Shoplifters

Hirokazu Koreeda, which is a name I must type quickly before I forget how to spell it, has directed three previous movies that made it to our local indie outlet (as well as many that haven’t) and The Boy and I, liking all three and seeing the strong reviews for this one decided this was easily our best bet for viewing a filmed entertainment.

Only we're more suspicious looking.
Artist’s re-enactment of The Boy and I trying to find ANYTHING worth seeing.

The other three Koreeda films we’ve seen (Like Father, Like SonOur Little Sister and After The Storm) were all examinations of what it means to be “family”. Father was about two families discovering their six-year-old sons had been switched at birth. Sister was about three sisters whose overly generous father left them for another woman, and who meet their 13-year-old half-sister after he dies. Storm was about a down-on-his-luck detective/gambler/writer who couldn’t seem to reconcile his fierce desire to be a father (and husband) with his unwillingness to compromise or improve himself.

I liked these movies in about that order, so I was concerned that Koreeda might just be on a slow slide down (as often happens in Hollywood, it seems), but I (and the Boy) really liked this fascinating study of a family kept alive and together by government money, menial and dodgy jobs, and a healthy dose of shoplifting to augment their lifestyles.

The movie opens with middle-aged Shinoda (the improbably named Lily Franky of Storm) and his apparent son Shota in action, using their coordinated tactics to shoplift from a grocery store. (Shota forgets the shampoo as it turns out.) On the way home they spy a four-year-old girl picking through the garbage and they take her home and feed her. Shinoda and his wife or maybe sister Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) try to return the girl to her home, but when they get there her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend are having a violent quarrel and yelling loudly that they would rather not have the little girl around.

The littlest.
Little criminals.

The little family (Shota, Shinoda and Chinatsu) live with a woman they call “grannie” and an attractive younger woman (perhaps an aunt) named Aki (Mayu Matsuoko, who was in some spin-offs of the original Japanese version of Little Forest) They take pity on the little girl against their better judgment (and on seeing marks on the little girl’s body). They decide to keep her, noting that her “real” family hasn’t even filed a missing person’s report. In fact, they don’t find out the girl’s real name until the police somehow get wind of her absence and accuse her parents of murdering her.

The whole household is kind of a mess. It isn’t obvious who’s related to whom—they all sort of act like grannie is their real grandmother, the two women like sisters, and the man like a father/son-and-brother-in-law. The first sense we get of something being not quite as it seems is Shinoda’s light badgering of Shota to call him “dad”. Meanwhile, dishonesty in the larger cultural sense abounds: Nobuyo works in a laundry facility of some sort and steals what she can from the clothes that come through. Shinoda has a construction job of some kind but he gets injured early on and we never see him work again even though, as we discover, there’s no worker’s comp for part-timers. Aki works in what I would describe as the live version of a adult webcam, entertaining customers through a two-way glass by at least partly disrobing and bouncing up and down. Even grannie’s got her scams.

They're cooking up something...
Honestly, I don’t think the characters come off as suspicious as they look in the freeze-frames.

They are kind to each other, however. Not perfect, but reasonably decent and forgiving human beings. And if this were a Hollywood movie you’d expect some message about the power of family, or near-family, or whatever they are, and some kind of Robin Hood/socialism subtext, but this movie has none of that. When it hits the fan, the family disintegrates pretty fast, survival being paramount. Motives are revealed, or implied, and they’re not necessarily pretty.

But here again, the movie avoids moralizing: Even disintegrated, it’s not at all clear that the participants were not better off together. It is clear that their relationships, however dysfunctional at the social level, are a great source of comfort and humanity to all involved. The movie teases a murderous backstory (showing pretty well that the cops are not particularly interested about what psychic havoc they might be wreaking) and also what might be a pretty dastardly crime against Shota. It basically dares you to try to come away with a neat package of opinions.

We liked the richness. We weren’t sure we liked the amount of loose ends. (Loose ends are funny: To few, and a movie feels glib. Too many, and it feels unfinished.) There were scenes that we weren’t sure why they were in there, but Koreeda is the kind of director who convinces you he knows what he’s doing, and whose movies you kinda wanna rewatch to make sure you got everything.

