingdom’s whimsical tone seems perfectly controlled, and it’s hard to watch the film without looking forward to the next trick to come out of Anderson’s fertile imagination. It’s an odd film, with comparisons to be found mainly in Anderson’s cinematography (well, maybe that of Jared Hess as well), but it works better than it should. I’m calling Moonrise Kingdom a pleasant surprise, especially given that I expected practically nothing from it. I may, however, expect more from Anderson in the future.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) You’d think that the ending of The Bourne Ultimatum wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sequel, but there we have one: The program that created Bourne was only the tip of the iceberg, and other operatives are forced to react when their own programs (and selves) are terminated with prejudice. Add a few considerations about artificial cognitive enhancements and you have a plot: a threadbare, familiar plot, but a plot nonetheless. Fortunately, writer/director Tony Gilroy’s treatment of the premise is better than its foundation: The Bourne Legacy proudly continues its predecessor’s hyper-modern treatment of espionage thriller conventions with an acknowledgement to real-world moral dilemmas, high-technology used lethally and an exploitation of the possibilities of a network world under constant unaccountable surveillance. The blend is potent, and the headlining presence of both Jeremy Renner as a capable protagonist and Edward Norton as his pursuer anchors the film into a credible reality. (Amusingly, the film is able to use in a straightforward fashion a few speculative elements that would have been considered pure science-fiction a few years ago.) For its first hour, as mysteries are still presented, The Bourne Legacy is solid action filmmaking: the action scenes are well-handled, the atmosphere is grounded and the plot mechanics are decently handled as the film takes place concurrently to The Bourne Ultimatum. Things slow down to a far more ordinary result in the second half, as the plot stops advancing almost entirely and leaves all the screen time to an increasingly redundant chase sequence. The final result may not be as compelling as what was promised earlier, but it’s still a surprisingly energetic follow-up to a series most thought was finished. Don’t worry –from the unresolved threads left by the conclusion of The Bourne Legacy, it looks as if we’ll get at least another trilogy our of the Bourne name.