I Can’t Believe I Enjoyed Isle of Dogs

 

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There’s a window in your late teens and early 20’s where you have a chance to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Wes Anderson: old enough to get what he’s going for but not too jaded to dismiss it. Unfortunately for me, I tried watching his body of work when I was a little too young to appreciate it, thus spent the rest of my time eschewing his movies as best I could and completely missed the window where I would have been transfixed. Something about watching A-list stars acting deadpan and quirky was off-putting to me.

I watched some of his movies along the way. I saw Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox around the time each of them were released and ended up liking them slightly more than I had liked his films in the past. Simply put: I find his brand of goofiness easier to digest when it involves children or animation. It just feels better suited to the material. I found myself watching The Royal Tenenbaums recently (7 months ago) and I just couldn’t get past the painfully dry performances from Luke Wilson and Gwenyth Paltrow; it doesn’t feel right coming from adults.

I also hate seeing his movies (and other movies of his ilk) in packed theaters. I would much prefer to be alone. His fanbase gets so excited about his new releases that they end up being a more annoying crowd than the folks that turn up to see a Marvel movie on opening night. They have this tendency to laugh as loud as possible at every little comedic flare so that everyone in the theater knows how much they love Wes Anderson and how much they “get it.” Anderson’s movies are comical for sure but the aim isn’t go for big belly laughs; there are maybe two quick ones in each movie. To laugh so hard so often does a disservice to the gentle humor he’s trying to convey.

Naturally when I was dragged to see Isle of Dogs last night, I was dreading it. My girlfriend didn’t know it was opening night and didn’t realize the movie we were seeing, combined with the artsy theater we were seeing it at were going to attract a frenzy of Anderson die-hards like gnats to a light. I sat down in the packed theater and prepared for the worst. Initially, I was validated in my worry: Isle of Dogs opens with a comical little haiku, that should, at best, put a little smirk on your face. That didn’t happen. Of course, the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. Congrats people of Brooklyn: you get his humor. This continued in a similar fashion for the first 12 minutes or so and I wasn’t surprised, after all, his fans have been waiting four years for him to release a movie.

But then something happened that I’d never experienced in a screening of an Anderson movie before: people seemed to settle down once it got going. As soon as the pacing started to roll into motion and the audience became captivated in the charm of the story, they started appropriately responding to the comedy and in that moment, so did I. I was actually able to relax and just enjoy the movie and I have to say… the movie is pretty delightful.

Everything rolls along nicely and while I was at first a little apprehensive to tone of the animation, I came around to really enjoying the beat-up nature of it. It’s fitting; the movie takes place somewhere called Trash Island, so why not have the characters look like they’re covered in dirt? While watching, it starts to make sense why it took Anderson four years to make this; the animation is pretty meticulous in a way that feels a step above Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are some scenes that are so simple yet so perfectly crafted that the whole thing ends up looking easy (there is a brief scene everyone is talking about that involves making sushi that is an absolute pleasure to watch).

The world Anderson creates is really cool to watch both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Some of the voice cast is a little underutilized (I’m fairly certain Scarlett Johannson spent a total of 40 minutes in the voiceover booth and Bob Baliban has said that he, Murray and Goldblum were only in there for about a day, maybe a bit more) but the ones we do spend time with are pretty fully realized, mainly Chief and Atari and the narration from Courtney B. Vance is honestly pretty great.

So what’s the point of Isle of Dogs? What is Anderson trying to say? I honestly am at a loss here. It’s not just the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not necessarily a “love letter to Japan,” (love letters to *insert place director loves here* are some of my least favorite kinds of movies; yeah, I’m looking at you, Boyhood) although it is clear Anderson has a great affinity for Japan and its culture. He’s trying to say something political but it’s either too obvious or too vague and I don’t know which. There are a lot of political overtones to it and that’s basically the thing about the movie that doesn’t work (more on that in a second). There is something of a Holocaust allegory that gets tacked on late in the movie that made me scratch my head.