Not for everyone, obviously, but interesting.

Hang on tight.
Stability is fleeting.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

The end of the video-game-themed throwbacks at the local bijou was Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which we hadn’t seen at the time for unclear reasons. I guess, in part, it was because we had Wright pretty strongly tied to his “Spaced”/Cornetto collaborator Simon Pegg, and this is a completely separate entity. (Although Wright’s smash-cut editing is in the foreground here, in its platonic form, which is perchance why he seems to have dialed it way back since then.)

And the manga had been based on a light novel.
It could only be better if the movie had been based on the video game that was based on the manga.

The other thing is probably just lack of recognition. What is this about? Video games? Or is it a romcom? It looks sorta campy. Stylistically speaking, it is campy, but it’s also very effective, to the point where The Boy placed it above the entries in the Cornetto trilogy. (This may have to do with where The Boy is on a personal level right now than the film itself, but that doesn’t invalidate the assessment.)

The story is from a series of six graphic novels which are neither rigorously photo-realistic nor deeply bound to reality (unlike a lot of the Crackle-based comic books which seem to exist to be picked up for a low-budget TV show) and it’s hard to imagine another director who could integrate the books’ reality-shattering devices while keeping the audience engaged with the story as a real thing.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old loser (for lack of a better word) nursing a year-old broken heart by (chastely) dating a 17-year-old high school girl (the adorable Ellen Wong of “Dark Matter” and “GLOW”). His dreams, on the other hand, are haunted by a mysterious girl with pink (or green? or blue?) hair (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, A Good Day To Die Hard, 10 Cloverfield Lane) who turns up in real life.

Even with short blue hair.
Too cute for Scott Pilgrim OR Michael Cera, TBH.

Despite warnings from his bitchy older sister (Anna Kendrick, Into The Woods, and who also had a small role in The Hollars, as did Winstead), an even bitchier random girl (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) who seems to turn up everywhere to scold him in increasingly vile (but censored) terms, Scott gloms on to Ramona and the two experience something akin to love-at-first-sight.

Problem being, Ramona’s got baggage. But rather than the usual emotional baggage (of which there is plenty in the film), this baggage takes a more literal form: If Scott wants to be with her, he has to fight her “seven evil exes”—the seven lovers she’s had prior to meeting him.

Before he realizes what’s going on, he’s already fought and defeated the first “X”:  An eighth-grade boyfriend she held hands with for a week or two.

And also too cute for Cera.
Out-Ringwalding Molly.

The movie is painted with constant cues as to its nature, with CGI being used to create effects literally from a comic book. The phone rings and the word “RIIINNG” fills up the background. But when the first fight happens—a fight to the death!—the movie goes full-on video game. (Or maybe it’s when Scott goes to the bathroom and his “pee bar” is shown decreasing.) Down to the villainous ex being reduced to a scattering of coins (not enough to pay for bus fare, alas) and a score counter over Scott increasing.

Just describing it makes me think there is no way this should work. But it does.

For one thing, as far as any Wright movie goes: You always know who the devil made it. There is nothing bland or timid about his choices. For all its comic book nature, it’s sort of the anti-Marvel film. At no point do you get the sense that the director (or any producers) said, “Hey, back off here and do what every other movie does…we can’t risk the franchise!”

But probably because what other colors were you going to do? Yellow?
Winstead’s hair goes from pink to blue to green, allegedly in homage to certain video game characters.

The music is terrific, for example, which I guess is to be expected from the director of Baby Driver. I feel like the actors are wrong for their parts in a lot of cases, but that feeling is wrong. Like, it’s hard for me to take Cera seriously as a heart-breaker, but he wins me over, not the least because he seems to sort of do it by trading on female insecurity, and sort of on accident. (He’s not a heroic character at all, until he gets the idea that Ramona is something worth fighting for.)

