Back in the Day
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
James (Spencer Lofranco), a juvenile delinquent living with his mother (Mary-Louise Parker), works for a drug dealer, Roc (Michael Trotter). He already has a criminal record for vandalism, robbery and assault, so any further brushes with the law will give him serious prison time. Sarah (Taissa Farmiga), a beautiful young girl who works at her father's convenience store, becomes his girlfriend before he gets into even more trouble with the law and gets thrown into a maximum-security prison. There, he meets the prison's tough-as-nails warden (James Woods), an inmate (Ben Rosenfield) who becomes his friend, a dangerous inmate (Taboo) who becomes his rival, and Conrad (Ving Rhames), a tough criminal who serves as his mentor by offering him advice to make him a better person.
Writer/director Trevor White and co-writer Lane Shadgett tell the story in a non-linear structure, jumping back and forth between what lead lead to James' stint in prison and his experiences at the prison. That structure comes across as gimmicky, distracting, unnecessary, and neither adds much in terms of complexity nor style for that matter. Jamesy Boy's systemic issue, though, is that James' character arc doesn't feel believable. He only has a few interactions with the wise inmate, Conrad, so any changes that he goes through afterward seem like they're only there to move to plot forward without being truly earned. Much of the film oversimplifies situations that could have easily had more substance, i.e. James' relationship with his mother or with his girlfriend. A more intelligent and sensitive screenplay would have blended those elements seamlessly and organically; here they don't generate much in terms of pathos or even authenticity.
To be fair, Jamesy Boy does have a few strengths, especially when it comes to good casting choices and a decent performance by up-and-coming actor Spencer Lofranco who shows promise here--he resembles a cross between a young Leonardo DiCaprio and James Dean (Ó la Rebel Without a Cause). Perhaps he needs a better screenplay to fully display his acting abilities---like a plant that could only grow in nutrient-rich soil. The supporting actors add a modicum of gravitas, although James Woods, Ving Rames and Mary-Louise Parker are all underused. The film has most of the ingredients that make for a great prison drama, but sans nuance and much-needed depth, the end result feels underwhelming, bland and undercooked.
Mark (Robert Olsen) lives in a small rural town that appears to be isolated from the rest of civilization. Train tracks can be found running through the town. One summer, he encounters a mysterious teenager, Christina (Isabelle McNally), who's new to town and claims to be an indigo child, someone with special powers and heightened sensitivity. Gradually, Mark and Christina fall in love and discover that they have some things in common, namely, the fact that they're both grieving over death in their family. Suzanne Lynch plays Mark's widowed mother who deals with grief in an interesting way that won't be spoiled here.
Elliptical, lyrical, unconventional and provocative are among the words that best describe the experience of watching Indigo Children. Sure, you can call the film a love story, but there's a lot going on beneath its surface that turns it into something indescribable. Writer/director Eric Chaney includes many symbolisms, such as the train tracks, moss, a caterpillar and more, that enrich the film with visual poetry. Many scenes look breathtaking. Chaney seems to have a European sensibility because much of what he communicates to the audience is unspoken, and he trusts your intelligence as an audience member. That sensibility is quite subversive given that most American films nowadays spoon-feed its audience information and its endings can be easily predicted; Indigo Children remains unpredictable throughout.
Admittedly, though, some details and transition between scenes feel confusing, but what's wrong with being a little confused sometimes? The filmmaker has the right to leave certain elements up to interpretation, i.e. the concept of indigo children itself. It also helps that both Robert Olsen and Isabelle McNally give very organic, believable performances and show that they can effectively carry the film in leading roles. Their chemistry onscreen feels palpable and real in a non-Hollywood way. That quality alone makes Indigo Children all the more refreshing and rare.
Life of a King
Like Father, Like Son
Ryota (Masaharu Fukushim) lives with his wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), and their 6-year-old son, Keita (Keita Yukari). He works as an architect and has gained enough wealth to be part of the upper class. Yudai (Franky Lily), his wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki), and three young children, on the other hand, live in an impoverished part of town and belong to the lower class. What do both families have in common? Their sons were switched at birth with each other. Keita is Yudai and Yukari's real son while Ryusei (Sh˘gen Hwang) is Ryota's real son, but neither son grew up with their real family. The plot gets more complex when Ryota doesn't just want his real son: he also wants to keep his custody of Keita, but in order to do so he has to prove that Keita's real parents aren't fit to be his parents.
Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda, known for I Wish, Still Walking, Nobody Knows and After Life, has a knack for creating character driven stories about families and for making each of those characters, young and old, deeply human. He knows how to cast the right actors who capture the depth of their roles and make it even more genuine. It should come as no surprise, then, that the child actors in Like Father, Like Son are all superb, especially Keita Yukari. No one hams their performance in and, fortunately, Koreeda avoids veering into the realm of melodrama or schmaltz. In other words, every emotion feels genuine and well-earned so that you don't feel manipulated----every movie is manipulative at its core, but a great director/screenwriter masks that manipulation with a sensitive screenplay such as the one found here. You may find yourself liking Ryota at first and then disliking him for the way that he treats Yudai and Yukari, but then you might finding redeeming qualities about him: it's hard to put him into a box. That complexity makes the film all the more interesting and true-to-life.
Although Like Father, Like Son does have a tender, understated and sensitive screenplay, it does slightly drag toward the end of its roughly 2-hour running time. Tighter editing and a little bit of trimming during the final 30 minutes or so would have helped make the film consistently entertaining. That issue, though, is systematic rather than systemic, so it's forgivable and doesn't caused the film to come crashing down like what happens during many Hollywood movies. This isn't the first foreign film to tackle the storyline of children from different families swapped at birth, and it probably won't be the last either: The Other Son also treaded that ground recently, although the comparisons end there because it was a dramatic thriller, and one family was Palestinian while other other was Israeli. Like Father, Like Son ultimately manages to be a genuinely poignant, compelling and well-acted family drama.
The Nut Job
Summer in February
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?