So unfortunate piece of the movie is in the final act when the Holocaust allegory takes prominence and things start to fall apart a little bit, to the point where it almost seems like they had spent so much time on the movie that they scrapped a more fleshed out ending in favor of just wrapping things up quickly. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it isn’t as satisfying as the early scenes of just watching the dogs hang out on Trash Island are.

I can’t say that this movie makes me excited for the next Wes Anderson movie, especially if he goes back to live action but it does make me consider seeing another one. A movie as delightful as this is pretty hard to come by. In an age where we have superheroes being taken too seriously and five new horror movies every month, it’s nice to have something like Isle of Dogs come along to relieve us of unneeded stress in our lives.

When We First Met is a Charmingly Odd Piece of Cinema

 

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When We First Met is a true testament to the sheer force of nature that Adam Devine brings. For a movie that should be, at its best, “passably enjoyable while it’s on in the background,” Devine works 110% to bring it up to “passably enjoyable while you actually watch it.” It’s almost remarkable how hard he works to try to bring this movie up from mediocrity; his relentless effort is more interesting to watch than the actual movie around him is. He didn’t have to try so hard; he easily could have phoned it in and taken his Netflix paycheck and been on his merry way, but he doesn’t… he genuinely wanted to raise the bar for this movie and because of that, I have an incredible respect for him.

The movie functions as a rom-com Groundhog Day, in which Noah (Devine) needs to re-live the same night he meets Avery (Alexandra Daddario), the love of his life who friend-zones him because he waited too long to make a move. Of course, hilarity and hijinks ensue, or at least that’s what the movie attempts. Each time Noah goes back in time, he has a new method of flirtation he’s trying which leads to various different futures for him and Avery with equally varying amounts of amusement for the viewer.

Other than Devine, what helps sell the movie is how damn earnest it is. Its naïve charm works to its favor which is almost refreshing. In another world, there is a gross-out, hard R-rated version of this movie that would be an absolute slog to sit through. A version with constant F-bombs and genital references to cover up the lack of anything interesting. It was nice to watch something that was so unabashedly PG-13. Having said that, just because you’re PG-13, doesn’t mean you can’t take any risks. The movie’s biggest flaw is how squeaky clean it is even when it tries to deal with adult themes like sex, one-night stands, hookup buddies and drinking. In one timeline where Noah becomes hookup buddies with Avery after trying out a “douche” persona to woo her, he asks her what her favorite sexual position is, but the movie is afraid of anything beyond a parental, focus-group approved impurity. “Yes, they can briefly talk about sex existing, as long the nice girl doesn’t admit to anything salacious.” You can be 100% PG-13 and still try to have fun with it. The movie is essentially for high schoolers and everyone knows how much high schoolers love content that their parents approve of.

Ultimately, the movie continues to ride along on the charm of Devine alone. The rest of the cast just tries to anchor the world around him with varying success. Though she’s basically given nothing to do, Daddario is a pretty perfect choice as the girl Noah just can’t seem to get it right with but her fiancé, played by Robbie Amell, is about as interesting as a wooden plank. Why not make some of the other characters slightly interesting? Give them a personality of something more than just “person for Devine to bounce off of.” There is a good cast in here: use it! At the very least, Shelly Hennig gets to play a few more notes than the rest.

This movie accomplishes what it sets out to be: something that is on and offends no one. The problem is with that is it’s such a dreadful goal to have, let alone achieve. Of course, I don’t want the R-rated version but it would be nice to see this movie maintain its romantic earnesty while still showing us something even slightly exciting. I can see the executives trying their hardest to make this something pleasant to watch for everyone (maybe slightly skewering towards teens) but when you make something for everyone, you end up making it for no one. That’s why you have to hire Devine to lift the entire thing up on his shoulders and carry you. If we don’t get scenes where he thinks he knows the piano but doesn’t or him drunkenly exclaiming he has a “play-doh” face, or anything else he throws himself into, then there would really be nothing worth even mentioning about this movie. At the very least, we can say, “damn, Adam Devine really wants me to like this movie.”

