Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019

👀 Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

Starring: Alicia Vikander; Riley Keough; Naoki Kobayashi; Jack Huston; Kazuhiro Muroyama; Ken Yamamura

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Moral of the Story: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.polygon.com  

30 for 30: The Day the Series Stopped

Release: Sunday, October 12, 2014 (Vol. II, Ep. 21)

👀 Netflix

Starring: the Oakland Athletics; the San Francisco Giants 

Directed by: Ryan Fleck

Distributor: ESPN Films

***/*****

October 17, 1989. Game 3 of the World Series, the Battle of the Bay. It was the Oakland Athletics squaring off against the decidedly more white collar-catering San Francisco Giants. The A’s were up 2-0 in a series they would go on to sweep. On this day in this October the scoreboard was so trivial it may as well have not even existed. Before Game 3 got underway the Bay Area was struck by a 6.9-magnitude earthquake, crippling much of the surrounding area and posing a major safety risk to everyone crammed in to Candlestick Park.

Ryan Fleck, an Oakland native and director of major Hollywood productions such as Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Mississippi Grind, jumps behind the camera to helm a 30 for 30 feature that shines a light on the aftermath of the disaster, a sobering reminder of the significance of sports drama relative to real life occurrences. Fleck’s approach manifests as a collage of footage from the chaotic moments during and after to create an atmosphere of confusion and apprehension, immersing viewers in the very turmoil in which the camera crew and its happenstance subjects found themselves.

The Day the Series Stopped, while lacking the emotional epicenter that has made other episodes in this series truly memorable, offers some unique perspectives from that day. For starters, the event stands as one of the few live broadcasts interrupted by a major natural disaster. Up in the press box we hear (and see) a young Al Michaels, who was calling the game along with former catcher-turned sportscaster Tim McCarver, react to the ‘quake while somehow managing to maintain his professionalism despite the uncertainty now introduced.

Elsewhere, stagehand Benjy Young, who was responsible for maintaining certain parts of the stadium, including the towering stadium light fixtures, happened to be caught in one of the worst places imaginable as the ground turned to mush. He was up on the towers as the ‘quake hit, holding on for dear life as, and these are his words, “the whole thing just jumps forward. I looked down the poles, massive steel columns, just like spaghetti.”

In spite of a few poor judgment calls — the use of a highly distracting, melodramatic soundtrack, and an all-too-brief runtime being the main culprits — Fleck carefully navigates his story through the chaos as he turns cameras to the surrounding Bay Area, where estimated damages were projected north of $5 billion. In total 67 lives were lost and over 3,000 were left injured as fires raged and massive chunks of concrete and rubble were upheaved and distorted. Both sides of the Bay Bridge resembled a child’s toy set mangled in the aftermath of a temper tantrum. Much of the footage, including the havoc that was wreaked upon the Bay Bridge itself, is surreal.

This documentary supports the theory that even the most intense rivalries are trivial when it comes to life or death situations. Both communities came together in this difficult time as they helped one another search for missing family, friends and relatives and lent a hand to rescue efforts. Much of this information is disseminated through interviews with former players from both teams, some of whom are visibly uncomfortable talking about this particular game.

When it was time to play ball ten days later, the atmosphere had changed dramatically. It was less about statistics and records as it was about the simple pleasures of being able to resume play. Life would never be the same again, of course, but it was starting to resemble something close to normal. Even if this Series marked the first sweep of any team in the World Series in more than a decade, the biggest victory was witnessing the two communities overcoming their differences under these remarkable circumstances.

The Day the Series Stopped is a great example of 30 for 30‘s appeal to general interest audiences. Some familiarity with baseball couldn’t hurt, though intimate knowledge of the sport isn’t a requisite for appreciating the magnitude (sorry) of these events. Coming from someone who doesn’t watch baseball, I wish this one could have been given a lengthier run time. I can only imagine what kind of things Fleck couldn’t or didn’t even know to include here.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Moral of the Story: Offers some interesting perspectives on this chaotic day but unfortunately not enough to make it a truly compelling documentary. Good enough to satiate general fans of sports, and anyone with a knowledge of this rivalry are sure to find this slightly more captivating. Worth a look if you can spare 51 minutes out of your day.

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.awfulannouncing.com 

San Andreas

Release: Friday, May 29, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Carlton Cuse

Directed by: Brad Peyton

San Andreas turns a massive crack in the earth into the Ultron of natural disaster villains, and Dwayne Johnson seems to be the only man fit to star opposite in this chunk of supposed summer entertainment.

