Isle of Good Boys

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Isle of Dogs is the sort of movie that should have a first-class ticket into my heart (and indeed was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year). It’s not just the new Wes Anderson film, it’s the new Wes Anderson film returning to his lovely animation style from Fantastic Mr. Fox focusing on bunch of dogs set in Japan, with whatever fears of problematic elements (confirmed, I have to admit and will elaborate on, to be worse than I expected) at least promising to deliver an affinity for the styles of Japanese cinema. All of which it delivers on, even if the callbacks to Japanese cinema do not go further than Kurosawa Akira or Ozu Yasujiro.

Far be it from me to claim that Isle of Dogs ended up a disappointment. Indeed, I walked away from it with a smile on my face but one that wanes with every passing season with the thought that it perhaps felt like I – the ideal viewer for this kind of movie – needed to meet it halfway more than I should have had to.

Not a good necessity to have when you are writing a parable about the sweet selflessness of friendship, much as Anderson did based on a story he developed with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. That story is about a dystopian future in the Japanese city of Megasaki, where a threatening strain canine flu is the catalyst for Mayor Kobayashi Kenji (voiced by Nomura) to enact an order that all dogs be expelled to the nearby accurately-named Trash Island. He makes an example of this by having his son Atari’s (Rankin Koyu) guard-dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) be the first deportee.

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Within six months, the inhabiting dogs of the island have now orbited into their own packs and one particular pack made of the previously-pampered Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray; my favorite just because he looks the most adorable in his little league Dragons jersey), and led by grizzled stray Chief (Bryan Cranston) witness a little plane crash-landing with young Atari (distressingly injured from the crash for the rest of the film including an alarming bit protruding out of his head), who subsequently attempts to discipline them using the Seven Samurai theme and recruits them in search of his beloved dog. Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, radical high school exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) investigates into the roots and endgoals of Mayor Kobayashi and his right-hand Major Domo (Takayama Akira)’s plan with the isle of dogs.

Did I say “parable”? Sorry, it gets more complex than that, but the center of the film is the growing bond between Akira and distrusting Chief (having suffered much as a stray in the metropolis) as they seek to reunite Akira with his best friend. Anyway, we may as well acknowledge the problematic elements out of the gate: the imposition of a white savior in Walker (who is a pretty annoying character), the stereotype of Asian mistreatment towards dogs (and caricatured design of Major Domo as some pale yellow fever grotesquerie), the overwhelming presence of non-Asian voices over Asian voice actors (and even though the Asian characters are voiced by Asian actors, much of their dialogue is talked over Frances “inclusion clause” McDormand – a frustrating matter when Anderson gives this movie’s title cards a lateral aesthetic that compliments its design), and especially a development in the third act that – I’m avoiding spoilers – recalls a horrifying atrocity the US commit against the Japanese in a manner that places the Japanese in the perpetrator role and brought me the closest to saying “fuck this”.

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Anyway, if you can push past that (And it’s a lot. My privilege as a non-Asian viewer is showing, but Justin Chang and Jen Yamato have a great episode of their podcast The Reel that cuts deeper into these issues), you get a very busily designed movie that mostly pays off in an aesthetic sense. When we’re opened to an diorama look of Megasaki, it is certainly reminiscent of the wide shot introducing the titular Grand Budapest Hotel to us, with moving parts and lights, centralized by the bright red Town Hall and a looming volcano in the distance. And that’s just the start of the sort of an abidance by Japanese cinema and Noh theater that production designers Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod get to play with. Trash Island, made up mostly of blocks of garbage, gets to base its design on stacks or remnants of an old by-gone youthful world with its slides and theme park rides. And despite my complaint about Domo’s design, the rest of the humans are mostly made to look so unpersonable so that the dogs can be as scruffed up as they would be left to their own devices and still be entirely appealing in their bigs eyes (helped by a cast that mostly doesn’t have much to do as characters but still does it hella well; Tilda Swinton’s Oracle is hilarious in its facial expressions and Jeff Goldblum’s delivery of “I love gossip” is so Goldblum-y). More human than human, I’d claim the intention is.

