Sunday, January 19, 2014

If there is any filmmaker who can be said to be the heir apparent of the great Yasujiro Ozu, Kore-eda Hirokazu would be at the front of the line.

Ozu was the master of Japanese family dramas, giving us masterpieces like Tokyo Story and Late Spring that demonstrated universally profound insight into the family dynamic. Through films like Still Walking (which examined adult children and their elderly parents) and I Wish (which explored the essence of childhood), Hirokazu has likewise proven himself extraordinarily adept at exploring what it means to be a family with tremendous grace and dignity.

In his latest work Like Father, Like Son, Hirokazu examines not only the meaning of family, but the meaning of fatherhood, going even beyond the boundaries of familial ties.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION. All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.

The film centers around a seemingly implausible situation; two babies switched at birth in a mistake that isn't discovered until six years later. In the middle of everything is the Nonomiya family, whose father, Ryota, is a stern businessman driven by success and money. He pushes his son, Keita, to excel at the piano, practicing every day despite the child's disinterest and lack of aptitude. To Ryota, image is everything, and his son is a reflection of his own success.

But when he discovers that Keita is actually the child of a lower middle class shopkeeper named Yukari  Saiki, with a large family and much more lax standards of child rearing, his feelings toward Keita begin to change. Yukari's son, Ryusei, is undisciplined and active, whereas Keita is calm and reserved, each a reflection of the man who raised them. But now both families are faced with an impossible choice; do they exchange children to raise their own flesh and blood, or do they keep the children they have raised as their own for six years?

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION.
All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.
It may seem like an impossible scenario, but it's also an ultimate "what would you do" question. The answer may seem simple to some, insanely difficult for others. And Hirokazu treats it with the intricacy and thoughtfulness it deserves. Family is about more than just blood ties, and in that regard Like Father, Like Son isn't just an ode to fatherhood, it's a loving tribute to adoptive families everywhere. Coming out of a society where so much importance is placed on blood lineage, this is a special film indeed.

Like the very best of Ozu, Hirokazu never goes for obvious sentiment or sugary manipulation. Every note of Like Father, Like Son rings true. It's not a situation that demands an easy answer, and neither does the film. It builds to a quietly powerful climax, shattering in its simplicity and beautiful in its wisdom. This is a film that deftly explores that complexity and importance of fatherhood and family, and what that means in a world where families are frequently more than just the traditional two parent, mother/father model. In Hirokazu's world, there is room for all sorts, and it is a lesson that isn't without its price. It is, however, an essential one, and no one is better suited to tell this tale than Hirokazu, who directs with such delicacy that the result is something extraordinarily moving. No one can rend hearts quite as deftly as he can, and Like Father, Like Son is a keenly observed portrait of steadfast fatherhood and masculinity in a rapidly evolving world.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON | Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu | Stars Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Riri Furanki, Keita Ninomiya, Shogen Hwang | Not rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in NYC.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Director Bill Morrison, whose previous works include Decasia and The Miners' Hymns, has proven himself exceedingly adept at assembling pieces of found footage into new and compelling works of art.

You'll find no talking heads here, no dialogue or narration, just a series of haunting, grainy images culled from actual footage of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, which covered 27,000 square miles, displacing thousands of citizens from up and down the United States. This displacement led to a mass exodus of rural sharecroppers into cities like Chicago, many of them African American, leading to the eventual creation of jazz, forever altering the American cultural landscape.

Bill Frisell's jazz-infused score pays tribute to the musical idiom that was borne out of this immense disaster, but it often feels anachronistic to the images onscreen, even if it is thematically appropriate. It doesn't quite have the same emotional power as Johann Johannson's magnificent work for The Miners' Hymns.

However, Morrison makes great use of the marriage of silent images and music, creating a kind of mesmerizing tapestry of striking moments and unforgettable imagery. The damage to the original film prints lends a kind of avant-garde visual poetry to the film, not unlike Morrison's own Decasia, which showcased the strange beauty of film decay. Morrison weaves a distinctly American narrative, creating a clear timeline from the beginning of the flood, to the visits by politicians, to the eventual migration away from the deltas. People are swept away on top of motorcars by raging waters, people and dogs are stranded on roofs, and Herbert Hoover himself, not yet president, comes to survey the damage. But from all this destruction comes something distinctly beautiful, the birth of one of the most truly American forms of music.

The Great Flood has a remarkably keen sense of time and place, and Morrison immerses us in a world that feels remarkably similar to our own, even through 87 years of film dirt and grain. It's an evocative and beautiful work made with Morrison's distinct and unique voice. It is both an elegy for a forgotten time and a celebration of the life that sprang from the darkness. It is an event few are familiar with, and while Morrison's aims are more sensory than educational, the end result is something singularly enthralling.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

THE GREAT FLOOD | Directed by Bill Morrison | Opens today, 1/8, at the IFC Center in NYC.

From The Dispatch:
"Lone Survivor" is bookended with actual footage of real servicemen set to Peter Gabriel singing a forlorn cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," setting the tone for the strenuously earnest film to come. It's one of those war movies that tries so hard to honor the troops that its self seriousness is almost goofy. Its heart is in the right place, but it has all the nuance and depth of one of those Nickelback National Guard commercials.
Click here to read my full review.