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LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Review: Father Knows Best

Like Father Like Son PosterReading that a film has a “switched at birth” plot usually doesn’t inspire one to clamor for the remote. That theme has been around a long time and invokes thoughts of melodramatic made-for-TV fare or silly switcheroo comedies. But when the “switched at birth” premise is coupled with “Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize Winner,” clamoring for the remote becomes a necessity. But once you start Hirokazu Koreeda‘s sublime Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru), you can put the remote down because for the next two hours, you will be mesmerized.

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a driven and successful architect working in modern-day Japan. He leads a very comfortable life with his beautiful wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and their adorable 6-year-old son Keita (Nonomiya Keita).  Their life seems to be a happy one until they learn that the child they thought was theirs is actually the child of another couple, and that that couple has the Nonomiyas’ biological child.

The hospital where both children were born, eager to clean up their mess, brokers a meeting among the two sets of parents. This is where the Nonomiyas meet father Yudai and mother Yukari Saiki (Lily Franky and Yôko Maki, respectively), blue-collar parents with two other children in addition to Ryusei (Hwang Shogen), the son that was switched.

Given that six years have passed, the parents decide to gradually integrate the children into the opposite family’s life, with the long-term goal being that the children will permanently live with their biological parents. That turns out to be a more difficult road to travel than originally thought.

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In the hypothetical situation I placed myself in (especially as a parent) while I watched Like Father, Like Son unfold, it seemed instinctive – even easy – to me that the solution to the problem was clear. The Nonomiyas created life. The Saikis created life. Each should lay claim to (a terrible phrase to apply to children, but apt given the circumstances) that which they each created.

And yet.

Through Koreeda’s perfectly paced screenplay and his patient and engaging (yet never intrusive) direction, the solution is not that easy … and really, the solution isn’t necessarily that important.  While narratively impactful, the switched-at-birth angle is mostly a plot device designed to introduce the deeper examination of Ryota’s struggle with nature-versus-nurture and his approach to parenthood and the journey it takes him on.

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Koreeda first establishes an overt dichotomy between the fathers – white collar vs. blue; meticulous vs. messy; prompt vs. tardy.  This approach not only gives the characters clear differences viewers can quickly connect with, it broadens the nature-versus-nurture debate by giving it a socioeconomic facet.  This is something that drives Ryota from the opening scene of the film, which shows the Nonomiyas being interviewed by the board of a prestigious elementary school that the parents hope will accept their son.  This is emblematic of Ryota’s approach to parenting – provide.  Provide the best schooling, provide strict rules concerning piano practice and video game time, provide, provide provide … which means, of course, that Ryota works – a lot – to provide.  But this is how he sees his role as father.

Conversely, Yudai is self-employed and what he cannot buy for his children he more than makes up for in physical presence.  His is an approach built on forging bonds during the children’s formative years, from flying kites to bathtime silliness.  Emblematic of Yudai’s approach is a terrific scene that occurs at the end of the first weekend when the boys swap homes.  Keita has a booboo on his hand, the result of a fall while playing.  The Nonomiyas are mortified (and at such a tiny thing), but Yudai simply rolls with it, brushing off the scrape as nothing more than a battle scar of a fun childhood.

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Koreeda’s shrewdest move is allowing the events to play out over the course of months.  Rather than simply swap the boys and be done with it, the families slowly break them into the notion of their “other” family.  This completely neuters any chance of overwrought, reactionary drama and gives Ryota plenty of time to struggle with the notion that how he has been as a father, while not wrong, might not have had all of the best elements a father can have.  It also allows him the opportunity to learn how to better express his feelings beyond the materialistic, too.

Through clever storytelling structuring, we learn that Ryota knows his way around nature-versus-nurture better than we think, having been raised by a father who holds sacred the notion that blood-ties trump all, yet by a stepmother who is the very antithesis of that.

