Movie Reviews - 2018 postsThursday December 20, 2018
Movie Review: Shoplifters (2018)
A middle-aged couple who committed murder hole up in the tiny, shack-like home of an elderly Japanese woman, who lives there with her granddaughter—a sex parlor worker. The couple is also raising a young boy whom they kidnapped from a pachinko parlor and taught how to shoplift. Returning from a shoplifting escapade, they spy a four-year-old girl on a balcony and take her home as well. When the old woman dies, the couple buries her body inside the home and take all of her money.
They’re the good guys.
Most of the above is learned at the 11th hour, or by and by. We begin thinking the couple is the parents of the boy, and one of them is the child of the matriarch. We begin thinking they’re a family. Which they are. That’s writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s point. At least that’s how he began the movie—with the question, “What makes a family?” He decided it wasn’t blood.
Question: Does he rig the game?
The couple is big-hearted in a cold-hearted world. They keep the girl because she was being abused. They found the boy abandoned in a car. The “father,” Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), taught him shoplifting, he later tells the cops, because it’s the only thing he knew how to teach him. He says this haplessly, but without pity or ego. There’s a recognition in his eyes that it all went wrong, that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but what are you going to do?
There’s nothing venal about them is my point, and they have an upfront honesty that most families don’t have. The boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), is acting distant, and Osamu surmises why. At the ocean, in the waves, he talks to him about boobs and morning boners and desires. He tells him he’s not abnormal for these urges but at one with the world. “Everybody likes boobs,” he says. The “mother,” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), compares the girl’s scar, where her biological mother burned her with an iron, to her own near identical scar from a work accident. “We’ve been chosen, haven’t we?” she says. It’s a bonding moment.
Kore-eda keeps giving us these moments. They’re precious without being precious. Shota, upset about the addition of the girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), or maybe because he’s asked to think of her as a sister, and to train her in shoplifting techniques, doesn’t come home. Osamu surmises he’s in a nearby abandoned car. He goes there, sits in the car with Shota, talks to him, talks him into going back home. There’s nothing haranguing about it. It’s gentle. It reminded me of a moment, when I was a child and threw a temper tantrum at my grandparent’s house and locked myself in the car outside. Eventually my grandfather came and got me. By then I was depleted. I went willingly, happily. I was so happy to see him.
When the family is finally caught, and wind up before the authorities and the press, everything gets twisted.
Another question: Why does Shota do it? They get caught because Shota gets caught for shoplifting, and at the end of the movie he tells Osamu he got caught on purpose. Which we know. We see it happening. He abandons the technique he’d been taught, and which didn’t work as well as Osamu thought. (The local grocer, for example, knows the kid is shoplifting—another poignant, charming scene.) But why does Shota do it? To momentarily protect Yuri, who is trying to shoplift too? Or to protect her on a larger scale? To get her away from Osamu and Nobuyo and the cramped, big-hearted life they live with its petty crimes?
Also, why tell Osamu at the end? What is he telling him? That he did it on purpose to end a lifestyle that wasn’t sustainable? Or is he saying: I didn’t really fail. Your techniques are still good. I’m still a good shoplifter.
The kids are beyond cute. Is that rigging the game, too? Shota is so pretty he looks like a girl—the way that a teenage Joaquin Phoenix looked like a girl in “Parenthood,” or the middle Hanson brother in the “MMMBop” video. Yuri, meanwhile, is so quiet and vulnerable that when she finally smiles it lights up the world. Just the way she moves, my wife said, broke her heart.
The standout for me is Ando as the mother, Nobuyo, who is tougher than her husband. She’s the one who takes the rap for the crime of kidnapping Yuri away from abusive parents. Ando reveals complicated depths with a glance, an intonation, a shrug. She deals with the pettiness of humanity—as at work, with bosses or colleagues—with a knowing, amused smile. It’s not saddened or bowed; it’s almost triumphant. It’s like she’s thinking, “I knew you were going to be that small.” She knows how the game is really rigged.
When the cops accuse her of simply “throwing away” the matriarch by burying her, she looks them in the eye, directly, but without heat. “I found her,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It was someone else who threw her away.”
I could watch this movie again just for Ando; just for moments like that.
Movie Review: The Favourite (2018)
About five minutes in, I went “Oh, right. Yorgos Lanthimos.”
The trailer makes it look more fun than a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. It lies. Trailers do that. In fact, as I was watching this, I began to think maybe trailers should only be made by the directors of the movies they promote. That way, we’d get their sensibility—the movie’s sensibility—rather than the marketing department’s. We’d get more original trailers and fewer lies.
