‘Shoplifters’ is an Emotional Rollercoaster and One of the Best Movies of 2018

Shoplifters movie poster

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I have seen in 2018, and it is a real gem in a cinematic year dominated by, big surprise, superhero blockbusters and endless sequels. The hope and warm emotions which emanate from it feel like the kind I have not been witness to on the silver screen in ages, and the movie dares you to ponder what the word family really means. While many see families being bound by blood, “Shoplifters” suggests there is more to it than that.

Things start off with Osamu Shibata (Lilly Franky) arriving at a supermarket in Tokyo, Japan, and we will eventually see how this movie got its name. With him is the young Shota (Jyo Kairi), and they use hand signals with each other to indicate when the coast is clear to take what they want and need. Put aside the fact no parent or adult figure should ever be teaching a child to steal; these two have an effective system which leads to them obtaining the goods they need without going through the checkout line or setting off an array of alarms. More importantly, it shows the strong connection between these two, and it is not one which is easily formed.

Upon arriving home, we see they with several other people in a cramped apartment which was made for two people at best. Among them are Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works an unforgiving and low-paying job at a local laundromat, their daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who performs sex shows for anonymous customers, and grandmother Hatsue Shibata (the late Kirin Kiki who steals every scene she is in) whose residence they all reside in. Everyone here is suffering through an unsteady economy dominated by recession, so these characters are forced to steal items such as food and clothes in order to get by. Yes, Hatsue does have her late husband’s pension to fall back on, but it is never enough to fulfill their needs.

Then on one cold evening as Osamu and Shota are returning after another successful day of shoplifting, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old homeless girl sitting all alone by herself. As the temperature decreases rapidly, and you could do a drinking game for every time a character says “it’s cold,” they decide to take her home for the night. With their apartment overcrowded, Nobuyo suggests they return Yuri home, but a visit to her residence reveals her parents are abusive to one another and to Yuri as well. As a result, Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves informally adopting her.

What struck me most about “Shoplifters” is how genuine its emotions feel. From a distance, the description of the plot might make it seem something along the lines of “Three Men and a Baby” or maybe even “Raising Arizona,” both of which featured characters who become parents in unorthodox ways. But Kore-eda is not out to manipulate our emotions for a single second as he lets life unfold before us in a way which feels real and unpredictable. No one appears to be acting here, and every single actor inhabits their roles to where you are seduced into the movie’s wonderful atmosphere with what seems like relative ease.

The affection everyone in the small apartment has for Yuri feels wonderful and hopeful to take in, and her presence has a profound effect on them all. The scene where Nobuyo and Yuri burn the 5-year-old’s clothes in an effort to start fresh in life speaks volumes. The two share scars of past abuse, and Nobuyo cuddles her and says how people show their love for one another through hugs, not violence. If there has been a more genuinely sweet scene in a 2018 movie, I missed it.

As for the others, Osamu and Nobuyo find an intimacy in their relationship which has eluded them for far too long, and Aki yearns to get closer to one of her customers as she can no longer keep him at a distance. Shota slowly begins to bond with Yuri to where he feels comfortable calling her sister, but this later leads him on a journey to find himself in a way which will have inevitable consequences for everyone that we don’t really see coming.

Revealing more of what happens in “Shoplifters” would be criminal, but I can tell you the last half is truly devastating as everything we thought we knew about these characters is turned upside down. One of Kore-eda’s masterstrokes as a writer and director is he never judges the characters, and as a result, neither did I. Even as the local news reports of Yuri’s disappearance, Osamu and Nobuyo justify their actions by saying they did not kidnap her since they never asked for a ransom. It’s a weak defense to be sure, but seeing the connection these characters have with one another deeply moved me to where I actually found myself giving them a pass which I never would have in real life.

With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda aims to look at what makes a family. While we collectively believe it is blood which makes a family, he wonders if there is more to a family than that. At a key moment, one of the characters says if having a baby automatically makes you a parent. Well that goes without saying, but considering the love and affection these characters grace Yuri with, I had a hard time finding enough of a reason to separate her from them.

Kore-eda was also influenced by the Japanese recession, and he uses this to deal with the declining social statuses many are forced to deal with in the country. Then again, “Shoplifters” could be about any country where greed continues to wreak havoc due to corporations valuing the size of their profits over the rights of the workers who helped get them those profits. We Osamu trying to get whatever work he can, and the work he gets never pays enough. Nobuyo’s job offers her a pathetically low wage, and then later we get a scene where her boss forces her and her co-worker to decide amongst themselves who should get fired when it is determined there is only enough money to keep one of them on the payroll.

“Shoplifters” is a movie which will stay with you long after you have watched it. I was deeply moved by it from start to finish as its humanity really made me appreciate the value of family in a way no other movie has in a long time. We are at a point where there are far too many movies to keep up with, but this is one I highly recommend you check out above others. This one took me for quite the emotional ride and left me fully wringed out by its end, and the experience was one of the most rewarding.

* * * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

Prisoners movie poster

From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Joan Allen on Playing the Mother of a Kidnapped Child in ‘Room’

joan-allen-in-room

Whether she has the lead in a movie or is just playing a supporting role, you can always count on Joan Allen to give a compelling performance. In ‘Room’ she plays Nancy, a mother reunited with her daughter, Joy (Brie Larson), who was kidnapped years before. She also discovers Joy is now a mother herself to five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a product of the abuse she suffered while in captivity. As thrilled as she is to have her daughter back in her life, Nancy now has to face the immense struggle of acclimating Joy back into the life she was taken away from and forging a relationship with her surprise grandson. It’s a journey full of awkwardness, but also one which comes to be filled with hope.

Allen appeared at the “Room” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California and talked about her experience making the movie which was one of the most acclaimed movies of 2015. While it deals with such dark themes as kidnapping, abuse and captivity, she also feels “Room” examines the many truths of parenthood. I asked her what kind of research she did to better understand her character and the nightmarish situation she is forced to endure.

Joan Allen: “I just did some reading about abductions and parents. I looked up in particular Terry Probyn who is Jaycee Dugard’s mother. I was hoping to speak with her but I wasn’t able to make that happen, but she had some YouTube footage of what it was like to be reunified. She said one thing that was very helpful to me, that it was a very difficult thing to reunify and you need a lot of help in order to do it. In fact, she and her daughter have created a foundation that helps people and families in this situation unify not only from abduction cases but veterans who had long periods away in the war zone where they’ve been traumatized. It’s very difficult for families to find a way when they’ve had such radically different experiences for extended periods of time and are sad and traumatized by them. And I’m a mother of a 21-year-old and have been sufficiently scared enough by various choices she’s made in life (laughs) to understand what that’s like, to feel that scared for your child and how it’s a ripple effect. It’s certainly not an ouch contest. If it were, the mom would have the biggest ouch. But everybody has huge ouches and that’s just the way it is, and what I’m so moved about by all the characters including Jack is that everybody is trying to move forward and they don’t really know how. They are just not really a throw in the towel kind of people. There is that forward movement, no matter how hard it is, to try and figure it out and to be loving and to try and understand the best way to move forward and get closer to a whole family life back because it’s a tremendous loss. It’s a tremendous devastation to not have that. But they are characters that do try and that do move forward and there’s a tremendous amount of love there, and that’s why I think that the story really reflects that.”

“Room” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

room-movie-poster