Review: 'Shoplifters' is an intimate look at Japan's underclass - Silver Screen Beat
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‘Shoplifters’ review: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest offers an intimate look at Japan’s underclass

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Shoplifters
MAGNOLIA PICTURES

In addition to evoking a barrage of emotions, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winner Shoplifters is a film that begs many questions, especially in its final act, that have to do with family: What defines a family? Can you choose your family? Does giving birth to a child automatically grant you the title of being a parent?

To some, those questions are probably quite simple to answer. To others, they might be a little more complex. But Shoplifters, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today, dares to challenge each of those questions, making the case that it is love, not blood, that defines a family. And it makes a pretty good case too.

Following the day-to-day lives of a dysfunctional band of outsiders living in a modest home in contemporary Tokyo, the film mostly follows Osamu (Lily Franky, a face you may recognize from Kore-eda’s 2013 effort Like Father Like Son) who, when he isn’t shoplifting goods from the local supermarket or convenience store with the assistance of Shota (Kairi Jyo), the boy who he refers to as his son, works as a laborer at a construction site.

His wife, Noboyu (Sakura Andô), is also in the business of theft, pocketing the small, forgotten items she finds in the laundry she cleans at the hotel she works at. Another young woman who lives with the family, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), makes a living by performing for horny, lonely men at a local peep show venue. The matriarch of the makeshift family, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki, who passed away in September and delivers a wonderfully charming final performance here), generates income via her late husband’s pension.

Between the work they do at their full-time jobs and selling off the items that they steal along the way, like a pair of pricey fishing rods, the family manages to just barely get by. But things become increasingly more difficult for them when the arrival of an abused, quiet little girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki) puts them in a tough situation, which forces them to make an even tougher decision; one that can tear them apart for good.

Shoplifters, a film that is as socially conscious as it is empathetic, never feels like some sort of poverty porn that has been robbed of all of its humanity, which is something it easily could’ve been had it fallen into the wrong hands. Kore-eda handles the film with such incredible love, care, and affection, painting this captivating portrait of poverty and the underclass using his unique style and expert storytelling.

A master of his craft and one of the greatest filmmakers Japan has to offer, Kore-eda proves once again with Shoplifters, a rare treat of a film and one of the best in Kore-eda’s career, ranking among the likes of Still Walking and After Life, that he knows the definition of family better than almost anyone else.

Shoplifters is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will be released in additional select cities in the weeks to come.

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‘Men in Black: International’ review: You’ll want to erase this movie from your mind after its over

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Men in Black: International
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If Hollywood studios are content to cannibalize the vaults in search of new hits, the first thing they should remember is why the original films were hits in the first place. For all the bells and whistles that went along with the original 1997 Men in Black, with its cutting-edge alien effects, the reason it works is extremely old-fashioned, rooted in an effective cross-pollination between fish-out-of-water comedy and mismatched buddy comedy.

There were plenty of laughs in Will Smith’s knockabout reactions to a secret agency tasked with containing the alien underground, and more still in the back-and-forth between him and his crusty counterpart, played by Tommy Lee Jones. No matter how expensive films get, it’s the cheapest business that matter most.

Though the awful Men in Black: International is technically a sequel to Men in Black 3, it’s unlikely that many are immersed enough in the mythology to recall Emma Thompson’s Agent O as the thin connective tissue between them, especially without Smith or Jones in the picture. So it’s really more a stealth reboot with Tessa Thompson in the Smith role of a charismatic new recruit and Chris Hemsworth as the seasoned veteran in the Jones mold, though neither is doing an imitation. Their roles have been reimagined to where there’s hardly any sharp contrasts between them — her confidence is never buffoonish, his experience is never ornery — so the best they can manage is a little light teasing and the occasional moony glance.

Yet the true thrust of Men in Black: International is suggested by its title: What if there were MIB branches around the world? That would mean that the agents are not mere American beat officers, like the Smith/Jones duo, but globe-trotting James Bond types who get whisked from London to Paris to Marrakesh, Morocco, and back again. There’s nothing funny about the concept, but like a 007 thriller, there’s a generous assortment of fashionable outfits, souped-up luxury vehicles and the latest in alien-zapping weaponry, all managed by those cool translucent swipe-screen computers from Minority Report. More bells and whistles.