So what’s a Yorgos Lanthimos movie like? Disturbing. Discordant. Often unnecessarily so. In an early scene in “The Favourite,” we slowly become aware that there’s a steady thrumming, thumping noise on the soundtrack. Occasionally there’s an urgency to it, as if it were warning us of some upcoming shock, but mostly it’s just there: constant and annoying and taking us out of the movie. To me, it sounds like a headache. It’s classic Yorgos.
That said, I mostly liked “The Favourite.” And I liked it more when I found out its characters were historical.
Stripped and whipped
Watching, I’d assumed this British queen, at war with France, with a powerful, Machiavellian Duchess whispering in one ear, and an equally Machiavellian servant girl whispering in the other, was a kind of fiction. It was England but not England—like Central Europe in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It was Evergreen England.
But it’s the story of Queen Anne, the last ruler of the House of Stuart (Olivia Colman, brilliant), and her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who is, in the end, usurped as “power behind the throne” by her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). The whole story is right there on Wikipedia:
Flattering, subtle and retiring, Abigail was the complete opposite of Sarah, who was dominating, blunt and scathing. During Sarah’s frequent absences from court, Abigail and Anne grew close; Abigail was not only happy to give the queen the kindness and compassion that Anne had longed for from Sarah, but she also never pressured the queen about politics...
In real life, the Duchess lost the battle but won the war. Queen Anne died in 1714, Abigail retired to a private life, and the Duchess lived another 30 years. In her memoirs, she writes dismissively of the Queen, which, some say, is why Anne has generally been discounted by historians:
She certainly meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation. She was ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child.
There's a bit of irony here. The bad words written by the Duchess are actually kind compared to what “The Favourite” does. In “The Favourite,” Anne is most definitely a fool: easily manipulated, whining, crying, caring nothing for the people around her. She’s concerned she’s fat but overeats and throws it up. She’s the original binge-and-purge girl. You know “The Godfather” edict—it’s not personal, it’s just business? Lanthimos’ Queen Anne is always personal. She's so uninterested in business she doesn’t even know her country is still at war.
Our lens through all this is Abigail, who arrives in court in a crowded carriage in which a man is masturbating in his trousers; then she’s literally pushed out of the carriage and into the mud. At the palace, she’s dressed down by the Duchess, who, enjoying her power, lingers over such moments like a cat with a mouse. Abigail is put to work as a scullery maid—assistant to the kitchen maid, the lowest possible position—where the other servants cackle when her hand is burned by lye. Several times, she’s literally kicked by men, who are more dangerous—or at least more comic—when they start acting lascivious. “I should have you stripped and whipped,” she’s told several times. How horrible the world is. How nice she is. Or seems.
For her burned hand, she makes a balm from plants she finds in the woods, and this turns out to be her in. The Queen suffers from gout, and the raw meat slapped on her swollen red joints does nothing, so Abigail arrives surreptitiously and applies the balm. It helps enough, and she insinuates herself enough into the conversation, to get herself noticed—less by the Queen and more by the Duchess, who senses that Abigail is more calculating than she seems. She's sees her as a lieutenant. But that's not how Abigail sees herself.
The movie then is about Abigail’s rise and Sarah’s fall. In her memoirs, or maybe just via her wicked tongue, the real Duchess implied Abigail was also the Queen’s lover. The movie does more than imply and tosses in the Duchess for good measure. Their wicked tongues are used for more than spreading gossip.
Much of the movie is funny, and most of the funny stuff—chiefly with the foolish Queen—wound up in the trailer. Colman is a treasure: the whole “look at me/don’t look at me/look at me” exchange. There’s even a moment when we feel for her—when, early on, Anne tells Abigail how she gave birth to 17 children and lost them all. Most were stillborn or died in infancy. One, Prince William, lived to age 11 before succumbing. It’s tough to imagine giving birth to 17 kids, let alone losing them all. For a moment, she seems like a human being. The moment passes.
I would’ve liked “The Favourite” more, I think, without Lanthimos’ singular, distracting discordancy and general showiness. Patricia, a graphic designer, a former art director, hated the typography that accompanied the film. She found it pointless, hard to read, and smug. She loved the women in all their awfulness.
Movie Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
There’s a moment about 45 minutes into “The Spy Who Dumped Me” that made me laugh.
