Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)


Going for that five-fingered discount.

(2018) Drama (Magnolia) Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki, Sōsuke Ikematsu, Yûki Yamada, Moemi Katayama, Daisuke Kuroda, Kazuaki Shimizu, Izumi Matsuoka, Katsuya Maiguma, Hajime Inoue, Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Haruna Hori, Momoko Miyauchi, Mami Hashimto, Nobu Morimoto, Mana Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

 

The family unit is the backbone of most human cultures. Woe be unto those who mess with the family; communist regimes in Russia and China tried it without success. But what is it about families that make them so necessary? Can we teach our children morality if we ourselves are less-than-moral? Can we have a loving family in non-traditional groupings?

The Shibata family is what you would call the working poor. Father Osamu (Franky) is a day laborer; mother Nobuyo (Andō) works in an industrial laundry. Auntie Aki (Matsuoka) is a hostess in a peep show, dressing like a school girl and performing sexual acts for lonely men watching behind two-way mirrors. Grandmother Hatsue (Kiki) chips in with her pension check and their son Shota (Kairi) helps out in the family business. What is the family business? Shoplifting.

Osamu and Shota go to local supermarkets and pick up what necessities the family needs via the five-fingered discount. The family can’t afford to put enough food on the table, so they supplement their income as best they can. On the way home from such a trip, Osamu and Shota come upon a little girl named Yuri (Sasaki) hiding under a balcony in a neighboring apartment building. It is an insanely cold night and the girl, already hungry and scared, will certainly not survive the night if left out there. Good-hearted Osamu brings the girl home. Hatsue discovers evidence of abuse on the little girl, but Nobuyo is adamant that the girl be returned to her parents. When they arrive, Osamu and Nobuyo hear a violent fight going on between the parents. Nobuyo at last relents and the girl is brought home, unofficially adopted by the Shibata clan.

It’s not kidnapping, explains Osamu, because they aren’t demanding a ransom. Besides, the little girl has found herself in a loving family that takes care of one another and despite their financial straits, they still manage to enjoy life to the fullest. Shota even deigns to teach the newest Shibata the family trade. However, the idyllic situation can’t last long; things begin to unravel and the secrets at the core of the Shibata family are revealed at last.

The last half hour of the film is a total tonal shift from the first hour and a half, and quite frankly, it was a bit too much for my taste, although I am aware that a lot of critics found that shift to be the best thing about the film. As they say, your mileage may vary.

But this is a very good film, a look at how the working poor survive day t day in Japan, how the bond within a family is maintained even when the grey areas are a bit more widespread than normal. Despite the fact that they steal and scam, the Shibata family to a man (and woman) are good-hearted people who genuinely care for one another. There is almost no judgement going on, which is rare in a family. They accept each other and love each other for who they are. A lot of morally straight families could benefit from instruction from the Shibata family.

Good performances throughout are at the forefront; there are some truly heartbreaking moments and some truly joyous ones as well. Cinematographer Ryûto Kondō makes good use of every shot; there is a lot happening in every frame which means that additional viewings of the film will yield more treasure.

This is very much one of the best films from 2018 and would have gotten a higher rating from me had I liked the ending more. I will say that it is imaginative and will come at you from out of nowhere, which is what I think some folks like about it. I suspect that I will like this movie more the next time I watch it. If so, that’s the mark of a truly great film experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking on the nature of families. Moral dilemma isn’t an easy one to dismiss..
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese film to do so since 1997.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews, Metacritic: 93/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tombstone Rashomon

Instant Family


Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne get a little cuddle time in.

(2018) Family Comedy (ParamountMark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Julianna Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Tom Segura, Allyn Rachel, Brittney Rentschler, Jody Thompson, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, Michael O’Keefe, Joan Cusack, Edson Gary Weeks, Kenneth Israel, Hampton Fluker, Randy Havens, Iliza Schlesinger. Directed by Sean Anders

 

Having been an instant Dad, coming into a family in which there were already children, I imagine I have a bit of a leg up on the adoption comedy Instant Family. In some ways, the movie tackles some serious issues with the foster care system and of dealing with kids who have been through the ringer. It also has some humor which can be charitably described as weak; on top of it you have an awful lot of cursing, a fair amount of which is done by the kids themselves. This is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.

Which is weird because writer-director Anders based the film on his own experiences adopting three Hispanic children, which is what childless Yuppie couple Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) do. They end up with problematic teen Lizzy (Moner) who still harbors hope of reuniting with her birth mother, her little brother Juan (Quiroz) who is as clumsy as any anxious kid is and whose first instinct is to always apologize profusely whether he’s responsible or not, and finally little Lita (Gamiz) who is a bundle of need and a volcano when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Trying to guide these prospective parents through the process are agency workers Karen (Spencer) and Sharon (Notaro), as well as Ellie’s introspective mom (Hagerty) and Pete’s bulldozer of a mom (Martindale). When the birth mom of the kids, who has a history of drug addiction, decides she wants her kids back, Pete and Ellie, who have at times regretted their decision, suddenly realize that they need these kids as much or more than they need them.