Also, it’s hard for me to imagine throwing over Wong for Winstead, or his former girlfriend and drummer for his band Sex-Bob-Omb (the fiercely-cute/cutely-fierce Alison Pill, Hail, Caesar!), but Winstead brings a melancholy to the role which is appealing in its own way and also really appropriate for her (mercifully vague) backstory. Then there’s Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore graduate himself, as the alpha X. (It just shouldn’t work.)

Every aspect of the movie is done with care and precision, which one expects, and this movie certainly feels like it has more heart than (the also very, very good) Baby Driver.

The Boy’s take on it was this: It took its subjects seriously without taking itself too seriously. For something that is inherently gimmicky (what if relationships were video games!) it didn’t bury its story in the (excellently placed) special effects. At the same time, it didn’t try to be hyper-allegorical or pedantic, and it never misses a chance to make you laugh just by being silly.

For example, the #2 Ex (a pre-Captain America Chris Evans!) has psychic powers that come from him being a vegan and going to the Vegan Academy. That plays out all the way to its ridiculous conclusion, and while it’s amusing social commentary, it’s also a silly sidebar away from the heavier issue of romantic scars.

It didn’t do great at the box office, probably because a lot of people had the same reaction we did at the time: Wuzzat? But it’s a fast, fun watch that uses its central conceit in a way unlikely to be successfully done again.

But good lord, when you do...
They actually look reasonably cool if you don’t freeze-frame.

MST3K Live! The 30th Anniversary Tour: The Brain

If it’s true, as I maintain, that movies are better at the cinema, it’s also true that shows are better live, for all the same reasons augmented by the physical presence of the performers. Hercules vs. Vampires will probably not go down as one of the great operas of the 21st century, but it was enjoyable heard live on a level that, e.g., watching a recording of it would not be. Reptilicus was more enjoyable simply having Joel Hodgson MC it, and I’m sure the Rifftrax Belcourt performances are more enjoyable than watching them remotely, even if “live”.

This is better than a riff, though, in a lot of ways.
“Hercules vs. Vampires” has never been riffed, somehow.

With Joel’s discovery of the “bus” (as a stand-up he had done his circuit on a plane, which has many disadvantages) on the “Watch Out For Snakes” tour, the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000” crew is able to visit a lot of different places riffing on movies and having host segments live, and they are undoubtedly more fun than any given episode. We were front-row center (as we must) and while that made a little hard to see over the central desk (and had the effect of making Jonah seem normal sized and Joel kinda tiny) it also meant we were right there when Dr. Phibes had “The Brain” drool on us.

The “experiment” was an ’80s horror called The Brain, a late entry in Canadian auteur Ed Hunt’s film career about a brain from another…place (no explanation given)…that has the power of mind control. That control increases over time as it consumes people through various unclear means. David Gale (the villain of Re-Animator) plays televangelist of sorts, beaming The Brain’s waves through screens in order to control people’s minds (to various unclear ends). Assisted by his thug Verna (stalwart character actor George Buza), the two terrorize the only man who can stand in their way.

His Tumblr.
Jonah posted this picture of him with Deanna Rooney (Phibes) on his Tumblr.

That would be high-school student Jim (Tom Breshnaham, who racked up a lot of mainstream credits in the ’80s and ’90s) and girlfriend Janet (still working Canadian actress Cynthia Preston, who did a long stint on “General Hospital” after being a major player on the “Total Recall 2070” series). The two combine the best of feckless horror-movie heroes, sort of blandly moving through the proceedings with things just sort of working out as they must for the plot to go on.

Joel’s gotten increasingly savage editing the movies being riffed, which I have mixed feelings about. I’m fine with the removing or censoring of the ’80s-era nudity because that stuff was generally as pointless as it was mandatory, and there’s so much good riffing material in that pre-CGI era, but I notice the new season of the show (“The Gauntlet”) puts every movie into an 80 minute episode. Ator: The Fighting Eagle, for example, has a 98-minute runtime without the bumpers and sketches.

Now, we followed up watching the MST3K edition of Ator with a viewing of the Rifftrax Ator and while we see what was cut out, we weren’t exactly feeling robbed. Meanwhile, Atlantic Rim is an agonizing 85 minutes, so every minute cut out of that thing helps.

