Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda is the rare director who meets children at eye-level. In its early scenes, Shoplifters is full of chaos: a friendly, everyday insolvency that forms Shota’s small and airtight world. He sleeps in a cubbyhole, the one measure of privacy anyone gets in Granny’s micro-apartment, which is home less to a family than an accretion of people who come and go and crowd the place and live among the processed-food wrappers: a laborer, a laundress, a sex worker. Petty thieves all. And there’s a newcomer, herself a steal: Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is pilfered off her porch by Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Kairi Jō) on a cold Tokyo night after a routine con at the grocery store. Since abusive parents had left her out, it seems an act of mercy.

Where other filmmakers might explain away the chaos, Kore-eda eases us into it. We do not need the details to get absorbed into these lives; in short order we forget that we never had them. With a wiry frame and stubble on his chin like salt stuck in the shaker, Franky (who was born in 1963) looks too old to be Shota’s father, and much too old to play at this game. Osamu pockets less pleasure from his piddling gains than he does tossing monkey wrenches into the system. His rejection of property rights may be the least materialistic form of greed; it makes him feel entitled to all commodities and all people, and leaves him with a tendency to blur the line between them. But Osamu’s pleasures are real and so is his paternal instinct.

It seems almost narrow-minded to demand clarification on the ties that bind these people when the bonds themselves are evidently so strong, but Kore-eda comprehends the gravity of these questions, and slips them into Shota’s growing pains. The boy is getting past the age where he can accept the ambiguity of his situation. He knows that other kids go to school while he is off stealing; he cares for Yuri but refuses to call her his sister; he sees cause for concern when she is labeled a missing person on the news. This film is an ensemble piece: it is not told from the child’s point of view in the sense that Rosemary’s Baby is told from the mother’s. It bats around at the lives crammed into Granny’s squalid apartment; it shadows their victories, and, without emphasis, neoliberal dead-ends. But we feel the dream cloud dissolve in Shota’s pubescence. Reality breaks through like cold rain.

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BlacKkKlansman

In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee attempts too much; fails at most of it; and is better off for having tried. First off, there’s the police procedural “based on a true story”: the original case files were destroyed, perhaps to protect the targets of the sting, or maybe just to cover up the overweening ineptitude. It seems like a reckless idea to have the one black cop in Colorado Springs infiltrate the K.K.K. over the phone—granted, he was the one who took the initiative—and then have the one Jewish cop in Colorado Springs assume the role when he goes undercover. And the poor schmuck, even after vocal coaching, does not even try to mimic the other officer’s honky voice from the phone—which Lee has set up as the comedic centerpiece! Obviously, it takes a long time for the dupes on the other end to catch on; I suppose you don’t need to pass an intelligence test to gain admission into the Klan.

John David Washington has great droll eyes and physical swagger, but he does not have enough urgency and he’s paired with the temperamentally similar Adam Driver. Apart from one scene, when Washington challenges Driver to carry on, there’s a dearth of material clarifying the bond between these two men. Ryan Eggold, as one of the Klansmen, gets to show a little sweat, and Topher Grace is something of a miracle in the role of the Grand Wizard, David Duke. He conjures up an unholy mixture of the fatuous and seductive that the eminently pale original couldn’t hold a candle to.

I didn’t come out believing the story, but I admired its feel and flourishes: the blaxploitation whine on the soundtrack; Washington venting his stress with jiu-jitsu pantomime; an effulgent early-’70s dance hall sequence, “Too Late to Turn Back Now” on the turntable, knitting the black revolutionaries together in a beneficent fro—both social binder and courtship ritual. Above all, I admired Lee’s quixotic jives between Hollywood movie and essay film: his juxtaposition of éminence grise Harry Belafonte as a witness recounting a lynching from 1914 with Klansmen cheering on The Birth of a Nation as if they were at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Game Night

Game Night is good company for the rump-end of a week. There’s nothing novel about squeezing comedy out of the disjuncture between action-movie tropes and ordinary life. To their credit, these filmmakers gnaw at that old tired chestnut sparingly—as when they repeat an unfunny and ultimately cruel gag about an imagined one-night stand with Denzel Washington. The fact that he plays himself in this delusion functions as a humble-brag.

