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Review- Isle of Dogs; The Death of Stalin

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Review-  Isle of Dogs; The Death of Stalin 

In Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, humanity has gone to the dogs.

Oh yes, there are human characters, but in his return to stop-motion animation (after The Fantasic Mr. Fox), and with the emphasis on outcast canines, Anderson has created his most heartfelt, engaging film yet. The premise (as explained by our canine guide Juniper (F. Murray Abraham) and the unseen narrator (Courtney P. Vance) is that in Japan of the near-future, an infectious outbreak among dogs has caused the vindictive Megasaki Mayor (who’s a cat loving dog hater—part of the residue of an earlier feud) to banish all dogs to Trash Island. Enter the Mayor’s young ward Atari, who grabs a plane and crash lands on this Isle of Dogs looking for his beloved Spot. Though Atari can only speak Japanese, he manages to convey this urgency to his canine protectors (including such Anderson regulars as Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, with the most reluctant canine voiced by Bryan Cranston). Meanwhile in Megasaki, there are those scientists who are looking for a cure, and one youthful activist (Greta Gerwig) who tirelessly (if a bit stridently) seeks the truth. One needn’t look hard to see the allegorical nature of all this, whether it’s in the demagoguery of its officials, the intolerance of the populace, the expulsion of the unwanted individuals, or the threat of annihilation.

There is much to enjoy about Isle of Dogs, if you’re an Anderson fan or not. If you know Anderson’s work, then you’ve become accustomed to all his self-reflexive techniques, including the cutaways and interruptions in the main action for occasional flashbacks. These function especially well here, and deepen one’s emotional investment in the film.  For another, the visuals are compelling throughout, as in when they’re depicting the bleakness of the island (complete with maggots, trash heaps, abandoned nuclear power plants), and especially when the camera is focusing on the film’s most impressive accomplishment: the dogs themselves. Supplemented by superb vocal work, especially from Norton and Cranston (as the strong, sturdy canine who accepts no masters), these abandoned dogs have not abandoned their loyalty to each other, or what we might see as simple human values. There are moments of joy amidst all the hauntingly composed squalor, and several poignant moments, especially among the canines—which makes Isle of Dogs the director’s most humane work yet.

There isn’t much humanity on display in The Death of Stalin, a riotous blend of farce and satire in which Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s sudden death results with the ineffectual Malenkhov (Jeffrey Tambor) in charge—in name only. There are other political players, notably Steve Buscemi’s guardedly ambitious Khruschev and Simon Russell’s Beria, who want both Malenkhov’s ear and supremacy within the inner circle. Burning questions are addressed—with much (unlikely) comic effect, such as will Stalin’s purges continue? Who will emerge as the real reformer, the scrambling Khruschev or the quietly conniving Beria? Will Stalin’s policies stay in place even after the succession of power? How will the military (represented by the impressively brutal Jason Isaacs) play a role? How long can Molotov (Michael Palin) continue to insist on maintaining Stalin’s legacy while persisting in undermining it (Palin masters the doublespeak of Molotov, regardless of situation). Finally, what to do about Stalin’s grown children, each potential future impediments—and let us not forget that attractive pianist tabbed to play the funeral, but whose ill will toward Stalin threatens to topple Khruschev’s power play.

The wonder of The Death of Stalin, directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, is how he juggles each of these elements with wit, savagery, and comic finesse. The history may not be accurate, but the depiction of these self-serving politicos who will stop at nothing to consolidate their own standing results in some of the funniest scenes one will see on screen this year. Even before Stalin’s funeral, these inner circle members resemble nothing more than well-dressed blend of the Three Stooges and Keystone Kops, scrambling to find a good doctor after they realize they’ve imprisoned all the competent ones. The funeral itself lends itself to slapstick and frantic plotting, even as horrific events are unfolding in its wake. Iannucci manages to never lose sight of the darkness, even as he maintains the bitterly comic tone throughout, aided by skillful players like Tambor, Buscemi, Palin and Jones who spark the material and each other. They’re a terrific ensemble in what may well be the funniest film of the year.

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Mike Peros

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, DAN DURYEA - HEEL WITH A HEART, the first biography of classic Hollywood's iconic villain, was recently published by the University Press of Mississippi.  He is  also an educator with a passion for movies ever since he saw John Wayne riding toward the bad guys, reins between his teeth, in TRUE GRIT.  Some of his favorite films include THE BAND WAGON, THE WILD BUNCH, OUT OF THE PAST, THE SILENT PARTNER, IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER ( a great musical--if you're a Gene Kelly fan, what are you waiting for?), and KONGA with the great Michael Gough.

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