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This film is so rich with little details like this.  My favorite is the difference in professions of the two fathers.  It isn’t enough that Ryota works at a large architectural and design firm and that Yudai owns his own electronics repair shop.  It’s that the former is a vocation that requires great specificity and pinpoint measurements to be successful, while the latter thrives in impromptu tinkering and finding comfort in drawers full of parts and piles of bits of things.  Their work encapsulates their unique spirits so perfectly.  Still, not one to let a chance go past, Koreeda even uses the differences in professions to create one of the more devastating moments in the film, when Keita tells Ryota that Yudai can fix his toy; Ryota is suddenly hit with the notion that providing for and doing for are two very different things.

Delivering for their director is a collection of actors who give top-notch performances all around, along with a pair of adorable child leads.  But once Koreeda quickly settles in, the show belongs to Fukuyama, who gives a command performance as a father who, through circumstances completely out of his control, finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew so well.

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It’s hard to fault any filmmakers who approach a switched-at-birth tale with melodrama or humor in mind because the situation is ripe for either.  That Koreeda deftly avoids it is a testament to his skills as both a screenwriter and a director.  That’s not to say there is no drama; there is plenty of it.  But it’s delicate and nuanced and looks deeper into parenting than the shock/reaction/aftermath approach of lesser films.  Those lesser films are meant to be simply consumed; Like Father, Like Son is meant to be savored.

4halfStar

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review: Monkey See, Monkey Do

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes PosterDawn of the Planet of the Apes, which begins ten years after the end of the action in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, finds humanity all but wiped out.  The “Simian Flu” (as the man-made virus came to be known) took a devastating toll on the world’s population, including San Francisco, which now is comprised only of the hundreds of people who have a natural immunity to the virus.  Their survival has been hard and is getting harder, as resources are dwindling.

Leaders Malcolm (Jason Clark) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) have a plan to change that by restoring a nearby power-generating dam that will supply them with electricity.  The only thing standing between them and that goal is a redwood forest full of highly evolved apes.  The apes – who aren’t even sure if humanity still exists – have established a large and peaceful community entirely cut off from the humans that helped evolve them and tried to eliminate them.  They have not only survived, but have thrived, with a new generation of apes coming into their own, a fully developed sign language, and a leadership hierarchy, atop which sits Caesar (Andy Serkis).

When Malcolm leads a small group of humans to the dam, the group finds itself in the apes’ territory.  A brief but violent confrontation occurs, which creates a divide within the simian community.  Caesar, who was raised by a human (James Franco‘s Will Rodman in the first film), wants to help; Koba (Toby Kebbell), who was viciously tortured by humans, does not.  There is also a divide in the human community.  Malcolm knows how evolved the apes are and wants to work with them, while Dreyfus believes their evolution to be overstated and sees the apes as subservient and a hinderance to restoring electricity.  A power struggle ensues that reaches a conflicted and violent climax both among and between the two groups.

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The opening set-piece in Matt Reeve‘s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is sensational.  It is an electric and fluid showcase of apes in habitat, doing everything from battling natural enemies and giving birth, to communicating via sign language and recognizing an established leadership hierarchy.  It sends a clear message: 10 years after the events of the previous film, nature has restored order.

Enter man, who tries like crazy to screw it all up.  And it’s when man enters the picture that the open’s promise of an amazing filmgoing experience turns into just another action flick, albeit one posing as a message movie, with two-dimensional characters and, you know, with apes.

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Man is represented by a small group of people who meet minimum character requirements and little else.  Malcolm is the Human Protagonist and wanter of the peace.  Dreyfus is the Human Antagonist who disagrees with Malcolm’s ape relations policy.  Ellie (Keri Russell) is the Obligatory Woman in Malcolm’s life, and Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the Future Generation (Malcolm’s son from his deceased wife).  Rounding out the ragtag core are Hothead Carver (Kirk Acevedo) and Other Guy Foster (Jon Eyez).  And there’s your humanity, save a couple hundred nameless seat-fillers.

