It’s Certainly Wes Anderson: Isle of Dogs

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Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s ninth film. If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film, you know how particular, quirky, and Wes Anderson-y they are. And Isle of Dogs, the story of a young boy who travels to an island in Japan where his dog has been exiled, is no different. It features all of the director’s best and worst qualities.

So, positively, the film is full of good, clever, funny ideas. The story is interesting and a few subplots add more dynamics to explore. Too bad they aren’t explored.

On the negative, this film has been riddled with controversy, accusing Anderson of cultural appropriation. While I’m not an expert on the subject and the finer points of some people’s criticism of Anderson’s use of Japan here, there is an awkward tension at play. Most obviously, all of the Japanese human characters are not translated, so either they are translated by another character or their words are taken from their mouths and given to American Foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) so we can have an awkward case of a white person taking up the cause and becoming the spokesperson for another group. While there seems to be a respect for the culture (the highly selective version of Anderson’s imagination) and the language, the fact that only the American-voiced characters have agency defeats the whole purpose of telling a story in a different culture and appreciating it and its people. It’s not that a director should be prohibited from telling stories in countries and cultures that aren’t theirs, but sidelining the native people of those cultures/countries is not the best way to do it.

But does that really matter? Because the movie is about the dogs, not the humans. Maybe this is a way to bring focus to the dogs. After all, aren’t the dogs the ones with the all-star voice cast you’re excited about? Well get ready to hear maybe four lines from your favorite actor, because there are entire characters and scenes here that are thrown in just to add another name. Seriously, they serve no purpose, either in character development, plot, or worldbuilding.

This, of course, is not new to Wes Anderson. He’s a director characterized by his style, and often at the expense of concise, impactful storytelling. Every frame of this film is a masterpiece, and beauty and aesthetics are important, but why do we go to movies? The reason I watch movies, and then review them, is not because they are escapism. I believe films should strive, in some way, to communicate ideas and to reflect something about the world.

After Isle of Dogs, I had very little to say. Very little to think. Because while this movie is beautiful, it’s shallow in every sense of the word, and I would rather have an ugly film that makes me feel something, that feels intimate and loved, rather then something that feels cold and distant.

But if you love Wes Anderson and his work, you may really like this film. I’ve had a few people give me passionate arguments in defense of the film, bring up things I missed. So, if you see it and love it, you can write off this review because, I have to admit, I’m actually a cat person.

-Madeleine D

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Meeting Laura Linney

Laura Linney

On Friday, February 2nd, I had the opportunity and privilege to help moderate a panel for a student discussion with actress Laura Linney, who was in Tulsa to speak at the Performing Arts Center for Tulsa Town Hall. Laura Linney has done it all- theater, film, and television. She’s been nominated for three Academy Awards, four Tonys, and she has won four Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She studied at Julliard and began her film career in the early 1990s. Her most recent work is her role on Netflix’s Ozark, opposite Jason Bateman. She is currently filming season two of that show.

When she first entered the room before the panel began, she greeted each of us moderators individually, took a selfie with my class, and talked to my teacher. She was engaging and thoughtful. When my fellow moderator and classmate Charlotte asked her at the end of the panel, “Would you be my adopted mom?” Ms. Linney said yes.

Laura Linney selfie

During the panel she was asked questions about being a woman in Hollywood, the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement, how she’s kept a long and steady career, the differences between working in theater, film, and television, and what attracts her to different roles.

She spoke honestly about the difficulties of Hollywood, and advised all the young women in the room to bond together, as working together makes you stronger. She explained her criteria for picking roles- good writing, a director she could learn from, and a story she felt was necessary to tell. She told us about working with Clint Eastwood three times and things she had learned from him about letting scenes act themselves out. She spoke about the different demands of different mediums, and how she balances being an introvert with her work.

Laura Linney panel

Moderating the panel. Left to right: C.S., Me, O.H., Laura Linney

 

After the student panel, we got to see her give her Town Hall speech to a full crowd in the main PAC auditorium. Her speech was about how to infuse creativity into every part of your life. My favorite thing she discussed was the need for an “Art Doctor,” someone who could prescribe to you a piece of art for every emotion or dilemma you may have. Feeling blue? Listen to this. Need some philosophical ponderings? Read this. Happy? Rejoice by watching this.

I would say, after needing some artistic inspiration, speaking to Laura Linney was just what the doctor ordered.

-Madeleine D

Laura Linney & me

 

“Putting the Show Back in Chauvinist” : Battle of the Sexes

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“You know, I remember when the actual match happened,” an older woman told me as we walked out of the theater together. I threw away my popcorn as she reminisced, “At the time, I just thought it was a big show.”

The famous 1973 match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and retired champion Bobby Riggs was set up as an elaborate publicity stunt, with parades, dancers, costumes, and sponsorships. But Battle of the Sexes reveals the more sinister elements going on underneath. Infidelity, repressed sexuality, addiction, and, of course, sexism.

Battle of the Sexes’ main plot might be the lead up to the match, but the topic that obviously interests the filmmakers more is Billie Jean’s affair with hairdresser Marilyn, her sexual awakening. I think people should know what movie they are going to see, so just keep that in mind.

What I found most interesting about it was, while it’s tastefully done, the film hides the negative aspects of the relationships. We do see the toll the affair takes on Billie Jean emotionally, and her husband Larry is portrayed as a great guy. But the film leaves out of its ending credits what ended up happening to the relationship (Marilyn sued Billie for palimony, outed Billie through the lawsuits, and Billie lost her sponsorships).

Whether you agree with the choices Billie Jean King made or not, not telling the truth about something seems suspicious on the part of the filmmakers. However, it’s also Hollywood, and to be expected. It just sets up an odd tonal shift with Billie tearing herself up about it one minute, then the next throwing Larry out and seemingly confident with her decision in the next. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to realistically show what a situation like that is like, but not in a way that could be interpreted as negative or disheartening.

All that said, this is the best performance I’ve seen Emma Stone give. She’s always been talented, of course, but here her role just allows her to be even more transformative. She’s not the La La Land actress, fantasy girl. She’s a flesh and blood woman. Her Billie Jean King is driven, focused, conflicted, but when it comes to the tennis match, is always the bigger person. She faces her opposition with grace and humility, but doesn’t hesitate to speak out. She’s a role model to many for a reason.

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with both over-the-top extravagance and subtle nuance. His Riggs is a showman, a con artist, and an actor. His brash and extremely sexist comments are almost laughable, and when you see how he really does seem to love his wife and family, he becomes likeable. His actions and comments are no longer as bad because he is so likable. He’s just doing publicity! Making headlines!

But that is what is just so sinister about it. When we like someone, we are less willing to critique them or call them out on something. Rigg’s sexism is so over-the-top and “playful” that it becomes normalized. It appears less harmful, although he’s preying on real attitudes. And the thing about sexism is that it isn’t just words. You don’t just hurt women’s feelings. Sexism is sinister because it is tangible. Words reflect thoughts, which is a person’s character, and eventual actions.

The things Riggs and some of the men in this movie say are scary because we almost don’t take them seriously. They are the “lovable misogynists,” and they validate men who want to do the same. There are many, many men in power who have used their lovableness and “cluelessness” to allow them to say, and then do, horrible things. It doesn’t matter that Bobby Riggs may not mean it, or his wife loves him or he’s a good dad or whatever. “Boys will be boys,” “It’s just locker room talk,” are excuses. It wasn’t appropriate then, and it doesn’t become less appropriate just because one representative woman “proved the worth” of all womankind.

There was one thing I felt missing as I walked away from Battle of the Sexes. I never got a strong establishment of the time period. Outside of tennis, what was sexism like in the wider American culture? How did people perceive the famous match? Did it really make any difference to women outside of sports? What did it mean to have one woman represent all women? Did Billie Jean King feel that burden going forwards? The film doesn’t answer any of those questions, leaving the impression that it isn’t nearly as interested in that subject as it is in its main protagonist and her love affair.

Making the main angle Billie Jean’s personal story is a good choice, though, because the typical sports story about overcoming adversity and winning has been done. That happens here, but it’s short and sweet at the end, and isn’t really the point. Winning the match for women is here, and it’s important, but by making the focus even narrower, a woman’s tumultuous time in her life, winning the match becomes bigger. It’s a matter of life and death for Billie Jean’s soul.

With those kind of stakes, it’s way more than just a show.

-Madeleine D

Thanks, Dad : The Glass Castle

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*Light spoilers ahead

I’m going to be honest. If there is one trope I don’t get tired of, it’s the crazy father trope. I love it in my books, I love it in my movies, and it’s nothing new in our culture. All the best villains and heroes have daddy issues (Luke, I am your father, anyone?). I’ve always found the trope fascinating. Maybe because of its insight into human psychology and how Freudian it can be. Maybe because it feels so removed from me personally, as I have a wonderful father who loves me enough to edit this review. Either way, it’s always been intriguing.