The movement of all these pieces in a manner that mirrors the multiple pieces of narrative we have to work here with and the presentation with it via Anderson’ favorite horizontal camera movements (this time mirroring the sort of cinema he is trying to homage and thereby at the appropriate usage that this trademark has ever had in his filmography) and presents the most controlled aesthetic that Anderson has ever given us (indeed, animation does demand that control is held over by the filmmaker in every aspect). Something, people might argue, feels too controlled in a way that maybe a sincere tale about friendship should be left to organically. It’s maybe the first film where I actually understood people’s issues with Anderson’s characters being a bit distanced from you based on how aware you are of the film’s artifice.

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I still think unfiltered feeling is still there in pockets: from the voice performance of Cranston beginning with a gruff guard slowly transforming into determined warmth, a sense of wounding given to Chief as the film moves on, flashback scenarios establishing Atari’s relationship with Spots, all of which cycle into a payoff by the third act. And of course, every single dog is as adorable looking as can be, whether patchy or pudgy, no matter how many vicious injuries they suffer (indeed Isle of Dogs really reminded me of how unexpectedly violent Anderson’s films can be, though the cartoon-esque scuffling in a ball of dust was amusing no less). But the more I look back on the times I’ve had within the Isle of Dogs, the more I’m left with memories of the first Anderson movie I liked but did not love despite all ingredients being my jam.

I don’t know, maybe Wes is more of a cat person. I mean, look what he made happen to poor Buckley.

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FLASHBACK/EDIT EXTENSION: Halloween Costumes Considered…

Well, it’s now that Horror-movie marathon month of October. The unfortunate thing is that, as of this year, I am much too involved in my internal mental and emotional conflicts with several events the month before to invest myself into a continuous stream of movies from the genre I take the most enjoyment of watching in my entire life. Sad but true.

So, it’s about 1 am here in Phoenix and, to quote Bob Seger, I’m thinking “about the woman, oh the girl [I] knew the night before.” The fact of the matter is that what’s making me think about her at this hour is knowing her birthday is essentially Halloween and she stressed that I attempt to come out of my Halloween hiatus and actively pursue a Halloween costume rather than my standard “badass motherfucker” (aka me in casual clothing) this year.

Ironically, I quit on the occasion that I, inspired by a cracked article, went about as The Dread Pirate Roberts at one point from Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, taking the advice that it’d get me laid. While I at this point believe it’s going a bit too close for comfort with you unknown readers if I just say the result, I will say a side-effect is that I largely got mistaken for Zorro instead (Probably because I am Arab and as such very clearly not Cary Elwes). Add that to the childhood shock I got everytime I saw a costume of the two most-frightening elements of my early nightmares: The Cryptkeeper and Freddy Krueger, and I just gave up on it.

God damn you, Batman!

Now, a girl has made me change my mind… Yeah, go ahead and make that whipping gesture. Brand me too, because the circumstances are more pathetic. The fact is that deep inside, I’ve always wanted to go back to taking part in such a fun venture but the way my family/culture raised me, my preference to keep my own persona intact at all times, the above incidents, the lack of money or resources, all pointed me to just avoiding it. But I’ve already thought it through and decided “Yes, this will be fun.”

So, as I watch G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, a movie with a very amazing costume-juggling and hairstyle character performed perfectly by Louise Brooks (a suggestion to all you ladies out there who like to knock-out the old-fashioned), I come to my list of costumes that I think would make a splendid suggestion to myself or my film-viewing peers…