Assigned to man (as a collective) are base societal attributes - an air of superiority, a dependence on technology, a love of guns – all of which are superficially presented and used only as an excuse to create conflict; there is no great or deep meaning to these.  Apes are the enemy the way Russians are the enemy in many 1980s action movies.  Technology is the goal because improving life is always the goal (barring the need to run a gauntlet to get from Point A to Point B).  And guns are the weapons they have always been, but their presence here is so overt as to be almost laughable.  This is a group of people who, after a decade, haven’t figured out how to make the most of their “new” lives, yet they have amassed an army’s worth of firepower – including tanks.

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The apes are deeper characters, but “deeper” is a relative term simply because it means the apes have the history of the first film behind them (there are no human character carryovers).  Without that history (read: judging this film on its own merits), Caesar is essentially Malcolm’s counterpart, Koba is Dreyfus’ counterpart, and so on, right down to love interests, children, obligatory others, and seat-fillers.  There is an added dimension of a power struggle between Caesar and Koba, plus a rift within the ape community, throwing a little Shakespearian heft their way.  The humans have nothing remotely close to this.

The apes are in defense mode – be it by peace or war – so the only issue that really flares up for them is the gun issue.  Again, overt is the keyword here; Caesar hates guns and wants them destroyed, while Koba … not so much.  It is interesting, though, how guns play into the apes’ lives as an extension of their accelerated evolution.  Man loves guns, man comes from apes, apes love guns.  I thought this was a rather clever addition to that evolution.  Their bodies are still simian, but their minds are even more human than ever.

Without intricacy of plot, complexity of character, or depth of issue, all that remains is conflict, be it us vs. us, them vs. them, and/or us vs. them.  Thematically, it’s all been done before, and better.  Visually, once you get past some legitimate WOW moments regarding how the apes look (particularly charging through fire on horseback), you realize the action has been done better, too.

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What has never been done better before is the presentation of the apes.  The looks, the sounds, and the movements are remarkably real.  This is, of course, a testament to Reeves and his creative team, but without the actors “beneath” the FX – Serkis, Kebbell, Judy Greer, and so many others – this film simply doesn’t happen.  On the human side, the only actor worthy of note is Clarke.  This is no shot at the others, who make the best with what little they are given.  Clarke, as the film’s human lead, has a little more to work with and makes the most of it.

On a technical note, I had the great privilege to screen this film in a theater equipped with a Dolby Atmos Sound System.  It was like nothing I had heard before (and I’ve heard sound on that system numerous times).  Ambient noise – apes making sounds in the distance, trees swaying, at one point in-scene music – sounded like it was actually going on the auditorium, not on the screen.  Great credit should be given to the film’s sound department for a magnificent aural presentation.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film loaded with ideas, and good ones.  It has good ideas about themes.  It has good ideas about characters.  It has good ideas about messages.  But those themes and ideas and messages have all been done before, and not only better, but fuller.  Once this film sets up its initial framework, it ignores better and fuller and instead relies on its VFX and apes the hollow action films that have come before it.

2star

STRANGER BY THE LAKE Review: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Stranger By the Lake PosterI do not shy away from depictions of sex onscreen.  Film is art and art imitates life and life includes sex, so why wouldn’t films include sex?  There are instinctive caveats, of course.  Are the sex scenes naturally integrated into a fully-developed story?  Are the sex scenes contextually important to the film?  Are the sex scenes key to character development?

In the case of last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, my pick for the best film of 2013 and a film that found itself the center of a controversy for its graphic depiction of sex, the answer is yes to those questions.  In a film like this year’s That Awkward Moment, one that languishes nearer to the bottom of my list, a sex scene between a lothario (Zac Efron) and his friend with benefits (Addison Timlin) feels like it was placed there for shock and/or titillation purposes only.  The scene wasn’t as graphic as the Blue scenes, but it didn’t need to be; it was simply unnecessary.

Now from France, the country that brought us Blue, comes writer/director Alain Guiraudie‘s thriller Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac).  The film, which takes place in an area where sex is on public display, focuses on a relationship where sex plays an integral part to character and the plot.  But even though the sex is tightly woven into the film, is it still too much?

