“Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson’s animated adventure trek is full of dry wit and laugh-out -loud deadpan humor. It is an up-dated version of a 12 year-old boy searching for his lost dog. The boy, Atari, happens to be Japanese and his savior-in-kind an American foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker ( Greta Gerwig’s voice).

We begin with “ Ten centuries ago before…” and the disclaimer that all barks have been rendered in English. We are introduced to “underdog dogs” who have been banished to a trash island. A complicated back story is told in several flashbacks. A 67th term incumbent has transformed the Japanese archipelago into a dog free state. The question of “ What ever happened to man’s best friend?” is asked again and again as the tidal wave of dog hysteria over snout fever deports all canines to the Isle of Dogs. “Fear has been mongrelized”. Here, in “Isle of Dogs”, we see rain and rats and maggot strewn refuse.

Bryan Cranston’s voice and wry tone  are perfect as the nomadic alpha dog, Chief. We hear rumors circulating amongst Duke, Boss, Rex and Chief: “ One of our own hanged himself on his own leash”. On the up side , we meet Nutmeg, a preening show dog who does lap dog tricks and keeps the male dogs sniffing. Most of the dog fights are over food, however ; and one of my favorite scenes is when the crew waxes over their favorite long lost treats be it green-tea ice cream or Kobe beef with lots of salt and pepper.

Our storyline meshes with kidney transplants, robotic replacement pets, aboriginal dogs, military issued teeth, and messenger owls. Add conspiracy theories, pro-dog student protests, and “red button” fears, and we wonder how Anderson can be so “au current” in his tale of tails.

The haikus rendered at apt parts are lovely. They stay to the traditional form and therefore include images of nature’s seasonal beauty, even as we see the trash mounding skyward. The five syllabic count lines “Frost on windowpane” and “Falling spring blossoms” made me smile.

The stop-action animation I am drawn to, but there are plenty of action dust clouds for others. Silhouettes and shadows are appreciated. The drum beat sound track keeps one’s heart pulsing and the stellar list of voice overs range from the aforementioned Cranston and Gerwig to Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

I could see this treat again, but with Japanese sub-titles and even more campy refuse like igloos of saki bottles and hacker cubbies. Atari does find his pet and a new litter gives hope for the future. Wes Anderson answers the question “ Who are we, and who do we want to be?” with a animal loving  a drum roll.

“Lady Bird”

Actress Greta Gerwig’s directional debut in “Lady Bird” has a lot a humanities major would love: John Steinbeck, Joan Didion, August Wilson, and palindromes galore, and even Kierkegaard.  That being said there is also a lot that irritates.

This reviewer is still living in the Midwest and went to Catholic schools. I get Sacramento as the Midwest of California, and I get nuns. But as a rebellion film “Lady Bird” falls short.

Our narrator is Christine, (also my name) but “Lady Bird” is her name of choice. Lady Bird has an endearing habit of correcting adult statements with, “that we know of yet.” Her youth is open to all possibilities, yet she ends up back in her hometown after giving the big city only months.

This is a coming-of-age mother-daughter film, that while winning the Golden Globe for best Comedic Picture and  crediting Saoirse Ronan with Best Comedic Actress,  left me wanting. The repartee is alternately cute and affrontive. When NYC seems too far for her baby to go, mom Marion says   “What about terrorism ?”  LB eye rolls with an imperative: “Don’t be a Republican.” It is well-timed and funny, and merrily we roll along for ninety-three minutes.

We have the eating of unconsecrated wafers on the sacristy floor, and the derisive nomenclature akin to Trump’s “Rocket Boy”. Here it takes a Catholic twist bending in with a sacrilegious “Immaculate Fart”. Adolescent, yes. Rebellious, really?

A devoted, but jobless father( Tracy Letts), an over-worked and brittle mother ( Laurie Medcalf) , a  gay boy friend, and lust for the in-crowd’s acceptance all come into play as we would expect. Reading Zinn’s  “ The People’s History” during Mass, a creative touch. But rebellious?

