Shoplifters (2018, Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda) Japanese 6

Starring Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Naoto Ogata

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(6-Good Film)

Curious. Interesting. Muddled.

Acclaimed worldwide at its release, I was at a loss as to what to make of Shoplifters. It follows a ragtag, thrust together family of misfits living in poverty in modern-day Tokyo, collectively known as the Shibatas. None of them are actual family, apparently. The “dad,” Osamu, relies heavily on shoplifting and passes the dubious skill on to his adopted children, Shota and Yuri. The “grandmother”, Hatsue, collects payments from her ex-husband’s family. The “mom” works a menial factory job, and the “aunt” works as a performer at a hostess club. The idea of a makeshift family living together under one roof, shoplifting, to my Hollywood-influenced mind lends itself to the sentimental, family-friendly genre so well. The charming miscreants go through ups and downs but find that they all love each other in the end. That’s not what this is. Shoplifters looks to be more of a social drama, going for realism, I suppose, but I think that’s my biggest problem with it. I don’t know Japanese culture well enough to say anything with authority but I didn’t buy these faces as the look of abject poverty. They are a beautiful family with some dirt rubbed on them occasionally. It’s also a pretty shallow portrait of what it means to be a family. Shoplifters is a group of people using each other. That doesn’t take away from the acting, which is strong, or the storytelling but by the end, it didn’t add up to much for me.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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The Sea Hawk (1940, Directed by Michael Curtiz) English 8

Starring Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, Brenda Marshall, Alan Hale, Flora Robson, Gilbert Roland, Una O’Connor, Donald Crisp

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Skillful. Rousing. Compelling.

Reteaming the director, Michael Curtiz, with the swashbuckling star, Errol Flynn, and joined by a familiar cast of supporting players (Claude Rains and Alan Hale), The Sea Hawk is every bit as rousing and entertaining as their previous work, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn plays an English privateer, Geoffrey Thorpe, loyal to his Queen, Elizabeth (Robson), caught up in the political maneuvering of rival Spain preparing their legendary armada. Brenda Marshall plays Flynn’s love interest, a Spanish subject who initially despises Thorpe. Masterful action sequences, compelling characters including a fantastic turn from Flora Robson as the Queen, and plenty of intrigue which I always find fascinating. The Sea Hawk is a testament to the classic Hollywood studio system which made countless great films.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Prince of Foxes (1949, Directed by Henry King) English 7

Starring Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Wanda Hendrix, Marina Berti, Everett Sloane, Felix Aylmer

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(7-Very Good Film)

Absorbing. Rousing. Expert.

In the beginning years of the 16th century, Andrea Orsini (Power) serves the ruthless Prince Cesare Borgia (Welles). Hired to assassinate the kindly, wise Count Marc Antonio Verano (Aylmer), Orsini begins to question his allegiances just as he falls for the count’s young wife, Camilla (Hendrix). Prince of Foxes is an expertly crafted swashbuckler and star vehicle for Power, who may be the king of swashbucklers (Errol Flynn being his chief competitor for this title). Orson Welles is charismatic and riveting as Cesare Borgia. There’s no shortage of plot or intrigue either.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(854)

Everybody Knows (2018, Directed by Asghar Farhadi) Spanish 8

Starring Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Ricardo Darin, Bárbara Lennie, Inma Cuesta, Elvira Mínguez, Eduard Fernández, Ramón Barea

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Gripping. Considerable. Adept.

There’s a series of mystery novels-for my money, the best series in all of literature-written by Ross MacDonald and featuring his ace detective, Lew Archer. I think about a certain quote from time to time, written, not in one of those books, but about the series as a whole. I’ve tried for a while now to find out exactly who said it to no avail, but it goes something like this, “Most mystery writers write about crime. MacDonald writes about sin.” With the amount of time I’ve spent reading, rereading, or thinking about Lew Archer’s cases, I come back to this quote often. It’s perfect. It’s exactly and succinctly the distinguishing characteristic of MacDonald’s writing and what I love most about his novels. I was reminded of this quote again while watching Asghar Farhadi’s most recent drama, Everybody Knows. Farhadi, an Iranian director, has made a number of great films in his own country (A Separation, The Salesman, Fireworks Wednesday) and abroad (The Past). He’s won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film twice. Only the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, and Frederico Fellini have won that award more times. I have no idea if Farhadi has ever read a Lew Archer novel, but he works in a similar vein. He takes the holistic view of each mystery he untangles. Every character has secrets. Every character’s actions affect someone else in the story significantly. Every character has motives. Motives for Farhadi, and for me, are more interesting than the crime itself. None of his films that I’ve seen have that kind of Agatha Christie summation at the end that’s tremendously satisfying but also simplistic. It’s a release of tension and when that you know everything, when you understand completely, you don’t have to spend any more time thinking about what happened. Farhadi never gives you that satisfaction. He never releases the tension.