The former wrestler fits in well with his surroundings as rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines, although it’s anyone’s guess as to how the guy actually fits inside a chopper. In a tense opening sequence involving a girl and her car stuck between a couple of rocks and a hard place, we are privy to Ray’s death-defying abilities. (Those will come in handy later.) A respected member of the L.A. Fire Department, Ray is of course no model human. An impending divorce from wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is putting pressure on him as he wants his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to remain in his life as much as possible. Both relationships remain fraught with tension since the loss of a fourth family member in a drowning incident some years ago.

While the strategy is far from original, getting us to invest in this particular family’s affairs works because Johnson and Gugino exude charisma as a couple on the brink of divorce. Strange as that sounds, the pair are suitably cast and make ridiculously cheesy character development somehow watchable. Or at least tolerable. For the world — make that the western American seaboard . . . er, no, strike that: the California coastline as far as Ray and his family are concerned — is about to fall apart in more ways than one.

Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a scientist (you know this because of his permanent frown and a hairline that suggests his scalp and Rogaine have never met) at Caltech who is on the brink of discovering more accurate ways of predicting seismic activity. Unfortunately he isn’t too good at predicting that which strikes the Hoover Dam and claims the life of a long-time colleague. “Uhh, yeah — that fault line wasn’t supposed to be there. That was . . . my bad.” Or so says his furrowed brow in the ensuing scene, a retreat back to the university, when a local news crew inundate him with questions about any progress he might be making. Oh, such poor timing.

The incident at the dam is merely a precursor to a series of escalating, catastrophic earthquakes that come to define the plot, the characters, essentially the film’s score, ultimately any lasting memories of what you’ve just seen upon leaving the theater. However long those memories last may well depend on the magnitude of the ‘quake. The best way I know how to criticize San Andreas while sounding like I had a good time is that it is far too eager to get to these big CGI set pieces.

Everything is rushed, the biggest victim being the characters. For an action/disaster flick in 2015 there need not be a poetic fascination with them but there should be more discovery than what we get. Peyton clearly favors pushing past all that icky stuff to the visual goodies. A tidal wave engulfs many a Californian landmark; buildings collapse as though they are built from Jenga pieces; fires scorch the afternoon sky at the tops of those remaining upright. We certainly get the sense that not even Giamatti’s math could save millions from the carnage.

But the concluding sequence all but confirms the only interest Peyton and his writers have in showcasing the power of Mother Nature — the raging, pissed off one living beneath our feet apparently — is parading this year’s minuscule improvement in special effects technology. This is a visual feast and nearly two hours’ worth of society falling apart implies that, while the world may collapse, CGI will be here to stay. Like cockroaches living long after nuclear fallout. CGI is rapidly becoming the main vein feeding the industry, the lifeblood of many a filmmaker with eyes larger than their intellect.

Even by disaster movie standards, the chaotic (but beautiful) computer graphics dominate, rendering any human-related drama as deep as a paper cut. While science can at least somewhat support Peyton’s vision of a California torn asunder by massively destructive earthquakes — it has been three centuries since the southern portion of the fault line has made its presence known, and seismologists do in fact predict it is overdue for some kind of rupture — what begins as hypothetical quickly devolves into laughable.

Recommendation: Yes, San Andreas is harmless and mindless summer escapism but this is a film that had greater potential. I could smell The Rock cooking up a more memorable performance than this as well, but he and his co-star Carla Gugino pull off a marriage in trouble convincingly enough. But given the rest of the cast, they are outliers. There’s not enough in this action spectacular to recommend to the casual viewer of these sorts of things; diehards, on the other hand. . . .

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “The earth will literally crack and you will feel it on the East Coast.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Pompeii

Pompeii-2014-Movie-Poster1

Release: Friday, February 21, 2014

[Theater]

No warning. No escape. No plot. No problem. . .

. . .at least, to an extent. The thing about disaster films is that not a great deal is expected out of them, so it’s a little difficult to believe anyone who says they left the theater having seen one and felt nothing but disappointment. Were these people expecting some profound statement on the human condition whilst entire populations descended into chaos, or that certain and total annihilation metaphorically signaled “the beginning of something new” for all those involved?

Expectation levels for the genre are (or should be) uniformly pretty low: as long as big shit explodes in spectacular fashion, and a cute guy has a chance to meet (and maybe even finally kiss) a cute gal, everyone should go home happy. The forced romance that appears in virtually every story involving a natural catastrophe proves these sorts of things aren’t the entertainment one seeks out for a cerebral exercise. By that token its also proof that disaster films are orgies in which the eyeball gets to participate.

