(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.]
(In French, On Cable TV, October 2015) I didn’t start liking Wes Anderson’s films until Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, and my exasperation at his first few films had led me to skip The Darjeeling Limited until now. Alas, it turns out that The Darjeeling Limited owes a lot more to Anderson’s first few films than the latter, more accessible ones. Here, we’re back to the precious twee sensibilities of his early career, with an overly complicated family relationship being overshadowed by showy cinematography and a strange sense of humor that feels odd if you’re not in on the joke. It does actually work, albeit in occasional moments: The camera works is especially good in comedy scenes, whipping from one character to another. Occasional lines are droll, while the Indian scenery is different enough to be interesting. The film also has the good sense to end on Joe Dassin’s insanely-catchy “Les Champs-Élysées”, which is good for a few days’ worth of sporadic humming. On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel that the film runs too long, especially during the third act as the characters disembark the Darjeeling. But tight accessible films weren’t (and maybe still aren’t) Anderson’s specialty — it would take until his last few efforts for other qualities to take over and make for great films. Hopefully, The Darjeeling Limited is the last time Anderson’s bad quirks would overwhelm his better ones. Bilingual viewers may want to note that seeing the film in French makes an odd film even more delightfully odd given the original’s script’s francophilia.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) How many movies does it take for a director to redeem himself? I’ve had trouble with Wes Anderson’ first few films (too twee, too weird, too annoying), but after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonlight Kingdom and now The Grand Budapest Hotel, it feels as if I have re-discovered a great director. Easily the most ambitious of his films so far, The Grand Budapest Hotel ends up being a delicious blend of comedy, fake history, striking characters, artful cinematography and dozens of name actors seemingly having tons of fun. Visually, the film voluntarily goes retro with classical staging, highly stylized set design and voluntarily cheap special effects that somehow add to the comic absurdity of the plot. (Also notice the absence of diagonal movement in-frame) The story has surprisingly dark twists and turns, but screenwriter Anderson seems delighted in playing with a familiar plot, only to flip over the table and have whimsical fun whenever it suits him. The result is almost impossible not to watch with a growing sense of fondness. Ralph Fiennes turns in a small comic masterpiece performance as an ultra-competent hotel concierge, while being ably supported by far too many great players to count or enumerate. It amounts to a striking oddity of a film, something almost impossible to describe faithfully but nonetheless utterly compelling upon viewing. From time to time, we get a film that reaffirms why cinema can be fun and stylish without forgetting to be meaningful.
(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.
(In theatres, December 2009) I have trouble dealing with We Anderson’s oddball sensibilities, and wasn’t feeling all that confident that I would like Fantastic Mr. Fox, especially given the unappealing design aesthetics of the stop-motion mode used in the film. And, for a few moments at the beginning of the film, it doesn’t look good: The humour seems based more on incongruity and discomfort than anything else, and the film looks just as ugly as in the trailer. But not much more than fifteen minutes in the film, something happens and the film gradually grows more and more interesting. The stop-motion aspect recedes (when it comes back, it’s to wonder at the way it’s being used to show us something), the characters fill up, the humour broadens and the real story begins. What follows contains a lot of innovation, comedic riffs that feel both fresh and familiar, a small-scale epic battle of wits and a fantastic voice performance by George Clooney. It ends up, fairly easily, being my favourite Anderson films yet, with a dash of hope that he will learn something from the experience. But even if he decides to go back to more annoying projects, Fantastic Mr. Fox will remain a small wonder: Witty, hip, deadpan and a bit subversive (there’s a sustained gag about the word “cuss” replacing another word that took me far too long to notice.) If there’s an issue with the film, it’s an impression that it’s being a bit too self-indulgent for its own good, that it could have been just a touch more accessible. But that may just be my residual wariness about Anderson’s films. One thing’s for sure: This is one animated film that will be most appreciated by adults than their kids.