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: Truth or Dare

Everyone is familiar with the old trope of going out with your friends on a Friday night, settling into theater seats with some popcorn or soda, and watching a scary movie. Like Michael Jackson in the “Thriller” music video. Even if you’re not that much into horror yourself, you’ve likely seen this image before. The movie might not necessarily be good, but for many people, it’s still an idea of a fun night.

Truth or Dare is a great type of movie for this. It’s surprising and scary, shallow enough to make fun of but still deep enough to be genuinely clever. The film tells the story of Olivia (Lucy Hale, Pretty Little Liars), a kind and charitable girl who is enticed into joining a spring break trip to Mexico by her best friend, Markie (Violett Beane, The Flash). While they’re there, they end up getting roped by a stranger into a game of Truth or Dare. When they return to school, they find that the game is possessed with a demon that has followed them back, and now they must take turns being forced to play with the demon. If they answer untruthfully, fail to complete a dare, or refuse altogether, they will be killed.

In a lot of ways, this movie follows a typical, formulaic scary-movie structure. Without naming names, many of the friends are picked off one by one in a series of violent deaths that each manage to be shocking, despite the often-predictable nature of the movie. Olivia and Markie, the main characters—each a “Final Girl” in her own way—eventually end up returning to the Mexican mission where they initially played the game in an effort to set everything straight. When people are possessed temporarily by the demon, their faces take on smiles with a freakish Uncanny Valley quality, which is genuinely disturbing to see.

Additionally, many of the characters fall into convenient and general archetypes, particularly when it comes to the side character friends. Ronnie (Sam Lerner) is an insensitive jerk nobody really wants around. Penelope (Sophia Ali) is an alcoholic. Brad (Hayden Szeto) is the perfect son who’s hiding the fact that he’s gay from his police officer father—who, incidentally, manages to crop up out of nowhere at even the most random and improbable places and times. Each character has one defining feature about them. Only with Olivia, Markie, and Lucas (Markie’s boyfriend and Olivia’s crush, played by Tyler Posey), do these features begin to expand into truly fascinating character arcs.

At the center of the movie is the friendship between Olivia and Markie, established at the very beginning. The repeated line, “Between you and the world, I choose you,” is crucial, as over the course of the movie this friendship is tested in ways that range from trivial to terminal. The audience is coaxed into caring about each of them. Markie is grieving the death of her father, who took his own life, and even at the times when the story seems to flirt with turning her into an antagonist, it is always easy to sympathize with her point of view. Hale and Beane have tangible, believable chemistry, and one finds oneself rooting just as much for them to stay friends as for them to make it out of everything alive.

In many ways, Truth or Dare can be said to be another drop in the bucket of predictable, college-student-focused, slasher horror movies. But the characters are real enough (and the performances strong enough) that it’s still engaging, and it is truly clever in a lot of ways, featuring some major plot twists—again, some of them easily foreseeable, but some still totally out of the blue. It’s not the type of movie you’d root for at the Oscars, but it is the type of movie that will show you a good time if you’re just in the mood to buckle down with some friends and enjoy some good, old-fashioned scares. Truth or Dare is currently showing at multiple local theaters, including the Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.

REVIEW: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place is built off of a premise that makes itself known even in the title: The world is quiet. Anyone who makes a sound places themselves in immediate peril of being violently destroyed by any one of a group of sound-hypersensitive monsters that have taken over the country, and possibly the world as well. The idea of a movie in which the characters cannot speak is an interesting concept, and a particularly inviting one for the horror genre, in which so much can be drawn from jump scares and loud noises.

Indeed, A Quiet Place makes plenty of use of these. In this way, the movie benefits from the rules it sets for itself, because in a world of so much silence, each jump scare is that much more arresting. There are other common horror elements at play in this movie, from the horrifying images of the monsters themselves to some of the concepts on the screen, like when the children (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) nearly drown in a silo and are unable to scream out for help.

But what ultimately makes this story so frightening is the devotion that everyone in the family feels toward everyone else. John Krasinski, who directed, co-wrote and co-starred in the movie, has said in interviews that he wanted the primary focus of A Quiet Place to be the family’s love and dedication, and he absolutely succeeded. He and Emily Blunt, his wife in real life, star as a husband and wife, Lee and Evelyn respectfully, who will do anything to keep their children safe in this dystopian world. Their love for the children is palpable, and small gestures and acts throughout the movie, like Evelyn’s attempts to teach her children reading and math, bring the audience closer into their minds and make it easier to sympathize with them. Which is, after all, the primary objective of so many horror movies, and for good reason: If the audience can come to sympathize with the main characters, then the concern for their safety will be that much more impactful and close, because it will feel similar to a concern for the safety of the self.

Beyond its success within the horror genre, though, the film is fascinating in and of itself, in large part because it isn’t afraid to break its own rules. Or rather, it follows its own rules, but it explores them in so much depth that the viewers are allowed to view them both from within and from without.

The main one, of course, is the principle of silence. The characters are unable to speak out loud, so they communicate through pantomiming, mouthing, and sign language. However, early on in the movie, Lee takes his son Marcus to a river, where the two of them are able to speak out loud for the first time in the film. The way Lee explains it, talking is loud, but the river is louder, which means it drowns out any sound of them being there, and they are safe for the time being. While this does seem to invite some more questions—namely, if talking by the river is safe, why doesn’t the family just move to the river?—it is also a crafty early indication that the film is ready to get creative.

“Creative” is probably the best overall way to describe this movie. Bolstered by strong performances by all four of its lead actors, A Quiet Place, while unconcerned with background information (How did things come to be this way? What was this family like before all of this?), is a skillful look into the strained, meticulous process of preserving love in the face of the apocalypse. A Quiet Place is currently showing at local theaters around Ann Arbor, including the Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.

PREVIEW: A Quiet Place

Recently, The Michigan Daily did an interview with John Krasinski, the director, co-writer and star of A Quiet Place. Krasinski first came into the public eye for his starring role as Jim Halpert on the American version of The Office, and it has been captivating to watch him branch out into more dramatic territory in the years since the show ended. In the interview, he talked about his goals for A Quiet Place, and the conscious decisions he had to make regarding sound and music, since the characters in the movie can’t make a sound without being attacked by violent creatures.

As someone who loves the horror genre, I’m incredibly excited to see the approach that this new film will take, and how it will use the lack of sound as an advantage rather than a detriment. It should also be interesting to see how the real-life chemistry between Krasinski and Emily Blunt (Sicario), his co-star and wife, plays into the movie and translates onto the big screen. A Quiet Place is currently showing at various theaters around Ann Arbor, including Rave Cinemas, Emagine Saline and the Quality 16.

PREVIEW: Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare is a horror movie about a game. The premise of a thrilling or suspenseful movie being built around a sleepover game isn’t a new one; we’ve seen it done before, in movies as recent as 2014’s Ouija and 2016’s Nerve (which actually used the same truth-or-dare premise, albeit in a much more techno, futuristic setting). Maybe the deal is that we get a new one every two years, and in 2020, we’ll get a scary movie revolving around “Two Truths and a Lie” or “Never Have I Ever”.

Truth or Dare looks like a standard slasher horror movie, the kind with a bunch of teenage friends getting picked off until it all comes down to one Final Girl. While it doesn’t appear to add any promising innovations or creative new spins to the genre, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just fun to go out with your friends on a weekend night and see a horror movie, even if you’re not sure what to expect from it. The movie looks entertaining, and hopefully it will be able to bring some old tropes into fresh territory in its execution. Truth or Dare is currently showing in several local theaters, including Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.

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.