But the filmmakers (writer Mark Perez and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) put time into developing narrative muscle, and it’s a real and unusual achievement in comedy that their structure builds and does not collapse. The professional criminals who squirrel their way into a suburban role-playing game are scaffolding, of course, but it fixes our attention on Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman. If Nick and Nora Charles were alive and sober today—and pinned to all the constraints of middle-class comfort—they’d be quipping about Bananagrams like these two instead of solving crimes. Bateman’s Average Joe mug conceals petty resentments and his martini-dry delivery captures the pathos of the self-consciously spoiled. But his better half keeps him on his toes. For her part, McAdams is unapologetic about her competitive streak; she engages with details as only a committed fantasist could. Her journalistic poise in the face of a massive scoop stole the show in Spotlight; here, a backhanded compliment buckles her knees. She wobbles and shines like Jell-O.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the sort of lambently cozy movie that can only be made about curmudgeons. It is set at the tail end of Old New York, back when rent was cheap and still nobody could afford it—they were too busy getting drunk, and dreamt of being recognized for the books they were too drunk to write. Ambitious loners, like the biographer-cum-scam artist Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), committed themselves to life sentences in this bohemian Siberia. It’s poetic justice: to quote Fran Lebowitz, wit is cold.

The director, Marielle Heller, keeps the film soft and buffered by snow. It doesn’t need the edge of a Nan Goldin photograph; in fact, the gentleness of her approach (no doubt aided by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, who adapted Israel’s memoir) helps to expose that Israel’s bitchiness is harmful mostly to herself. It also adds a fairy-tale flavor to the friendship between the butch Israel and her gay-vagabond pal Jack (Richard E. Grant). In a city that’s already an Island of Misfit Toys, this pair is adrift in the snowbanks; they persuasively merge The Shape of Water with Midnight Cowboy. I even sense the influence of Peter Pan, made delightfully deranged: Grant’s imp from Withnail and I has grown quite old but neglected to grow wise.

While it’s true that the movie goes a little Hollywood with its message of self-empowerment, it never overexerts itself in extracting sympathy for these characters, whose neuroses probably have to do with being queer in less forgiving times. It gives them a fair hearing, tacitly, by observational keenness: in its presentation of a maybe-date that Israel goes on with a woman who’s maybe-gay. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is also a love letter to an obscure kind of bookishness. Israel’s con was to write in the voices of figures from her biographies (Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker, etc.), and sell their bogus “correspondence” to collectors. She goes from venerating these wits to being their secret peer. And McCarthy channels these antipathetic impulses—secrecy and pride—with prodigious ease. The energy she had in Spy and Bridesmaids hasn’t been lost in understatement. Quite the reverse: seeing her play off Grant underscores the film’s belief in hidden talents.

Have a Nice Day

Have a Nice Day is prefaced by a quote from Tolstoy about the persistence of nature, no matter how much we industrialize. In the end, with a cackle of thunder, nature comes down in torrents—soaking a bag of money and the corpses of grifters who’d spent the movie failing to launder it. What I liked most about this Chinese animation is that it’s shrouded in night the way that South Park is always covered in snow. The filmmaker, Liu Jian, crawls through that night like that lizard crosses the train tracks. His style bypasses implausibility; the whole vibe is permissively absurd.

Sometimes, it’s a little too casual. As in a Mike Judge cartoon, the only element moving inside any given frame is usually the mouth of whoever is talking—which is to say, droning on in a cynical deadpan. This, plus the strain of keeping track of sometimes crudely drawn figures—the female characters more so than the men—can be disorienting in a way that does not seem intentional. They leap in and out of the plot like dolphins doing flips. To be fair, the bricolage is a pretense for commentary: a kidnapped painter who spends most of the film in the big boss’s trunk doesn’t affect the story, but provides an excuse to bring up Fauvism. Moreover, he shows that even the loftiest professions are snared in the ambience of crime.