The jury’s out, in other words.

Look at that. It's great.
The cheesiness of the monsters means it fits in perfectly with the MST3K ethos.

For the live show, the premise was that Jonah (Ray) and Joel were riffing as a game show hosted by Synthia (Rebecca Hanson), and they paired up with Tom Servo and Crow. (Crow is played by Hampton Yount as he is on the TV series, with Baron Vaughn being replaced as Tom Servo—as he was last time, we hope because he’s spending time with his new baby—but I can’t remember by whom. I don’t think it was Grant Baccioco, who plays M. Waverly, or Russ Walker who plays Growler.) Basically the teams would riff along certain themes and be scored on how many riffs they made on those themes, with the score arbitrarily boosted by Synthia to keep Jonah in the lead.

Of course, in the end Joel wins by popular demand, because Joel understands the power of nostalgia, and as much as he wants to turn the spotlight over, he also knows what the audience wants. That said, as an on-stage riffer, his timing and delivery are impeccable—probably better than they were back in the day.

The new bit, with Deanna Rooney as Dr. Donna St. Phibes is classic MST3K: The adorable Dr. St. Phibes, strongly evoking a Hogwart-ian professor, takes care of the poor B-movie monsters after their brief stints with stardom. It was actually explained in more detail at the show than it is in the series, with the idea being that there is a space station housing these forlorn creatures, and St. Phibes having a mixed relationship as far as her ability to control and contain them. For this show, she brought out “The Brain”, which proceeded to slaver upon those of us in the front rows. (In the show, she has a charming “Lord of the Deep” puppet.)

It’s funny. And good-natured. Sadly (and I expect due to the expense of performing in L.A.) there was only the one feature on this date, while other cities also got to see “Deathstalker”, a popular ’80s target for sarcastic commentary.

I liked to think that she found dignified work artificially inseminating pigs.
The lovely Christine Kossak didn’t work much after this movie required her to “struggle” against the brain.

Shoah: The Four Sisters

Here’s something to be thankful for this weekend: You’re not a Jew in Europe in WWII. When we last heard from the late Claude Lanzmann, it was for his riveting 3:40 minute long interview of Benjamin Murmelstein interview, The Last of the Unjust. That movie came at a similar time, in cinematic terms: That is to say, there seems to be nothing worthwhile out, to the extent where a four-and-a-half hour documentary seems to be the best use of your movie-going time.

Now, don’t run away: This is actually four separate hour-plus interviews that will presumably show up as a series on Netflix or Amazon soon. And while, as a whole, they aren’t as riveting as Last of the Unjust, where we really were kind of on the edge of our seats, they are interesting, revealing and different. (They say it’s Lanzmann’s last film, as the director died in July at the age of 92, but with 350 hours of footage to cull from, I’d be surprised if more wasn’t culled from those interviews.)

This particular documentary tells the story of four women (not literal sisters), a Pole, a Czech, a Romanian and a Hungarian, I believe, all of whom had different (but similar) experiences of the “Shoah” (which I believe means “catastrophe”). And by “tells the story”, I mean Lanzmann asks occasional questions to get his subjects to talk.

I'm not making jokes on this one.
Ruth Elias

The Hippocratic Oath is the first story, told by Ruth Elias. This is one of those stories, were it a movie, you’d have a hard time believing it: Elias evaded death at every turn, in great measure due to luck, and you’d think “no one could be that lucky” except by definition, the only one to be around for an interview would be someone who was precisely that lucky. And “lucky” is a term that carries considerable ironic weight here.

She was a 19-year-old girl from a well-off family whose patriarch got them fake (non-Jewish) IDs to escape, but they were ratted out and sent to a camp. Her family was “selected” and shipped out to a death camp, but she was allowed to stay behind because she had managed to marry her boyfriend. She has three or four run-ins with this kind of near miss, including one where she manages to escape Auschwitz with a work crew by sandwiching herself between prettier girls (she was eight months pregnant).

She ends up back in Auschwitz receiving the personal attention of Josef Mengele, which is never a good thing. She survives, but at an incredible cost.

