FilmSpace: Shoplifters; Robin Hood; The Girl in the Spider's Web

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back on some of the past week’s new releases. The Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters left him dazzled, the new Robin Hood was permanently scarring, while the latest Lisbeth Salander movie proved disappointing.

Shoplifters – ★★★★☆

Shoplifters recently won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, an honour shared with films like Pulp Fiction and I, Daniel Blake. Viewing it for myself, it’s apparent how deserving that win was. Shoplifters is a beguiling piece of cinema. It’s quietly dramatic and modestly profound, painting an enthralling slice of life that feels rich with history and dripping with timely teachings.

Directed by Hirokaza Kore-eda, the film opens in a grocery store, with a father and son, Osamu (Lily Frankly) and Shota. Wandering the aisles, the two discreetly shoplift in a ritualistic manner. It’s clear that they’ve done this a hundred times.  Their family lives in poverty, with the pension of grandmother Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) acting as their main life support. This explains their calculating reliance on shoplifting.

Matters become complicated however when they discover a hungry girl named Yuri, who has been left outside by her dysfunctional parents. After taking her back to feed her, the family informally adopts Yuri. From there we witness the consequences of this decision, its effects on the family, and the peddling deceptions that come to light with stellar subtlety and captivating execution.

One can draw comparisons to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, particularly as Osamu’s coaxing nature is reminiscent of Fagin. Yet it’s the film’s core question that makes it so absorbing – what truly makes a family? Is it merely being bound by blood or does it go beyond that? It’s a question Kore-eda has been seeking the answer to throughout his career. With Shoplifters, he chooses to explore his findings through fascinating, if illusive, characters, and an engagingly meandering story that leaves you both charmed and shocked.

You feel like you’re watching the lives of real people as the story grows and sprouts. It makes the smaller moments of bonding, such as a trip to the beach, all the more charming. Yet it also makes the eventual truths all the more shocking.

It’s not just the marvellous performances and stunning cinematography that makes Shoplifters so immersive. It’s the film’s singular investment in its own world and the characters that occupy it. It’s full of grey areas that harbour difficult situations with even tougher resolutions, such as when Osamu justifies the shoplifting of specific stores over others. But there’s still room for individual character arcs and pockets of life that create further dimensions to the story, its inhabitants, and many social commentaries. It’s utterly stunning direction from Kore-eda.

You feel like you’re watching the lives of real people as the story grows and sprouts. It makes the smaller moments of bonding, such as a trip to the beach, all the more charming. Yet it also makes the eventual truths all the more shocking. The last half hour is some of the most gut-wrenching material of the year, from a narrative and acting standpoint. It makes you reconsider everything you’ve seen, forcing you to re-evaluate your answer to the core question of the film. It’s an emotional gut-punch that leaves you breathless as the credits roll. But as you think back and realise how quietly challenging it is, you cannot help but lose yourself in the world the film has created all over again.

I cannot sing enough praise for Shoplifters. I’m desperate to see it again, as I feel like it’s a film that reveals more secrets with repeated viewings. Its release is limited, but I implore you to seek it out. 2018 really has been the year for masterfully constructed visual films, from Leave No Trace to Roma to Cold War to Columbus. Shoplifters is another wonderful addition to this exquisite collection.

Robin Hood – 👎 Zero Stars 👎

What on earth happened here? How does a budget this big and a cast this talented result in something that looks and sounds so cheap? I ask because this new Robin Hood is mesmerising in its failures; a trainwreck of embarrassing proportions. How it got greenlit is mystifying, but I’m sure it’ll look nice when it’s finished.

I normally reserve 0/5 grades for films I consider morally repugnant as well as ineptly helmed (e.g. Garbage Pail Kids or I Spit on Your Grave). But looking back on this film, I’m struggling to remember a single semblance of charm; any spark of creativity. I’ve even meditated to ask the Force for guidance and still nothing. It transcends ordinary incompetence the way an Apache helicopter outclasses a Desert Eagle.

Taking unsolicited inspiration from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the film attempts to give the Robin Hood folklore a modern touch with its values and writing. But it clearly didn’t know where to draw the line. Despite taking place during the Third Crusade, Taron Egerton’s Robin Hood (or Rob as he’s painfully referred to) looks like he bought his shirts at Primark. Ben Mendelsohn’s Sheriff of Nottingham, with his silver overcoat, may as well have been reprising his role from Rogue One.

I’m struggling to remember a single semblance of charm; any spark of creativity. I’ve even meditated to ask the Force for guidance and still nothing. It transcends ordinary incompetence the way an Apache helicopter outclasses a Desert Eagle.