But for Pompeii, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and risk undermining everything I just have argued for above. This film had real potential to rise above the smoldering ashes of typical special effects-laden action films. Is this the one that can buck the trend?

Given that this one is based on real events and that its first half concerns itself with the lives of slaves who are converted into bloodthirsty gladiators, there was hope. However, a certain level of dissatisfaction comes from the fact that the solitary goal of the film then becomes showing how destructive Mother Nature can be by building up a romance and destroying it just as quickly. If we can’t appreciate that an entire city is about to be scorched into the ground (literally) perhaps there’s a chance we feel empathy towards a young love about to go down in flames. . . . (Sorry for the pun. I was actually really hoping to keep this one free of those, but. . . guess not.)

Milo (Kit Harington) bore witness to his entire family and townspeople’s butchering as a wee lad, at the hands of the terrible Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) and Proculus (Sasha Roiz). Subsequently sold into slavery as an orphan, Milo would know no other life than misery. That’s until a horse changes everything. That’s right, a horse. No, not the Trojan thing that tricked a bunch of stupid people into lowering their guard, but the kind that falls over when the carriage it’s pulling hits a convenient pothole in the dirt road. Milo requests that he be let off the chain to help the horse and get the high-ranking officials, including the token girl Cassia (Emily Browning), on their way to the festival that’s ongoing in the beautiful bay area of Pompeii, a town tucked into the foothills of an ominous-looking volcano — Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo’s single act of kindness scores him some brownie points with the beautiful daughter of Pompeii’s ruler Severus (Jared Harris) and wife, Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss), a development intended to create the romantic heartbeat of this ill-fated story. However, this is a woefully underdeveloped relationship that distracts from an otherwise action-packed affair. It’s so poorly realized in fact, that in one fell swoop my theory is confirmed that the only two things needed in the disaster film are dramatic explosions that cause bystanders to go flying into things that you really don’t want to go flying into, and the compulsory romance element. But this is a romance without romance at all. It doesn’t help that neither the acting nor the script are very sturdy.

What’s more to the point here, though, is that director Paul W.S. Anderson chooses to introduce historical weight to the proceedings and then bails on the idea at the last second. Gladiator battles may extend into the ending moments, but they exist at this point just as an excuse to show the badassery set against an even more badass backdrop. Watching Milo (a.k.a. ‘The Celt’) duke it out with his sworn enemies in Corvus and Proculus while fireballs are falling like bombs around them is entertaining to a certain degree. But the fighting is academic knowing that this mountain has just blown its top.

Other options Anderson might have explored include the politics of Roman Emperor Titus (who never makes an appearance in the film) and how the town of Pompeii is directly impacted by them; or how about the devastation and its impact on the Roman empire? Even the nature of Milo and Cassie’s so-called love affair and how it goes against the grain of relationships in this hostile society could have been intriguing if we were shown specifically why it was a forbidden love and not just told that it was so. For all of the attention the director gives Harrington and Browning, he doesn’t know how to make them matter in the slightest. Hence the disappointingly quiet conclusion.

With that said, it’s a simple-minded outing and because it is, there shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Pompeii is nothing more than middling. The marketing for the film blasted any hopes of this being an accurate rendering of a terrifying time in Italy’s colorful history. When the promotional poster features a couple kissing before an erupting giant like Mt. Vesuvius, we knew we were being duped before the duping officially began. All the same, the film upholds at least part of the bargain: the action sequences are intense. When the volcano decides to rain all over everyone’s parade (or Senator Corvus’ rigged gladiator battle, if you rather) the action is relentless until the end.  As well, the sparring and fighting earns its keep, even despite the glaring lack of blood and gore that should accompany any gladiator fight.

So the disaster film that is Pompeii is ultimately predictable and frustratingly lackluster in equal doses but it finds a way to maintain interest in the action/adrenaline department. As well, the eruption effects are impressive. This is no Dante’s Peak, Volcano or other volcanic activity-related films whose CGI now look embarrassing by comparison.

stupid-as-fuck

2-5Recommendation: Genre fans will find the last half of the film quite entertaining, but even these folks are sure to find the many cracks in the story disappointing, maybe even irritating. Given the set-up in the first hour, the climax is less than it should be, considering we know what exactly awaits this town when the mountain/gods eventually lose its/their temper. This is a pretty easy one to avoid, at least until it becomes available for streaming.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “The slave that lives earns their freedom.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com