PFF: Shoplifters, Widows, Transit, and To the Ends of the World
Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Koreeada)
This film from acclaimed Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeada (Our Little Sister, Like Father Like Son) won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year, and its not hard to see why. The prolific filmmaker has a film on the festival circuit every two years or so, all of which deal with charting where the Japanese family unit is now in modern society. In snagging his first ever big Cannes award, this may be his most effective summation yet.
This is actually the first film I've seen of his, but it doesn't feel like it since I have read so much about his work over the years. In Shoplifters’ opening scene we meet Lily (Osamu Shibata) and a little boy named Shota (Kairi Jo) in a supermarket, doing–guess what–shoplifting. They are quite good at it and clearly have a whole system. Their home, a small two-room house, is crowded with other family members; grandmother, mother, and an aunt all together. One night when they are out for a little stroll, they happen upon a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), looking forlorn on her porch while her parents are screaming at each other inside. Fearing for her safety, they invite her to come along, and she does. She fits right into the family, a tiny girl looking for love and warmth wherever she can find it, and having absolutely no control in who is there to give it to her. It's clear early on that this family of hustling small time crooks is there to provide it, happily.
Or so we think. Koreeada pulls a bit of a magic trick here, taking advantage of our perceptions of what a normal family looks like, and though we know this one has a few orphans and stragglers in it, they seem to have chosen each other in love. Towards the end, as Koreeada begins to bring the lens back to reveal the bigger picture that we may have missed, it felt like he had planted an Inception level idea in my brain. Yet even in the end, he offers no real answers, just more questions- and choices made by the people who matter most of all in any family unit: the children.
Widows (dir. Steve McQueen)
Widows is exactly the kind of pulpy humanistic thriller with huge ideas that we have come to expect from writer Gillian Flynn. In adapting an old BBC miniseries, the writer has updated it for her hometown of modern day Chicago, and with unlikely partner in crime Steve McQueen in the director's chair providing his signature icy cold touch. The two are almost a study in opposites, but together have made one of the can't-miss movies of the year, sure to find its place alongside L.A. Confidential or Heat as an endlessly rewatchable crime thriller for the ages.
You will be hard-pressed to find a more intense opening five minutes for any other movie in 2018. Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his crew of professional criminals are in the middle of a heist that is about to go very wrong- leaving their wives without husbands and two million dollars in cash burned up in their van (that's not a spoiler, unless you refuse to read the title of the movie). Harry's wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), steps in to close out Harry's business- only to find that the man Harry stole from, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), wants his money back- and he's giving Veronica a month to find it and pay up. Jamal would be the most threatening character in the movie if not for his brother Jatemme (Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya), who is quickly revealed to be a full on remorseless psychopath, the kind who enjoys playing with his prey before he bites. Jamal is running for Alderman (like a city council member, a term I had certainly never been aware of) of Chicago's 18th Ward, a neighborhood in the deep south side- and he is running against the youngest son of a local political dynasty in Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell–did I mention how stacked this cast is?).
As the layers add up and the pieces get moved into position, what we have is nothing less than a Dickensian portrait of an American city in 2018, the kind that Sidney Lumet would have been proud of. Yet this is all built around the beating heart of Flynn's script, which finds Veronica reaching out to the titular widows of Harry's crew. We meet Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and eventually Belle, Linda's babysitter (Cynthia Erivo, who gives the year's best running performance second only to Tom Cruise). The four women decide to go in on a heist together, led by Veronica (who spends most of the movie carrying around her Westie pup, Olivia), to keep the Mannings off their back and have a little something leftover for them to take home.
You might be so wrapped up in the thrilling nature of the story that you miss the feeling of loss that permeates the edges of the film. Veronica's grief is captured in flashbacks, dreams, moments in which the past seems to merge into the present. There is also more to her story than what we know on the surface, as a piece of her backstory emerges in the biggest gut-punch of the entire film, one that is depressingly ripped from today's headlines. Yet in the end, the mood of Widows is one of hope and resilience- of taking what's yours (or should be) and not letting anybody get in your way. Throughout the story, characters talk about how nothing seems to ever change- the powers that be seem pretty set in stone, and only harder to budge. Yet Widows suggests that as much as nothing changes, it doesn't mean that everything can't change in an instant- for better or for worse.
Widows opens in Philly theaters November 16.
Transit (dir. Christian Petzold)
Sirens wail in the background. Soldiers with flak jackets and automatic rifles comb the streets. Paris is being sealed off. The Germans are invading and gaining more ground every day. But it doesn't seem like World War II-judging from the clothes that people are wearing, it looks an awful lot like today.
This is the central enigma of Transit, the latest film from Christian Petzold (Phoenix), and it is one that seems to have confused many viewers already. This is certainly by design, but it is not necessarily a riddle that is meant to be solved. With Europe experiencing its worst refugee crisis since the actual second world war, and the rise of the far right in response, Transit is a portrait of what the current powder keg could look like, after it has already irreversibly blown its top. It does this through referencing what we know about how it played out in the past. It makes you feel like "Never Again" was not a promise, but a wish.
Death camps are being set up as the German army continues to move west. Yet for Georg, a German refugee fleeing the war, the most immediate threat is the French police, who are forcefully arresting and deporting as many immigrants as possible. Fortunately for him, he happens to in the right place at the right time- falling into the possessions of a deceased political journalist, one that the governments of America and Mexico might actually be aware of; the kind of person they might want to help escape. Georg assumes his identity, and high tails it to the French port town of Marseilles, hoping to get on the next possible boat out of town.
He finds himself in the titular state of transition- a purgatory, an in between of sorts- even with his status promoted, he still has to wait a long time for the ship to leave. While he is in limbo, he happens upon a small cast of other characters in his same predicament- one of whom turns out to be the wife of the writer he is pretending to be.
As a tale of mistaken identity, grief and lost love amidst the spectre of fascism, Transit makes for an excellent double feature with Phoenix. Where as that film recalled the post war noir of The Third Man and Vertigo, this one feels almost like The Talented Mr. Ripley by way of Casablanca. I found myself wondering at times what a larger budget might have done to better illustrate the impending threat (like Alfonso Cuaron did in Children Of Men)- but then again Petzold is clearly someone more interested in the micro than the macro. He wants to know specifically how a couple of individuals go on living in the face of sociopolitical trauma.
Ultimately,Transit is a film that exists to remind us of the human stakes at play in our current climate, where neo-fascism has been on the rise for years now. It gets at one particular truth- that if the worst happens, none of us are going to want to go through it alone.
To The Ends of The World (dir. Guillame Nicloux)
The setting is French Indochina, 1945- AKA Vietnam (but you won't hear it called that). At the tale end of WWII, the Japanese are fighting the Chinese in the northern part of the country- and the colonial French army is doing its best to stand tall, even with its home country in ruins. Early on we meet Robert (Gaspard Ulliel, who played the young Dr. Lecter once upon a time in Hannibal Rising), who pulls himself out of a mass grave as the lone survivor of a Japanese massacre of the local French, in which his brother, sister-in-law and her unborn child were killed. He may as well be a ghost, as we quickly learn of the single-minded nature of his new existence- revenge. Specifically, revenge against the Viet Minh leader who stood by and watched it happen.
I have never seen a French movie about their country's involvement in Vietnam- I am not sure that one has ever existed. Anyone who has watched the first episode of Ken Burn's The Vietnam War knows that the country was a powder keg of colonialism, racism and political violence long before the first American helicopter landed. To The Ends Of The World plants us right in that in-between space, ten years before the battle of Dien Bien Phu- when lines in the sand were already being drawn.
Along his quest for revenge, Robert falls in love with a local prositute, Mai (Lang Khe Tran), grows close with fellow soldier Cavagna (Guillame Gouix), and tussles with ex-pat writer Saintonge (Gerard Depardieu!), in what amounts to a largely plotless fever dream of a movie, despite the basic revenge arc. There are no real extended action sequences or big payoffs- this is no Platoon or Apocalypse Now. In lieu of those kinds of scenes, we get artfully placed disembodied corpses, moody jazz piano, explicit sex, and plenty of full frontal male nudity. The pace of the editing is frenetic, almost impossible to mentally keep up with, as the film descends into a kind of madness. The sour cherry on top is that, as bad as things are for the characters at the end of the film, you know that everything is only about to get much, much worse.
To the Ends of the World is playing on Friday, October 26 at 12:20 PM at the Ritz East. Tickets and details here.