Review: Shoplifters (2018)

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“In this life, one thing counts”… : AOI Promotion/Fuji Television Network

The list of Japanese films about petty crime and forgotten underclasses is short. The other that immediately springs to mind is TOKYO GODFATHERS and like Satoshi Kon’s Christmas animation, SHOPLIFTERS follows an unconventional family unit brought together on the streets by chance, and by love.

The shoplifting Shibata family take in another child when they find her abandoned on the streets. The girl is taught the family trade while the Shibatas face further financial difficulties and have doubts about their misbegotten way of life.

Japan has a relatively low crime rate and as a culture is particularly unforgiving of larceny. In addition to harsh sentencing for such crimes (not considered petty), being caught trying to steal someone else’s property is the antithesis of Japan’s culture of respect for each other. Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda is taking his society’s strict morality to task. He isn’t making excuses for those who commit crime but merely asking us to acknowledge that the situation is rarely black-and-white. Who are we to judge someone’s desperate actions if we don’t know the full story?

Young Shota (Jyo Kairi making an amazing debut) gets the chance so few of us do – to choose his family. He was found on the streets and his real family are a distant memory, but he only has to stick with those who took him in, to remain a Shibata as long as he remains happy. He has other options. Because she is temporarily remembered by her abusive family (and the world is watching) Lin/Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) may not ever get that same chance. She is mistreated and deeply unhappy by the family she is born into but they will not let her go because of how poorly it would reflect on them.

“Don’t make her do it” says the kindly corner shop owner. Crime is never victimless, much as the Fagin-like patriarch Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) would have his family believe. He does it because he can, because he always has done and because he gets a kick out of it.  Everyone else in the family does it as a last resort, supplementing meagre incomes from legitimate sources. As the scales fall from Shota’s eyes and his “dad” takes more risks for greater reward, he has a crisis of morality and realises that all some people care about is money. He loves his new family and they love him back, but he can no longer in good conscience go along with their lifestyle, especially when he sees the path the impressionable Lin is being drawn towards.

Surrogate mother Osamu (Lily Franky) is the undoubted MVP of this ensemble. A good portion of the film’s final stretch is focussed just on Franky’s face as she has to justify not just her questionable actions, but herself, to the police. Nobuyo did what he did primarily out of greed with pity and love as an afterthought. Osamu really wanted to be a mother, to forge the family denied to her and to atone for her life’s mistakes and she ends up paying the price and taking the rap for her whole family. As harshly as the Japanese authorities deal with thieves, what really does the family in is a further transgression they commit that flouts the Japanese need for dignity and respect in all things.

Grandma (Kirin Kiki) is a more complex figure to analyse. She seems to have lived a whole other life with her late husband before they separated, he died and this new family gathered around her. She happily accepts money for looking after her late husband’s granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) on behalf of her unloving parents and encourages the family’s criminal activities despite being able to live off her decent pension. She objects to new additions to the household and having more mouths to feed (fully expecting crime to supplement them before her own income) but comes to care for them all deeply, though she’d never come out and say it to their faces.

Shoplifters is a story about love. The Shibatas all love each other, eventually, and we come to love them all during the time we spend with them. It’s a film made in the small moments, in pure instances of bottled emotion. The family playing on a beach, huddling together listening for celebratory fireworks they can’t see, building a snowman because proud men don’t know how to say sorry. Every member of the family has their reasons for leading the life they do, some of them have a choice and some do not, but they are in it together until the day when circumstances force them apart. Shoplifters is humanist poetry on film. SSP

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Review in Brief: Cam (2018)

CAM is easily the most disturbing horror of 2018, not just because of its effective technical mounting and the barnstorming lead performance from Madeline Brewer, but because it feels so relevant to the here and now. Much like INGRID GOES WEST, our obsession with, and utter reliance on technology becomes terrifying, and that’s even before any supernatural elements are mixed in. Cam girls working in adult chatrooms, adopting personas and doing what ever it takes to please their viewers comes across as draining for them and tragic for the guys who feel that alone constitutes a relationship. But what if your online self took on a life of its own and locked you out? I’m a sucker for films about fractured identities (THE NEON DEMON and THE DOUBLE are recent favourites) and this is a fine, queasy addition to the psycho-horror sub-genre that surely won’t be to everyone’s taste. SSP

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Review in Brief: Outlaw King (2018)

