REVIEW: Isle of Dogs.

Momotarō is a peach boy in Japanese folk lore – a hero who had been born from fruit. In the story, he travels to Onigashima, the isle of demons, and defeats monsters with his newly acquired animal friends, obtaining treasure for his family. These parallels are seen in Inugashima, or Isle of Dogs, where Wes Anderson crafts his newest endeavor around a Japanese setting. When a dog flu sweeps through Megasaki City, the mayor Kobayashi exiles all dogs to Trash Island, exercising his authoritarian political precision with sinister intent. But Atari, his nephew, is determined on finding his bodyguard dog Spots.

For many reasons, Isle of Dogs is spectacular and clever. It bangs into its self-assured display like a firework – having the same amount of subtlety and persuasion as a firecracker, but similarly lacking as it dissolves too quickly and leaves a measurably less remarkable post-impression. It is undeniably fantastic, but there is something missing from all the razzle-dazzle.

The production is beautiful, one-of-a-kind. And even without the slick graphics of computer CGI, there’s a exactness in the stop-motion animation, detailed in scenes where a sushi chef prepares a lunch, or when Tracy recites the facts on the actors of her conspiracy theory, shining a flashlight on an elaborate tangle of clippings and string. At a technical standpoint, the film is incredible, made with 240 sets and hundreds of models, scenes constructed with a visionary lens to turn plastic sheets and cotton wool into interesting landscapes. From untranslated easter eggs printed on the overhead trolley to numerous references to Kurosawa, the visuals are refined. The colour schemes are beautiful. Not a strand of fur is out of place.

On the other hand, the film sometimes borders on using Japan like a mood board, as purely an aesthetic, swinging back and forth between succeeding and failing its original intention of being a cultural homage. It’s an interesting choice to have no subtitles for any of the dialogue given in Japanese, dialogue that is given by well-known stars such as Ken Watanabe and Yojiro Noda. It gives us the dogs’ perspectives and uses mistranslations as a plot device, but this can be hairy in certain aspects, especially when a character like Tracy emerges from this kind of language choice.

Nevertheless it’s an idiosyncratic plot, emerging from the surfeit of adaptions and remakes to tell us a story centered on man’s best friend with a weird but irresistible kind of charm in the folds of the writing. Isle of Dogs is ambitious in many ways, and in others, it’s all bark but no bite. It’s crafty in its humour, often deadpan and sometimes near ridiculous. The dialogue is well-timed and funny. And for a film about cute dogs, there’s a grittiness to it, never shying away from graphic themes or its political undertones.

But while there’s certainly a lot of good bois in Isle of Dogs, it’s difficult to form a relationship between the viewer and the number of characters the film introduces. We learn a lot about Atari, Spots, and Chief, but it doesn’t leave much room for the growth of all the other characters, including our main band of dogs. With such a hefty, vibrant plot, the screen time of under two hours ends up becoming a limiting reagent, not allowing the story to glow to its full potential.

In the end, Isle of Dogs is fantastic and it is fun to watch, but it lacks a certain depth – a certain howl – to its puppy snap.

Currently playing at State Theatre and elsewhere! Student tickets are $8.

REVIEW: Flower.

Zoey Deutch plays Erica with frantic energy, never missing a step with the off-beat procession of a plot. With this momentum, Flower crashes into the disastrous second act, hurling through any possible wit and subtlety. Teenage angst sits like a white elephant in the theatre.

It’s unfortunate because Flower builds its potential with a great sense of humour and the visuals of suburban complacency. The characters pop in lush colour from the set of a hazy town and the backdrop boredom of teenagers who would kill themselves for something to do.

From this overarching archetype arises classic films like American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, Heathers – and now newer attempts such as Flower.