Our main characters, Audrey and Morgan (Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon), two American girls caught up in international spy intrigue, are on the run for their lives in Europe. Unbeknownst to them, Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), an international model/gymnast/assassin (you know the type), has been sent to Prague to kill them, and, I assume, retrieve the maguffin in Audrey’s possession. She’s getting in position over Prague’s Old Town Square and asks her superior, via earpiece, who she’s looking for. Response: “Targets are two dumb American women.” She raises her rifle, looks through the scope, sees:
- two girls posing for a picture, one flipping the bird, the other doing the flicking-tongue-under-v-sign gesture
- a hung-over girl on a bridge throwing up into the water below while her friend holds her hair back
- two girls doing a bump-and-grind against a shrouded medieval statue, and, per subtitles, “both whooping”
At which point, realizing the impossibility of her task, she lowers her rifle.
That’s a good bit.
The rest of the movie is simply empowerment of those same dumb American women.
Our heroes are amateurs who bungle their way into international espionage and thrive there. The outlandishness that makes Morgan “a bit much” in the real world is perfect for distraction, while Audrey, 30 and going nowhere with her life, has real talent for the spy game. Before, she couldn’t lie. Now she’s adept at it. She’s good at the bait-and-switch, at killing (via all those Friday-night video arcade shooting games), and at hiding the maguffin where the sun don’t shine. Sure, innocent people die (Uber driver), but our girls wind up feeling good about themselves, and isn’t that what’s important?
Audrey also gets to kill the duplicitous spy who dumped her (Justin Theroux) and win the spy who’s loyal (Sam Heugan). Both women get new, sexy careers. They start out the movie as us (stunted, marginal) and wind up the movie as them (heroic, central). The thing they were brought in to mock is what they become.
Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 review of “Spy” starring Melissa McCarthy:
Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t; we’d rather see them.
“Spy” did the genre spoof better because McCarthy’s character wasn’t a schlub; she was assistant to a superspy (Jude Law) but actually competent. I.e., more competent than the men. She’d just never been given the chance. But when Jude appears to die in the first reel, she gets it. The comedy comes in how less-than-glamorous her version of the spy game is. It’s really a feminist/lookist take within the genre spoof.
This isn’t that. “Dumped Me” reverts us back to the stupid norm. It pretends that you can join late with zero experience and still master the game.
That’s not what dooms it, though. It's just not funny. I think I laughed fewer than 10 times. I liked the bit about driving the manual-transmission car into the kiosk at 2 mph. I liked Cheesecake Factory menus compared to the novels of Dostoevsky. I liked Paul Reiser and Jane Curtain as the parents, and Reiser’s line reading on Woody Harrelson. And not much else.
Some of the action sequences are surprisingly good but has McKinnon ever been less funny? Has Kunis made a smart decision since “Black Swan”?
“Targets are two dumb American women.” The movie’s targets are many dumb American women. Based on its pallid box office, it didn’t hit them, either.
Movie Review: Incredibles 2 (2018)
2018 is the year the dastardly plots of supervillains in movies began to make sense to me. Either our superhero movies are becoming more complex or I’m becoming more diabolical. Or both.
Start with “Black Panther.” The hero, T’Challa, is part of a long line of Wakandan leaders who not only hide their superior tech but their entire nation. They’re less Invisible Man than Invisible Country. They even let the slave trade continue unabated for centuries despite the tech to stop it. Killmonger, the villain, wants to share this wealth; he wants to help oppressed peoples rise. The only reason we really root against him is because he’s an asshole. But in the long view he makes more sense than T’Challa—who, by the end, actually adopts part of Killmonger’s platform. That was in February.
In “Avengers: Infinity War,” we don’t exactly root for Thanos but at least we recognize some cold Malthusian logic to his actions. He doesn’t want to rule the universe, as so many supervillains before him, he wants to save it. By killing half, sure, but his heart is vaguely in the right place. He just wants to do his job, then retire and sit on his porch and watch the sunset. Who can’t relate?
But the 2018 supervillain who makes the most sense is Screenslaver.
Director as smuggler
First, can I get a shout-out for Pixar supervillain names? In “2,” our heroes first encounter “The Underminer” (Pixar perennial John Ratzenberger), who emerges from below in a giant digging machine spouting the catchphrase, “I’m always beneath you ... but nothing is beneath me!” Love that. (By the way, is he still at large? I don’t think they ever caught him.)
