Isle of Dogs (2018, Wes Anderson)

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Wes Anderson’s films have always hewed closely to the intertwined strands of the fantastical and the storybook. But this essential impulse, evident in his trademark aesthetic, has never been more apparent than in his latest effort, Isle of Dogs. The opening is only the first sign: a prologue told by a monk that closely parallels the events to come. This time, however, the setting is markedly different from his heretofore Western-centric films: Japan, sometime in the future, specifically in the fictional city of Megasaki. After the mayor (Kunichi Nomura, who also co-conceived the story) orders the exile of all dogs to the neighboring isle of Trash Island on the grounds of an infectious “dog flu”, his distant nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) flies to the island in an attempt to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). Upon landing, he is joined by a gang of dogs, whose most prominent member is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray fiercely opposed to domestication. What follows is in essence a men-on-a-mission film, interwoven with student-led investigations into the possible governmental suppression of a cure for the virus.

Isle of Dogs thrives upon this fairly straightforward premise, stringing together a fleet series of encounters by imbuing with a sense of weight, either comedic or emotional, through the careful building of a constellation of distinctive characters. Anderson’s films have long had an off-kilter balance between arcs and individual moments, and this movie is largely tilted towards the latter: to name just one of the most piercing examples, the first flashback (of many), which shows Spots and Atari’s first meeting, has enough emotional heft to sustain a full half of a lesser film. Ironically, despite the enormous cast, the heart of the film ultimately feels as if it belongs to two or three figures (Atari, Chief, and Spots), but the ways in which they affect those around them consistently prove to be thrilling and, often, more than a little moving.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

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The Andersonian hero makes his own world. Not exactly a fantasist, he (and it’s almost always a he) is a man out of time. An aspiring thief (Bottle Rocket), a master thief (Fantastic Mr. Fox), wildly impractical teenagers (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom), a discoverer of hidden worlds (Life Aquatic), families of prodigies (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited). Their opponents are the depressing realities of everyday life, the warn-down depressions of middle-age (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore), the accumulated disappointments of unrealized dreams (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums), or simply friends and family who lack their creative ambition and would rather settle down for a quiet life (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic).

Ralph Fiennes’s M. Gustave is The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s explicitly designated man out of time. A lone patch of civilization in the barbarous world of a fictionalized inter-war Central Europe. Dandyish and perfumed, prissy and effete, he swears like a drunken Marine and is very committed to his duties as concierge, going so far to please his guests as to sleep with all the rich, elderly ladies who come to stay at the palatial hotel (for he is their holding action against the inevitable declines of age). Against him stands not merely a personification of the real world or a more practical counterpart, but rather the systemic decline of civilization itself, murderous greed and the rise of fascism. Set against not merely the greedy inheritors of one of Gustave’s lover’s fortunes, but the increasingly menacing martial forces of a Nazi-like state, Grand Budapest Hotel is, I think, the first Anderson film to acknowledge an outside political reality whatsoever (rather than simply politics as family and personal relationships). That it deals with a phony version of an 80+ year old movement should come as no surprise.

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