But this film with its eccentric father isn’t dealing with fiction. This is real life. Based on Jeannette Wall’s memoir of the same name about her tumultuous childhood under an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, The Glass Castle juggles tragedy wrapped up in childhood innocence. Hearing a story like that is a reminder that this archetype has roots in very real, dark places.

Something I admired when I read Wall’s memoir was the matter-of-factness the book had. When describing her childhood, Walls never indulged in sentimentality or despair. Instead, she told the events through the eyes of her childhood self. Traumatic events were sometimes viewed as exciting adventures when framed to her by her father. The realization of how abusive her situation was came later. Walls never diminished what happened, but instead put it into perspective. It was clear to me while reading that Walls never let her upbringing become excuses, which is very admirable.

There is that quality in this film, too, until the end. Up until then, the scenes of Walls’ childhood play out with a lack of exploitation. When her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) explains to Jeanette (played as a child by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head, played as an adult by Brie Larson) that sneaking out of a hospital is an exciting adventure, there is playful music because that is how child Jeanette is perceiving it. When an older Jeanette realizes her father stole her college money, the scene is darker and the music is gone, because Jeanette has matured enough to understand the true situation. Any reflections on the events take place in the adult-Jeanette scenes, which is how the memoir is written. I liked how the story, for the most part, let it speak for itself. It would be very tempting to do the opposite, especially in a story like this that deals with children.

All of this subtlety falters near the end, though, when director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton gets antsy and decides the audience can’t figure out the metaphors for themselves. Brie Larson is saddled with having to explain the glass castle metaphor from the title, the similarities between Jeanette and Rex, the strengths of the family, the power of forgiveness, the complexities of fatherhood, and so on. It’s a shame, because I think the movie does such a good job letting the story find its own significance and importance, without having to assert it in a preachy manner.

The performances elevate the script, though, and Brie Larson and the rest of the cast are up to the task of the more heavy-handed moments. I haven’t seen Room, so I finally got to see Ms. Larson and how good of an actress she is. I’m definitely ready for her to play Captain Marvel.

Woody Harrelson is the other star, though, and he is phenomenal. There are a lot of times he could have chewed scenery and done very Woody Harrelson-y things, but he never does. He dances between manic and sober, enlightening and pessimistic in every scene, but it never rings false. His unpredictability keeps the film and the audience on their toes, making the story feel even more real. The child actors also are all fantastic.

The ending aside, whether you learn the story of the Walls family through the excellent memoir or the good film, it’s still a story worth taking to heart. It is a discussion of nature versus nurture, the importance of parents and their influence, the resilience of children, and the ultimate power of hope and forgiveness. It is also a reminder that earthly fathers may fail, but there is one who does not.

-Madeleine D

Let’s Put on a Show: Sing

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Buster Moon. Showman. Owner of the grandest theater in town. Suave businessman. Charmer. Koala Bear, in this land of anthropomorphic animals.

Also, broke.

After a string of misfires and bad shows, Buster Moon (voiced by an admirably passionate Matthew McConaughey) only has one more chance to save his theater. He’ll do anything necessary to pull off his wild, crazy, totally unique idea.

A singing competition! You aren’t sick of those yet, are you? I didn’t think I would be when I sat down to watch Sing. Okay, maybe a little. I stopped watching “American Idol” and “The Voice” long ago. But I’m a fan of Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind Despicable Me and this year’s earlier The Secret Life of Pets. The trailers looked cute, the cast looked promising, and I was sure a good studio like this one could elevate the concept.

Sing, in its defense, is heartfelt. As heartfelt as a movie that pushes every successful, money-making kids movie button it could press can be. The cast (a lot of them unrecognizable in their voice roles) especially put a lot of effort into it, and I have no doubt director Garth Jennings poured his heart into the film. It simply cannot escape one thing: it always stoops to the lowest common denominator.

When discussing pop music on the radio once, my mom told me that most songs talk about love and sex and romance because they are the things everyone has in common. Mass appeal.  A good artist can elevate those concepts. Bad artists just talk about them in unoriginal, common ways.

Sing is like its unoriginal soundtrack, full of the most over-used and basic songs you could possibly choose for its audience. It always chooses the least original way out. Need a gag for not really any reason? Fart joke. Need to make it obvious who is a girl and who is a boy in these animal animated movies? Sexualization of cartoon animals, check. Need to pack as many songs in for promotional appeal? Skim through that playlist like you’re David Ayer editing Suicide Squad. Need rational explanation for events? Don’t bother! It never reaches for anything higher, and never pushes itself to be funnier or nicer or more well animated or better in anything.