Don’t compare OUTLAW KING to BRAVEHEART, compare it to IRONCLAD. This is brutal, dirty history, and there’s not a kilt in sight. Chris Pine is a softly spoken and dignified Robert the Bruce, Florence Pugh is a fiery counterpoint to their relationship and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is unrecognisable to the extent that I didn’t realise he played Bruce’s deadliest warrior until the credits. They get the key historical details right (locations, styles of warfare, ceremonies and rituals) though perhaps tone some down for the sake of watchability (for instance, there’s no way the witnesses in the king’s bedchamber would allow consummation to not take place on his wedding night). I’m not sure a lot of the film will stay with me, but it’s all very watchable and a much more worthy marker of a key passage of Scottish history. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read about if black ops knights were really a thing… SSP

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Review: Private Life (2018)

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Not everyday breakfast conversation: Netflix/Likely Story

This review contains spoilers for PRIVATE LIFE.

Netflix are having a pretty stellar year of original content. I mean, the bad stuff is still pretty bad, but the good stuff is really good and often takes you by surprise. I didn’t really know what to expect from PRIVATE LIFE beyond Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn being reliably great. They are that, but this also turned out to be one of those delightful film surprises of 2018. I’m going to remember this emotional rollercoaster for a long time, and I think you will too.

After trying unsuccessfully for a baby for several years, writers Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) decide to undergo IVF treatment. As their relationship bears this added strain, their niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) takes a break from college and comes to stay.

Everyone feels so real here. Rachel and Richard are a couple who love each other deeply but who can’t help blurting out embarrassing secrets at inappropriate moments, can’t resist taking little digs or saying exactly the wrong thing at the very worst time (Sadie shares this family trait of not thinking before speaking). They look like us, they act like us, when they’re around the house they don’t wear pants (in both in the American and British sense).

Rachel and Richard are trapped. They have been through so much, hit so many hurdles and they still have to keep spending and hoping to get anything out of this. They have to get pregnant before the money or their time runs out or else they will have wasted both. This must be the story and the struggle for so many expectant couples. The film was inspired by the real struggles of writer-director Tamara Jenkins undertaking fertility treatments and this adds that essential level of grounding and authenticity.

Hahn is the emotional core of the film throughout, but Giamatti gets perhaps the standout moment when the normally pragmatic Richard finally breaks and considers throwing in the towel, exclaiming “I just want my life back…I’m just some guy who injects hormones into your ass every night!”. Elsewhere, the new gold standard is set for awkward escalating movie dinner scenes. That’s particularly impressive as let’s be honest, all movie dinner scenes are awkward and escalating, that’s why you put a dinner scene in your movie, not so your characters can eat and make merry but to try them.

Discussions of morality are by no means shirked. Rachel and Richard’s relationship dynamic with Sadie is odd to say the least, as when she offers to be their egg donor she is essentially acting as both a co-parent and daughter to them. The film doesn’t make judgements about what they are asking her to do, or the somewhat dishonest way they keep their bases covered elsewhere, but it acknowledges that there is a lot to unpack in this situation.

The message, the truth of what real couples undergoing IVF treatment must go through, is mercifully balanced by some endearing comic imagery, from Rich looking more confused than aroused at his “motivational” porn in the sample-giving room to Rachel’s first IVF procedure coming with the added awkwardness of her (very nice) doctor insisting on playing prog rock throughout. The biggest laugh comes from Rachel looking over the “EBay for ova” and practically recoiling at the idea that her potential egg donor is proud of getting “a full scholarship for golf”.

If it wasn’t for BLACKKKLANSMAN absolutely killing it, Private Life would have the most memorable, powerful final moments of any film of 2018. Think CALL ME BY YOUR NAME but much more dialed back and optimistic. Private Life is painfully honest, bittersweet and I only slightly hesitate to say, important. So what are you waiting for? Boot it up – it’s not a downer, I promise. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and your heart will be all filled up. SSP

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Review: Wildlife (2018)

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Can we at least have the radio on?: June Pictures/Nine Stories Productions

I’m not yet 30 but WILDLIFE makes me feel old. Paul Dano was the stroppy teenager in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, now he’s directing movies. The ever-youthful looking Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are now old enough to be playing the parents of a teenager. Why is time in such a hurry?

In sleepy Montana suburbs in the 1950s, young Joe’s (Ed Oxenbould) comfortable home life is shaken when his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job out of the blue. Jerry’s coping strategy is to go off and fight raging forest fires and his mother Jean (Carey Mulligan) makes some equally questionable decisions while her husband is away, leaving Joe to support himself and cope alone.

