Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion story of the utmost beauty and wit. We discuss its cinematography, compositions, lightness of touch, allegorical relationship to reality, and place in Anderson’s body of work. We also reserve particular praise for Bryan Cranston’s vocal performance and Alexandre Desplat’s score.
Recorded on 1st April 2018.
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The image above is from one of Scarface‘s most iconic moments: ‘say hello to my little friend’. Practically everyone knows or has heard the line either in the movie or cited or imitated elsewhere. Pacino’s performance is galvanising and his reading of that line unforgettable: we now have over 35 years’ evidence that this is so. But what caught my eye in my most recent viewing is how the film’s set, costume and colour design — not to mention all other elements of mise-en-scène — also build up to this moment.
The red-carpet is like a pathway of blood, leading up to that oh-so-white and oh-so-deadly — ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ — little mountain of coke on the desk, all the darkness of the furniture showing edges of gold, including those two big bars that seem to frame the desk itself. It’s like the colour of killing leads to the whiteness of the coke, which is nonetheless enshrouded in the darkness one has accept and travel through to get to the gold. It’s patterned, meaningful, great use of colour and set design. Note also that foot and the patch of purple or violet on the lower right-hand side of the frame. Most of this post will be about that.
But before that let’s just establish how the colour is designed and patterned. Note below, Tony Montana’s phone call after the chainsaw scene with the Columbians were he manages to obtain both the coke and the money in spite of the suspicion that he’s been set up by by Omar (F. Murray Abraham). It’s what leads to his first contact with Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) The image is almost the inverse one of the scene where Lopez himself decides to off Tony Montana and which will instead lead to his own demise. See images below. It’s like the colours of the shirt in the picture on the left have been rendered onto the landscape that’s a backdrop and then combined so that the landscape is painted in the colours of the shirt and then transposed as the wallpaper that is a backdrop to a newly endangered Tony in Frank Lopez’s office. The first is a ‘Hello Frank’ moment. The latter is a ‘Goodbye Tony Montana that ends up being Goodby Frank Lopez’ moment. And the link between them, how one is the result but opposite of the other is partly communicated through a similar inversion and transposition of colour.
Another example of this consistent, patterned and expressive use of colour is the use of red. The first frame-grab below on the left is the two pillars of red that frames the entrance of Tony and Manny (Steven Bauer) into Frank’s house. In the second we see that the house is meant to evoke rich Miami moderne, so the red remains an accent if vibrantly evident. In the third as they sit down to discuss business with Frank, the red occupies the bottom third, but now the black predominates in the leather sofas, and Frank is wearing the colour of his merchandise, cocaine. Then compare this again to the final shootout at Tony’s mansion on the last frame, where the red predominates, the black, gold is evident and carried through, and the the sculpture that ironically proclaims the world is yours is in gold and dead centre.
To return to the ‘say hello to my little friend’ image from the beginning and the peek of purple at the bottom right of the frame, the colour of the nightgown Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the person Tony loved most was wearing when he killed the second person he loved the most, Manny. She’s still wearing it after being killed in his own office. When I saw it I wrote a note to myself:
‘Colours converge at the end, sister wearing husband’s mauve which he’s been associated throughout, the carpet of red, leading to the gold, the black and the cocaine, all the dominant colours of the last set-pice in the house with the world is yours fountain at the end, borrowed wholesale from the neon sign in the original film.
‘The World is Yours’ appears often in the film, sometimes written onto airborn Zeppelins, sometimes as a sculpture outside the new Montana headquarters,, sometimes in Tony’s own office, and at the end as the centrepiece in the middle of the dual staircase (see below).
I had a theory about the colour purple based on this image below:
It’s the moment where Tony kills Manny. Manny has been dressed in or surrounded by the spectrum of colours between red and blue that generally centres on violet. Manny is newly married and robed in white (and, after Tony, shoots him splattered in red). As you can see below there is hardly a scene in the film (I noted two important but brief exception) where Manny is not wearing some form of violet. My theory was that marriage had transferred his colour onto that of his wife.