In a reversal of the Men in Black origin story, Thompson’s Agent M isn’t discovered by MIB. It is the other way around, as part of a 20-year quest to find the agency that visited her home as a child. Admiring her initiative, Agent O sends her from New York to the London branch, which is immersed in intrigue surrounding a threat called The Hive. Hemsworth’s Agent H and his former partner, High T (Liam Neeson), saved the world from this same alien species a couple of years before, and now their enemies have taken the form of Les Twins (Laurent and Larry Bourgeois), two shape-shifting siblings from Morocco who are on a trail of destruction. Agent H and Agent M are on the case, joined by a pocket-sized alien wiseacre named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), but they begin to suspect that MIB’s house is not in order.

There’s a lot of plotting in Men In Black: International, which makes room for a diabolical three-armed seductress (Rebecca Ferguson) and a compact weapon of planet-destroying power, but the more the story unfurls, the deeper the film sinks into quicksand. Director F. Gary Gray and his screenwriters, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, have made the crucial mistake of believing the franchise needs complex world-building instead of streamlined comedy. Even if the events in the film made any kind of sense, they were never going to matter as much as the good time Hemsworth, Neeson and the two Thompsons are supposed to be showing us. And yet that’s where the emphasis lies.

Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are a proven commodity, having teamed up briefly in Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps the funniest of all the Marvel movies, but they are too busy hustling around to expensive set pieces to spark off each other. Though Nanjiani’s super-cute alien seems like a leftover from Batteries Not Included, at least he has some room to toss around insults and witticisms, and improvise his way out of trouble. Whether the franchise can survive without Smith and Jones is an open question, but it can’t live on gadgetry and spy games and an influx of Mos Eisley cantina denizens alone. There has to be chemistry, too.

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‘Rocketman’ review: Elton John’s biopic is so much better (and gayer) than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

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Rocketman
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I don’t want to ruffle any peacock feathers, rattle sequins, or get anyone’s codpiece in a twist, but it does have to be said: Gay people have sex.

Apologies if this isn’t news, but you wouldn’t know when heading to the cinema, in the year 2019, whether or not a movie about the life of Elton John in which he says the phrase, “I have fucked everything that moves,” depicts actual gay sex. Again, a movie about Elton John. Elton John!

Imagine having spent a lifetime delighting in the star’s flamboyant performances and reading the gossip rag stories about his life, then purchasing a ticket for a movie not expecting or, worse, not wanting to see gay sex scenes. Elton John!!!

Yet there was much talk leading up to Rocketman’s release this Friday over whether different parties that be—the studio, the actors, the director—were going to acquiesce to a late-stage panic about the film’s one explicit sex scene and tame it down, if not remove it completely.

It was an infuriating report about a movie about a LGBTQ rock icon being released so soon after Bohemian Rhapsody, which not only blushed at the idea of showing Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in the throes of passion with other men but treated his sexuality as a predatory gateway drug to a destructive lifestyle. It was also not a surprise, as that movie, despite and maybe because of this, went on to be a big fat hit and win Academy Awards.

Well, there is gay sex in Rocketman. That fact was heralded like a hosannah from the shores of the Croisette when the film premiered to a lengthy standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. The gleeful reaction was a breath of relief, but also, it turns out, an indictment of how little we’re willing to settle for and even celebrate.

There’s been so much press after Cannes breathlessly praising Rocketman for being the first studio movie to include a gay sex scene. That’s not entirely true, though this is certainly the biggest movie pitched to a mass audience to do so. And it’s all over one (very short!) scene in which Egerton’s Elton and Richard Madden’s John Reid, his former lover and manager, aggressively make out and begin stripping off their clothes. The camera shifts away just as they are about to have sex, giving a blink-and-miss-it view of a butt. Rude.

(Whatever “nude cuddle” was the subject of so many reports is not to be found.)

It’s hot, yes. It’s also so brief, and the lone example, to the point that when John later in the film boasts about having “fucked everything that moves,” you can’t help but think, has he though?

It’s a small point to complain about in a movie that is about far more than the sex this man had. Except that so much of the movie, which is centered around an addict at his breaking point looking back at all his vices and how they’ve shaped him, is very much about the sex this man had.

