REVIEW: Shoplifters

Shoplifters is a quietly touching movie. It neither strives to be a tear-jerker nor is it overly pessimistic. It simply is. It is a story set perfectly in the real world, even though most of its characters are ignored by the rest of society. Constantly, they are told by others that they don’t exist. Most interestingly though, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), the central couple of the story, simply don’t care. They benefit from inattention, cultivating an unusual family in the midst of busy Tokyo. They are not married, but they have a child. Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), the older women that lives with them, is not their mother, but they call her ‘mother’ in front of the housing authorities. They are living false lives, but so is everyone around them. Osamu and Nobuyo see their lies as necessities for both their survival and the survival of the family that they have built together.

In addition to Osamu and Nobuyo, the ostensible ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ of the household, and Hatsue, the ‘Grandmother’ figure, the household consists of Osamu’s younger ‘sister’, Aki, and their ‘son’ Shota. All of their histories are carefully veiled, the audience only occasionally glimpsing their true pasts. The characters, themselves, seem to avoid their prior selves. They have discarded themselves as easily as the plastic wrappers thrown next to the road. It is freeing and empowering to only live in the present. For them, it doesn’t matter how they have gotten to this moment only what they can do now. It is a life with few regrets, but also little thought for the future. The fragility of their situation is constantly threatened and one of the greatest threats comes in the form of a little girl, Yuri. Yuri’s biological parents are constantly arguing, leaving her to play outside unattended. One night, Osamu and Shota find Yuri who has run away. Instead of returning her, they decide to take her into their own family. Other movies would simply assume that the adoptive family is Yuri’s salvation. But they, too, are dysfunctional.

Shoplifters, admirably, never chooses sides, instead finding the happiness in the messiest, most unorthodox situations.

REVIEW: The Favourite

Sometimes, the best twists do not manifest as supernatural ghosts or as a long-lost relative. Sometimes, the best twists are not external but ones that were within the character all along. The characters of The Favorite think they know each other, inside and out. As members of Queen Anne’s court, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) vie for her favor and the power that entails. But Queen Anne (Oliva Coleman) is more than a figure to be manipulated. She, too, has a motive. As the three women pull and push each other, though, each one’s goals become more and more unclear. Director Yorgos Lanthimos reveals the characters as much to the audience as to themselves.

18th century England is a land of strict propriety, but Lanthimos finds the farce in it. The wigs and excessive make-up are treated as constant visual jokes. Even the extravagant palace settings are used more to make fun of than to glorify. Certainly, the entire film is visually fabulous, but all the gold veneers only serve to highlight the messiness of the lives within. The humanity of the characters and most of the supporting cast help greatly in grounding the film in emotion. Lanthimos does not want the audience to think of the character merely as plot points but as insecure bundles of nerves and feelings. No matter what Sarah and Abigail might say to themselves, they are vulnerable. And not even their impeccable table manners or frighteningly tight dresses will impede them from demonstrating how they feel.

This movie is a testament to each of the actresses’ choices, too. Stone is physically sloppy while being entirely emotionally composed. Weisz, too, schemes and maintains a careful exterior, but the few times she allows it to slip are the most touching of the entire movie. Together, the two characters engage in combat over who can win Queen Anne’s affections. It is a delicate political dance and a bruising fist fight. It is warfare and a promenade. It is women fighting women in ways only women can. The Favorite is message driven without being pandering. It allows its characters to explore issues without forcing the issues upon them. It is also easily one of my favorite movies of the year.

REVIEW: Captain Marvel

We hurried to the darkness of the theater even as the sunshine beckoned. We hurried, compulsively, because the newest Marvel movie, Captain Marvel, had finally been released for our eager consumption. We hurried without much contemplation for this was just the latest piece in an expanding narrative. I wonder when I will stop hurrying to MCU movies. I have watched them with my sister, my friends, even dragged my parents along to some. It used to be that such communal experiences would thrill me. Each movie spawned a conversation, one of the few that encompassed my entire community. Yet, I find myself balking now, twenty-one movies later.