Sing is not the first movie to do this, of course. Some of my favorite animated movies have some of these problems. But this one especially disappoints, because I hoped this film would be better, and it includes all of these elements without much to redeem it.

That said, it isn’t devoid of funny moments. It has nice messages about working hard and enjoying being a performer because you love it, not for the glory or fame. If you take little kids to see it (and that’s about the only audience who will really love it, unless you’re raising young movie reviewers, in which case, congratulations! And they’ll probably be unimpressed too), they could learn some good things. Having a conversation afterwards about talent and doing things that scare you would be a good use of time.

“You know the great thing about hitting rock bottom?” Buster Moon asks his assistant, Miss Crawley (director Garth Jennings), during the film. He stands on a stage prop- a big crescent moon- and it ascends upwards. “The only place to go… is up!”

Sing however, never lifts off the ground

-Madeleine D

Quiet People Doing Extraordinary Things: Loving

loving

The climactic scene of Loving is divided between two locations. One is the Supreme Court, where the future of interracial marriage lies in the landmark case of Virginia vs Loving. The second location is a farm, where Mildred Loving, a black woman, watches her husband, Richard Loving, a white man, play with their two children in the yard. She gets a call from their lawyers. They won. Mildred nods, hangs up, and smiles at her husband. He nods, and goes back to playing with the kids.

And that’s all folks. They win. Interracial marriage is legal in the United States. The Loving family can continue their daily lives, just with less fear.

If that climax sounds less-than-exciting to you, keep in mind before you see Loving that that is how the whole movie plays. It is an unbelievably calm, restrained, and polite film. Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) never get angry with each other or their circumstances. They go through their entire ordeal with humility and quiet conviction. Director Jeff Nichols refuses to craft an Oscar drama. He creates one that reflects the nature of the Lovings themselves. Richard Loving states in the film, “Tell the judge I love my wife.” He doesn’t want to go to court. He doesn’t want to make a statement. He just loves his wife. Loving doesn’t make itself into a statement. It presents itself as just a slice of life, albeit with extraordinary implications.

There is a difference between restraint and boring though, and how Loving walks that line is still up for debate. I think one of the year’s best examples of restraint is this Fall’s Southside With You, about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date. That was a film that could have easily gone for Oscar bait with huge speeches, big statements on politics and the state of America today, and unrealistically canny foreshadowing. Yet Southside With You chooses to serve its story rather than its makers.

So what does that make Loving? I think it depends. I personally don’t think this story is a good fit for a movie. It is certainly important, and everyone should know about the Lovings. But you could cover all the material given here with a podcast, a Wikipedia page read, or even the trailer for this film. There is very little meat here.

The lack of meat in the film is replaced with elements that may be very appealing to some. It’s an actor’s film through and through, with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton giving Oscar-worthy performances. They don’t play particularly interesting people, but they play them with an admirable amount of naturalness.

Honestly though, there isn’t much else. The film has what we’ve come to expect- nice cinematography, a serving score, a feel of deep authenticity in its historical setting. But if you know the story, and don’t care to watch intense faces for two hours, Loving isn’t going to be your movie. Truthfully, it wasn’t mine. I appreciate the film for what it is, and for not falling into all the traps it could have. I just wished I had walked out of the theater, pumping my fist in the air, yelling “Yes! They did it!”

The film didn’t need to be cliched or loud to do that. It just needed to make sure the stakes were clear and to show the real injustices the Lovings (and couples like them) faced. But, when the worst punishment shown in the film is them being jailed for a few nights, I didn’t get the feeling of, “This is an unjust problem that needs to be solved right away.” I never felt anxious for them or their situation.

The film does a wonderful job of portraying who the Lovings were. But then it takes it a step too far and becomes the Lovings. It reminds me why not a lot of movies are made about introverts. It doesn’t matter how powerful those closeups of intense expressions are. It doesn’t matter how wonderful they are as role models, with Mildred Loving’s inner strength and determination and Richard Loving’s quiet conviction. Quiet people simply do not have the onscreen charisma we are used to to entertain us. And I say this all as an introvert. A movie about me would not be entertaining in the least.

So, do make movies about important people, introverted or not. But do not make an introverted movie if it doesn’t have more to say. Loving is sensitive and sweet, but isn’t able to transfer the love on screen to the audience.