It’s definitely a movie with all the feels, the kind of thing that infuriates a whole lot of movie critics who hate being emotionally manipulated, but in all honesty, I think Instant Family comes to its emotional high and lows honestly. Wahlberg is at his most charming here, and he has a solid cast to back him up including Oscar winner Spencer, Notaro (one of the finest comedians of our time) and particularly Martindale who over the past decade has become one of the most reliable and interesting character actresses in Hollywood.

It’s a shame that there’s so much here that doesn’t work, from Isabelle Moner doing her best to channel Selena Gomez, to the somewhat lame humor which never quite hits the mark, to the script that doesn’t really rise above its own limitations. I think the movie would have been better served to try less to be light comedy and harder to be a bit more realistic about the pitfalls – and joys – of being a foster parent can be. It’s not quite a Hallmark Channel movie, but it needed a little more firm direction in terms of what it wanted to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably heartwarming.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it safe by following established formulas and really doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual material, adult thematic material and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on the real-life experiences of director Sean Anders, who adopted three Hispanic kids.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blended
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Liz & Ray

BrightBurn


With eyes all aglow.

(2019) Superhero Horror (Screen Gems) Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Abraham Clinkscales, Christian Finlayson, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Terence Rosemore, Gregory Alan Williams, Elizabeth Becka, Steve Agee, Michael Rooker, Steve Blackehart, Mike Dunston, Annie Humphrey. Directed by David Yarovesky

 

Superman was very much a product of his times, an alien baby adopted by human parents when his spaceship crashed to Earth. Possessed of nearly godlike powers, he uses those powers for good and upholding truth, justice and the American way. Even in the midst of a Depression, that seemed very plausible to most Americans, particularly in the Heartland where the Superman saga was initially set.

Nowadays, we see things differently. Take the same storyline – with Elizabeth Banks and David Denman taking the roles of Ma and Pa Kent – and even essentially the same location (Kansas) and set in in 2019 and what you have is not an inspiration but sheer terror. This kid is no way going to use his powers for good but instead to tear this country into pieces – small ones.

=It’s a nifty concept although there have been other dark superhero stories before, even horror tinged ones but almost all of them have been on the printed page. There are plenty of nods to the Superman mythos, from the alliteratively named Brandon Breyer (Dunn), the superhero to the red, yellow and blue color scheme that Brandon often wears to the superpowers themselves. At times it gets heavy handed.

The movie was produced by James Gunn who has been a frequent critic of the President and the movie, written by one of his brothers and a cousin, makes some political allusions that are hard to ignore, although some are a bit more tenuous than others. Certainly, those who are sensitive to such things will notice.

Banks actually does a terrific job as a cross between the aforementioned Ma Kent and Laurie Strode. She captures a mother’s undying need to believe in the best of her child even as her husband exclaims “He’s not our child! We found him in the woods!” which is accurate enough but misses the point completely, just like a man as I can hear many women thinking. Most of the rest of the cast is solid.

The ending is anti-climactic which isn’t surprising because the writers pretty much paint themselves into a corner which leads to predictability. I had high hopes for this one because of Gunn’s involvement but this doesn’t live up to the standards of most of his other films. It isn’t a bad movie but it’s disappointing given its pedigree.

REASONS TO SEE: Dunn is sufficiently creepy in this anti-Superman story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nice concept but a bit too heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some grisly images, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school scenes were shot in the same now-closed high school in Georgia where the middle and high school scenes were shot for the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superman: The Movie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

Bennett’s Song


In a family with fourteen kids, every night is a girl’s night out!

(2018) Family Comedy (Vision) Tara Reid, Dennis Haskins, Aphrodite Nikolovsky, Calhoun Koenig, Harley Wallen, Victoria Mullen, Morgan Nimmo, Arielle Olkhovsky, Joseph Ouelette, Dennis Marin, Aleksandra Luca, Evan Keoshian, La’Kenya Howard-Luster, Da’Mya Gogoua, Rees Curran, Cayleigh Brown, Maya Patel, Janellyn Woo, Lucas Yassayan, Chevonne Wilson. Directed by Harley Wallen

 

Family is family; they come in all shapes and sizes. One person’s idea of what a family is may be completely different than what another person might think they are. No two families are ever alike; they all have their own dynamics, their own issues.

\Susan Song (Nikolovsky) is a cheerful 40-something dentist who is a divorcee left with seven adopted kids of various ethnicities. She meets ex-MMA fighter and current gym owner Cole Bennett (Wallen), the son of a Saturday morning TV show host (Haskins) who something of a touchy-feely version of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He’s a widower who, like Susan, has been left raising seven adopted kids of various ethnicities on his own.