Wildlife really is a teenager’s-eye-view of domestic life falling apart. All eyes are on Joe, so the camera often lingers on his reaction to the questionable actions of others happening offscreen, and it is testament to Oxenbould’s already finely-honed skills that you can always read what is going through Joe’s confused head. Acting performers Gyllenhaal and especially Mulligan off the screen is no mean feat. The trio have a grounded and believable family chemistry and the dynamic of the household is knocked completely off balance the moment one of them is out of the picture.

You could flip a coin to decide who is the least suitable parent as both make such rash and stupid decisions seemingly as much out of spite for each other as to save the family from its immediate difficulties. And of course they blame each other for everything that inevitably goes wrong, but Joe would be quite right (but too mature and well-adjusted to) ask them to consider what they are doing to him. His parents are both completely self-centred and far less mature than their teenage son. Jerry does what he does out of obscenely overcompensating for his wounded pride, Jean seems to be trying to reclaim her (really not that distant) youth and reassert the authority she already held in their household. You really struggle to get in their headspace to understand any of their decisions; they are completely irrational and without a thought for what really matters.

Joe is one of the most pragmatic teen characters I think I’ve ever seen on screen. When our time with this family finally draws to a close, only one of them is really coping with their lives undergoing such massive changes over a short period of time, and by rights it shouldn’t be him. He doesn’t have time to act his age, go through all the usual teenage experiences and work out who he is because he is left to parent himself. As soon as his mother becomes more interested her social life than her son, he goes straight out for groceries and starts to look for an after school job to support himself, and you suspect, stay out of her way.

The film is full of particularly relevant and resonant imagery echoing the devastating wildfires that have ravaged California this year (a particularly unhappy accident as the film was well into production by the time the disaster hit). Fathers leaving for the fires with their families staring after them, like soldiers going to war the decade before. You do wonder which among them had the experience necessary to make a difference and how many, like Jerry, were looking for any means of escape.

This is an incredibly sure-handed directorial debut from Dano. He tells the kind of story that he is so often cast in, but with his, and writing partner Zoe Kazan’s own take on the material. It’s intimate and emotionally raw, about coping and not coping with real mistakes. I hope Dano keeps up his work in front of the camera as well as behind it, but if the former needs to take a back seat to the latter, Wildlife is a calling card that makes you take notice. SSP

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Review: The Endless (2017/18)

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With all your might: Snowfort Pictures/Pfaff & Pfaff Productions

About half a decade ago, indie nobodies Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead hit the festival circuit with their first feature film RESOLUTION, and it did rather well. Critically. The problem was nobody saw this weird near-plotless sci-fi when it was released into the wild. Basically it was about a guy forcing his friend to go cold turkey while voyeuristic video tapes with possible cult connections keep turning up out of thin air. Now the good folks at Arrow Films have packaged Resolution together with the home release of Benson and Moorhead’s follow-up THE ENDLESS, and trust me you want to see both. It’s not essential for your understanding but the former sets up the latter and the latter enriches the former.

Not many escape fanatical death cults, fewer still go back to them voluntarily once they do. After living a normal life for many years, brothers Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) and Justin (Justin Benson) are drawn back to the strange entity-worshipping commune that made them to find very little has changed – not the people, not the place and certainly not the thing pulling the strings and lurking just beyond our field of vision…

The central mystery, which is kept intentionally vague is what is It and more importantly what does It want? As it’s so succinctly put by the cult leader (Tate Ellington) at one point, “It shows us what It sees. There’s a powerful elegance to that”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a powerful external threat use our innate trust of what we see with our own eyes as a weapon before. It’s a really sinister idea that lingers in the back of your mind. Even more scary is the society that has built itself a comfortable little life around It. The cult has no leaders (yeah, sure…) they drink beer, play music and make merry, but something you can’t quite put your finger on is always off.

Benson and Moorhead are stupidly talented. Co-directors and stars with Benson writing and Moorhead as cinematographer. I don’t even know how you’d keep track of the job at hand if you’re spinning so many hats, wearing so many plates…wait, what was my point again?

This is one of the most thought-provoking and surprising sci-fis in years. Both films, but especially The Endless are all about perception and time (particularly temporal distortions and time loops). It’s not got a massive budget, but what they have they use really well, with striking aerial photography to emphasise the brothers’ insignificance, isolation, and later, hopelessness and very sparing use of special effects elsewhere. As was proven in THE FORBIDDEN PLANET, having a mostly invisible monster can save you a lot of headaches on a technical level and leave it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. This film world somehow always feels bigger and with more moving parts than we actually see on screen.