Erica is our anti-hero of the story, a sixteen year old who opens the film by giving a blow job to a local cop, her friends perched with a video camera for blackmail. She has the unstable sulk of an adolescent, the kind of slightly-out-of-touch with reality that teenagers can be. She seems reassured, chirpy, and Zoey Deutch plays her with such ease, comfortably digging into the gritty corners of her character. There’s a certain depth to her character that unfortunately doesn’t extend to the rest of the film, a vulnerability that doesn’t lag the plot but drives it with considerable force.

Despite how nonchalant Erica may seem, how much she insinuates she doesn’t particularly care, there’s moments like where she counts her bail money, calls her father in the closet, or dances with Luke where she burns onscreen with casual complexity. Her use of sexuality like a weapon, her indifference, and the way she talks big is underscored by the innocence of her age, the strangeness of her home life.

So whether Flower is an enjoyable film depends on its framing – if the plot is taken straight and serious, or if we give it the benefit of the doubt that the movie has a great deal of self-awareness. It seesaws between attempting to be a coming-of-age story with all the staple honesty and alienation of growing up and a black comedy film – both which fall just short of accomplished.

While the plot becomes increasingly surreal and ridiculous, the film also attempts to become emotionally more serious, reaching for some great insight as the ending nears. Heading into these two completely different directions simultaneously, it pulls the movie thin, ultimately leaving something to be desired. Here, the story is tied up with an oddball ending with no real resolutions or consequences to the actions of the characters, even though it sets us up to feel and sympathize with Erica and watch her grow. As a result, the film falls flat and caricaturizes the main character in a way that doesn’t read intentional.

Flower is commendable for its effort, for Zoey Deutch’s portrayal of Erica. It has a compelling energy, nice comedic timing, a velvet morbidness. But it tries to be too much, and by the rolling of the credits, it seems to have fallen apart from its rocket-booster start.

PREVIEW: Flower.

There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls – a trope that gives us the finest of our idle, black-comedy scream queens, informing the suburban gothic genre and other branching archetypes. There is a certain curiosity to the sexuality of adolescent girls in our media, the romanticism of the chaos of growing up, and the often surreal consequences of the two clashing.

Flower is no different from its precursors in that sense; it’s a film that follows the promiscuous, flighty Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch) as she meets her new step-brother, Luke (Joey Morgan), and wastes no time in entangling them both in a series of dangerous escapades involving a man Erica and her friends have been ogling at a bowling alley.The script was previously featured on The Black List 2012 for unproduced screenplays.

But with generally mixed reviews and an off-beat sense of humour, Flower seems to be proving itself maybe as an acquired taste.

Opening March 30th at State Theatre, student tickets are $8.

REVIEW: EMBODY 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibition.

During a gallery visit on a cool Friday, the exhibit was quiet, uninterrupted as a projected screen on the wall played the construction and deconstruction of bread against fragile grid paper. As a common theme, EMBODY is a refinement of material in each of the exhibiting works, a process of transformation that embodies a larger significance.

From the opening entrance into Stephanie Brown’s Am I Enough, the power of material is palpable. There’s a tactile installation in a palette of skin tones, like suits someone could wear on and off in a closet. Following this idea and framed by the poem typed on the wall, is a shirt display with no bleach symbols and an exhibition of different people of colour dressed in them. The meaning is clear: no whitewashing; please wash gently with unlike colours.

The idea of an identity is juxtaposed with clothes and fabrics, the same way we wear biases. But colourism, racism, and the weight of an identity – these are things that are less easily taken off than the way someone might take off a coat.

To a more abstract kind of expressionism with material, How to draw a line by the clenching of a fist by Brynn Higgins-Stirrup explores both the geometric and fluid, with images and sculptures that are inherently tactile, a history of molding folded into their form. It is work that is engaging and dynamic to look at, something that captures attention into the process like a manual of how to create.

There are some interesting, beautiful and abstract shapes, touchable and twisted, such as the grid upon paper like a map, a pathway of how things are created. It’s an exhibit that almost elicits a need to touch and explore the pieces from their nuanced, delicate complexity.

