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: Amazing Grace

“She can sing anything … ANYTHING.”

Amazing Grace will transport you in an instant to New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on two very special evenings in 1972: when the legendary Aretha Franklin recorded live her album of the same title, which would go on to be certified double platinum. The film of this event, recorded by Warner Brothers, has never been released before due to technical difficulties associated with it, and it is a rare window into a monumental performance to be able to view it.

The film quality, which is grainy and blurry, is terrible by today’s standards, but it doesn’t matter. Similarly, the camera work is quite bad: the camera shakes, moves around too quickly, and looks like a home video during some parts. But again, it couldn’t matter less. What viewers see is the awed faces of the audience, the sweat beading on the brow of Ms. Franklin as she sings, and the shining vests of the Southern California Community Choir, the group that provided background vocals. We see the face of Jesus on the wall behind the performers, and we watch when, in the middle of the evening, an audience member breaks out into tap dance. We witness the Reverend James Cleveland, his head in his hands and tears in his eyes during the performance of “Amazing Grace.” We view Ms. Franklin’s entrance on the first night, the camera angle giving her an almost regal appearance as she passes down the church’s aisle. What is most important, though is what we hear: one of the greatest voices of modern American music, unfiltered and in her fullest glory.

I don’t think that I can put into words the energy and electricity that is tangible in the moment, and it is a privilege to be allowed in to see it. It’s pretty much impossible to watch this documentary without feeling the insuppressible urge to clap, sing, stand up, and dance, and it did not bother me in the least when I could hear other audience members doing so. It is an emotional rollercoaster ride that is a miracle to be able to ride, and you will likely laugh, cry, and sway with the music.

In my opinion, it is not possible to give this film a high enough rating – eleven out of ten stars would not even begin to describe it. Experience it for yourself while it is still in theaters!

REVIEW: The Chaperone

The Chaperone, directed by Michael Engler, was a movie, though flawed in some areas, that was full of delightful details. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old Louise Brooks (played by Haley Lu Richardson, the future film star of the 1920s), and how she travelled from Wichita, Kansas to New York City to study dance at the Denishawn School. There was just one problem: Louise’s father would not allow her to go unless she was accompanied by a chaperone. Luckily for her, Norma Carlisle (played by Elizabeth McGovern) volunteers herself on a whim after seeing Louise, and the two head off to the big city – a stark contrast from small-town Wichita.

Though Louise Brooks is the “star” of the movie in that she is the larger-than-life character, Norma Carlisle is really the person that comes to be the main character. Layer by layer, we learn more about Norma’s past, and the movie deals with difficult themes of identity. Adopted from a New York orphanage by a farming couple in Kansas, Norma married her husband at age sixteen. As the audience, we can sense that Norma isn’t fully happy in her marriage, and Louise sees right through this as well, despite Norma’s insistence that she is perfectly happy. As it turns out, in a flashback scene, we learn that Norma’s husband is in a relationship with a man named Raymond. This is very complicated for the two of them, because they can’t separate under these circumstances, and so they remain together. However, in New York, Norma meets a man named Joseph, and the two of them connect in a way that she has never felt with Mr. Carlisle.

I will say that I found the character development between Norma and Joseph to be somewhat inconsistent. I was never entirely sure whether we were supposed to be seeing a newer, different side of Norma, or if her actions simply did not add up with her character. Particularly when they first met, Norma and Joseph’s interactions felt extremely awkward to me. They stood uncomfortably close to each other for people that were just meeting, and it did not seem like the Norma we knew from the other scenes. With Louise, she espoused moral and proper, lady-like behavior, and frowned upon flirting with boys (particularly a Columbia law student named Floyd), but her own actions with Joseph did not match this.

However, we did see Norma’s character arc develop throughout the movie, largely in part to Louise’s influences. She gains self-confidence, takes risks, and loses her corset. On a side note, having seen Elizabeth McGovern in the TV show Downton Abbey, it was interesting to see her play Norma, who had an entirely different affect.

The Chaperone was an enjoyable movie, but it won’t be added to my list of favorites.




REVIEW: Six Senses of Buddhism

Like all special exhibits in UMMA, this exhibit is a very small exhibit, only taking up part of a hallway and consisting of a few art pieces. It is an interesting exhibit because it is about how Buddhist art and objects invoke our senses; smell, sight, feel (there are lots of things to touch in this exhibit), and most importantly mind (thought), our sixth sense. In fact, I have always thought of Meditation as a release from all six of our senses, we close our eyes, sit still, ideally only smelling one fragrant of incense, hearing only silence, and letting our mind relax, detached from any thought.

The main piece of this exhibit is a painting of a Buddha heaven. This painting is from Pure Land Buddhists, one of the biggest sects of Buddhism in China, and is of someone, probably a monk, being welcomed into heaven. I like that the heaven is on the clouds, it makes me think that heaven is always watching over us. In this painting figures with halos represent Bodhisattvas. Tea is an integral part of Buddhism, and so there were two tea bowls, one from China and one from Japan. The Chinese bowl is a lot older, but it looks more modern because it is symmetrical and completely smooth. The Japanese bowl, on the other hand, seems much more hand crafted,maybe even by an amateur, because it is rugged and asymmetrical. However, in Japanese art this is intentional because Japanese ceramic art considers asymmetry more beautiful and more impressionable.

The featured photo is of Bells and Vajra. This bell is very ornate, and was probably used to call monks to the meditation hall. You can touch a 3D printing of the bells at the exhibit. There are beautiful incense holders. Next to them are cards you can take that smell like clove incense. Incense is often used to keep track of time while meditating. When the incense burns out, you are done. No sporadically looking at a clock is necessary. The last piece in this exhibit is a Rakusu, which is the garment monks wear outside their robes. This Rakusu was pretty ornate and had designs, so it was probably of a monk that had a higher status. Monks like to make their own clothes, because it is a tradition from monks who were too poor to afford clothes and would patch together old rags.

The exhibit is small, but there is actually a lot of Buddhist artwork in the Asian Art gallery. If you can’t get enough from the exhibit you can see more paintings, actual scrolls, and shrines that were in temples in the gallery.