However, looking back on the film I see that this is not quite the case. Gina has also been wearing that colour throughout the film and in fact in their first proper meeting where he takes her home, they’re both wearing slightly different shades of the same colour.
If violet/purple can be seen as the colour of Tony’s loves, then that little peek of purple by the foot in lower right hand corner of the image that began this post signifies all that his striving to make the world his has cost Tony. The darkness, the coke, the blood is still there with more intensity to come albeit only for a brief time. But that which was love is now dead, barely there and receding fast. It’s great and expressive use of colour throughout the film and this is only but a brief example.
Patricia Norris deserves credit for the costume design; Bruce Weintraub for the set decoration, Edward Richardson for the Art Direction, and Brian De Palma for drawing on Ferdinando Scarfiotti as visual consultant and co-ordinating all of it.
Chris McNicolls has brought to my attention the following: ‘Along with black, violet/mauve are colours of death and mourning in many cultures, so in a way its use seem to foreshadow how things are going to end with Manny and Tony’s sister. But in Cuban culture in particular, especially in its African inflected influences, mauve/violet are the colours of the goddess Oya, that imperious lady who rules the cemetery. And in that frame where Tony emerges from his office on that red carpet with his little friend. The entire setting is dominated by violet/purple and that raging red which, not surprising, is the colour of Oya’s one-time consort, Chango/Shango the lord of fire, lightning, and destruction. And let me tell you, his manly prowess is far from little, hence Tony’s ironic description.’ Something to think about and pursue.
Dead Man Down doesn’t quite work: not-so-deep in its not-so-rotten core is a romance that’s not rendered romantically; and the action isn’t good enough to stand out on its own (as in the District 13 films say). Visually, the film is serviceable but doesn’t dazzle; and there’s something off and perhaps off-putting, at least to American audiences, in having all these Europeans in what is essentially a New York movie. Yet, what actors they are!
Colin Farrell is getting more handsome as he ages, and he’s got gravitas now; when he was younger, his charm was that he evoked a sense of life as a whiz on whiz; that everything was fun with the right drugs. Now he conveys the feeling of a man who’s lived, who’s had troubles, who thinks, and a lot of that thinking is about what’s made him unhappy. Of course, that’s the role; but he seems to inhabit that brooding presence; he kind of evokes a melancholy menace just with his stillness.
Noomi Rapace is harder to watch. She’s got an unusual and unsettling presence (you can understand why she was cast in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She’s got a face with wide, flat, rounded cheekbones that can come across as plain; and in some scenes here she seems kind of stumpy in her too-high heels; but suddenly she can also unfurl a stream of fury, or evoke a kind of ease with skill, or make herself seem an original and startling beauty.
It’s a role and a story that seem to have confused some critics but that make perfect sense to me: a girl who’s been damaged unconsciously sees her life ruined whilst the cause of it gets off scot free and wants revenge. She meets a man, also, hell-bent on revenge. They’re opposites, she claims to be talkative though we never see her in quite that way; he claims to be reticent; though we never quite see him that way with her. They’re clearly made for each other. The film offers excellent reasons why she’s one way in the beginning and quite different at the end (Farrell changes with her, though less mercurially, as befits the plot).
Terence Howard is in it, slimmer and more handsome than previously though never quiet as threatening as he should be. F. Murray Abraham also appears (and it feels odd that he’s the only one in the whole film, including Howard, who really seems to belong in NYC). Poor Dominic Cooper is given the role that redeems the hero. The person who makes the greatest impression in the shortest time is Isabelle Huppert: like very few actors on film, Vanessa Redgrave is one of the few examples that come to mind, she can conjure a role into existence out of mere line readings and minimal gestures. and delight the audience with a non-existent part; it’s a lovely kind of witchcraft.
Dead Mand Down is not for purists; those who like action will be pleased without being thrilled; those who like noir will have seen darker examples; it’s a romance that’s not a comedy and that lingers longer on loneliness than is comfortable. But people who like an interesting and intriguing combination of all of the above, with superb actors who seem to be growing in skill right in front of your eyes, will find a lot to look at and like.