The two hit it off and begin dating – awkwardly. It becomes clear soon enough that the two belong together but a family of fourteen kids of varying ages and ethnicities is going to be no easy task to raise. With Pearl Song (Koenig) having dreams of pop stardom, the family soon realizes they are going to have to work together to make things work for everyone. With a neighbor (Reid) who seems hell-bent on making the new blended family miserable and incidents of racism causing anguish for some of the younger kids, that’s going to be easier said than done.

This is very much a family film in the vein of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Brady Bunch. There is definitely a warmth and charm generated by the film but unfortunately it isn’t enough to overcome glaring problems. Perhaps most glaring of all is the acting; it is wooden, stiff and unnatural. The line delivery sounds more like a script reading than a finished product. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is clunky, with the jokes sitcom-stale and hoary (“Sure she’s smart and pretty and she’s standing right behind me isn’t she”) in an inoffensive way. You don’t need to be vulgar to be funny but you don’t need to be inoffensive to be family-friendly either.

When your two biggest names come from Sharknado and Saved by the Bell you have problems. There’s just nothing here that approaches even the lowest standard of acceptable filmmaking. To be fair the writers do attempt to address 21st century family issues like racism, blended families, financial issues and bullying but the problem here is that it doesn’t address them believably.

I get that indie filmmaking sometimes requires a little bit of a lower bar when considering the inexperience of a newer cast and crew but this is more like a filmed version of a community theater play and a bad one at that. In fact, saying that is an insult to community theater and I don’t mean it to be. There’s nothing about this movie that I can recommend unless you’re itching to see Tara Reid in a villainous role.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is wooden and lifeless. The dialogue is cliché. The comedy is all recycled from sitcoms.
REASONS TO STAY: Their heart is in the right place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Yours, Mine and Ours
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Juliet, Naked

Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

The Family


Introducing the children of the corn.

(2016) Documentary (Starz) Sung Yun Cho, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Bill Hamilton-Byrne, Roland Whitaker, Elizabeth Jean Whitaker, Anouree, Nick, Rebecca, Anthony John Lee, Peter Spence, Marie Mohr, Leeanne, Michael Stevenson-Helmer, Fran Parker, Barbara Kibby, Dave Whitaker, Lex de Man, Philippe de Montignie, Raynor Johnson, John MacKay, Margaret Brown. Directed by Rosie Jones

 

The rise of quasi-religious cults in the 1960s and 1970s was a worldwide phenomenon. In Australia, one of the most notorious of these was a Melbourne-based cult known as The Family. Founded by psychologist Raynor Johnson as a means to a healthier lifestyle, he soon fell under the spell of former yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful and charismatic blonde who had a way of charming everyone around her.

Her idea of family was a literal one; dozens of children were adopted through dodgy means and born to existing members. Hamilton-Byrne preached that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that there was a holocaust coming; the kids would rise as the leaders of a post-apocalyptic civilization. She was obviously a wack job but as cults go that doesn’t seem to be too terribly different.

In 1987 the cult’s Ferny Creek compound was raided and six of the children were removed and placed in protective custody and soon the horrifying truth began to emerge. The children had been physically abused, manipulated, and lived in a state of constant fear. Forced to dress alike and have their hair dyed blonde (as Hamilton-Byrne’s was) they were robbed of their individual identities. They were given LSD often without their knowledge or consent and they were often starved as a means of punishment.

One of the officers who was on the raid, Detective Sgt. Lex de Man, was clearly haunted by what he saw and observed. He acts somewhat as a narrative guide but also was a consultant on the documentary. Some of the stories told by the now-adult former cultists are heartbreaking and/or hair-raising. Many of the kids required therapy once removed from the clutches of the cult.

Jones is something of an Errol Morris disciple in terms of her style. There are plenty of interviews buttressed with home movies (which are chilling) and recreations of certain events. Rather than as a typical documentary, she gives it a kind of a 48 Hours spin, presenting the events as an unfolding mystery. For American audiences, it truly is – although the story was huge in Oz back in the late 80s and early 90s, it scarcely made a ripple on various American news sources. The film is slickly made with a brilliant atmospheric score and while the ending doesn’t have the smooth pacing of the rest of the film, there is at least a satisfactory wrapping up although to be fair the issues that the survivors have is ongoing. Believe it or not, the cult still exists today and Jones does speak with a current member for perspective.

The documentary has won awards at Australian film festivals and received a limited theatrical release there last year. Here in the States, it’s available on Starz and on their companion streaming app although for how long is anyone’s guess. It is certainly worth looking into, particularly if you’re into true crime documentaries.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling story of the horrors perpetrated on children within a notorious cult.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult content including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Amanda Brown, a former member of the wonderful Australian band The Go-Betweens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prophet’s Prey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Winchester