It really is a testament to Devine: you can replace any actor with someone else and it wouldn’t make a difference but if you lose him, you should really just shut down production.

Let’s Look Back at Knocked Up (11 Years Later)

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I always loved Knocked Up. I don’t watch it very often (this is the first time I’ve revisited it since probably 2009), but it has a soft spot in my heart. It’s weird looking back on this movie from 2007 and remembering that Seth Rogen hadn’t really been in movies before. Yes, he had a supporting role in The 40 Year Old Virgin, but his screen time in that movie is probably equivalent to what Martin Starr gets in this movie. Rogen really owes a lot to this movie (as well as Superbad which came out a month later, but we aren’t here to talk about that). This is the movie that put him on the escalator to stardom.

Knocked Up had a pretty famously… complicated publicity tour when it was coming out. Katherine Heigl, who also owed this movie almost as much as Rogen did, famously… criticized (?) it for portraying men as lovable slobs and women as “shrews” because they actually took life and the responsibilities that come with it seriously. This was unfortunately one of the first reasons she was later stamped with the most damning of all Hollywood labels: DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH. This movie did launch her into stardom, much like it did Rogen, but she had that stamp on her forever after that and she couldn’t seem to scrub it off until she virtually ceased to exist in Hollywood. It’s a shame: she’s really good in Knocked Up! This movie doesn’t work without her; she is the solid spine that everyone else gets to swing around.

I found her remarks interesting on my latest re-watch. Is that true? Is this movie a little harsh on women and a little too easy on the guys?

The answer is: yes. It’s not a resounding “yes,” but there is validity to what she said. The most on-the-nose example is the scene about midway through the movie where Pete (Paul Rudd) is cautiously apathetic to the reality that there are multiple sex offenders in his neighborhood where he lives with his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and his children.

 

Debbie: So I’m the bad guy because I’m trying to keep our children safe from child molesters and mercury and you’re cool ‘cause you don’t give a shit?

Pete: Yeah.

Debbie: Yeah? Is that it?

Pete: Pretty much.

Debbie: God you’re an asshole.

 

Now that scenario is never really explored again and that’s why it seems unfair to the female character… because she’s 100% right: Pete is an asshole. There is no moment where Pete has to roll back and admit he’s wrong and should have taken it more seriously. On the other hand, and I don’t know this to be true, I would bet my girlfriend would find that scene incredibly cathartic on its own, because it sheds light on how goddamn frustrating men are. And I think that may be the core dispute with this movie, more so than many others: your gender can have a gigantic effect on how you perceive character motivations.

The real question I have about this movie and its motivation is this: how are we supposed to feel about Ben (Seth Rogen)? Are we supposed to feel anything at all or just see how things play out for him? As Heigl noted, he is lovably oafish in this movie, so do we want him to stay that way and for Alison (Heigl) to lighten up or do we want him to rise to the occasion and become the responsible parent he needs to be? If they want you to feel the latter, then they really make you hold out for it because his growth to maturity happens in a 2-minute montage right before the end of the movie.

I think Knocked Up wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants you to relish in all the dopey shenanigans the male characters enjoy for about 100 minutes and then asks you to grow up and see that the men were immature and the women were right all along in the last few minutes of the movie. So I can see why Apatow would argue that it is a pro-female movie but because the bulk of it lingers on a “boys will be boys” sentiment, Heigl has a fair point in saying it feels unfair to women.

Independent of all that, the movie is still hilarious and is easily the best rom-com in recent memory (sorry, Forgetting Sarah Marshall).

When you watch it, you start to realize that the camera hardly moves, and obviously there’s reason for that: with the actors improvising so much, it would be hard to edit the best comedy together if the shots kept changing so the motion is pretty static but it doesn’t matter; it is more than worth the comedy we get.

