The Two Reviews: Shoplifters and The Favourite

Shoplifters (2018, Gaga Pictures Japan)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Featuring Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jō, Miyu Sasaki and Kirin Kiki.

I have always found the award winners from the Cannes Film Festival to be a far better representation of the best films from around the world than the Oscars. Winners of the highest prize, the Palme D’Or, over the past 20 years include The Pianist, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Entre les murs (The Class), The White Ribbon, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Blue is the Warmest Colour and I, Daniel Blake – I regard these among the best films I have ever seen. Go further back in time and you will find several Oscar-snubbed masterpieces that won the prestigious award: Paris, Texas, The Ballad of Narayama, The Conversation, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) and The Wages of Fear. So it was of little surprise to discover that last year’s winner, Shoplifters (recently enjoying a relative mainstream release) was a wonderful gem of a movie.

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From director Hirokazu Kore-eda (who has form with his award winning 2013 drama Like Father, Like Son) comes a familial-based drama about Japanese social norms, poverty and morality. It is set on the outskirts of an unnamed Japanese city, where we are introduced to a ‘family’ living amicably together in a small run-down shack – a comical father figure, his wife, a wise old grandmother and her granddaughter, and a young boy. The father, who works on a high-rise building site, and the young boy, who doesn’t go to school, work together as a double team stealing food and other necessities from local grocery stores – their shoplifting routine is, dare I say, lovable to watch! The wife works for a pittance at a laundry, the grandmother sits at the shack all day, while the granddaughter works at a club where she strips and touches herself for men who sit in the shadows behind a glass (maybe intentionally referenced or not, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that sleazy place where Nastassja Kinski worked in Paris, Texas, and that heart-breaking scene where Harry Dean Stanton reveals his identity to her from the shadows behind the glass by telling her the story of their life together long ago).

The film meanders along nicely offering us titbits of information on how all of the characters are related to each other, never being too obvious but always being sincere. We get to know each of the characters one by one, and despite harbouring some clear shortcomings (sometimes shocking), they all possess a warm and enduring humanity. The wonder of the film lies in their heartfelt connection to one another. The central focus of the story revolves around a new addition to the ‘family’: a beautiful little girl named Yuri who is found by the husband and wife to be left out in the cold by apparently abusive parents. The girl is taken back to the shack and she is immediately enamoured by the rest of the group. There are obvious questionable morals to the actions of these people, but what is remarkable about Kore-eda’s intelligent direction is that he never intends for that to be core of the story. His neat, subtle pitch alludes to greater things at play: the broken and hypocritical society of modern Japan, the awful conditions set for poor families there, some unspeakable past familial trauma, and the unquenchable thirst for a shared happiness.

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The acting by adults and children alike is spectacular, but the stand-out for me was Kirin Kiki as the grandmother (see image above). Her subtle facial expressions and a perfect comic timing for quick quips and put-downs was fantastically entertaining (it was with sadness to discover that the actress had died shortly after the film was made). Elsewhere, I thought the technical aspects of the film were top notch. The music by Haruomi Hosono was a fluttering, mystic mix of piano, bells and electronica, and the photography was neatly compatible with the direction – subtle, colourful and focused on human action. As a whole, the film plays like a bittersweet, sometimes funny, mystery but that mystery never infuriates the viewer. By the time the film is over, as much as the story all adds up and makes sense, there is still so much to mull over, and most importantly we are left with an enduring feeling of hope. A brilliant film!

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 5/5

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The Favourite (2018, Scarlet Films, Element Pictures, Arcana, Film4 and Waypoint Entertainment)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Featuring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult.

The Favourite is a dark comedy from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster) about the strained and sometimes affectionate relationships of Queen Anne (Colman) and her female confidantes and advisors Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and Abigale Hill (Stone), and in particular the building rivalry and manoeuvring of the latter two vying to be Anne’s ‘favourite’. It is loosely based on real events and more so on innuendo of the time, when Anne was the reigning monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland (and later Great Britain) in the opening two decades of the 18th Century.

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Queen Anne, beset by personal tragedy and with the pressures of war with France upon her, relies on her close relationship with Sarah Churchill – known as Lady Marlborough and the wife of the most eminent British military commander of the time. Sarah is more than an advisor. She is the manager of her affairs of State and the her care and well-being, as well as a life-long personal friend and lover. And although she is at times ruthless, her affection for Anne is real. But cousin Abigale Hill arrives on the scene, initially to take the position of chambermaid. She quickly finds ways to make herself noticeable to Anne. Abigale and Sarah are soon scheming against each other to be in the Queen’s favour.

Set design and costumes are lavish. The script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is tight and refreshingly avant-garde for a period piece, combining vulgarity and wit, punctuated by understated emotional and tender moments. I think the lighting is especially good in this film, but I was less impressed with the soundtrack, which is unusual to say the least. It jars rather than sets the mood. The photography is mostly good, and there was some use of gliding drone cameras and also fish-eyed lenses. The latter of which at first seemed interesting but in the end didn’t add anything to the film other than to suggest that things were a bit distorted. However, the standout in this film is the acting, notably three strong female leads in Colman, Weisz and Stone. Colman in particular is superb, inhabiting her traumatised and weary character with ease and displaying sensitivity and buffoonery in equal measure.

Lanthimos’ first English-language film was the dark and somewhat weird comedy The Lobster, featuring both Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman; and his next film was the haunting The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Dark and even grotesque subjects are not new to this director, and The Favourite is another example of him exploring a dark theme. It starts well and there is an excellent script but the last third is without comic relief, descending into a darker and more tragic conclusion. I think it is a drawback. The mood shifts from dark and sometimes absurd comedy to pure tragedy. It ends with a distinct downbeat.

Overall, however, I think it is a good film that takes an innovative approach to a period piece. It is visually beautiful, even startling in places, and has an outstanding cast, led by three great actors playing three dynamic and powerful women. That’s a good thing for Hollywood.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3.5/5

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