Isle of Dogs (or, the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, Pt. 1)

In the weeks leading up to this year's Berlinale, people were already complaining. I don't even particularly follow Berlinale news outside of the the lineup announcements, but this year it seemed like a louder than usual stink was being raised about it being time for the current director, Dieter Kosslick to be replaced. From what I could gather, a lot of this had to do with people being thoroughly uninterested in the festival's ongoing Culinary Cinema section, which Kosslick added around 10 years ago. (I'm only being a little sarcastic in suggesting that this is a main point of contention because I also find this section of the festival to be a yearly headscratcher.) But mostly it seems like a case of, "What has he done for me lately?"

Kosslick's been at the director's chair for Berlinale since 2001 and has helped maintain the festival as one of the biggest in Europe, but of course it does tend to be outshined by Cannes and Venice. But then what festival doesn't shrink next to Cannes? What the Berlinale has going for it is fantastic accessibility -- and I'm not talking about the films, which tend to be deep and challenging, but rather the lack of exclusivity. One would assume that this is due in large part to Kosslick's ongoing guidance.

If you wanted to attend the Berlinale, about all you have to do is show up with some money (preferably a few days ahead of the opening night, with a serviceable internet connection and a credit/debit card). With this you'll be able to see a few great movies everyday and do very little waiting in line. The standard routine is that tickets for movies go on sale three days in advance, and most movies play at least three times, so if you miss the first screening you'll likely have another shot, if not two other shots. With a decent internet connection (which, granted, isn't guaranteed in Berlin) you can log on to the Berlinale website a little before the 10 AM sale time and snag tickets to whatever floats your boat. And if you keep striking out online, there will still be a final round of tickets going on sale the morning of the screening. If the screening is at one of the big theaters, like the gorgeous Friedrichstadt-Palast (which tends to play most of the high-profile movies at least once during the festival) you'll likely manage to get that day-of ticket by showing up at the box office at 10 AM.

I haven't been to every festival, but I have a feeling this isn't the standard operating procedure. One thing I can vouch for though is that there's little cause for spending hours standing in line, which I know is a regular feature at a lot of the other fests. As someone with the kind of bad back that can make you feel like you're being torn in half after standing in place for even a little while, this is a priceless feature.

By being a little on-the-ball this year, I went online at the first round of ticket sales and managed to snag tickets to Wes Anderson's Isle of Dog; Gus Van Sant's He Won't Get Far On Foot; the Zellner Brother's Damsel; and Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson's The Green Fog. Later on in the fortnight I had little trouble getting tickets to see Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Yocho (Foreboding), Alexey German Jr.'s Dovlatov and Milko Lazarov's Aga.

Isle of Dogs

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This was the opening night movie of the fest, much like Grand Budapest Hotel was for the 2014 Berlinale, and Anderson's return to stop-motion animation earned him this year's Best Director award. I can't say with any authority that it was the best directed movie of the festival, but I can happily say that Isle of Dogs not only surpasses The Fantastic Mr. Fox in pure cinematic wonder and charm, but it also takes Anderson's fastidious world-building to yet another level.

Before I get into the details of this insanely detailed movie, I want to say a few words about "movie magic," that special quality that is among both the best and worst things about film. It’s what brings the dreams of visionary minds to vivid life as what most of the bauble being produced in Hollywood is trying to achieve. It’s what turns many young people into movie fanatics as well as the reason why others bemoan so many movies for being a lot of empty spectacle. It’s also what gives film such an amazing storytelling range, while at the same time being a distraction from the medium’s potential to dig deep into all of life’s more meaningful nooks and crannies.

One of the reasons Wes Anderson ranks highly for me is that he’s among a small handful who can successfully deliver his own brand of movie magic while also making the films feel personal and vital. This has especially been the case since 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which saw Anderson transition from the shoebox studies of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums toward the expansive adventures of The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a more or less increasing fashion, Anderson’s movies have added more movie magic, combining stunning set pieces with small tender moments, like putting a fantastical high-speed chase down an Olympic ski course in a movie inspired by the works of a suicidal writer.

As technical marvels go, Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox is surely around the top of his achievements. It’s not only among the best displays of stop-motion animation, he managed to take a gem in Roald Dahl’s bibliography and fit it perfectly into his own world of rebellious youngsters, corduroy jackets, yellow Futura lettering and impeccably plotted master plans.

However, despite the handcrafted wonders of Mr. Fox, and the intricately intercontinental details of Grand Budapest, Anderson’s new animated feature, Isle of Dogs, manages to take his fastidious world-building to new heights. What’s more, he’s merged a stunning amount of movie magic with a story of such touching humanity -- Anderson shows the kind of deft touch at mixing personal with the spectacular that Steven Spielberg hasn’t pulled off since, oh... let's say, Close Encounters

Anderson's movies have always benefited from additional viewings, but I doubt even two or three passes would be enough to fully appreciate all the little flourishes he's put into Isle of Dogs. First and foremost, what Anderson has done is create his own Roald Dahl-type fable -- or to be more precise, his own The Little Prince. While the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic is about a pilot who crash lands in the desert and meets a little boy from another planet, Isle of Dogs is about a boy who crash lands on an island and meets five dogs who agree to help him find his beloved Spots. In case the hat tip wasn't implicit, the dogs call the mysterious fallen boy, the "Little Pilot."