  • Max Fischer (Rushmore) – The easy one. Just make a uniform and patch for the character and go about in it. It’s not an outrageous character, but the costume is distinctive still in that way Wes Anderson makes his characters distinctive. I’d do Steve Zissou’s team as well, since they have a costume worth trying but nobody would recognize that one at all.
  • Eric Draven (The Crow) – Besides being the not as epic version of black metal band Immortal’s frontman Abbath, Eric Draven is pretty much the one superhero I’d like to go as, and a gothic one at that too. His wrapping in black leather and face paint in order to evoke his soul’s pain with black slashes across him and outright evoke the titular animal that revived his life to avenge his and his fiance’s murder insists a mood to be reached before attempting to become such a character. He’s melancholy in all the attractive ways and still a lover deep inside. It adds a bit of spook to the costume when pointing out the fact that this was the role that killed Brandon Lee (son of martial arts legend Bruce) before he could utilize his showcased talents in this film to kickstart his acting career.
  • Mr. Orange (Reservoir Dogs) – If I had the money to ruin a nice black suit, I’d so do this. I’d put fake blood on me, go to a Halloween party (even though I’m not a party guy) and just lie on the floor instead of sitting in a chair in pain. Freak people out? Most definitely. But I’d be having fun and that’s the main point, right? As long as I don’t scream “FUCK YOU, MAN! I’M FUCKING DYING HERE!!!!”, I’m in the cool.
Worst C-section ever… (Okay, that joke is in bad taste)
  • Frankenstein/Dracula/The Wolf Man/The Mummy/The Invisible Man/The Creature from the Black Lagoon/The Phantom of the Opera (Universal Studios Monsters) – Ranging from the impossible to the minimalist, these movie monsters were real cinematic attractions to my young eyes and I love to tribute them in any way possible. The only tough thing (other than making the costumes) is figuring which one to choose. Dracula, with the luxurious aristocratic look of his count status, has always been my favorite, but I have been recently taking a liking to Lawrence Talbot aka The Wolf Man, the fuzzy evil teddy bear look getting ready to tear you to shreds. Though I have yet to see it (a fact I intend to change soon), The Invisible Man’s iconic sunglasses with head wrapped in gauze to allow his presence known and have some kind of a dialogue with the characters is easy to try (unless there’s more to the costume I unaware of yet). Ugh, even the Creature from the Black Lagoon is crazy awesome. Of course, I’d have to bring a date as The Bride of Frankenstein.
  • Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (The Big Lebowski) – Oh, do shut up, you guys saw this coming. It’s one of only two fictional characters I ever aspired to be like. The Dude is less likely for me given my infamously violent and and angry persona, but he’s just so enlightened and funny and cool as a person from everything to his beard, his appetite for White Russians to his robe and his laziness. Everything’s alright when the dude’s around. That’s why the Dude’s a boss. Who doesn’t want to be the Dude? Go away.
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Also I get my own dance with it.
I call this move Logjammin’, asshole!
  • The Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz) – I don’t know, I just love the big fuzzballs. Chewbacca, The Grinch (Jim Carrey’s version, though Boris Karloff’s voice is easily classic), they all just get to me no matter how mean they act. The best part about The Cowardly Lion is you know up front what’s up with him, it’s just an act. He’s just looking for some bravery. While others line me up for the Tin Man, I must say The Cowardly Lion is my favorite character in one of my favorite movies. And that little bow on his head after the people of Oz are done grooming him is so adorable… Did I lose my mean motherfucker status yet?
Just the dandiest king of the forest!!!
  • A Ghostbuster (Ghostbusters) – Doesn’t matter which character. I’d be myself but I’d be running around with a proton charger assuring everyone they’re safe because I’m a professional. A goddamned Ghostbuster. Fuck superheroes, they’re too perfect and alienated from society (unless you count Spider-Man but his relation to real society is through his problems not his personality. He invents web-shooters, dammit!). A Ghostbuster is the movie’s central working man focus. People have firefighters, they have doctors, they have police officers and then they’d need to have a neighborhood Ghostbuster. Who’s afraid of ghosts?
  • Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange) – I believe I would be biased. As a drummer, my two biggest influences are the late groove-master John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and right below him the infamous genre-versatile Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater/Liquid Tension Experiment fame (now involved in the great bands Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors). Portnoy takes great pleasure in his work, especially tributing his idols like Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Keith Moon (The Who), the afore-mentioned Bonzo, and, possibly his outright God, Neil Peart (Rush). I am proud to say I have a DVD of one of his tribute performances – Hammer of the Gods, the one for my favorite band, Led Zeppelin. In it, Portnoy dresses as one of the Stanley Kubrick film’s sadistic Droogs and I don’t why he did it, but I liked the style and I immediately wanted to do that outfit despite the Droogs being horrific in their deeds for the most part. Yeah, okay, hate me… It’s a movie costume for a non-movie related reason. I’m a sucker for Mike Portnoy and Led Zeppelin, when the two are mixed together, I am their Droog now and forever.

