Movie Review – Isle of Dogs

Do see Isle of Dogs if it comes anywhere near your theater. It’s creative and quirky, with a great voiceover cast of big stars…and this is honestly something I haven’t seen before. Everyone in the production really pulled out a stylish little film. There are moments in this stop-animation tale that are sort of strange and artsy (I’m not normally a fan of artsy), but the story settles into a small-scale kind of epic adventure once the dogs start talking. There’s light humor, and “biting” humor, so both kids and adults will be able to “sink their teeth” into this (sorry about the puns).

I appreciated the conceit that the dogs are totally understandable, and the humans speak in gibberish (to them, and therefore to us, unless you speak Japanese). That was pretty clever. All the dogs were given a loving treatment, with their own personalities, and best of all: they didn’t come across as furry talking people (as Disney/Pixar oft do with their animal sidekicks). Their behaviors and conversations were recognizably doggie. Another item: the dogs of “our pack” stoically bear the kind of dorky names people have given them across time, like Chief, Spot, Buddy, Rex, Duke, King, Boss…it was cute.

And be warned, the cats in this movie seem fairly evil. “Finding the Cats” could be a vastly amusing drinking game — the corrupt government officials uniformly carry them around; they appear as statues, as logos on appliances and storefronts, and as iconography incorporated into maps and artwork. It’s somehow both subtle and overt. I kept expecting the proliferation of cats to have some great meaning, but that would be too obvious. Isle of Dogs is smarter and sneakier than that.

Really, the dogs as individuals were great. I could have sat through an entire movie with just the pack, hanging out, talking about favorite foods and their masters, flirting with the females, and composing Canine Haiku. Anytime we cut away to the people in the city, I started losing interest. Fortunately, most of the movie centers on “our pack” in this doggie dystopia, and it’s really groovy. There’s a few heartwarming moments to get teary-eyed, scattered throughout, but no real sob-worthy scenes. (I always like a head’s up if there might be ugly crying in my movie future. Yes, I’m still wary of seeing Toy Story 3.)

And I’m a sucker for hearing Jeff Goldblum’s voice from a dog’s snout. (The man embodies quirk.) Listening for all the celebrity voices was a treat. The screen lists the characters and actors in the intro, but it goes by so quickly that you can’t remember who plays what dog by the time you meet them. Part of the fun is recognizing these A-List actors as the film plays out.

There are a TON of visuals packed into most scenes, and it occurs to me this is the perfect kind of film to own on DVD, and play when you want something enjoyable in the background on house-cleaning day. You’ll keep finding things you missed on prior viewings. I can think of several scenes I wanted to pause the movie at, just to keep up with the casually sly asides going by.

Well paced, easy-going, unusual, and at times highly satiric. A real creative showstopper, Isle of Dogs gets a well-deserved A.

Movie Grade – A

Movie Review – Ghost in the Shell

Grade: A-

This is a really, really pretty movie. It’s also a seamless use of CGI, and I’m normally really hard on films that rely extensively on computer animation. It totally works in this one.

Ghost in the Shell is an origin story for a comic book character called Major, and apparently this isn’t a case of ‘Asian whitewashing’ if you are an established fan. Johannson does a good job carrying the film, giving us a stoic, understated hero, struggling to understand whether she has any humanity left. Don’t expect a lot of humor – the main lighthearted moments are reserved for her friend and coworker Bantou, who really is the best part of the film. I smiled whenever he entered a scene.

Everyone else is deadly serious. I’m not a huge fan of deadly serious stories, but understand how the themes in GitS are relatively mature – presenting the nature of man, and the ethics of cybernetic enhancements. Where exactly do we draw the line in upgrading one’s given body, in pursuit of perfect health, upgraded skills…or frivolity (for example, getting an implant that lets you drink too much, so you don’t get hung over)? If you like the works of Philip K Dick, you’ll relate to this story. I do wish it had been a bit lighter in tone, however.

It’s a relatively short origin superhero tale (at one hour and 47 minutes), with an efficient pace. The action is exciting, reliable, and easy to follow. There’s a tremendous amount of dialog though, making it tough to find Peetimes. If I had to relate this movie to others, I’d say it has elements of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and a bit of The Matrix. Ghost in the Shell doesn’t achieve any of the bars set by those films, but is a respectable offering for what I expect to be a new franchise. I wasn’t disappointed, and sometimes that’s all you need.

LUCY – movie review

lucyGrade: B-
“Lucy” is like two movies mashed together: one is enjoyable and explores interesting questions; the other is lame and hyper-violent. Rating this movie is a question of how to balance these two.

Where this movie really fails is in it’s brevity. Not including the credits it’s only an hour and twenty-two minutes long. That’s far too short a time to do any substantial character and plot development. At least one of them will have to be sacrificed. In this case, it’s the characters who get the short shrift.

The movie begins just minutes before Lucy goes through her transformation. It would have been nice to have just a brief scene with her in her normal habitat – who she is, what she’s doing, what her dreams are. But we only get the tiniest of glimpses into that portion of her character.

I may be slightly biased – and that’s an understatement – but I thought Scarlett Johansson did a wonderful job of evolving her character as she went through the transformation. One thing she does particularly well is act without speaking. She can say a great deal through facial expressions and body posture without overdoing it. For instance, some actors have their “surprised face” but they overdo it. Scarlett is great at expressing both surface and subsurface expressions simultaneously: being surprised, and yet trying to comprehend what she’s surprised about.

Morgan Freeman was his usual awesome self. The gravitas he brings to his role was essential for this movie, since there was zero character development for him to work with. We’ve seen Freeman playing the authoritative role often enough that we can easily form an amalgamation of his previous characters in our minds, to help define his character in this movie. That’s poor story telling, but at least Freeman can pull it off.

In the end I wish I could give the screen writers and director a D and the actors an A. I guess I’ll average them out and give it a C+, or a B- because Scarlett is my favorite actress.