Isle of Dogs
The festival opened with the latest feature from director Wes Anderson, the stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs. The film carries all the director’s usual hallmarks: deadpan humour, hyper-stylised visuals and Bill Murray included. But in some ways the film backs away from some of the more finicky, twee elements of Anderson’s filmography in favour of something looser – and you get the sense that, for the first time in his career, Anderson has allowed himself to get his paws dirty.
This is largely owing to the film’s plot. Set in a dystopia-lite Japan of the near future, the film predominantly takes place on a trash island where all dogs have been exiled by order of the villainous, cat-loving major Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) following an outbreak of ‘snout flu’. It is in this land of rubbish heaps that the 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) crashes his makeshift plane and sets off in search of his own canine pal Spots, with the help of stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston) and his pack of “scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. Things get heated when it is revealed that Atari is the nephew and ward of Kobayashi, who sends a team of evil mechanised mutts to retrieve the boy.
As the barking plot makes obvious, Isle of Dogs is as inventive as anything Anderson has done. The animation runs smoother than it did in his previous animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and the plotting allows for an exploration of a vast array of settings, all of which are visual treats. Hand-drawn newsflashes punctuate the action, and explosions and sneezes are delightfully rendered in cotton wool. Most essentially, thoughtfulness has gone into every single pooch, each one given personality by the skilful crafting of the models, the star-studded voice cast, and the Miyazaki-esque attention to doggie behaviour.
There will be the usual naysayers who find Anderson’s style annoyingly affected, but prepare for a more specific think piece onslaught when this gets its general release – Isle of Dogs may be politically relevant in the loosest sense, but its representation of gender and race feels a little backward. Greta Gerwig’s Tracy – a student working to expose the corruption of Kobayashi’s government – is the only female character afforded something resembling a narrative arc; even then, more problems arise from the fact that her role as ‘foreign exchange student’ essentially renders her a white saviour.
Maybe that’s a little harsh on Isle of Dogs, which not only has Japanese actors in Japanese roles – a seeming no-brainer, but pretty radical by Hollywood’s whitewashy standards – but also takes the massive commercial risk of having them speak unsubtitled Japanese. Moreover, the fact that someone as creative as Wes Anderson is operating in the mainstream at all is worth celebrating, especially considering that, a decade ago with The Darjeeling Limited (2007), it seemed he would shoehorn himself into making predictable hipster flicks. Instead, Anderson has cemented his position as one of the most inventive auteurs of his generation – and Isle of Dogs makes a worthy addition to his oeuvre.
Todd Haynes’s follow-up to Carol (2015) interweaves the stories of two children whose lives strangely echo each other’s across time. In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) flees from her cruel father and catches a boat to New York to seek out her idol, the silent movie actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, following the death of his mother, Ben (Oakes Fegley) similarly runs away to the Big Apple in search of his father. Both are drawn to the Museum of Natural History, where the mystery of their connection begins to reveal itself.
Unfortunately, Wonderstruck can’t make good on its promise to satisfactorily solve said mystery. The film’s overdependence on plot contrivances and unrealistic character psychology betray its roots in a children’s book, and flailing narrative threads are solved by a last-minute exposition dump.
Perhaps, however, it is a mistake to judge Haynes’ film merely on its disappointing narrative payoff. Wonderstruck is no doubt an ambitious technical feat; Rose’s segments are shot as a black and white silent film, while Ben’s portions, shot on colour-negative film, evoke the filmmaking styles of the 1970s as much as they do the period itself. More interesting than their formal differences are the way the narratives intersect – both children running their hands along the same meteorite fifty years apart – and it’s here that moments of marvel peek through. An emotive flashback sequence told by animated miniatures will leave you genuinely wonderstruck, if just for a moment.
‘Are we losing interest in everyday life?’ In Columbus, this question is raised during a conversation about mistaking attention-span for interest, but for first-time writer and director Kogonada, it may as well be the guiding manifesto of this quietly astonishing debut. This is a film about the brief connection shared by protagonists who delight in taking note of the world around them, made by a filmmaker who is happier to dedicate to time to watching those protagonists wander, talk or even make a sandwich than he is introducing any action.
The film is set in the hometown of Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman with a passion for architecture tethered to Columbus, Indiana by the sense of duty she feels towards her mother, a recovering addict. She meets Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American man visiting his estranged father, a famed Korean architect who has gone into a coma.
Columbus is an unhurried and gentle film, brought to life by a pair of spirited central performances. Elisha Christian’s cinematography echoes the characters’ passion for architecture, and the screenplay is moving without ever becoming too easily sentimental. But above all else the chemistry between Richardson and Cho is to die for. Many critics have noted similarities with Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, though that may just be a case of wishful sequel dreaming. Columbus creates characters you are desperate to revisit down the line, and that’s the biggest compliment you can give a film like this.
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s latest offering is a fusion of arthouse abstraction and B movie thrills, to mixed effect. It sees Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a traumatised veteran and hitman-of-sorts, undertaking an assignment to recover Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the pre-teen daughter of a senator, from a sex-trafficking ring. The predictably risky rescue mission lands Joe in a nightmarish world of violence and political corruption.
The exact nature of that corruption is only loosely sketched for us; You Were Never Really Here is not so much a conspiracy thriller as it is a particularly unpleasant rollercoaster ride inside the head of its protagonist. It’s plenty entertaining enough in its own bleak way, with a couple of unforgettable individual scenes, one a violent altercation told through CCTV footage, another an otherworldly underwater sequence. And it’s also a technical marvel, especially in regard to Ramsay’s direction, Jonny Greenwood’s synth-heavy score and the hair-raising sound design.
But the film’s sonic brilliance is undermined by the occasional ironic song choice – cutesy pop over violence and heavy score over tranquillity – a tired trope done by everyone from Kubrick to Lynch to Ramsay herself. It’s indicative of the film’s broader tendency to lean excessively on genre clichés, which serve to somewhat undermine its otherwise radical outlook.
It’s also unclear what exactly the film is trying to do. Ramsay pulls too many punches for it to work solely as an exploitation thriller, but as a character study it’s also found lacking – the memories of war and childhood abuse that punctuate the film feel like a cheap attempt at characterisation. You Were Never Really Here has been compared to Taxi Driver, but ultimately resembles something closer the films of Nicolas Winding Refn in all their technically brilliant, intellectually empty glory. Make of that what you will.
Images: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival