Edward Norton

123: Isle of Dogs Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

I honestly won’t get tired of thinking this, but I’m surprised more directors in Hollywood don’t direct an animated feature. While there are pros and cons doing an animated feature or a live-action feature, one thing that always catches my eye about animation is that you can have literal control over a mass majority of the production. You don’t have to worry about sets, lighting, physical performances, and a lot of elements that plague live-action films. Really, the one major downside is that you then have to make everything from scratch. It’s why I love seeing directors known for their live-action films go into animation and vice versa. It’s fun to see them bring their personality into a new medium of filmmaking, and why today’s review is of Wes Anderson’s critically acclaimed Isle of Dogs. Released to the world on March 23rd, 2018, Isle of Dogs gained critical acclaim from film festivals, and won a couple of festival awards before starting its US release. While people did fall in love with this movie for a lot of good reasons, some critics have criticized it for its implementation of Japanese culture. As usual, it’s hard to talk about a movie, when there is some controversy attached to it. I will talk about it, but for now, let’s begin the review. Actually, before we begin, a friend of mine showed me a fun little secret about the title. Say it three times in a row quickly, and the title changes to a wonderful sentiment.

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Isle of Dogs takes place in Japan 20 or so years in the future. An outbreak of diseases affecting dogs has plagued the country, and the mayor of Nagasaki, played by Kunichi Nomura, has decided to ban all dogs to a trash island. Six months pass, and the dogs live there in small packs, trying to survive on scraps and garbage to get by. One pack includes Chief, voiced by Bryan Cranston, Rex, voiced by Edward Norton, King, voiced by Bob Balaban, Duke, voiced by Jeff Goldblum, and Boss, voiced by Bill Murray. One day, they see a kid named Atari Kobayashi, voiced by Koyu Rankin, crash his plane on the Isle of Dogs, who is there to find his bodyguard dog Spots, voiced by Liev Schreiber. Chief and his gang decide to help him as they try to find Spots, and try to uncover a grand conspiracy plotted by the mayor.

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Usually, when I love a movie, I want to talk about the positive aspects, because that is what deserves the most attention. I don’t see why I need to change tradition here. The stop-motion animation seen in Isle of Dogs is amazing. I mean, it’s the same studio that made Fantastic Mr. Fox, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was constantly impressed with the animation throughout the entire film. This includes making Trash Island visually interesting. Sure, it’s all garbage, but you would be amazed at how visually creative they got with the locations on the island. There are bright colors, terraformed landscapes, rusted out vehicles and buildings, and you get the idea.  Even down to little details, like how the dogs moved, reacted, their fur gently moving in the breeze, and even having little fleas running around at times shows that they paid very close attention to detail with the animals. I work at an animal shelter, and I see animals twice a week there, and dogs and cats there have their own spirit to them. No one animal is alike. The detail to the dogs is also shared with the humans. While moving like they did in Fantastic Mr. Fox, their animation was also fluid and full of little fun bits that made the artificial look of everything so alive. They even have some cool 2D sequences that are used when showing off characters on a TV screen.

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I love the characters. I mean, it’s a Wes Anderson film, what do you expect from the characters? They are quirky, they have their own personality traits, and when he decides to drop it on the viewer, can be emotionally engaging. While there are definitely a lot of characters, the bond that holds the entire film together is between Atari and Chief. Their bond is fantastic, and it was fun to see Chief grow fonder of helping Atari when he is shown kindness by the boy. Many of the characters work well off each other, as the entire cast of dogs is stacked with actors who felt very natural with one another. Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Liev Schreiber, and Tilda Swinton all have their memorable moments and, of course, very funny lines. The human characters are also well acted, with Koyu Rankin, Greta Gerwig, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Yakayama, Yoko Ono, Frances McDormand, and Courtney B. Vance. They might have smaller roles, but they do not feel out of place with the overall weird world in which Anderson has put us. No one feels like they are simply playing themselves, and although some have very distinct voices, just because I knew who each character was played by, I was never taken out of the film. The story itself is simple, but it’s all in the execution, as the story carries themes of mass hysteria, government corruption, fear mongering, being outcasts, love, honor, friendship, and being against animal abuse. As in most Wes Anderson productions, the music is fantastic. It’s composed by Alexandre Desplat, who also did the music for Fantastic Mr. Fox and other Wes Anderson productions like The Grand Budapest Hotel, and recently won an award for The Shape of Water. Of course, much  of the music has plenty of Japanese musical flair that you would hear in old samurai flicks (figuratively and literally). The main song, I Won’t Hurt You by The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (that’s a mouthful), was quite wonderful.

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So, let’s talk about that controversy that this film is receiving. Multiple online articles by Asian/Japanese-American critics and online users are calling out the film for using cultural appropriation with Japan and the people of Japan for the backdrop, and the dogs, voiced by white actors, along with Greta’s character, are the heroes. There are other issues, but that seems to be the biggest problem that is causing an issue for some. Now, as I partly jokingly said in my Have a Nice Day Review, I am a white guy from Texas, what do I know? I will never have the full understanding of the pain and anger of seeing my culture misused or taken advantage of (though I wish reality shows would stop making Texas out to be nothing but ranch owners, and saying we all wear ten gallon hats). I can’t pull that card. I understand, to the best of my knowledge, why people are having an issue with it, and to an extent, I agree with some of the issues. However, if I had to look at the whole film from my perspective, I don’t think it’s not as bad as say, Ghost in the Shell or the incident with the Hellboy Reboot from last year. I felt like Wes Anderson did not intentionally set up this film to be punching down on the culture or its people. Even one of the actors who played the mayor was a consultant on the story. He said that he was fine with a lot of it, but did chime in from time to time. I also disagree with the criticism of how the script has the Japanese characters talk. Unless there is a translator nearby, all the Japanese human characters speak Japanese with very little English or subtitles. The issue I see talked about is that they are limited to saying simple, to-the-point lines. I don’t agree with this criticism, because if you aren’t going to be using subtitles 100% of the time, what the characters say needs to be short and to the point. I also feel like that just ties in with Wes Anderson’s style. In the end, I could break it all down from what I have seen, and all I can say is, I don’t fully agree with the backlash this film is getting, but I do understand that Wes Anderson does tow the line in paying respect and tribute in this fantastical setting, because he wanted to make a film that was set in Japan. If you have an issue with how he uses the culture, then by all means, have an issue with it. I do agree with some aspects of the criticism.

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So, what did I not like about the film? Well, I wish we had more time with the side characters. Chief’s group of friends vanishes at one point, and we don’t see them for a good, maybe 10-15 minutes before we see what happened to them. They could have used a bit more to them outside of certain quirks, like Rex wanting order among the pack, Duke being a lover of gossip, Boss being played by Bill Murray, and so on. They were really fun to be around, and I wish they could have been there more. The female characters are also not handled well. Not terrible, but underdeveloped. Scarlett Johansson is barely in the film, and is set up as this weak pseudo love interest for Chief. Though the one that people and I have an issue with is Greta Gerwig’s character, an American foreign exchange student who kicks the pro-dog rally into overdrive. She’s a strong character, and has her own personality, but I do think there is a problem with her ethnicity. I think a lot of the problems people have with the film would be gone if they didn’t make her American. Maybe instead, they could have made her a Japanese school girl, voiced by Rinko Kikuchi or another young Japanese American actress to play her. Because you can definitely see the whole, “Hey, the American student is brave, while the Japanese people are easily manipulated by their government and afraid to rebel” angle people have with her character.

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I respect the issues some are having with the film, but they do not detract from my personal enjoyment of the film. I love this movie, and until said otherwise, Isle of Dogs is the best animated film of the year. I loved the animation, the humor, the heart, and everything about it. Once it opens in wide release, please go see this movie. I want more people to see this film and support an original idea. It’s not like anyone here is going to go see Sherlock Gnomes or Duck Duck Goose. You shouldn’t see those, and again, go see Isle of Dogs. Well, speaking of gnomes, next time, before we get to Sherlock Gnomes, we shall look at Gnomeo & Juliet. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials

The Other Side of Animation 110: Guardian Brothers Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

When I wrote my editorial about The Weinstein Company, and how awful of an animation distributor they were, a few days later, they announced that they were going to open up a new animation distribution branch that will specifically handle animated films. This raised so many red flags, but against my more moral judgement, I decided to give them a chance. As much as I get annoyed with certain studios like Illumination or Blue Sky, I never want them to fail. Even my anger with Lionsgate is more to the fact that I want them to stop bringing over everything just because it’s cheap and affordable. I want studios and distributors to succeed because when they do something good, it should be rewarded. Too bad The Weinsteins lost that one chance in one move with the 110th review, Guardian Brothers. As a rule, I only look at infamous bombs, successes, and failures as every 10th review, since I would rather talk about awesome stuff, and not be tied to looking at only “bad” stuff. So, what’s so bad about this one? Well, this was supposed to be the next “big” animated film to be brought over by The Weinsteins. It had a large cast, including Edward Norton, Meryl Streep, Dan Fogler, Bella Thorne, and Nicole Kidman. I mean, that sounds impressive for a film to have that cast. Hopefully it means that the film is such a monumentally amazing product that they wouldn’t even dare just slip it onto Netflix with no one knowing unless someone said something, right? Yeah, if you couldn’t tell by that “oh so subtle” amount of sarcasm, they slipped it onto Netflix like they did with Underdogs. Kind of makes you wonder why they cared at all to bring this over, chop it up, and spend that money hiring those big actors if they are just going to act like cowards, and release it with no one to know that they did such a thing. Before we start, I wanted to be fair with this film, so I watched both the original Chinese version, and The Weinstein version. So, heads up to the fact that I’m going to be comparing the two. Oh, and screw The Weinsteins. Well, let’s get started.

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The film follows two brothers named Yu Lei and Shen Tu, voiced by Edward Norton and Dan Folger. They are gods that are feeling unloved by the humans, because no one is worshipping them for what they represent in the human’s lives. They then get taught about how they could possibly gain back the love and popularity with the humans, by adapting with the changing times. Unfortunately, they decided to shrug that off, because as you know, people fear change. Luckily, they get told of a different solution. The solution may come in the form of an evil spirit that was sealed in earth, after being defeated many years ago. Yu Lei decides to take on this task, while his brother Shen Tu  gets involved with trying to stop him, but also deal with a mother and daughter who are the only humans who keep their presence around, even as the world moves forward. Can Shen Tu stop his brother from unleashing a terrible evil? Can the gods find a way for humans to love them again?

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So, let’s just do a quick review of the original movie. I have to talk about the original first, because a lot of my complaints come from how Weinstein and his inept crew of animation individuals handled this movie. The original movie was called Little Door Gods. It was around 100 or so minutes, and to be frank, the movie is mediocre. It’s a film with a horrible pacing problem, jumping between Shen Tu interacting with the humans, and him trying to stop his brother from unleashing an ultimate evil. This is on top of the mother and daughter characters trying to stop a franchise mogul from taking over their restaurant. It ultimately takes away the stakes, due to how much the plot jumps around. It’s too much going on, and you don’t even see this large evil spirit until 15 minutes before the movie ends. Overall, the best part about the movie was the moral. Times change, and you need to adapt to the change, but you can still respect the past. It’s an interesting story element, and it gives the film a reason to exist. It’s like Meet the Robinsons or Monster’s University, two films that are not really that good, but have great morals near the end of their respective runtimes. It made slugging through the film less of a waste of time.

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Now, what do the Weinsteins do with this film? Well, you know the entire point of the film was to embrace change, but to stay true to yourself, and respect the past? Well, too bad if that was your favorite part! They entirely rewrote the script, and took out those aspects. So, what do you get? Not a whole lot. You still get the whole evil spirit plot point, but the overall story feels hollow. You can obviously tell they cut scenes to be shorter, or cut out scenes entirely. There is a great example of this stupid scene cutting, when Shen Tu and the little girl go get the health inspector, and the health inspector reminisces about a costume party that you never get to see. You even see a snippet of that scene in the end credits. Like, why cut it out? Granted, a lot of the film was padded to fill the runtime, but if you are going to cut a scene, then make sure it’s a scene that has no value to the overarching story. It doesn’t help that the film has all the cringe-inducing additions of a Weinstein-distributed animated film. They force in jokes, pop songs, and a terrible voice-over dub. For a film starring such a huge cast of actors, you would think they would care about their performances, but it sounds like they cranked out the dub in a day, found out Leap! didn’t do well in the box office, and just used the first take for the film, and shoved the film onto Netflix, with no warning or advertisement.

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Seriously, why was this film picked up? This was supposed to be the flagship title under the Weinstein’s new animated feature label, and yet, they just shoved it onto Netflix, with no one knowing unless you are in the animation scene. They already had the worst reputation in animation, and they made it worse by forcing this movie out. Even with the edits they made, it doesn’t fix anything. The movie was already flawed, so by editing it, the flaws are more apparent, and you don’t end up with a better product. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and all the added “benefits” don’t improve it. Animation has come so far since its inception, and the Weinsteins act like this is still 2001 when Shrek came out. Are you that ashamed that you started an animation branch, and knew Guardian Brothers wasn’t going to go over well?

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So, is there anything really good about the Weinstein version or the original version? I mean, kind of. While films like Kung Fu Panda 3 have better fight scenes, Guardian Brothers still has some scenes where the action is pretty decent. The last fight against the evil spirit is creative at points, and even though this next praise is only for the original version, I still like the moral of having to confront change, since I know that is hard for a lot of people. The animation, while not theatrical quality at all, is still better than most Chinese-theatrical animated films. You can tell they wanted this to look good. You can tell the country wants to make more films with the effort that Pixar puts into their films. It’s not there yet with Chinese-theatrical animation, but I respect that they are at least trying. That is something the Weinsteins have never done with animated films.

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It was challenging to know how to grade this movie. On one hand, it’s not a great movie, but the original is harmless. The Weinstein version is a chore to watch for a load of other reasons, and for their first flagship title under their short-lived animation branch, they messed up. They made a mediocre film worse, by simply removing the moral of the original film and simplifying everything. When you have an actress like Meryl Streep in the movie, and fail to use her, you know something is broken beyond repair. As much as I hate Spark: A Space Tail, it was, at the very least, presented as intended. Guardian Brothers was not, and it’s a worse film for it. Avoid it at all cost, and just watch or buy the Kung Fu Panda trilogy if you want some Chinese-themed action films with good stories, characters, and fight sequences. Well, it’s Christmas time, and this year, things are about to get a lot more oversaturated and yellow as we review the Despicable Me franchise with their first film. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you next time.

Rating: Blacklist/The Worst!

The Other Side of Animation 56: Sausage Party Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

WARNING/PARENTAL HEADS UP!:  This film is in no way meant for kids. It’s rated-R for a reason, with shock humor, swearing, sex jokes, sexual events by way of food, and graphic in its jokes and imagery. Do not watch this with your kids. Hope you enjoy the review!

As much as people like to think theatrical adult-animated films are new, they really aren’t. Back in the 70s, we had a lot of stylized-adult animated films with adult themes and softcore porn. Now, to say that they are rare to see these days is true. Due to how quickly the fad of adult-animated films came and went for only a few years, it’s now almost surprising to see an animated film made for theaters, directly aimed at adults. Not to say the direct-to-DVD market hasn’t seen them, since a few have popped up, but I wouldn’t put them in the same category or quality as ones released in theaters. Sure, we got Hell & Back, but that was in no way made to be on par with or of the same quality as, say, Eight Crazy Nights, another horrible adult-animated film that Adam Sandler somehow thought was a good idea. It’s definitely a thing to keep an eye out for, but just because it’s different doesn’t warrant that it’s going to be good. This is definitely a hurdle that today’s review of Sausage Party had to contend with. This 2016 stoner-comedy comes from the minds of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and duo of directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tieman. It was a hyped film when it was first shown off during SXSW 2016, and a leaked script went viral online. It was a surprise hit for a month not known for great movies, but also is now caught in  some controversy that I will of course talk about later on in the review. I mean, I have to. It’s the biggest news story for this film, besides how big of a hit it is. So, is this film as good as some of the big classics it’s spoofing, or has the food gone into moldy-way-past-its-time milk? Let’s find out.

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The story revolves around a hot dog named Frank, voiced by Seth Rogen. He lives in a supermarket with all the food that believes and sings a song about what supposedly happens once you leave the supermarket. Frank is also in love with a hot dog bun named Brenda, voiced by Kristen Wiig. One day, Frank finds out that he and Brenda are going to be leaving in the same cart. However, on that same day, they encounter a slightly “touched” individual named Honey Mustard, voiced by Danny McBride, who tells them what really happens to food after they enter the “great beyond”. After a cart crashes into another one causing mass chaos and death of certain food items, Frank and Brenda end up in the supermarket, along with a bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr, voiced by Edward Norton, a taco named Teresa del Taco, voiced by Salma Hayek, and a Lavash named Kareem Abdul Lavash, voiced by David Krumholtz. Can they find out what is exactly going on, and also avoid a villain, voiced by Nick Kroll? What will happen to Frank’s friends played by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera?

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If I’m going to be honest, I’m going to start with the negatives with this film. I don’t hate this movie, but I do think it has its handful of flaws. Maybe it’s because I have been spoiled by Edgar Wright comedies and The LEGO Movie, but I found the humor to be hit-and-miss. It’s not consistent enough as it tries to balance crude humor, stoner humor, clever humor, and food puns. I would rather have had fewer jokes that hit bullseye than a bunch of jokes where only some work. I did find myself laughing at a lot of the jokes and finding some of the situations clever, but then you would run into jokes that were crude just to be crude, because some notes from the higher-up said they needed to be crude. I also found the pacing to slow down a bit in the middle part of the film.

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Now then, let’s talk about the current may-or-may-not be true controversy revolving around the studio that made Sausage Party, Nitrogen. The controversy is revolving around a bunch of anonymous animators for this film, saying that many of the animators on the film were not credited, they all worked unpaid overtime, and were abused from one of the directors, Greg Tieman. Here is how I look at the situation. If the investigation turns out to be true, and I won’t be surprised if they are, since I also worked in an industry (the game industry) known for abusive work experiences, then screw Tieman and Nitrogen for making people work unpaid overtime. Humans are not machines, and they don’t deserve the fear of blacklisting, being left off the credits, or being fired because they are exhausted. I have also heard it was to keep production budgets low, and whoever thought that, whether it be Tieman or not, can go bugger off. People these days need to be able to make a living, and not giving them the time and relaxation they need is infuriating, since you can tell this film had so much love and work put into the animation. However, if these turn out to be fake allegations, then that’s also terrible. It would be a bad image for animators who have actually gone through abusive jobs, and if these complaints turn out to be false, who is to assume that all future complaints are false? I can see either being the case, but we will have to see what happens.

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So, with that out of the way, what is great about this movie? Well, I like the animation. For a small budget (and if true, unfortunate unpaid overtime), the animation is fluid, expressive, and it captures that look and vibe of something from Disney, Pixar, or those old-fashioned concession stand ads that you would see. While most studios try to have that Disney/Pixar look, this film is yet another example, alongside The Little Prince, that does a good job at making good looking humans. I also liked the vibe and characters of the film. Granted, some of the characters are a bit one-note to get some social commentary out there, but I found myself enjoying their company, since some of them were able to be fleshed out, like Michael Cera’s character, and Frank. I also like the commentary about religion this film brings up because, at first it comes off like “why in tarnation do you all believe in something that we have no proof of?”, and then becomes a bit more evened out with “yeah, we all have different beliefs, and I should be more respectful, but we have to fight or else we will get eaten!” While some of its commentary is very shallow, I do like that a stoner comedy tried to be more than just, well, a stoner comedy. I think everyone brings their A game and feels fully invested with their huge or small amount of screentime given to them. Yes, it might have a bunch of Seth Rogen’s crew, like Jonah Hill, James Franco, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson, but you also get hilarious performances from Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, Edward Norton, David Krumholtz, and the rest of the cast. I think this is why I tolerated a lot of the food puns, because when the good jokes rolled through, I was laughing hard. I even laughed at the shocking food orgy. While it was so out there, it was amazing that they got away with so much, only because it was all food. It literally gives a whole new meaning to “food porn.”

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Now, in terms of it being a stepping stone for future animated films aimed at teens/older adults, I am all for it. While it might have that awkward controversy, it is a monster hit. I know some disagree with it being the film to bring in more adult-animated films, but I disagree, and think that’s just pessimistic and cynical thinking. While it might not be the very first adult-animated film, I do think it will have a place in helping more animated films get made that are aimed for an older audience. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want all adult-animated films to be just stoner comedies, but if this helps get more varied animated films than fast-paced comedies, then I welcome it.

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Sausage Party might have its flaws, and while the controversy that neither Sony nor Seth Rogen have brought up at all is troubling if true, I still very much enjoyed the movie. I had a fun time even with its sometimes clunky jokes and pacing. However, this recommendation to see it does come with a huge asterisk next to it. If you can separate the film from its supposed controversy (which again, if proven to be true, I hope great things happen to those wronged in the situation, and if proven false, then screw those people), then definitely go see it. If you can’t do such a task, then maybe wait for a rental, or check it out at a discount theater so you don’t give too much money to the film. If you don’t like this movie, I perfectly understand, due to how divisive comedy can be. Well, that was tiring, but I must press ever onward with my one-year special, covering Rex the Runt. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the article, and see you all next time.

Rating: Go See It!