The most explicitly gay thing about the film is the character of Elton John thinking that he’s fat when he’s played by Taron Egerton. Still, the movie is sufficiently gayer than Bohemian Rhapsody—and, yes, that matters. It’s far more concerned with capturing John’s spirit than Rhapsody was with anything besides making the other members of Queen seem cool, certainly not doing right by Mercury.

Because of this, Rocketman is infinitely better in almost every way than Bohemian Rhapsody, to the point that people will inevitably wonder that, if it doesn’t perform as well at the box office, its “gayness” will be one of the reasons why.

The film opens with Elton John bursting through a door in a flaming-red bodysuit with flared bell bottoms, a headpiece with devil horns, heart-shaped sunglasses, and a pair of red wings so massive and ornate a Victoria’s Secret model would shed a single tear at the sight. He looks fabulous. It is the lowest moment of his life.

The glam-rock couture is brought down to earth by the fittingly sober surroundings: a group counseling session at a rehab, where John is finally checking himself in after a cocktail of addictions—alcohol, sex, cocaine, pills, and even shopping—has proven too potent for him to handle.

It’s a clever introduction to the film’s framing device: John at rehab answering counselors’ questions about his past relationships with his parents, lovers, and longtime writing partner and best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) as a way of unlocking a series of flashbacks by way of fantasias. From there, we look back at his childhood, coming out, and surging career, each with surreal breaks from reality in which characters break into song, break the fourth wall, or, in some cases, break the rules of physics and gravity and start levitating.

The whole thing is fittingly unconventional, fantastical, and campy. This is a biopic about Elton John; it bloody hell should be.

But the visual tricks and dreamlike set pieces—an entire British suburb falling into step for a song-and-dance rendition of “The Bitch Is Back,” John floating above his piano, an entire number performed in a pool underwater—are an illusion. In terms of structure, storytelling, and cliches, this is very much your traditional biopic.Rocketman is proof that there can be all kinds of flair and flourish in the brush strokes, but a film can still be paint-by-numbers.

From the start, the beats are familiar. He’s a child music prodigy, and performance is his ticket out of a humdrum life. He has a mercurial, withholding father (Steven Mackintosh) who chastises him, “Don’t be soft.” His mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) swills martinis and chases each gesture of love toward her son with a stinger. “You’re choosing a life of being alone forever,” she tells him when he comes out to her, punctuating her initial insistence that she didn’t care with a dagger to the heart. “You’ll never be loved.”

All the substance abuse, the dysfunctional relationship with Reid, the outlandish costumes, the fake name (John was born Reginald Dwight), the sexual angst: It’s all because he doesn’t know what it means to be himself. “You gotta kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you want to be,” a musician he meets early in his career says. At one point, Reginald thought he knew who that was. All this fame and all these struggles later, Elton isn’t so sure.

That’s Rocketman’s revelation. Imagine an entertainer so boisterous and legendary, with that much bravery—rocking out in those costumes all those decades ago—and outlandish charisma, not being in tune with who he is.

The comparisons to Rhapsody are both maybe a little unfair but also entirely relevant. It would be reductive to measure the films against each other just because they are major rockstar biopics released close together, and especially egregious to do so just because their two subjects are queer.

But there is the unignorable trivia that Rocketman’s director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in to finish shooting and rescue the Bohemian Rhapsody production after Bryan Singer was fired, inextricably tying the two films together. Then there’s the shared cultural impact of both, tapping into what made Bohemian Rhapsody such a phenomenon, and charging Rocketman with course-correcting the elements of that phenomenon that were so problematic.

To that regard, Rocketman lends a dignity to John’s feelings about his sexuality where Rhapsody disgraces and even demonizes Mercury’s struggle. And whileRhapsody manipulated facts of Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis to manufacture an emotional climax in the Live Aid finale, there’s no such bastardizing in Rocketman.

In Rhapsody, Malek made inhabiting Mercury seem effortless, wearing his physicality and magnetism with ease. If Egerton seems to be working harder in Rocketman, one might argue it’s because he is: He does his own singing! There are people in both camps when it comes to whether it matters that an actor records his own vocals when playing a singer on screen, but there’s no debating that what Egerton accomplishes here is nothing less than a sensational movie star turn.