Everything seems to be part of the black market here; there’s a bleakness that’s familiar from movies imported from other communist (or formerly communist) regimes: films such as My Joy or Ida. For each of its various thieves, the stolen loot is seen as seed money to mend broken dreams: an escape from industrial ennui. As Jian sees it, Western-style progress only gets us so far. His exteriors have a geometric precision, but the frames pass by languidly enough that one can get lost in the cross-stitched decay.

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All the Money in the World

David Edelstein makes a more persuasive case to read the source material for All the Money in the World than I could make for watching it. That isn’t to say it’s a poorly made time-killer; what it lacks is inspiration. The plot unfolds like an instruction manual, step by step, with characters spelling out their thoughts while the most obvious songs imaginable establish the period. (Using the Rolling Stones for your clichés must cost all the money in the world.) Michelle Williams, playing a woman whose kidnapped son’s multi-billionaire grandfather refuses to pay the ransom, as if withholding it would build the lad’s character, acts up to the bigness of the production. When she broke down in Manchester by the Sea, it was like watching grief cave in on a mother who’d lost a son in different circumstances. Here, she plays the smart woman who always falls for the loser: critically, a scion of the Getty Oil fortune and casualty of ’60s burnout (Andrew Buchan).

Gail always has to take charge; everyone around her is a moron till proven competent, and that’s especially true for the rich. Even if she’s not given a shred of backstory it’s clear that she’d been around the social register long enough to ever warm up to the likes of the Gettys. But Gail’s claims of being ordinary are refuted by her mannerisms. It’s a sight to see a wonderfully gifted naturalistic actress like Williams glint like Katharine Hepburn.

Williams’s performance would tip director Ridley Scott’s hand, in terms of how he interpreted what’s at the core of this material, if it weren’t for the (last-minute) countervailing force of Christopher Plummer as Gail’s former father-in-law: J. Paul Getty, supposedly the richest man in the world at the time, and also the cheapest. If Williams channels patrician movie queens, Plummer lollygags like Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. His Getty is like an aristocrat who’d hunt men just for sport—and yet he has the gaiety of Willy Wonka. It’s a weird-ass mistake, but it’s not the first time this octogenarian’s made it: he’s having too much fun.

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Moonlight

This one’s a stretch. It’s been a year since I saw Moonlight, so this is less a review than a remembrance. And yet its impressions flooded back to me this morning, clear as the moon’s pull on the tides. In overarching terms, I think it’s slightly less consistent than my other favorite movie from 2016, Manchester by the Sea. Kenneth Lonergan’s film was wrong for the political moment—far enough removed from contention that even Warren Beatty’s interns wouldn’t have slipped its name in the envelope. Honestly, though, the comparison is unfair: Manchester is a work of naturalism, operating under the established rules of tragedy; Moonlight is a tone poem. While the former sustains a mood, the latter resonates in an array of chords.

Let me first dispense with my criticisms. The arc of the screenplay, written by the director, Barry Jenkins, but originating from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical material—both artists are black and openly gay—rests a little heavily on certain liberal assumptions. We are shown Chiron through three successive phases of his young life. In each he’s played by a different actor (who was not given access to his colleagues’ performances).

What’s missing is the transition between Act II, when the tender teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) gets betrayed and takes vengeance on his bullies, and Act III, where he’s a thug (Trevante Rhodes) packing heat in Hotlanta. This is normally the connective tissue that tragedies serve as the meat: the space between Michael Corleone bumping off Sollozzo and decapitating all of his rivals. While it may not have been the filmmakers’ intention for us to view this rupture as a lacuna, it takes too long to locate the scrawny kid tucked between Rhodes’s triceps. Maybe the reference points I’m missing are meant to be filled in by black experience—by a logic I’m not privy to. That would be artistically questionable, if politically ambitious.

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