He’s just the warm-up. “Incredibles 2”’s main supervillain is Screenslaver, who is able to hack into almost any system and hypnotize the people watching the screen. It’s basically all about the dangers of screens. Can there be a better message for kids in 2018? I mean, are parents now able to tell their kids, rather than the ineffectual “No more screens,” something like: “You don’t want to be hypnotized by Screenslaver, do you?"
But that’s not what I meant about Screenslaver making sense. Screenslaver’s true purpose is to get rid of superheroes—or, as they’re called here, supers. Initially a hypnotized pizza delivery guy, Screenslaver is in actuality Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), sister to Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is trying to help legalize supers via the most modern means possible: public relations.
Evelyn—who looks astonishingly like some actress I can’t quite place, but I’m thinking some ‘90s sitcom I never watched—initially seems the cynical counterpoint to Winston’s wide-eyed enthusiasm. At one point, she and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) have the following conversation over glasses of wine:
Evelyn: I invent, he sells. I ask you: Which of us has the greater influence?
Elastigirl: Which side of me are you asking: the believer or the cynic?
Eveyln: The cynic—
Elastigirl: —would say selling is more important because the best sellers have the most buyers. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, it only matters what people buy.
Up to this point, I’d been flagging, slightly bored by Winston’s reclamation project, via Elastigirl, and Mr. Incredible’s relegation to the role of Mr. Mom and the inevitable gags that resulted. But this conversation perked me up. I’ve long argued that the one thing we should teach in public schools is how to sell. We all have to do it at some point—even if it’s just ourselves at a job interview—and some of us are naturally gifted at this, others not, and a little help for the latter group wouldn't be bad. (Full disclosure: I’m in the latter group. Virtually its president.)
Yes, this is Elastigirl’s comments, not Evelyn’s, but Evelyn is guiding the conversation. She’s the creator, and yet her brother, the seller, has all the power. Pull back, and it’s Hollywood’s artistic side (writers, directors) complaining about the power of its commercial side—the producers and studio heads demanding sequels and superhero movies; demanding, from Pixar, “Finding Dory” and “Incredibles 2” and “Toy Story 4.” Amazing that this conversation is even in here—in a superhero sequel that grossed $1.2 billion worldwide. But I guess the producers and studio heads know that it doesn’t matter what’s being sold; it only matters that people buy.
But—again—that not what I meant by Screenslaver making the most sense. Here’s what I meant. At one point, as Elastigirl pursues Screenslaver, he (really she) announces his/her doctrine to the world. Please read it all:
Superheroes are part of a brainless desire to replace true experience with simulation. You don’t talk, you watch talk shows. You don’t play games, you watch game shows. Travel, relationships, risk—every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat and participate in life. You want superheroes to protect you, and make yourselves ever more powerless in the process, while you tell yourselves you’re being “looked after,” that your interests are being served and your rights are being upheld—so that the system can keep stealing from you, smiling at you all the while. Go ahead, send your Supers to stop me. Grab your snacks, watch your screens, and see what happens. You are no longer in control. I am.
On the one hand, it’s simply a villain attacking the superhero-reliant people in this animated world. Except since supers are already outlawed, that doesn’t make sense. Nobody’s relying on anything. So what’s really going on? C'mon, you know what it is: It’s a superhero movie railing against superhero movies. And insulting its viewers in the process.
That’s amazing. It’s basically the movies owning up to the threat that the movies themselves pose to the moviegoing public:
Grab your snacks
Watch your screens
You’re not in control
They’re not hiding any of it. It’s all right there.
In “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” the famous director divides movies into four overlapping categories: director as storyteller, illusionist, iconoclast and smuggler. The “smuggler” is a director such as Andre De Toth or Douglas Sirk who includes “different sensibilities, off-beat themes, even radical political views” in otherwise conventional genres and stories.
Do we add “Incredibles 2” writer-director Brad Bird to the list? Maybe at the top of it?
As for the rest of the movie? Shrug.
The animation is fantastic. The characters are either so prototypical or so personal that I was constantly reminded of people I know: the hapless Mr. Incredible as my brother-in-law; the testosterone-filled Dash as my 3-year-old nephew. I was happy when Winston, the man helping the Incredibles, didn’t turn out to have ulterior motives. That would have been a dull move.
The movie was fun but not funny enough. I don’t think I laughed until Jack-Jack began to do his thing in the backyard with the raccoon. I mean, “New math”? Some chestnut to roast again.
But at least “Incredibles 2” gives us Screenslaver’s doctrine. Sure, she’s the supervillain, but she’s not wrong. She may be more right than anyone in any movie you see this year.