...
Ada Lichtman and her dolls.

The Merry Flea is the next story, and it is horror-movie creepy. (Actually, the theme of these stories are the insanity, surreality and degradation that accompanied the Holocaust.) Ada Lichtman was sent to Sobibor as a young woman, singled out for laundry work—again, one of those situations where in a group of thousands, only three survived—and ends up cleaning, repairing and making clothes for dolls. (She’s actually doing this kind of work during the interview.)

The Nazis would kill the Jewish children, but they would take their toys first (of course). They would then take the dolls home for their children to play with, and Lichtman was one who prepared those dolls for the children. This interview also features a man from the same camp, though he says very little. One of the effects (that now seems not only deliberate but calculated) of the various terrors visited on the Jews was to create a culture of shame that persists to a degree even to this day.

“The Merry Flea” was what the Germans called their quarters at Sobibor, hence the title of this segment.

On the beach in...Florida?
Paula Biren

The last interview is called Baluty, and the interview subject (Paula Biren, also apparently interviewed in Shoah) had been a girl who lived in the Ghetto of Lodz, after the Germans invaded and penned up all the Jews into the worst areas of town. The degree to which the Jews are shocked at their initial rough treatment gives an understanding of how they could be so ignorant of the Holocaust, with Biren being the only one who claims to understanding what was going on as early as ’42. (I think Lichtman says she didn’t believe until she smelled the smoke and ash.)

Biren is an interesting subject (who emigrated to America, where the others went to Israel) because of the tenor of her contempt for the Nazis and their “absurd” ghetto, and its stupid little programs, as well as her sense of betrayal by Poland after the war, when the Jews were not welcome back. (A theme echoed in Aftershock and 1945, among others.) She’s more spirited than the rest of her family, which sometimes serves her and them well—and sometimes doesn’t. Lanzmann digs (and it can sound like a challenge) when she discusses being on the Lodz ghetto “police force”, but he does a good job of making it more about the mindset than trying to attack, which brings us to the penultimate episode.

...
Lanzmann with Hanna Marton

Noah’s Ark is an interview with Hannah Marton, who was saved from Auschwitz by Rudolf Kasztner, a man considered by some to be a war criminal. He was accused of collaboration in 1957, and cleared in 1958—posthumously—and with this interview we get into Last of the Unjust territory.  These are difficult matters now with virtually nothing at stake: How impossible were the choices made at the time?

I mention this last because it’s the only point where I felt like Lanzmann was getting at something: Something Marxist. I don’t want to make too much of it, but when he talks about who Kasztner saved, he’s stating outright that they were “privileged” people. Morton is kind of shocked by this: At first she takes it literally by pointing out that there were lots of poor people (like, everyone, since the Nazis had taken all their stuff), but when he switches to talking about the proletariat, she says there were a lot of tradesmen and the like. To say nothing of veterans (Jews were an unarmed part of the Hungarian army which was part of the routed German invasion of Russia) His attempt to cast this as some kind of class struggle is brief, but I did discover later that Lanzmann had been quite the Marxist after his time in the French Resistance.

To sum up on the three point Moviegique documentary scale:

  1. Topic. Obviously important, but also interesting.
  2. Presentation. As close to “nil” as imaginable. Lanzmann provides no context, which can make this movie a little hard to get into, if you have no idea what they’re talking about.
  3. Slant. Apart from the momentary Marxist outburst, Lanzmann does have a slant (beyond “Nazis are bad”). He strictly interviews victims (though there’s a lot of nuance in that word “victim”, which all the interview subjects understand) and doesn’t try to understand.

He’s criticized for this (e.g. in this Jacobin article) but—as long as his aren’t the only Holocaust documentaries in existence—there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, by not trying to understand, he probably spares the film from being terribly distorted. What we’re left with are truly challenging situations that you can grasp, and which bring a human richness to things in danger of being just numbers and words, like 6,000,000 and Holocaust.

It was a good movie to see right before Thanksgiving, and it makes me grateful (as many things do these days) above all for the Second Amendment.,