Maid Marian is the worst offender. She resides in medieval squalor, yet her hair and makeup remain fashion model perfect, and her colourful collection of dresses are more suited to a 90s vintage show than the century she’s supposed to be living in. Her only role is to be Robin’s prize. Her outfits reveal as much cleavage as possible, as the film seems more concerned with pleasing juveniles than telling a coherent story.

But it sucks on many levels, not just in the costume department. The acting is all over the place, and none of it on a wavelength of good. Egerton’s brutish smugness may have worked for Kingsman, but it contrasts with the character of Rob, who’s meant to be torn between himself and the needs of others for most of the film. Mendolsohn, Tim Minchin and Paul Anderson’s Gisbourne rely on unwatchable whining and screaming, while the likes of Eve Hewson and Jamie Foxx are clearly only there to pay off their mortgages.

The characters are as engaging as scrap iron, and the flimsy attempts at political overtones backfire horribly. The film seems under the impression that it’s offering challenging commentary as the Sheriff paraphrases Bush’s post 9/11 speeches. It isn’t. With its nonsensical plot points and general air of condensation, it has all the depth and integrity of a pantomime.

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The very least the film could’ve offered was decent action. Instead, it relies on 300’s choppy editing and drab cinematography to evoke sensations akin to sea sickness in the viewer. The CGI looks horrifically fake, such as a horse and cart chase that had the graphics of a video game, and the misplaced set pieces ultimately suck out any kinetic energy the action could’ve been delivering. The shaky cam and relentless use of fluctuating slow motion is insufferable, and the lazy editing extends to the conversations too. This includes a moment where Tim Minchin is seen wearing glasses in one scene, only for them to magically disappear in the very next shot.

It reeks of desperation to be relevant, despite how obviously it cuts corners with its filmmaking. This insecurity permeates the entire movie, making what should’ve been a disposable but fun two hours into a torturously slow exercise of willpower.

Robin Hood is one of the year’s worst films. It’s not exciting, action-packed, romantic, or intelligent, and it’s only ever funny accidently. The one silver lining is that the cast and crew have all done good work in the past. I have no doubt they’ll recover from such a clear lapse in judgement. My own recovery is something I have less confidence in however.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – ★★☆☆☆

I saw The Girl in the Spider’s Web immediately after Robin Hood. When compared to that travesty it’s like Citizen Kane. But when judged on its own the film is sadly only okay. This is mostly because the style it chose to adopt at the expense of its Swedish and Fincher counterparts is problematic at best.

Claire Foy assumes the role of Lisbeth Salander, one of modern literature’s most remarkable heroines.  Based on David Langercrantz’s continuation of Stieg Larsson’s original book trilogy, an NSA protocol called Firefall is created by Stephan Merchant, a program that would allow a single person to control the nuclear arsenal of the globe. Realising the severity of what he’s made, he hires Salander to hack and steal the program so that he can destroy it. However, once she has the program, a dangerous syndicate known as The Spiders come after her, led by a mysterious woman (Sylvia Hoeks) of whom Salander has a past with.

There are some notable qualities to the film, the most predominant being Claire Foy as Salander. What makes Salander so interesting is how she’s able to outsmart and best people with a way of thinking that would be twisted if it wasn’t bathed in such traumatic tragedy. Foy is able to balance the attitude and the vulnerability that makes Salander such a great character, keeping much of the film together.

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My problem is that the film’s sudden adoption of action movie tropes and styles, akin to Jason Bourne, is not what Lisbeth Salander stories were about, at least to me.  I always saw Salander’s unconventional demeanour and approach to problems as her defining traits, making her the ideal anti-heroine to Larsson’s mystery thrillers. This film has elements of the mystery thriller to it, but it plays out more like a dark Mission Impossible movie, or even a superhero film with its threats of global obliteration.

This may have been a decent formula for an older Bond film, but it simply doesn’t mesh with what Larsson, or directors Oplev and Fincher, were setting out to do with these stories. There’s some impressive cinematography or choreography here and there, as well as some moderate suspense. But it tonally feels out of place for a character as fascinating or tragic as Salander, and particularly for an environment that’s been established as this vexing and unforgiving.

If you found the original films too harrowing then this is probably better suited to your tastes. But for me, the grittiness was what set Larsson’s work apart from other stories of its kind. Seeing that angst and compelling drama traded in for rather generic thrills, and a plot too overstuffed for its own good, is deeply unfortunate. It’s a perfectly watchable film, but it’s not going to have the staying power of its predecessors.

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