Movie Review: Green Book (2018)
“Green Book” could’ve used more of its title character: The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual pamphlet that helped guide African-Americans toward friendly accommodations and services while traveling around the U.S. in the Jim Crow era.
In the movie, which is based on a true story, it winds up in the hands of Tony Vallelonga, a.k.a. Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer and bullshitter from the Bronx. He’s been hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classical pianist who lives in an artist’s residence above Carnegie Hall, as he and his band, the Don Shirley trio, tour Midwest and Southern states, playing before white, ritzy crowds in the fall of 1962.
It’s an opposites-attract road movie. Tony is uneducated, earthy, powerful. He’s a nonstop talker with a big heart and a voluminous appetite. You know how certain movies like “Big Night” leave you hungry? I saw Tony shoveling so much food into his yap I never wanted to eat again. I left the theater bloated.
Dr. Shirley is educated, distant, pinched. He’s distant not only from other people but his own people. In high-end white hotels, he drinks his bottle of Cutty Sark on the balcony while the rest of the trio chat up girls in the courtyard. In black-only hotels, he’s drinking Cutty Sark on the ground-level, but uncomfortably. He begs off a game of horseshoes; he doesn’t want to mix. It’s up to Tony to introduce him to popular black music of the day, like Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Aretha Franklin. He introduces him to fried chicken.
Oh, Dr. Shirley is also gay. Oh, and Tony starts out the movie racist.
You know, for something this country can never shake, Tony’s racism sure seems to fade fast.
We first get wind of it after Tony pulls an all-nighter as a bouncer at the Copa—featuring Bobby Rydell singing “Black Magic” (nice touch). The next afternoon he wakes to find two black plumbers working in the kitchen, and friends and relatives grumbling about same in the cramped living room as they watch Roger Maris hit a homerun in Game 6 of the 1962 World Series. After the plumbers leave, Tony takes the two glasses they drank from and deposits them in the garbage. That’s what he thinks of that.
Then he’s offered the above gig. During his interview, Dr. Shirley wears a dashiki and basically sits upon a throne—an elevated bejeweled chair. For the tour he wants Tony to press his pants and shine his shoes. Tony begs off those tasks, but Dr. Shirley remains authoritative. He tells Tony to stop smoking. He tells Tony both hands on the wheel. He tells him he shouldn’t shoot craps with the other (black) drivers outside the private concert hall, that he should have more dignity than that.
How does Tony, the nose-breaker who can’t abide black lips touching glasses in his home, deal with all of this? Shockingly well. His racism? Gone. Poof. He takes pride in Dr. Shirley’s talents (quite endearingly, actually), and never treats him as anything less than a boss, a man, and—ultimately—a friend. The gay thing in the YMCA with the white guy? Whatevs. Onto the next gig.
In fact, of the two, Dr. Shirley has the greater distance to travel. He has to loosen up. He has to eat fried chicken and play boogie woogie. He has to look black sharecroppers in the eyes and own up to who he is. He has to come off his high balcony and pitch horseshoes with the rest of us.
Think about that for a second. What does it say that in a road-trip movie through the Jim Crow South, the black guy has more to learn? It says, among other things, that the filmmakers are probably white. And they are: director Peter Farrelly, who also helped with the screenplay, and screenwriters Bryan Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga.
Wait, Vallelonga? Yeah, that’s Tony’s son. He’s a longtime B-movie producer, director, actor. In “Green Book,” he’s screenwriter, actor (playing a bit part) and character (played by Hudson Galloway). How often does that happen? The fact that he's involved may help explain why Tony is so ahead of his time.
Gotta say: I enjoyed the chemistry between the two leads; and much of the superficial period detail feels accurate.
But throughout I kept thinking the filmmakers were making the characters extreme versions of themselves in order to give us our accommodating happy ending. I mean: a dashiki in 1962? I’ll take the artistic license of Tony schooling Dr. Shirley on Little Richard; but assuming everyone knew Aretha in 1962 doesn't make sense. She didn’t break big until 1966-67. Which is around the time dashikis became a thing.
As for that small-town Mississippi jail cell? It’s supposed to be horrifying. But after reading books such as Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” it feels like the nicest Mississippi jail cell these two particular northerners could’ve encountered.
Oh, and apparently Don Shirley’s family has complained about the inaccuracies.
In trying to break past racial stereotypes, “Green Book” slides into one of Hollywood’s favorite tropes: educated people are snooty and working class people have hearts of gold. Elitist Hollywood just can’t tell this story often enough.