Crossing by Brenna K. Murphy utilizes the same kind of complexity. But it’s a labour of love, painstakingly slow and focused. Within the work, there’s an idea of reverence for the length of lace that looks so breakable and easily tangled. It’s solemn, the motions of deconstructing a sweater for the threads to create something new; deconstructing the old clothes in a process of grief.

It is there, coiled but unexpressed, and the creation of this lace over a long period of time, as if looking for all the time that heals, and creating a sadness that is now tangible – it is an art piece that spans long and delicate across an entire room.

Finally, the closet of the bedroom of / offscreen / by Robert J. Fitzgerald is located near the entrance of the gallery, while the rest is situated near the back, as if a teaser to the private life of a teenage boy. The exhibition uses personal materials, creating a sense of nostalgia as projections of old films play in the intimate corners of an adolescent’s bedroom – between the window shutters, underneath bed sheets, in a sock drawer.

There is definitely something secluded about a bedroom, now opening it up for a glimpse of someone’s individual life. It’s comfortable, excluded from the outside world save for the projections of films that have influence on this privacy.

Each work exploring material to embody a particular narrative, the MFA Thesis Exhibition is worth a trip to the Stamps Gallery.

REVIEW: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2018 — Animated.

Dear Basketball – Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant, USA, 5 min.
Negative Space – Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, France, 5 min.
Lou – Dave Mullins and Dana Murray, USA, 7 minutes
Revolting Rhymes – Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer, UK, 29 minutes
Garden Party – Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon, France 7 minutes
Lost Property Office (additional film) – Daniel Agdag, Australia, 10 minutes
Weeds (additional film) – Kevin Hudson, USA, 3 minutes
Achoo (additional film) – Elise Carret, Camille Lacroix, Charlotte Perroux, Lucas Boutrot, Maoris Creantor, Pierre Hubert, France, 7 minutes

Somehow, The Boss Baby is now an Oscar-nominated film – and so maybe it’s sufficient to say it’s been a darn slow year for animation.

But even with an unexpected nomination in the category, there’s no lack of talent featured in the animated Oscar Nominated Shorts of this year. Dear Basketball, Negative Space, Lou, Revolting Rhymes, and Garden Party are all contenders. Lost Property Office, Weeds, and Achoo are additional, highly-commended films you can catch in theatres alongside the Oscar nods.

In 2018, Kobe Bryant is now both a star basketball player and a star film producer, with Dear Basketball penned as a love letter to the end of an illustrious career. It’s sweet and simple, pleasant to watch, but probably more touching for basketball fans than for the uninterested layperson.

Despite a narrative that perhaps borders upon just being a highlight reel of Kobe Bryant’s career, Glen Keane does what Glen Keane does – just as he had in many other short films like Duet and Nephtali, and just as he did for Disney. His animation style in undeniably compelling, sketches full of a motion and fluidity that fills us in where the film may come up empty in terms of a more captivating story.

Opposite of what Dear Basketball may lack, Negative Space gives life to a suitcase, to the simpleness of Ron Koertge’s poem with clothes like a tidal wave, belts slithering like snakes into the sides of a bag. The premise is easy, but the execution is sophisticated.

A boy floats in an ocean of clothes and emerges between of the buttons of his dad’s shirt. A taxi cab drives onto wooden floorboards and becomes a toy car circling around the living room. These are beautiful transitions done through stop-motion, a creative practice in breathing tone and vision into a script. It’s uncomplicated at only five minutes long, but the visuals are delicate, creative, and with an incredible punch line.

The obligatory Pixar nomination of the year is Lou – cute and heart-warming and absolutely beautifully rendered. It follows the story of a pile of lost and found objects that becomes the guardian of the playground, rising from its box to set things right when a bully begins to terrorize the other kids.

The film is interesting and very endearing, but is also very standard Pixar-fare. Not a bad thing at all, considering the general consistency and quality of films produced over the years by the studio. And Lou is no exception to that. It’s engaging and sweet, but it is also nothing ground-breaking.