This is, of course, not entirely due to Captain Marvel, itself. It is a perfectly serviceable movie that has a perfectly acceptable mixture of action scenes, inspirational montages, and banter. But Captain Marvel was never going to be judged entirely on its own merit. No Marvel movie can separate itself from the overwhelming pressure of living up to greater expectations. Each must reach outside of its own story to connect to its predecessors as well as serve as infrastructure for future entries into the pantheon. Perhaps it is here, where Captain Marvel stumbles the most. Set in the 90s, the movie is situated in an era far before the one most Marvel films take place in. Due to the difference in time period, it is often tasked with being a prequel to the rest of the cinematic universe. This is most evident in the excessive incorporation of Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) into a movie that is ostensibly about Carol Danvers (Brie Larson). Instead of being an origin story for one character, it is the origin story for Nick Fury, and for the MCU in general.

With much to accomplish, it is Carol’s story that gets shortchanged. It takes half of the runtime even for her true name to even be revealed. She is instead introduced as Vers, a warrior for the Kree race in their war against the shape-shifting Skrulls. Vers is a dedicated soldier whose quips are as sharp as her blows. But beyond the occasional sarcastic turn-of-phrase, not much of her character is revealed. Brie Larson plays this initial version of Carol with a discomfort that doesn’t quite fit with the character’s brash confidence. It is, indeed, difficult to see her as a cocky, but selfless hero. It is a strange combination that the movie fails to justify with further backstory. Instead, the movie substitutes character development for easy montages and deus ex machinas. It allows Carol to fly before we even see her learn to run. It is a movie out of sync, which is ironic, for one that seems so concerned about continuity.

It is those that are invested in the Marvel Universe that will benefit most from this movie. We will be the ones that ‘get’ the references, the ones that understand the significance of Captain Marvel in a greater narrative. But as a movie unto itself, it does not understand the characters at its heart.

REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is a paradox. It is a beautiful movie about ugly realities. It is light enough to take flight and simultaneously weighed down. It should be an ordinary love story of two young people, but it also can’t be because those two people are black. And it is a movie of extraordinary substance, but only sometimes. So, I loved it, but only sometimes.

One of the most significant paradoxes, is how the film can feel incredibly focused and far too broad with its characterization. This is especially true for Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan Lane), the couple around which the film (and occasionally the camera) revolves. Tish is newly pregnant. Fonny is newly imprisoned. It is a story that feels sadly inevitable. So even as Tish holds out hope for her beloved’s return, we watch with a sense of doom. They are beautiful outlines, walking down the street, hand in hand. Brightly blue and yellow clothing against the concrete sidewalk, you want to follow their silhouettes forever. But that’s all they are. Outlines. They never feel shaded in because so many things, their personalities, their histories, feel like afterthoughts in the narrative. Instead, they are constantly overshadowed by racist, societal forces that refuse to see them as people. And ironically, neither can we.

Though, Barry Jenkins certainly tries. His humanist style is apparent in every shot. When his camera focuses, really focuses, on Tish’s and Fonny’s faces, the lack of explanatory detail is utterly insignificant. Their eyes seem to contain a depth that is voiceless, a meaning that is inexplicable. When the score starts thrumming and the camera sweeps across a brick New York street, the feeling grows until it encompasses everything. Those overwhelming moments don’t by themselves, make the film incredible, but it certainly impresses upon you the importance of every moment. Time slows down, each passing moment agonized over, a memory in movement. For Tish and Fonny, after all, time is of the essence. Separation by prison glass makes every second precious. Seconds before Fonny is led away to a place where even Tish’s love cannot reach. Seconds before their time together is a distant memory.

The film’s greatest accomplishment, though, is forming characters around the Tish and Fonny so their relationship never becomes claustrophobic. In that way, the movie emphasizes familial love as much as romantic much to its advantage. Unlike Tish, her parents have long seen the world as it is. So, their happiness at the imminent birth is both incredibly joyous and a cautious projection. Regina King as Tish’s mom stands unwaveringly in her role, her eyes swimming with hidden vulnerabilities. And as Tish’s father, Coleman Douglas is a pillar of strength, going so far as to sell stolen merchandise to support the increasingly heavy fees for the lawyer. Every moment that the world crumbles, there is a willing hand, reaching out to take on another burden.

A love story above all, If Beale Street Could Talk wanders in a world of color without ever hesitating to explore the dark corners. It is, after all, in the hidden spaces where love blossoms best. In a cramped apartment room where Tish and Fonny finally connect. In a family home, where the celebration for a new member begins with a toast. In these places, there can be no police interference or shady justice systems. In these places, love triumphs.

REVIEW: Vox Lux

Some movies just leave you wondering: “Why?” That is all I remember thinking as I exited the theater following the film Vox Lux. Never has anything, not even my final exams, left me with such a general air of confusion. And most bewildering of all, it might have been intentional!

Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as Celeste, an aging pop star. But even that might have been a sort of false advertising. For the film begins when Celeste is still a teenager, portrayed by Raffey Cassidy. Her career begins then, under the shadow of an enormous tragedy, a school shooting. Perhaps, it was the depiction of that tragedy that decisively turned me against the film. It was senseless and horrifying. Worst, it felt as if the movie was exploiting the chilling nature of the event to send a message. Whatever that message, I was certainly not ready to hear it, much less understand it.

This certainly obscured one of the best parts of the film, which was Cassidy’s performance as young Celeste. I was always left wondering what she was thinking. Alternatively, she acted her age and then well beyond her years. Contributing to this, was her odd demeanor, calm when she should be tense, prepared when she should be caught off guard. Celeste was a constant enigma that never ceased to intrigue me, at least when Cassidy was playing her.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment, then, was Natalie Portman’s performance. Whatever subtlety was created in the first few acts of the movie was completely lost by these last few parts. In fact, there seemed to be little connection between the two, which contributed to the overall lack of cohesiveness in the film. This adult Celeste has been jaded by years of public performance and has, at least outwardly, left the past behind. She is always looking to cover up her messes and make everyone as forgetful as she is. This is the philosophy that the film espouses best. The film, itself, wants to move as quickly as possible. It blurs everything together into a hyperactive montage of images. When there is so much information, none of it will matter.

It is a cynical stance that this film takes. But it is a cynicism about the 21st century that means nothing because we are no longer invested in any of the characters nor the world they inhabit. We don’t know what they want because they strive for nothing. We don’t care. Celeste doesn’t care. There is simply no weight in the film at all. Vox Lux is frenetic mess that sprints through scenes but ends up nowhere at all. Maybe that is exactly where it wanted to be?

REVIEW: Burning

Most of the movies that I watch are sharply split between the hero and the villain. Bad movies, to me, are ones that shovel viewers to one side. You have no choice but to support the hero against a one-dimensional, mustache-twirling bad guy. Good movies allow me to understand the villain, even sympathize with their cause, before ultimately siding with the hero. But the great ones mess with that divide instead. These films make picking sides difficult. These films make things complicated. I have watched a lot of good, a couple of bad, and only one great movie in 2018. I squirmed through, was hypnotized by, and ultimately loved Burning.

The protagonist of the film is Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo). Recently graduated from college, he moves not with nervous excitement of a newly independent adult, but with a blank-faced neutrality. After all, there is little to be passionate about. He works small, insignificant jobs around the city while he chips away at a novel. He dreams of being a novelist, he is stuck being a laborer. He seems to tread into each scene, carefully evaluating each situation, revealing little. The movie, too, is reluctant to show too much at once. Each detail is another pop of color on an expanding portrait. It is not, perhaps, until the very end when Jong-su becomes fully realized. And that moment of realization, is absolutely stunning.

But, of course, before that finale, there is an entire film of radiating unease. When Jong-su reunites with his childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), he is instantly enamored. But like much of the rest of the film, their relationship feels a little unmoored from reality. At first, Jong-su does not even recognize her face. She claims its plastic surgery. Secretly, you wonder if there is something she is hiding under her brilliant smile. There are constantly pieces missing, each adding to the waves of unrest. As much as the film reveals, it also keeps certain elements unknown. Carefully it teeters, yet it remains perfectly balanced.

After their first dinner together, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she embarks on a trip to Africa. He agrees, showing up everyday to refill the emptying bowls of food and water. Mysteriously, he never sees the cat. Equally, he yearns for her return and the gleaming towers that he can glimpse from her apartment window. But when she returns, Hae-mi is already in a relationship with one of her fellow travelers, Ben (Steven Yuen). Ben has everything, and it bores him. Jong-su bristles at his nonchalance, for his beautiful apartment, for his fast car, even for Hae-mi’s earnestness. And it is easy to take Jong-su’s view. Ben’s riches seem unearned, his fortune unappreciated. Instinctively, we side with the underdog. That is what I find most brilliant about the film. It makes you question your own biases and preconceptions.

Burning is reflexively thrilling. You can’t help but search for clues in the spare Korean landscape, in the guarded eyes of Jong-su, Ben, and Hae-mi. Which is the hero? Which is the villain? Where is the cat? That is only for you to determine.