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Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a young Frenchman who spends his summer days sunbathing nude on a rocky beach by a lake, and occasionally swimming there.  He is not alone, as other men have taken to doing the same thing.  It’s there Franck befriends Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a middle-aged heterosexual man who is going through a recent breakup, but who likes the gay beach because he can be alone and no one will question him.  Through thoughtful conversation, thee two form a strictly platonic relationship.

Not so platonic is the relationship Franck wants with Michel (Christoph Paou), a lithe, handsome man who also sunbathes nude and skinny-dips in the lake.  Franck’s initial attempts at wooing Michel are unsuccessful, especially when Michel’s current (and jealous) lover sees the two men talking on the beach.  But when Franck secretly witnesses Michel drown that lover in the lake one evening after everyone else has gone, he chooses not to report the incident to authorities but rather pursue – this time successfully – a torrid affair with Michel.

All appears to be going well until a couple of days later, when the dead lover’s body is found and Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappette) starts asking questions.

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The first half of Stranger by the Lake is superb.  Writer/director Guiraudie both lulls us and startles us with his depictions of nature.

He lulls us with the serenity of nature’s environment.  The director takes great care in offering lingering shots of the placid lake and the rocky beach in the warm sunshine, along with the shady and peaceful tall grass and woods.  There’s even something of a winding path to get to the lake from the parking area, suggesting someplace that offers the utmost privacy.

He startles us, though, with his unflinching depictions of the nude male figure and sex between men.  It’s so very important to make clear that it isn’t the nudity or sex themselves that are startling, but rather their depictions on the screen (to a society that consumes mostly American films).  And these are not fleeting shots of nude men just passing by or male couples obscured in the shadows.  These are men who lay naked in the sun and deliver lines and lines of dialogue.  And these are men who sneak off into the woods to share something that is very natural, very visceral.  And while the location is presented as a cruising spot for gay men, the beach (meet) and woods (hook up) really are no different than a bar and a motel for heterosexuals on the prowl.

What’s so amazing about the sex is how Guiraudie stages it an frames it and, despite how wanton it is as a collective, how he makes it seem so natural.  (Note: Don’t confuse the glow of nature for something PG-13.  The sex in this film is quite graphic.)

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Then Guiraudie reminds us that all of this beauty comes with a price: nature has a b-side, and the director shows us that darker side with the murder.  Shot in very low light and from a good distance, you are almost promoted from viewer to witness when the incident happens.  The moment is chilling.

This sets up a delicious conundrum.  Here is Franck, head-over-heels for the taken Michel, and the way Michel becomes available is that Michel becomes a murderer.  And as soon as that murder occurs, you cannot wait to see what happens next – what kind of internal struggle Franck will face with being hot for a killer; how Michel might learn that his new lover knows the truth, what role Henri will ultimately play, and so on.

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But come the second half of the film, that never really happens.  Yes, Franck struggles with the conflict between the joy of a budding romance vs. the potential for being a future murder victim.  But that struggle is never explored far beyond basic indecision, and Franck’s enchantment with Michel is so blind as to be reminiscent of that of a teenage girl.

And even a lot of that is lost in what becomes an endless repetition of nudity and sex.  I’m not going to go so far as to call it pornographic (with a nod to Justice Potter Stewart), but if someone else calls it that, I understand.  I reached a point where I asked, out loud and to no one because I was watching this alone, “To what end?”  Again, onscreen sex doesn’t offend me in the least, but senseless onscreen repetition of anything – sex, language (see Django Unchained), violence, whatever – grows tiresome and does so quickly.

Making the latter half even more frustrating is that for as endless as it all seems, and for as uncreative as the movie-of-the-week climax (sorry) is, the final scene is diabolically haunting.  If only the 45 minutes before it were the same.

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One person finding themselves in love with a murderer is as old as moviemaking itself, but with Stranger by the Lake, Guiraudie finds a new and captivating way to present that tale.  By the end of the first half, I found myself wanting more.  Unfortunately, the second half taught me to be careful what I wish for.

2half stars