  • Doc Emmett Brown (Back to the Future) – Well, I had to imitate him for a school project favor I was doing for some classmates. Which is great because while everybody wanted to be Marty McFly, I wanted to be Doc Brown. He’s wacky and off his cranium that he was just fun to want to be. He made science more than fun than almost anybody… ALMOST anybody, you’re still in the STinG’s childhood hall of fame, Billy Nye. So I wouldn’t make it a secret that any chance to be Doc Brown for Halloween would elate me significantly. In fact…
I’m already halfway there.
  • Jake and Elwood Blues (The Blues Brothers) – Icons that were really really cool to watch and even more cool to dress as. Unlike the Mr. Orange one, I wouldn’t have to ruin the suit, but I will have to get a stylish hat and another friend who can evoke John Belushi’s most lovable, commanding, seductive convict. They’re soul men. They’re on a mission from God. And they’re a good role model for the children. In the immortal words of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, The Blues Brothers is for the chillun’.

  • Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) – I had flirted around with this possibility with another metalhead I knew but we eventually avoided it as it’d have been a bitch and a half to find the dated outfits required and we also were stuck in argument as to who gets to be Ted (I guess we all love Neo, don’t we?). So that never came about, but I never lose hope. Also, the bigger incentive to me is just having those clothes, because I not be wearing them solely on Halloween. That’s a style you don’t see anymore and it ended before my time so I’d really love to get my own shot at it. Despite the strange looks. Hey, be excellent to one another!
So narrowing down my choices to those, which out of these costumes did I select? Well, in truth… none of them… Suckas…
  • BONUS: Jesse Custer (Preacher comic series) – Essentially, I decided THIS is the one I’m going as. With the Dude being the film character I wish to be like, Jesse Custer is the only OTHER fictional character I’d love to be. An ass-kicker who doesn’t take any shit, always wins a fight and yet is still deep inside a romantic who would do anything for his girl whom he loves “until the end of the world”, Jesse Custer is the ultimate man. He’s had more shit thrown at him than Job and yet doesn’t not lose who he is and is nowhere near a pathetic character. He just keeps on his spiritual and physical journey pretty much, through all the horrors, the worst of American culture and human society. He knows he’ll get an answer for them soon enough. Utilizing an eyepatch for when God bites his eye out halfway through the series, while grabbing a reverend collar and other casual effects and growing my hair back to its semi-curly glory, I won’t get any recognition for my character, but walking around as my favorite comic book hero is satisfaction enough. And it may be cheating because he’s not a movie character (yet), but it’s well-known I’ve always intended to make this series into a mini-series. That is if Warner Bros. doesn’t utilize their owning of the DC properties to make it first, since the film rights pretty much exist in Time Warner’s hands. Regardless, I won’t go as a badass motherfucker, so I compromise as THE badass motherfucker. Not much of a change?
EDIT: Now that was in the past for my costume…

Like a boss…. I think…

But this year, my costume is actually one of the few pop figures who I looked up to. A man who kept his battles to himself, but never found an apathy when dealing with his losing fight. A man who is considered the greatest singer of all time (and I’d agree that he is one of the best singers ever). A man who was shy and impersonal off stage and yet on stage a big ball of energy who never let the fun drop. An Eastern kid like me who had grown up in the West as a man of both cultures and all seasons.

I am of course talking about… Farrokh Bulsara aka Freddie Mercury.

Daayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy-O!

At first decided as a costume simply for the promo of my radio show A Night at the Opera (combo-breaking my co-hosts as the Marx Brothers), I decided I may as well go along with this as well. So I did.

Be safe, y’all! And keep the reel rollin’!