Leslie Mann and Seth Rogen have never been funnier than they are in this movie (Paul Rudd is great too but he’s still best in Anchorman). Katherine Heigl is not just charming but also quite funny too.

 

Alison: I do NOT want you to fuck me like a dog.

Ben: It’s not like a dog… it’s doggy-style.

 

At the end of the day, this movie is insanely charming. It has some issues but it is well intentioned. Keep in mind, it also features Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Alan Tudyk. This is one of those movies that could only exist in the year it was created; if it was made now, everyone would be way too expensive (except, unfortunately for Heigl). Be thankful that we have Knocked Up, warts and all.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Pretty Frustrating Movie

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Don’t get me wrong, I walked out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier pretty satisfied back in April, 2014. Really cool choreography for the hand-to-hand combat sequences, a pretty fun story and a cool performance from Samuel L. Jackson. I got my money’s worth for sure.

But I’ve never had the urge to go back and watch it again. Any urge I’ve had was satisfied by watching some of the fight scenes on the internet and that’s about it. I once tried watching it again, not out of a strong desire to do so, but just to see why I never wanted to. And now I know why: for a movie that’s touted as one of the absolute best MCU films… it’s kind of dull. Like I said before, the action is spot on and the overall story is a fun adventure but this movie is pretty devoid of anything human or interesting.

Captain America is a pretty dull superhero, and frankly, I find all his solo outings to be pretty dull. Each one is better than the one before it but Civil War is only better because he has to share the screen with some Avengers with more interesting motivations and personalities; other than that, it falls victim to the same bland issues that The Winter Soldier does. I always hear about how this movie finally “challenges” Captain America’s morality. Did I watch a different movie? This movie is about a dude who is morally unshakable, believes one thing to be true and in the end is proven completely right and everyone who tried to steer him away was wrong. Very captivating.

I don’t necessarily need a hardened anti-hero, but it would be nice to have your protagonist… learn? Grow? Change? Homer’s Odyssey is interesting because even though Odysseus is undoubtedly a hero, he is also marred by his hubris, but over time, learns from his mistakes. Captain America is perfect at the beginning and equally perfect at the end.

Look, this movie is light years ahead of the first one, which was legitimately just boring. At least here, we do get some thrills. It’s just a shame that a pair like the Russo Brothers, who are known for directing irreverent comedy television, were relegated to such a soulless script.

“But it does have a soul! What about Cap’s conflicting relationship with Bucky?!”

Who’s Bucky? Oh, the character from the first movie that had no personality or charisma? The character that we barely spent any time with and had no real chemistry with Chris Evans?

I genuinely dislike it when people claim MCU movies are too interconnected and they can’t remember who is who or what happened in previous films; these are movies that are built for mass audiences that really exist to sell toys… the connections between them are really surface-level and can mostly be made without even having seen previous films, based on context alone (I didn’t see Ant Man but I wasn’t thrown in a tizzy when he showed up in Civil War). Having said that, the reveal that the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes from the first movie had no effect on me because I genuinely forgot who he was. Now, I understand, some of that is on me. I would argue that Captain America: The First Avenger is maybe not the worst, but definitely the dullest movie in the MCU and I have not revisited it or thought much about it since I saw it. So, the scene where his identity is revealed, is supposed to have a lot of emotional heft and make both Cap and the audience stop dead in their tracks. All I could think was “who cares? Kill him… he’s killing everyone else.”

Bucky Barnes was a slightly duller character in the first movie but now because he’s brainwashed, he is completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever. So now I’m in the middle of a movie where the big emotional pull comes between the world’s dullest superhero and is even duller friend. Thankfully the movie is smart enough to know not to linger on this wasted attempt at emotion and just have them go into a brilliantly-executed hand-to-hand fight.

What really sucks is that all of this supposed “emotion” bleeds over into Civil War, where the film wants us to root for Bucky to get better and reunite with Cap. Once again: I have spent no meaningful time with this character; you are asking me to root heavily for a friendship that I saw a few scattered moments of, that didn’t really even work that well, in a boring movie from five years earlier. If you want me to care, then show me why I should care, but having Cap say “he’s my friend,” over and over doesn’t convince me.

Alien: Covenant has a Very Simple Job that it Does Horribly Wrong (A VERY Timely Review)

To put it plainly: Alien: Covenant is crushed by the weight of its own self-importance. It’s strange to think that a franchise like Alien would find its demise seeking out the exact opposite of what attempted to accomplish at the outset. When Alien premiered nearly 40 years ago, it was lauded for being a simple concept, executed with precision: a haunted house in space. There is a crew on a spaceship and one by one they all get picked off by a stowaway alien. How did we end up here? Alien: Covenant is far more concerned with giving you a very on-the-nose Philosophy 101 lesson, that tries so hard to convince you it came right from the mouth of Dante. It trades scary aliens for god-complexes, a simple premise with unneeded backstory, and gore with philosophy. Those are all terrible trades.

 Coming in on the back of Prometheus, the cinematic equivalent of undercooked chicken, Alien: Covenant attempts to right its wrongs. In the title alone, it promises one thing: aliens. Initially it seems to make good on its promise; the major flaw in Prometheus was that it was all philosophy and asking big questions and then choosing to not only not answer them but actually go out if its way to not answer them, teasing you at the end that the sequel will give you the answers you crave. Covenant brings you some alien creatures in the first act, and it’s disappointing to see the bar is so low, that all you have to do to impress the audience is give us a small taste of what we came to see.

Yes, the characters (who are supposedly the top scientists from Earth) are obscenely stupid and make awful decisions, but that’s how a horror movie works: we need the dumb decisions to lead us to the scary. If the characters were smart, they would kill and capture all of the aliens as soon as they landed, but that isn’t fun for us to watch; we want to see no-name characters get ripped apart in the most disgusting fashion over and over again, rinse and repeat. It’s not hard.

For a while the movie rolls along nicely enough. We get some good deaths, some good flesh ripping, some gross aliens, who can complain? Then the movie decides once it has you hooked, it’s going to make a hard turn. Covenantis like starting to eat a pizza and having it replaced with vegetables after two slices. Once it gets going, it decides it’s going to re-introduce David, the robot character that made no sense in Prometheus, and still really makes no sense now. Apparently, Ridley Scott read a few more philosophy texts since the last go around, since David seems to be drawing inspiration from different thinkers this time.

Now, once again, we need to sit through Ridley Scott musing about what it means to be alive and the mysterious possibilities of a divine being existing. Anything you may have been able to classify as interesting about Prometheusis thrown away in a quick flashback scene that feels very tacked on. “Oh didn’t we tell them David was going to the Engineers’ planet to find out why and how they created humans? Shit. Just add a scene where they all die.”

The central problem is that Scott keeps insisting he has something to say about life but decides to never tell us, leading us to believe that he probably doesn’t have anything to say at all and he’s just as confused as the rest of us. He’s the guy that has a “girlfriend that goes to a different school.” Oh? Can we see a picture of her? “No.”

After what feels like hours of philosophy 101, we are rewarded for being good students and get to end with an alien, in an extended sequence that really wasn’t worth the wait. We sat through Professor Scott’s class for two hours, show us some alien cinematics that we’ve never seen before. Scott quickly tries to cram an entire Alien’s-worth of thrills into the last 15 minutes so we can leave the theater being tricked into satisfaction, but there’s nothing in this sequence you haven’t seen already seen in another Alien movie.

In the end, Scott doesn’t realize that no one really ever cared about the alien’s backstory. It doesn’t matter where it came from! I just want to watch it rip people apart. If you want to make a movie that mopes around, wondering what life is all about, go ahead and make that movie, but there is no reason to try to squeeze it into an Alien movie. They just don’t go together. They can both be great but not together. You’re trying to mix a filet mignon with ice cream and while separately they’re great, no one wants them together. Don’t merge your trashy space-horror movie with a middling attempt at profundity.