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The Little Pilot is actually Atari, the nephew of Mayor Kobayashi, the man at the head of a conspiracy that has resulted in Tokyo's dogs being infected with "snout flu" and getting quarantined on an island full of trash. Much like Moonrise Kingdom, a search party is formed and a trek gets underway in order to find Spots (wonderfully voiced by Liev Schreiber). Protecting him on this journey from one end of the island to the other, and introducing him to some oddball dogs along the way who have formed little enclaves and serve various functions, are Rex, Chief, King, Duke and Boss (get the theme here?), though despite their names these aren't your standard alpha dogs. Like the would-be thieves of Bottle Rocket or the crew of Zissou's Belafonte, these guys range from the loyal sidekick to the classic man-with-a-plan, or, in the case of the Jeff Goldblum-voiced Duke, the kind of dog who's always got his ear to the ground, picking up valuable gossip. In a running gag that never gets old, Goldblum's Duke is frequently interjecting, "Well, you've heard about (this and that), haven't you?"

Running parallel to Atari's quest for Spots is a quest for truth over on the mainland, led by Greta Gerwig's schoolgirl, Tracy Walker, who's rebellious spirit and inquisitive mind is crowned with a enormous nest of blond hair. Tracy is a reporter for the school newspaper and she ain't gonna stop until she's cracked the snout flu conspiracy and brought down Mayor Kobayashi. As you may have already gathered, Tracy is a continuation of the Max Fisher-type and she is indeed an impressive self-motivator with a chip on her shoulder. She also has a touch of Suzy from Moonrise Kingdom, just as Atari has a bit of that movie's Sam (for starters, both are orphans).

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Now, you might be concerned about the depth of a movie that's full of talking dogs and quirky kiddos, but (as these animated movies tend to do from time to time) by getting into the special relationship between human and dog, with all its unconditional love and loyalty, this movie digs down and taps into some genuinely touching emotions amidst all the fantastic comedic bits. The movie scores some big points with its use of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band's 1967 tune, "I Won't Hurt You." It not only captures a perfectly tender tone as Atari and Chief bond during their time separated from the rest of the pack, but it may also mark the most obscure musical get in a filmography chock full of great left-field tunes.

Wes Anderson has also managed to top himself in the cosmopolitan nature of Isle of Dogs, and it's not only due to the film's locale. While the movie bounces between English-speaking dogs and the Japanese-speaking denizens of the mainland, there are hardly any subtitles provided. Instead, Anderson shows how language isn't an insurmountable barrier to understanding what's important, especially when cinema is so good at being its own universal language. Nevertheless, Anderson has used this multi-cultural story as an excuse to come up with a number of clever and amusing ways to translate the important bits of what's being said, whether it's a breathless radio commentator (Frances McDormand) providing the play-by-play at the climactic city hall meeting, or having gigantic computers spit out cars that perfectly sum what the scientists have been saying with three words like, "Snout Flu: Cured."

Once again, starting with The Life Aquatic, Anderson's movies usually have a global, cosmopolitan quality to them. This is plainly obvious to Isle of Dogs, but there's also a stronger political angle going on here. Part of the conspiracy in Mayor Kobayashi's plot to kick out the dogs is that they're dirty and disobedient, unfit for modern society. At least that's the line the public is being feed in order to stir up anti-dog sentiment and get them on the side of the bad guys. Are the dogs refugees? Maybe not in the strictest sense, but they are definitely exiles and the Mayor's rhetoric is entirely familiar to today's quasi-fascist nonsense. Of course, this kind of political fear-mongering is nothing new, but it is a little surprising, though not unwelcome, to see such a political undercurrent in a Wes Anderson film. I'll venture to guess that making a fable such as this provides him with the preferred amount of allegorical distance to make more pointed political or societal commentary -- very much in the Roald Dahl tradition.

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Isle of Dogs zips along through one touching, funny and inventive scene after the next, adding more indelible characters to the already impressive roster Anderson has going. The Oracle, a greyish pug voiced by Tilda Swinton, who can make mystical-sounding prognostications thanks to his understanding of the TV news and weather reports, is sure to be a new fan favorite. This leads me to another device I got a kick out of: whenever we do see a television, be it a local news show or a security camera feed, what's on the screen is in the style of classic Speed Racer-style japanimation. So every once in a while we'll see a character get reinterpreted as an exaggerated cartoon caricature.

Every frame of Isle of Dogs is filled with details like this, but it never crosses the line into being overwhelming or obnoxiously cutesy. Part of the reason for this is that it all fits very naturally into the setting. Westerners are used to seeing images of Japan being jam packed with visual information -- so while you might wonder beforehand why Anderson is making a "Japanese movie," by time the credits roll you're wondering why it took him so long to make one.

Another reason Isle of Dogs is far from being another cute dog flick is that this is by far Anderson's grimiest movie. If you're like me, you have a feeling the director might be a bit of a neat freak. If you saw a picture of his living room, you'd expect it to be immaculately organized, with every tchotchke in its precise place. So, it also makes perfect sense that a story about dogs on a big trash dump could only be made using fake dirt and doggy drool. And just to be extra sure he doesn't stray into cute and cuddly, the movie has a much darker color scheme than usual. Upon first watch anyway, there was very little of the elegant pinks, powder blues and warm browns that highlight most of his previous movies. Instead, there's a lot of blacks, off-whites, metallic silvers, grey skies and rusty colors. There are, of course, perfectly applied bursts of brighter colors, even when we're in the wasteland of Trash Island. But generally speaking, the color is often all but completely drained out of this environment, giving the movie a very different look than the usual Wes Anderson fare. Yet he still manages to make the movie look 100% like one of his movies -- which goes to show just how strong his aesthetic is.

Despite the fact that movies tend to rate better when viewed as part of a festival (at least when you're not trying to cram as many movies in as is humanly possible), I don't think I'm off the mark in saying this is one of the director's most impressive accomplishments. Is it both his funniest and most touching movie? This is the thought I had upon leaving the theater and I'm still leaning toward a yes. Whatever the case may be, I can't wait to see it again.