Marchant at TIFF, Day Two

September 8, 2018

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Films: 4
Best Film of the Day: Shoplifters (pictured)

Shoplifters: Japanese director par excellence Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, works in quiet subtle ways, that affect you without you quite knowing why, like watching a strewn pile of dead leaves skitter across an otherwise empty field. It opens with what appears to be a father, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), and his adolescent son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), as they smoothly stake out and steal from a large grocery in Hokkaido. They work in such harmonic tandem, he blocking the clerk from view at key moments, his son slipping items into his backpack without hesitation, it’s almost like a military exercise. Bringing the booty home to the rest of their family, Shota’s mother, young aunt, and grandmother, Hatsue spies a forlorn young girl (Miyu Sasaki) stuck alone, cold and hungry while her parents are MIA. As if snatching a package of noodles off the shelf, he picks her up and takes her into their ramshackle but loving crew. In Koreeda’s world though, very little is directly as it seems at first. As we get to know these characters in more depth over time, their apparent relationships turn out to be something considerably different, and they become less easy to understand if no less endearing. The film works in small, carefully arranged scenes, which are artfully staged, fitting together like bits of an interlocking puzzle. Every member of this oddly concocted family are one kind of con person or another, whether they utilize hoary magic tricks, shoplifting strategies, or burying bodies under their small apartment.

Kursk: Submarine movies generally have only one direction to go, and that is straight down to the bottom. If the sub isn’t outright sinking, it’s threatening to, which, like your standard romcoms or slasher flick, puts into motion a whole bunch of predictable outcomes, depending on whether the director’s vision calls for dramatic pathos (the crew drowns) or joyful deus ex machina (the crew miraculously escapes). But here, director Thomas Vinterberg is working from a notorious chapter in Soviet naval history: During the latter years of the Cold War, one of their most sophisticated nuclear subs had an accident en route to a training exercise, leaving the majority of souls on board blown apart or drowned, and the survivors in a tight race for survival, only to have the military decide the crew’s fate based on international appearances. Given the nature of the form and the reputation of the incident, Vinterberg had no choice but to dig deeply into the crew members lives in order to connect the audience with these poor, doomed seamen. He gives us enough snippets of the homelife of the men — using the tried and true start-with-a-wedding maneuver — and one in particular, Mikhail (Matthias Schoenaerts), with his pregnant wife (Léa Seydoux), and young son, to invest us. He also utilizes other devices: In a moment of supreme irony, many of the ranking crew were forced to hock their naval watches in order to properly fund the wedding of their good comrade the night before their ill-fated launch, a deal that comes back to haunt them fiercely when things go to hell. The Soviets are shown to be blitheringly incompetent, with a much weakened and neglected military (early in the film, the sailors are denied their monthly wage again, hence the need to hock their timepieces), and the kind of insufferable pride that would allow such a thing to happen, bitterly resentful of any offerings of international aid, but in truth, they react no differently from any other would-be superpower. As much as we may want to be able to dump down on Soviet buffoonery, we have to accept we’d likely meet equal fate under similar circumstances. We’ll have to take cold comfort that the Russians, in drowning far below the surface, make for remarkably similar corpses to our own.

What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? The way Italian director Roberto Minervini works is mysterious unto itself. Deeply embedding into a community – and he’s latched onto the deep rural south in recent films – he creates sort of docu-narratives, setting up scenes with real participants, and to some degree choreographing the action. The effect is like watching a drama of almost pure verité, with just enough elements of staging to meld the two forms together. This film, shot in southern Mississippi and Louisiana loosely connects several different character threads and situations: In one pairing, a couple of brothers, the youngest one healthily scared of a lot of things, try to steer clear of the trouble and violence that plague their streets; in another a regrouped “New Black Panther Party” takes to the streets and tries to effect radical change one protest at a time; a middle-aged woman loses her bar, and tries to go out on a high note; and a Big Chief goes through the laborious effort to put his elegant costume together in time for Mardi Gras. The connection is tenuous – beyond its attention to race and class, and the struggle it is for people to just get by under these murderous conditions – but Minervini’s cinematography (by Diego Romero) is so gorgeous, with its black and white compositions, that it hangs together stylistically in a way that makes the whole thing work. It’s hardly coherent, but as a sizable slice of life document, he captures something of notable significance.

Beautiful Boy: Timothée Chalamet, the young actor who was so beguiling in Call Me By Your Name, seems to have it all: Staggeringly good looks, fantastic acting chops, and a genial likability that translates perfectly to the big screen. In Felix Van Groeningen’s adaptation of the twin memoirs by Dave and Nic Sheff concerning Nic’s struggle with addiction, those qualities are perfectly turned on their head. Nic, too, seems to have everything going for him – loving, though divorced, parents (Steve Carell and Amy Ryan), a beautiful house up in the mountains above San Francisco, and a bevy of talent as both a writer and an artist. But the draw of “chaos” is too strong with him, and he turns to drugs to prop up his sagging self-worth nonetheless. Van Groeningen is hardly a moralist, nor is he any kind of romantic (as those who have watched the powerful but difficult The Broken Circle Breakdown can attest), so the film, which could easily have played like a standard redemption arc, becomes something a good deal more harsh and unfulfilling. If we cling to those narratives for fear of our own children plunging over those particular waterfalls, it’s just as important to understand the true extent of horror such a situation can produce. By the time Dave turns away his son, and gives up any sense of control of being able to keep him alive, we’ve come pretty much to the opposite pole from where he started. The most shocking element of the film isn’t any of the deprivation Nic forces upon himself, it’s the numbing effect he eventually has over his father. The performances are strong across the board, but Chalamet again proves up to the task of taking on remarkably nuanced and difficult characters and bringing them to full life. Because of Van Groeningen’s inherent coolness – the soundtrack, featuring everything from vintage Nirvana, to Sigur Ros, to acid jazz – and emotional distance, it’s nothing cathartic, just realistic – if highly privileged – people suffering continuous trauma.

Tomorrow: After an early interview, I plan to rush over in time to see the Welsh mystery movie Gwen; pop by Donnybrookto see my man Jamie Bell get his head dented in; go to a public screening of David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun in what may be Robert Redford’s last role before retirement; and close out the day by (shhhh!) watching a midnight screening of David Gordon Green’s updated Halloween re-conception.


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