“A Marriage Story”

Noah Baumbach’s divorce movie is a noble contender for “Best Picture”. Painful and funny, the script begins with Nicole ( Scarlet Johansson) and Charlie ( Adam Driver ) listing all the things they love about each other. The listing is not on Valentine’s Day, but required by their divorce mediator. The film is very much of a love story in the course of a divorce that really did not have to happen. There was no third person to obfuscate nor any major event to traumatize values. There was love in every scene. Though often, it was just in Charlie’s and Nicole’s eyes. They did not have to divorce, thus the tragedy.

We learn through flashback that Nicole and Charlie work together professionally. Charlie has the upper-hand as director. Nicole feels he is holding her screen career back. It is Nicole’s divorce attorney who listens to Nicole and articulates and guides her in the dissolution of her marriage. Laura Dern is scathing as the raw-talking guide, who will get the split done. Dern plays a shrewd escalator in what becomes a battle for the custody of Nicole and Charlie’s young son. The New York verses L.A. commute becomes paramount. Charles states that they are a New York family: Nicole runs to her California roots and regresses to a surly teen in her mother’s house.

To give Nicole her due, the scene with her mother melting over her son-in-law is off putting, and Charlie has his narcissistic side. But Nicole never really talks about what she wants or feels is lacking. Johansson’s tearful monologue on her attorney’s couch needed a real counselor to draw out why she allowed Charlie to hold back her career and decided to call it quits without giving her husband a chance to change. Her self-love and the possibilities for her career supersede real partner intervention. Her intent is set. Driver’s Charlie plays more sympathetic. His striving to keep his son in his life is admirable and heart-wrenching.

Ray Liotta uses his shark eyes and his own shrewdness to stand against Dern in legal battle. Competition between lawyers and competition between theatrical and film careers seem to draw out the worst in everyone.

The acting on all counts is terrific. We are lost in the characters , and Driver’s and Johansson’s star power never breaks our focus. I wanted to hand them both Rollo May’s “Love and Will” ( 1969). It is possible to participate in the ” meaning-matrix” of another without surrendering your own. Anyone who has experienced divorce will wince more than once, yet ” A Marriage Story” somehow finds caustic humor in this domestic tragedy of a heart- breaking variety.

“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.