Rather astonished to find Isle of Dogs defeat my expectations and become one of my least favorite Wes Andersons, if not the least.
Anderson is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers (I know, I know, join the club), but like a lot of my faves, I have significant reservations. It’s no great insight to point out that all of his films are male-centric, all with male protagonists, all with predominantly male casts, and all featuring at best one primary female supporting character.
He’s hardly unique in this respect, so it’s unfair to single him out when there are far more egregious examples (like, for example, almost every director ever). But it feels especially overt in the context of a fantasy fable, where anything goes. Why on earth did this have to be such a Snausage fest?
With a little effort, I count maybe five speaking female characters from memory. Of those, two are — sorry for this, but quite literally — bitches bred to be pretty or bear litters. Interpreter Nelson may share narration duties, but she merely translates the words of other male characters. Yoko-ono is practically mute. That leaves Tracy — about whom I barely know where to begin. At a time when pop culture is calling for greater representation of asian characters in film, the best I can say about her is thank goodness she wasn’t a Japanese character voiced by post-Ghost-in-the-Shell Scarlett Johansson.
Sorry to go on and on about the lack of female representation in an animated dog movie, but I just cannot overlook here what I could previously accept as a given with Anderson. It was worth it for his singular visual style and quirks, and he would occasional feature complex female characters like Margot, Suzy, and Miss Cross amidst all the boys. In Rushmore, Miss Cross is the love object of a precocious but immature boy emulating his notions of adulthood, and his inappropriate crush is part of the point. She is thankfully written and acted as far more than a token, but there’s no equivalently interesting female character in Isle of Dogs, and what’s the excuse? Why does the little pilot have to be boy? Why does the entire pack of dogs have to be male? It’s just so frustrating.
I’m also deducting points for another of my common movie complaints: when one of the most visually-oriented mediums that humanity has ever created — animation — is misapplied to primarily verbal works. The worst example of this in my mind is Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, throughout most of which I could not fathom why the painstaking process of animation was applied to stationary talking heads. Although the animation craft on display in Isle of Dogs is often extraordinarily wonderful, the screenplay is so verbose and overwritten that it often must halt to allow for a few pages of dialogue. Stop motion becomes stopped motion.
Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cinema productions made while still a semi-autonomous company, before being eviscerated by parent company Warner Bros. in 2008. For the morbidly curious, Vanity Fair recently related the sad tale in its latest Hollywood issue. Disclaimer: I worked for New Line Cinema through its end times, but had absolutely nothing to do with actually making or marketing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employees thought about the artistic merit of their product anyway.
For still undisclosed reasons, Pride and Glory was completed in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds) publicly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in particular) for burying his movie. Stars Edward Norton and Colin Farrel also spoke out about it in the press, clearly disappointed but yet more understanding (perhaps these seasoned actors were more jaded, and unsurprised by studio machinations). New Line countered that the sliding release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ competing projects from different studios. It was eventually scheduled for March 2008, but not actually released until late 2008.
Also contributing to the aura of controversy was the bungled filming of a police funeral scene at the actual ceremony for New York City officer Eric Hernandez, accidentally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The production reportedly promised the family they would be respectful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clumsily intruded on the sensitive affair. Having seen the completed scene, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been effectively staged with a complement of extras in full dress uniform.
Pride and Glory was written by brothers Gavin and Gregory O’Connor. As the sons of a police officer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Department. If their film is supposed to be a tribute to honest cops, its corruption plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fictional corrupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gradations of character or motivation. Jimmy Egan (Farrel) and a clutch of fellow cops have been skimming money off drug busts for years, and have graduated to murder and selling drugs themselves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tierney (Norton) finds himself in a position where he could turn Egan in. Complicating matters, Tierney’s pop Francis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line executive Toby Emmerich, and typecast as a cop after his role in Little Children) are also in the force. Francis Jr. also knows about the corruption, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his family but the New York Police Department itself. But events conspire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to settle their personal grievances as two stereotypical movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.
I suspect O’Connor had pretensions to making another L.A. Confidential, but his result doesn’t measure up to the standards of such a superior film noir. Note the superficial resemblances: police corruption, drugs, family pride. Pride and Glory’s plot only seems complex, but is actually stupid-simple. Exposition scenes basically lay out the plot quite early, draining any sense of mystery or suspense. The dialogue is peppered with a torrent of names that are challenging for the audience to connect with faces, a technique that provides only a superficial complexity to a simple plot.
The tone is absurdly grim and totally humorless, and devoid of any human emotion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The classic film noir element most notably lacking in this boy’s club production is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely figure into the plot. The most significant female character is cancer-stricken Abby (Jennifer Ehle), whose sole purpose in the plot seems to be to humanize husband Francis Jr. Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimilitude of the television series The Wire, similarly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cultures. Now is as good a time as any to state that this blog does not apologize for taking advantage of any opportunity whatsoever to evangelize The Wire.
