The military remains a highly sacred institution in America, and disparaging it is still a risky move for any public official or figure to make. With Last Flag Flying director Richard Linklater pulls off the remarkable accomplishment of angrily critiquing the Governmental policies and regulations behind acts of war while honouring the men and women who serve for their country, sometimes with their lives.
In the early days of the Iraq War three Vietnam veterans reunite to attend the funeral of one of their sons. As they reconnect and reminisce on their own experiences and survival, there’s a profound sense of inevitability about war and death as they watch the younger generation fight in another seemingly senseless war. As is the case with Linklaider’s screenplays, this one written alongside Darryl Ponicsan as he helps adapt his novel of the same name, there are all sorts of rounded and naturalistic conversations on topics ranging from Eminem to survivor’s guilt. The journey across America to bring Larry Jr.’s body home turns into a profound and poetic road trip that deals with ageing, honour, duty, and the familial love between fathers, son, and those who serve together.
Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne fit their roles like they were born into them, playing three very different men who have been forever bonded by their shared experiences. As bar-owner Sal Nealon Cranston is crude, loud, and outspoken – quick to laugh at both his own and other’s expense while clinging to his glory days. Carell is remarkably soft-spoken and fragile as Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a younger member of the platoon whose own army experience ended badly and is now emotionally lost following the death of his son. Reverend Richard Mueller allows Fishburne to utilise his voice’s power and softness as a man trying desperately to move on from his irresponsible youth, although the moments where he slips up are often unexpectedly humourous. The chemistry between three actors of their experience is natural and effortless, enabling Linklaider and Ponicsan to delve into complex topics like the politics behind the Vietnam and Iraq wars by pretty much stripping away the politics. Instead Last Flag Flying’s focus is always on the humanity of these men and others in the military, and how the connections between them overcome other differences.
It’s certainly a heavier topic than Linklaider’s Before trilogy’s analysis of romantic relationships or Boyhood’s coming-of-age story, and while the message borders on preachy at times there’s a gentle touch that stops it from feeling inauthentic. The two-hour run time starts to feel stretched after the first hour, particularly when there’s not a lot actually happening in many scenes, but the extra time we spend with these three men just strengthens the emotional connection we have with them as audience members. It all leads to a deeply moving conclusion, with some of Carell’s finest acting in years, which suggests that family is more important than anything else. It’s a clichéd message, yes, but films like Last Flag Flying demonstrate how true it is.
A Wes Anderson film about dogs is such an appealing concept that I was pretty much sold on Isle of Dogs before even getting into the theatre, but I’ll admit to still being surprised by the love and warmth Anderson continues to bring to his films. Isle of Dogs marks the ninth picture by the distinctive auteur director, and despite his filmic style evoking countless imitators and parodies his techniques never seem forced or artificial. Instead it feels like a singular story by a peculiar mind that could only be told in this way.
For a director as particular about production design as Anderson working in animation seems a logical decision, particularly stop-motion where the textures on each model can really come through. Nearly every frame is precisely arranged and awash with colour, even those on the grey and gritty garbage island, and the puppet designs of the canine characters lend them sweetness within their coarse hairs and scars. While 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a faithful adaptation of a classic Roald Dahl story presented with all of Anderson’s famous flourishes, Isle of Dogs allows him to make something entirely new. Drawing heavily on Japanese storytelling traditions to the point of opening with a Kabuki-styled expositional narration, the screenplay presents a dystopian view of Japan in the near future where all dogs have been cast out of the fictional city of Megasaki due to a widespread dog flu and sent to live on Trash Island. The first dog exiled belongs to the man behind the decision, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), but also happens to be the security dog of Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). Desperate to find and rescue the dog, Spots, Atari crash-lands a stolen plane onto Garbage Island and teams up with a group of dogs to find him and reveal the true extent of Kobayashi’s plans – even if they don’t necessarily speak each other’s language.
The language difference plays a vital role in how characters in Isle of Dogs, with many of Atari’s lines spoken through un-subtitled Japanese while the dogs communicate amongst themselves in English. While some scenes do contain either subtitles or translations through interpreters (primarily the comforting voice of Frances McDormand) the need to understand exactly what was being said quickly becomes irrelevant. Atari’s thoughts and feelings are easy to read through both his delightful character animation and the strength of the bond that naturally forms between a boy and his dog. Said dog characters are almost irresistibly lovable, with models that perfectly capture all those quirks and intricacies that make pooches such popular pets and each voiced to absolute perfection by an astonishing cast including Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murry, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s primarily the voice of Bryan Cranston as Chief, a life-long stray that adamantly refuses to have any sort of master, that really carries the emotions of the film. Cranston’s naturally gruff voice is ideal for such a character, and he gradually brings a softness into how he delivers each line as Chief opens himself up. The sheer amount of personality displayed through both the designs and vocal performances brings these very good dogs to life and demonstrates why people are able to form such strong connections with them, to the point that both pet and owner are able to do anything to protect the other.
Those who struggle to appreciate Anderson’s distinctive style aren’t going to be won over by Isle of Dogs, as all of his favourite techniques are on full display here, and the conversation about how he uses Japanese cultural elements is a larger and more complicated one than I know how to get involved in. But for how he blends the visuals, the lightness of a family-friendly story that never shies away from darker implications, Alexandre Desplat’s stylistically varied soundtrack, and the sheer charm of his characters, Isle of Dogs stole my heart completely.