Much less feel-good, much less full of those clear-cut morals of Lou, Revolting Rhymes is an adaption of Roald Dahl’s poems, featuring the nominated first episode. Having read these fairytales a long time ago, the film does measure up in some ways by wrapping up the story with a terrific ending and some very tongue-in-cheek story-telling. However, it still comes second to the charm of the original rhymes. It feels a bit lacking in some ways, but the characterization, the animation details, the picture-book perfect palette, and the satirical material it’s built upon prove to be still very appealing to watch.

When we move away from the obvious comedy of Revolting Rhymes, we have Garden Party, a pic that is much more subdued and sinister in its humour. It’s a gorgeous, hyper-realistic film, full of lush colours and gaudy scenery. And while Garden Party is a visual banquet, it’s an understated story of macabre undertones, an apprehensive underbelly to the stunning animation. Amphibians from the garden follow their instincts into an extravagant house. A fat toad feasts in a rotting kitchen on multi-coloured macarons. Two frogs find themselves underneath the plush covers of a bed in disarray, and countless croaking creatures lounge about, swimming in the murky depths of a pool. As night falls, the lights come up, the garden is lit with fountains, music, and a terrible twist.

There’s an interesting selection, from realistic CGI frogs to the organic pencil and pastel sketches of basketball players. And while I have my opinions, it’s difficult to predict a winner from the fact that Dear Basketball, Negative Space, Lou, Revolting Rhymes, and Garden Party are pretty much nothing alike.

So catch the Oscar Nominated Shorts at Michigan Theater and other select places before March 4th, and decide for yourself.

Student tickets are $8.

REVIEW: Constellations at Theatre Nova.

The observable universe is 13.77 billion years old, holding a galaxy spilt like light-year milk. And if there’s 7.6 billion people in the world, eras before us, great geological epochs – what do the astronomical numbers mean for the chances of two people meeting each other at a barbecue? What are the chances that they might even like each other?

Constellations is a kind of terribly neurotic, self-indulgent exposition for anyone who’s wondered what if? I think about how many times I’ve wished things were different. At any point where we must choose, decisions seem irreversible; we cannot go back. But Constellations allows us and its characters to explore the paths of the multitude of realities.

It’s ambitious – a play of multiverses and the grand loftiness of higher physics, but grounded by the two characters who are full of familiar, earthy things: of frustration, of anger, of loss, love and heartbreak. They talk through touch and intonation, just as they talk through timelines and quarks and other intangibles. Concepts of cosmology and bee-keeping are made into very beautiful, personal lines.

The story of Roland and Marianne ends depending on where you start. Maybe it’s at the ballroom dancing class, maybe it’s at the barbecue – each time they cross paths, a garden of possibilities bloom forth. Scenes are replayed with altered decisions, new futures, and there’s even moments where the same dialogue is given, word-for-word, the short lines repeated like a tape re-wound. But the mood is different. The words are spoken with different inflection, in a different setting, and the slight adjustments tip the whole reality into another.

Their story can start and end at the very place they meet. Or, it can continue, go towards somewhere sweet or somewhere devastating. And yet there’s the idea that they could’ve also had no story at all.

What their relationship ultimately is depends on the coincidence of choices, not only in that moment, but in all the previous seconds not shown to us, in all the ways they were brought here to each other. Conceptually, the play seems like a marvel, but it is actually much more down to earth. For every alternate universe, the actors are earnest, giving equal life to each reality and picking at the subtleties of a reset scene. Meghan VanArsdalen and Forrest Hejkal do a tremendous job of playing the funny, dynamic Marianne and the much more subdued, introverted Roland respectively, a universe of possibility resting on the shoulders of only two people.

It’s a study of a relationship in all its forms, intimate as a two-person play, without any great theatrics of set or costume, and the themes are universal and touching. At the very end – no matter how the story of Roland and Marianne concludes, no matter which of all the realities we might take to be true – there is no right one. Every decision, every cosmic happening is just as right as another.

Constellations runs until Feb 18th at Theatre Nova.