The setting is a version of New York City that may or may not actually exist. In fact, there’s an unusual disclaimer before the end credits stating its characters and events are totally fictional. Obviously, if there was an actual case of such massive corruption in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it. After the credits, there’s yet another disclaimer I’ve never seen before, stating that no one connected with the production took any money to promote the use of tobacco products. This Dork Reporter don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influential in this way. Granted, movies are a powerful artform, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of society are real problems that require complex solutions, but censoring movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for righteous fools to believe they are combating a problem. Where’s the corresponding worry that little kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be corrupt cops?
Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.
Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”
Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.
Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.
Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?
The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.
Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.
Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.
On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.
The Incredible Hulk is Hollywood’s latest incidence of what has become known as a “reboot.” The term, I believe was originally coined in the comic book world, with further derivations in computer terminology. When a franchise begins to show its age with stalled creative energy and declining sales, its owners may opt to check it into surgery to be refreshed with a new cast, creative team, and updated plot particulars. Warner Bros. and DC Comics kick-started their valuable but stagnant Batman and Superman feature film properties, making them relevant to 21st century audiences, and now it’s Marvel Comics’ turn. Emboldened by recent successes with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (and conveniently ignoring the failures Daredevil and Elektra), Marvel has obtained funding to independently produce its own films with greater creative control and, presumably, a larger chunk of the financial return. The massive success of 2008’s Iron Man seemed to prove their instincts correct.
Remarkably, The Incredible Hulk comes only five years after Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Hulk, itself a reboot of the comic book, cartoon, and television series. Even before Marvel announced it was to start over from scratch, the original Hulk film had already been seen as a critical and commercial failure, even though the reviews were not actually terrible (54 on MetaCritic and 61 on Rotten Tomatoes, both about the same as what The Incredible Hulk scored) and it earned $245 million worldwide.
This Dork Reporter fully realizes his is the minority opinion, but the Lee/Schamus version is a far, far better film, not only in comparison with its successor but also on its own terms. To paraphrase a review I recall reading at the time, “only the director of Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense & Sensibility would look at ‘The Hulk’ and see ‘sprawling family melodrama.'” Lee and Schamus saw the core story as more than a simple Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde retread, and instead chose to tell a deeper tale of fathers and sons. The Hulk himself was created using motion-capture technology using Ang Lee’s own body language, and realized on screen as a giant green petulant baby (which is both absurdly funny and oddly moving, like the original King Kong). I still maintain it is one of the most brilliantly edited films I’ve ever seen, the closest in flow and visual style to a comic book a film has ever come. It’s also just really fucking weird, in a good way.
With Marvel in total charge of its own intellectual property at last, The Incredible Hulk had low artistic ambitions and was unsurprisingly crafted with comic book geeks in mind. In harsh contrast with arthouse mainstays Lee and Schamus, it was directed by action film specialist Louis Leterrier (of Transporter 2 and Danny the Dog) and written by Zak Penn, who has apparently cornered the market on super-hero scripts (including X-Men 2 & 3, Elektra, and the upcoming Avengers and Captain America). The backwards-facing film gives the fanboys a nod with admittedly fun cameos from Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced The Hulk’s few lines, and who also seems not to have aged one bit) and original Hulk co-creator (with Jack Kirby) Stan Lee. But the CG is surprisingly unconvincing for a film that should have been state-of-the-art; the Hulk looks like he’s made of string cheese and quivering gelatin.
Truth be told, I was actually rather enjoying the film, until one niggling fault grew to an unignorable degree that ruined the entire experience for me. Key character Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) remains tragically underdeveloped. Any screenwriting student (hell, any film fan) should know the storytelling mantra “show don’t tell,” and yet Blonsky’s motivations are only hinted at in one or two lines of dialogue: he’s a career soldier grumpy about turning forty. Blonsky eventually evolves into the Hulk’s nemesis The Abomination, a hideous beast that lives to destroy. As the two creatures smash Harlem to bits in the final reel, there was no sense that the Abomination was once a man. What drove him to this? Interestingly, Roth plays a not entirely dissimilar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth: a man who uses up his youth in pursuit of an unattainable goal. In each case, the opportunity for a second chance is a mixed blessing.
Rumor has it an alternate, significantly longer cut of the film will eventually be released on DVD, preserving more of Edward Norton’s reported script doctoring, so this Dork Reporter hopes he will be able to revise his opinion at a later date.
The Illusionist perhaps suffers from being released in proximity to The Prestige, a far superior period piece sharing the use of magic as a storytelling conceit. However, The Illusionist has two strong assets to point out:
The cinematography is truly beautiful, comprised of sepia images (seemlingly projected by oil lamp) and old-school iris out transitions. These are no doubt digital approximations of the real thing, but lovely (and less distracting than it sounds) nonetheless. In a brief moment of meta-commentary, the solution to a magic trick is deconstructed on screen as involving an early movie camera.
As if Paul Giamatti still needed to prove anything after his recent run of top-shelf performances, he is extraordinary here; not merely content to affect a realistic Viennese accent, he impressively transforms the entire timbre of his voice.