His most recent film, Everybody Knows, takes place in Spain; a small town, apparently near Madrid. Cruz stars as Laura, returning home from her life in Argentina to attend her younger sister’s wedding. Laura has two children, a girl named Irene and a younger boy named Antonio, and an Argentinian husband, Alejandro (Darin), that most people in her hometown imagine to be a big-shot, stemming from the devout Alejandro’s generous donations to a local church. Bardem stars as Paco. He’s never left their hometown and from the beginning of the movie, we get the sense that he’s pretty popular. Paco’s married to Bea but they have no kids together. Laura and Paco used to be together and they’re both so attractive, you can imagine how admired they’d be as a couple in such a small town. Everything, every relationship, every past mistake, becomes important later on when Laura’s daughter is kidnapped and held for ransom. Everyone becomes a suspect. The kidnappers send their demands to Paco, as well as Laura (who would seem to be the natural target) and the characters, like us in the audience, wonder why would they do that? The things the friends and family members say to each other while they’re wondering form the real basis for the film. What’s interesting about Everybody Knows and, again, Farhadi’s films in general, are the minor twists. This is a very small town he’s using here and everyone knows each other. A lot of what’s revealed is already known by most of the characters. It’s us in the audience who are in the dark; who are learning as the film unwinds. The reveals, the would-be bombshells, the secrets aren’t very secret. The character’s responses suggest that it’s more about hearing it said out loud than it is what was said. The performances, from the supporting cast to the stars, are unaffected and observant. I admired little moments like when Paco has just learned something momentous. The next five to ten seconds or so are devoted entirely to this character thinking; no one speaking. I also appreciate Farhadi’s most common motif throughout his films of kids as witnesses; kids on the periphery of the main plot but still affected by the drama. That Farhadi can not only successfully tell an engaging story in another language, using a separate culture, but for him to make this film, Everybody Knows, fit so comfortably with the rest of work is an impressive testament to his skill. Whether working in his native language, Persian-A Separation, About Elly, etc.-or French-The Past-or now, Spanish, he’s an auteur. His vision transcends and shines through. Everybody Knows is yet another occasion.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Assassination (2015, Directed by Choi Dong-hoon) Korean 8

Starring Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae, Ha Jung-woo, Oh Dal-su, Cho Jin-woong, Choi Deok-moon, Lee Geung-young

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Stylish. Action-packed. Appealing.

It’s 1933 and Koreans live under the oppressive rule of neighboring Japan. Kang In-guk, a Korean businessman and an ally to Japan, becomes the target for the resistance, along with Japanese general Kawaguchi Mamoru. Three wild card resistance members are picked for the assassination-Big Gun, Duk-sam, and Ahn Okyun (Ji-hyun)-and hired by Captain Yem (Jung-jae), a double agent secretly helping Japan. Ha Jung-woo plays a rogue assassin named Hawaii Pistol who eventually joins Ahn Okyun in her mission as the two imagine life together in easier times. There’s a lot of plot in this film, a lot of interesting turns and suspense. It’s not, however, the somber, earnest type of movie that I imagine when I hear the term “period film;” the prestige pictures that win awards but are usually pretty boring. Assassination uses its historical background as a springboard for an outstanding action flick with romance and intrigue and a group of villains that could give Indiana Jones’ nazis a run for their money.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(848)

Strange Fascination (1952, Directed by Hugo Haas) English 6

Starring Hugo Haas, Cleo Moore, Mona Barrie, Karen Sharpe, Rick Vallin

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(6-Good Film)

Intriguing. Vague. Low-key.

Talented concert pianist, Paul Marvan (Haas), tours in the states to no little success, but once he meets beautiful but shallow Margo, his talent and his career go downhill. What is this film? Noir? Character study? Melodrama? Each attempt I made to define Strange Fascination while watching it only frustrated me, mainly because it’s ill-defined. The “femme fatale” isn’t actually very dangerous (at least, she means no harm) and the “tragic hero” never does anything wrong. He falls in love and his career suffers. That’s not to say this isn’t a good film. It grips, entertains, and lingers well after it’s done, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly its point was. Rather than the plot revolving around the actions of its characters, Strange Fascination seems tethered to fate or some unseen forces, which is why the consequences sometimes feel melodramatic.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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Take One False Step (1949, Directed by Chester Erskine) English 6

Starring William Powell, Shelley Winters, Marsha Hunt, James Gleason, Dorothy Hart, Felix Bressart, Sheldon Leonard

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(6-Good Film)

Tame. Typical. Solid.

Happily married Professor Andrew Gentling (Powell) reconnects with an old flame, Catherine Sykes (Winters), while visiting California on a business trip. Soon after, she’s murdered and the cops are after the professor for questioning. It’s a prime setup for noir, and Take One False Step delivers on so many fronts that it’s disappointing that it watered down the tone instead of being the dark cautionary tale it set up. First of all, the professor is too much of a saint. Even when he’s having drinks with a woman that’s not his wife, there’s no threat that he’s tempted to cheat. There is genuine suspense in this film, however, and Shelley Winters, as demonstrated on many occasions, excels as a dangerously unstable woman.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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