I really don’t want to go into any more plot specifics as this is one that’s best seen without preconceptions. I won’t say absolutely everything they try to do works but it’s never not  interesting. It’s meticulously crafted, endlessly inventive and discussing what it’s really all about could fuel many a social gathering over a jug of craft beer.

The standard move for any successful indie genre filmmaker seems to be to bigger studio projects but I don’t know whether Benson and Moorhead would be able to retain their distinctive voice if they followed suit. I’m not saying if they hopped aboard with Marvel, for instance, it wouldn’t yield anything worth watching, but it would be a battle to make it feel as unique. They’ve got another film in the works at the moment and whatever it turns out to be I’m sure it’ll be fascinating, as will their future careers, whatever path they follow. SSP

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Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

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Four wizards walk into a mausoleum… : Warner Bros/Heyday Films

JK Rowling is just making this nonsense up as she goes along isn’t she? If that makes me sound like I’m anti-Potter, nothing could be further from the truth. As a 90s kid I devoured Rowling’s books and I see the films as an important part of my formative years. I even really liked the first FANTASTIC BEASTS film. But for the best Potter movies were those that didn’t feel too constrained by the text and I really think we’re at the stage where Rowling as screenwriter needs a script editor to pull back on her worst excesses. THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD typifies these excesses and director David Yates has no power here.

Following the damage caused indirectly by his trip to New York, magizoologist Newt Skamander (Eddie Redmayne) is banned from traveling by the Ministry of Magic. At this most inconvenient of times, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) gives Newt a special mission in Europe, where dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is at large and expanding his power base.

I know it’s Rowling’s world and she can do whatever the hell she wants with it, but little inconsistencies niggle. While I might not care that unlike in the book magic users can apparate inside the grounds of Hogwarts (it’s a film, it moves more quickly, it’s more elegant than showing people walking for miles) I do care that they made Dumbledore professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts rather than Transfiguration only to have an excuse to do the Boggart scene again. What makes a circus so amazing to a magic-using audience who can surely perform similar feats themselves? What was the point of revealing that Nagini was once human? Does it effect her role in the HARRY POTTER series in any way (aside from making Neville a murderer)?

I know people have issues with Newt Skamander as a character, but I find his sheer oddness and discomfort around other people incredibly endearing. His scenes with Tina (Katherine Waterston) and his fumbling professions of love amounting to comparing her to a salamander are really sweet. While his beasts are even more incidental to the story this time round, I really liked that one Chinese dragon-cat one.

There are admittedly some very nice visuals. The ambitious opening scene of Grindelwald’s escape might have been more exciting had I been able to tell what was going on through the rain, brake-neck speed and rapid-fire editing. A brief return visit to Newt’s menagerie, a magical circus packing itself away in seconds and a conversation between him and Dumbledore as they apparate around a foggy London all leave an impression.

The plotting might be too busy and indistinct, but the film’s real stumble is in characterisation. What did they do with Queenie (Alison Sudol)? Why bring Newt’s much-idolised big brother Theseus (Callum Turner) into the fray if he’s not really an ally or an obstacle? The big revelation about Creedence’s (Ezra Miller) heritage is nowhere near as interesting as they think it is. The final twist, the type of thing that usually makes everything suddenly slot into place and prompt a review of the entire plot, fails utterly. You just think, huh?

I’m sure Law will be good once they give him some decent screentime. Dumbledore being a tricky bugger fond of sending young wizards on perilous quests, it’s never said outright what his endgame is. His prior romantic relationship with Grindelwald is alluded to but outright confirmation saved for a future instalment. Speaking of big bad G, Depp couldn’t be bothered inventing a new voice for Grindelwald so he just recycles his Barnabas Collins and struts around in another big coat.

I’ll say this for Rowling: she’s not holding back on the adult elements of her wizarding story. Worryingly, though, she seems to think that in order to fight fascism you need…more fascism? But it’s OK because these fascists can just magic the world better! Or maybe I’m just misreading the film’s tasteless, borderline offensive use of certain provocative imagery.