We feel for Jules, LB’s “ghosted” friend, and for the Thrift Store prom dress scene with mom.  “Can’t you just say that I look nice?! , LB opines. Her alternative sassiness  and angst, and consummate self-centerness makes for a perfect adolescent documentary.

Lady Bird is plucky, passionate, and funny, but the film leaves little in the way of surprises in a teen’s life. A catharsis for Gerwig, maybe, but for most “ho hum”. My daughter’s rebellion would make a better story, just saying.

“Twentieth Century Woman”

Mike Mills’ movie, “Twentieth Century Women”, is the perfect movie to capture what this decade of over-scheduling mothers has lost~ that “go with the flow” feeling. Mills as writer/director and graphic artist perfectly captures the late seventies when we understood that being in perfect life-control  was an illusion.

Annette Bening completely inhabits her role as Dorothea Fields, a single mother with a budding, teenage son ( Lucas Zumann). Her easy live-in-the-moment style as boarding-house matron is challenged by her anxiety over providing what her son Jaime may need. His rebelliousness in forging creative excuses to skip school being one danger sign. He hands in a note that says he is doing volunteer work for the Sandinistas.  She asks for help from her two tenants: Abby (Greta Gerwig ) and William ( Billy Crudup). Julie ( Elle Fanning) adds to the commune by frequently sleeping platonically  with Jaime. This is a paen to  beautiful eccentricity. ( Cynthia, Caroline, Sheila~ I thought of you.) We have lost that ” live in the moment” vitality by over-planning.

Billy Crudup, as William, would be seen as a slacker in today’s age. “Why doesn’t he start his own renovation company? ” , a 2017 entrepreneur might ask. His hunky looks and hippie sensitivity remind me of a few men from my past. He makes his own shampoo,  and no doubt his own candles. One of my favorite scenes is where he attempts to show Dorothea how to meditate.

Nostalgic as this film may be for some, it brings to question the idea that success at any cost will disappoint.   Self-interest has its limits for happiness. Raising a child takes the village, and communal aid should be offered as support. While never preachy, “Twentieth-Century Women” holds up these values. Losing  them is not a good idea.

The cinematography is quirky in this film, often a frame within a frame. The interior sets with backdrops of colorfully painted walls show Dorothea’s bohemian flair. The initial aerial shot of teal green tidal pools  is as unusual as the almost animated, hand-colored  VW beetles zooming the winding roads of Santa Barbara.  Director Mills was a graphic artist and it shows.

Bening seems effortless inhabiting Dorothea ~ wearing Birkenstocks, chain-smoking Salems, and  exhibiting Mother Earth flair. She invites everyone to dinner. Her voiceovers pick up the details of the day. She has read ” Watership Down” and hyperventilated in ecstasy when  President Jimmy Carter gave  his ” Crisis of Confidence” speech. She is delightful to watch.

Elle Fanning is the scaffold-climbing Julie. The daughter of a therapist mother, Julie likes to play therapy like Jeopardy. Bening delivers an understated, ” Do you know that you are not actually a therapist?” with witty aplomb. Again, she is delightful to watch.

Greta Gerwig is Abby, a punkish feminist who introduces ” Our Bodies Ourselves” and Scott Peck’s glimmerings to her housemates. She is being treated for cervical cancer and occupies herself with photographing artistic shots of her few possessions. Again, Bening is terrific as she chastises Abby for feeding her son hardcore feminism that is just too much for him.

Lucas Zumann is a sweet Jaime. He explains away most of his mother’s ideas and actions by saying that she was a Depression baby. He routinely checks the stock markets with her. He worries that she is depressed and wishes to foist him off on others. He wishes her to be happier. Dorothea helps him bleach his hair and metaphorically practices breathing in and letting go. She laments that only others get to see her son out in the world as a person.

Dance and music interweave with the small details of boardinghouse life. Voiceovers tell us what becomes of each character. This is truly a 1970’s film. Nothing much happens but the flow of life, and that is enough.

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