-Madeleine D

How to Not Make A Disney Movie: Kubo and the Two Strings

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

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2016 has been a spectacular year for animated movies. Not really for anything else, but animation is at least on a roll. The year started off with Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia, and has recently had strong entries like Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets. Later this year will be Moana, Sing, and Storks, which all look solid to me.

Now, along comes Kubo and the Two Strings, which I went into cold. I usually do research beforehand on all the movies I see (i.e, watch trailers, research the studio and talent names, etc.). With Kubo, all I knew was that it was from Laika entertainment, and starred Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa!).

I was a little nervous because so far I haven’t loved any of Laika’s stuff. Laika is the only studio right now doing stop-motion films. They are known for being dark, creepy, and very artistic. Laika is the Martin Scorsese of animated movies. Everyone respects them, they always get nominated, but Pixar always wins anyway.

So, in a year of great animated movies, will Kubo and the Two Strings ruin the streak of coming in #2? Or will it represent proudly and possibly win Best Animated Oscar?

Kubo and the Two Strings begins with Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a young boy who had his left eye taken from him by the Moon King, his grandfather, in an act of revenge against Kubo’s parents. His father was lost, and now Kubo spends his days taking care of his sickly mother. She warns him to never go out after dark, or the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will be able to see him and take his other eye.

One day Kubo sees the people of his village celebrating their ancestors and praying to them. He goes with the group to a river and makes his own monument for his father, and tries praying to it. He doesn’t get a response, and starts to go home angry, when he suddenly realizes it is after dark. The Sisters (Rooney Mara), henchmen of the Moon King, attack Kubo. His mother comes to save him, giving up her life, and telling Kubo to go find a suit of armor that will protect him. He is joined on his quest by Monkey (Charlize Theron), whom his mother sends to guide him, and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), who used to serve Kubo’s father.

Right off the bat, the film warns you it is going to be dark, and it is not going to take its themes of death and loss lightly. In just this short intro, two people have died, and a child has had his eye removed. This is not a little-kids film, the deaths portrayed being more Grimm Brothers than Disney. There was some crying in my theater. I went with my family and two elementary school kids, and both talked about how scary the film was afterwards. I myself was a little freaked out by the villains in this film. Laika doesn’t mess around. That is what makes it work so well.

Speaking of Disney, there are some things I really appreciate about this film that I wish Disney (representing all mainstream animation) would take notes on. To be clear, I enjoy Disney movies, they’re some of my favorites. But, I also have a lot of beef with them as a studio and the formulas I see emerging in their newest movies (impress me, Moana). Here is a film that does anti-Disney so well, and it works wonders.

What Kubo and The Two Strings does that no other animated movie so far this year has done:

  • Some of the most breathtaking, painstakingly detailed animation that I have ever seen. I saw this film in 2D, yet it felt 3D with its textures, colors, and worldbuilding.
  • The quiet moments. Films this year have had a few quiet moments, scenes that focused on worldbuilding, character development, and mythology more than action or comedy, but not many. Kubo takes every opportunity to sit the characters down and have them talk, banter, and share stories.
  • A plot with stakes. A plot that lets people die, doesn’t give us boring fake-outs, and one that commits to its premise.
  • Save for Finding Dory, it is one of the most family-affirming films of the year, and shows how we all need parents and/or mentors in our lives.
  • Despite some of its Eastern-religious themes, the film explores how we relate to the dead, and the people (God) put in our lives to guide us.
  • Every. Single. Action. Sequence is memorable. They are all different, they all use their locations creatively, reveal character, and advance the plot.
  • A beautiful use of score.
  • It made me feel the feels without manipulating my emotions.

Besides the breathtaking animation (describing it here doesn’t do it justice), the voice acting is a highlight. Charlize Theron brings a sweet, yet fierce, wit that really works in the film. I loved every second her character was on screen, and the emotion portrayed with her voice. Matthew McConaughey gives it his all, and while at first I was apprehensive of his character, I grew to like him more and more. However, his very-American country twang sounds out of place sometimes more than others, but I appreciated the energy and enthusiasm in the performance. Art Parkinson, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes all do admirable work too as their respective characters. Maybe one day we’ll get Japanese voice actors to play Japanese characters, but since this is animation and the cast does a fine job, I’ll let it slide.

I can’t recommend Kubo and The Two Strings enough. Suicide Squad got you down? Remakes making you bored? Want to see something different? This film will do the trick.

-Madeleine D