Like a lot of modern franchise films looking to the future, they answer as little as they can get away with. Seeds may well have been planted to pay off much later, but at the moment it just feels like teasing and time-wasting. We know approximately where this story is going and who makes it, but Rowling and Yates are taking us on the scenic route. A scenic route with poor visability. And a boring ever-talking co-passenger. With bad breath. SSP

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Review in Brief: Hold the Dark (2018)

Blue, green, dark? Dark isn’t a colour Jeremy Saulnier! HOLD THE DARK is relentlessly miserable and pointlessly vague. I get that Saulnier doesn’t seem to have much faith in humanity, that he is depicting real monsters whose actions could never be rationalised here, but there’s got to be something that gives us a handle on the characters. Jeffrey Wright is good in the lead, a typical Saulnier lead in a constant state of physical and psychological suffering, but this is yet another film that makes me doubt Alexander Skarsgard’s range. I respect the uncompromising bleakness, the effective use of wilderness locations and attempting to explore what living in such a place does to a person’s mind, body and soul, but the characters are more frustrating than interesting and much of the time the darkness (actual, not tonal) just makes it hard to see anything. Squint and you can make out people’s outlines, not their motivations. SSP

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Review: Widows (2018)

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Ballsy: Regency Enterprises/See-Saw Films

WIDOWS is a mighty fine thriller. If you consider it a thriller, which I do. A dramatic one. A Steve McQueen film always leaves you emotionally spent and with plenty of food for thought, but this is easily his most outright enjoyable work. You might even leave with a smidgen of hope in your heart.

When her career criminal husband’s (Liam Neeson) failed heist results in the demise of his entire gang, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) recruits her fellow widows for one last job to secure their future. Meanwhile, a highly contested Chicago ward election is taking a morally dubious turn…

Steve McQueen casts flawlessly and there really isn’t a weak link in this cast. Every character is given room to breathe. Viola Davis bears the brunt of the dramatic lifting in the lead, but Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as the used and abused Alice also leaves a mark, proving her versatility and lightness of touch in a tricky role. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo arguably have more conventional role to fill playing working mums, but they have chemistry with the others and their characters’ skills prove invaluable.

McQueen has one of the clearest, cleanest visual sensibilities of any director working today. You can tell he’s an artist because every shot is a (sometimes grisly, sometimes grim) painting. The action is no-nonsense and visceral, the most emotionally fraught moments held in close-up, the city of Chicago and its many problems another character.

Violence in a McQueen film always has weight and consequences. In the opening heist-gone-awry scene, some of the crew are offed without introduction, others get a few lines to register how far south things have gone. Later Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying enforcer plays with his victims like a big cat before dispatching them and the widows’ big night is far from free of bloodshed.

The strongest stretch in a strong film is the gang making their plans and assigning roles in the upcoming heist. Some of the challenges ahead require creative solutions and every member of the gang has to make the most of their respective strengths and to think on her feet to some extent. While it’s always great to see a group of interesting characters not defined by their gender, what marks the widows out even beyond them exploiting the fact that “No one will think we have the balls to pull this off” is that they’re allowed to be as flawed, as fallible, as their late husbands who managed to get themselves killed. They’re capable, intelligent and determined but they make mistakes and have to improvise to survive.

I can definitely see us getting more socially conscious thrillers like this in next few years. This has all the elements of a polished and visceral heist movie (it even has a propulsive Hans Zimmer score) but it also has something to say about the world. Inequalities in contemporary American society are neatly and punchily summed up by a long-take of Farrell’s politician being driven away from a rally in a deprived area, rounding a couple of corners to pull up at the very nice house that serves as his campaign headquarters.

About the only thing I had an issue with was a slight storytelling misstep midway through the film that lessened the impact of a key moment of drama towards the end. McQueen didn’t need to show his hand so early, and if he hadn’t the ending might have hit with more of a bang than it already does. Very minor problems aside, Widows is a stylish, gripping and resonant crime drama with layered characterisation and a conscience. SSP

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Review in Brief: Errementari (2017/18)

ERREMENTARI is a little gothic gem. It feels like what would happen if Guillermo del Toro remade one of James Whale’s darker Universal Horror films. “Errementari” is Basque for blacksmith, so appropriately this tells the tale of a village blacksmith (Kandido Uranga) trying to outwit Satan and his followers after committing an atrocity in his past. The film uses the classic rural paranoia as a catalyst for evil trope to great effect, and uses its modest budget well to create memorable imagery. The appearances of the demons are all achieved with prosthetics and the seriously dark themes and gloomy atmosphere gives way to slapstick and over-the-top bombast. The villains are a bit cartoony and the broad strokes of the plot can be seen a mile off but there’s a lot to like in this. Worth a watch alone for the sight of a little girl (Uma Bracaglia) torturing a caged demon with dried chickpeas. SSP

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