It’s true that no number in Rocketman lives up to the exhilaration of that Live Aid performance. But it also doesn’t have to rely on the thrill of that ending to justify enjoying the rest of a sluggishly paced, superficial, and poorly edited production. Rocketman is a blast from beginning to end, boasting enough Baz Luhrmann-esquerazzle-dazzle and inventiveness to surprise and spellbound audiences who remember when rock was young—and still magical.

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‘Aladdin’ review: Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the Disney classic isn’t exactly a whole new world

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Aladdin
DISNEY

At this point, we’ve seen enough live-action reimaginings of Disney’s animated canon to know they don’t always concern themselves with breaking the mold. Their classics are classics for a reason – so if it ain’t broke, right? It should come as no surprise then that their adaptation of 1992’s Aladdin, for the most part, is very content to color inside the lines. Most of the proceedings will feel very familiar to fans of the original, so if you’re looking for a totally different take on it, you’re going to have to temper expectations. What we do get is a visually impressive, energetic adventure that could have spent a little more time on what new it does bring to the table.

Disney had a huge challenge out of the gate in conceiving this movie – how the heck do you recast the Genie, a role so iconically played by the late Robin Williams? Will Smith’s turn as the Genie, for all of its blue-tinged pre-release controversy, is largely a success. Crucially, Smith avoids the one thing that would have derailed the performance: trying to recreate the inimitable Robin Williams’ iteration of the character. Williams’ Genie was an amplification of the actor’s signature chaotic personality and Will Smith wisely steers far clear of trying to match that. This Genie relies on Smith’s charm, bravado, and the clear amount of fun he’s having playing the role. The story does give Smith’s Genie a little more depth than just being blue and hilarious, affording him a surprisingly fun and grounded subplot.

But does Smith get by on charm alone? It’s going to depend a lot on your opinion of Will Smith. While Robin Williams breezed through dozens of different voices and personas to bring the Genie to life, never letting us know what to expect, this version of the character very much feels like blue Will Smith (blue Hitch may be closer), so your mileage with the character is going to vary a lot based on how willing you are to accept that. While Smith does fine work, how reliant this Genie is on Smith’s personality does make you wonder if an actor pushing farther out of their comfort zone would have gotten us closer to the boundless creativity that made Robin Williams’ performance so memorable.

The one area that does feel like a clear improvement over the 1992 version is the characterization of Naomi Scott’s Jasmine, to the point where at times the movie feels like it’s more invested in her story than Aladdin’s. The princess feels more three-dimensional (pun not intended… nor apologized for) and she is given far more interesting ambitions this time around. Scott gives the character a dignity and drive that makes it easier to root for her than poor old Al. Both Jasmine and Genie’s newly fleshed-out arcs are welcome additions, but they do draw attention to how predictable and dated Aladdin’s story feels by comparison.

The supporting cast is hit-or-miss. While Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnusson’s new characters end up being reliable for laughs, Marwan Kenzari’s take on Jafar is a letdown. Aside from a quick exchange about hating second place, it’s never very clear why Jafar is scheming for the Sultan’s throne, other than the fact that he’s just generally evil. The animated Jafar had real wickedness and darkness to him, but Kenzari trades that in for a creepy, ill-defined lust for power that never really excites. But he’s the one standing in Aladdin and Jasmine’s way and, dang it, we want them to be together!

Fans will be glad to know that Aladdin’s catalog of great songs are well represented here. Though “One Jump Ahead” proves to be a bit of a misfire early on, featuring a heavy emphasis on chase and action that doesn’t quite work, the rest of the numbers are a good time. “Friend Like Me” is the movie at its visual peak, and probably the closest the movie gets to recreating the magic of the animated film. One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.

On the visual front, Aladdin rarely disappoints. Agrabah feels vibrant and alive, most of all during “Prince Ali”’s grand entrance, and the surrounding desert is beautifully shot. The Cave of Wonders sequence in particular shows off Guy Richie’s skill at crafting an action set-piece, and everything from the mystical danger of that scene down to Aladdin’s parkouring all over Agrabah really moves with great pace under his eye.

One of the most pleasant surprises on the soundtrack is the new number written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen), “Speechless”. Scott’s an able singer, and “Speechless” is a great showcase for that talent. The song won’t win any awards for subtlety, but in the context of Jasmine’s story, it really works.

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