Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

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.”

Recommendation: 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?”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

Isle of Dogs

Release: Friday, April 13, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

When it comes to Wes Anderson, ‘more of the same’ is absolutely a compliment. I don’t find myself saying that about many other filmmakers. Now nine films deep into a career that has netted him an ever-growing, passionate and devoted fanbase it is clear he isn’t changing tacks. On evidence of his latest effort, a visually dense yet lucidly told saga about a young Japanese boy in search of his lost pup, it is clear he doesn’t need to.

With Isle of Dogs, it is more than just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (It has been four years, apparently, since The Grand Budapest Hotel.) Isle of Dogs has the distinction of being only the second animated feature film on Anderson’s résumé. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is rendered in stop-motion animation, an aesthetic choice that on its own attests to a profound commitment and love for the craft of telling stories in moving pictures. His live action films feel restrictive by comparison in terms of the number of aspects he can control and customize to his completely obsessive liking. This new offering is so meticulously crafted you can easily take its beauty for granted.

Set in the fictitious metropolis of Megasaki City in a near-future Japan, trouble begins when the new, authoritarian, cat-loving mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the exile of all dogs from the city to an off-shore wasteland called Trash Island following an outbreak of “snout fever.” A brief timeline of events is immediately established, tracing the downward trend in the public repute of our canine companions. The relationship has deteriorated from dogs being subjected to harsh verbal treatment from their owners to being flat-out persecuted. So when I say this film is beautiful, I suppose I’m being shallow because if you do a little thematic digging you are sure to find some things that are actually quite ugly. Elements of immigration, of second-class citizenship and racial prejudice, even slavery are touched upon.

In the present/future/future-present/whatever, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who happens to be the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, flees the city in an attempt to reunite with his best buddy. His dog Spots was the very first to get booted to Trash Island. Upon his crash-landing there several months later Atari meets a group of abandoned mutts — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — who prove surprisingly willing to aid in his quest. After mistakenly identifying the remains of another dog as Spots, they seek the advice of wizened old fools Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who point them to the remote reaches of the island where they might have luck finding him amidst the cannibalistic tribes rumored to be living there.

Luckily, a post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston isn’t in his first Wes Anderson movie just to give a whimper of a performance. He has real bite here, playing a tough pooch who must break free from his habit of distrusting others, especially he who walks upright. This is his movie more than anyone else’s, and that of course means sacrifices on the part of Anderson regulars in order to elevate his status. Good for fans of Cranston, but perhaps a disappointing revelation for those wanting more Bill Furr-ay.

Isle of Dogs is a very busy place, a fully realized environment bustling with activity and overloaded with imagery that pays tribute to Japanese culture and iconography. To this viewer, that effort comes across as sincere and respectful but that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your experience was anything like mine you may have spent more time and a frustrating number of scenes trying to figure out which famous actor was voicing which animal rather than all the ways in which this movie appears to reinforce negative stereotypes. My head hurts already from overthinking things.

And then there are those obligatory subplots to contend with as well, which are considerably less interesting this time around. More often than not these asides tend to chop the central conceit up into annoying bits and pieces of doggie chow. One involves the predictable repercussions of Atari’s disappearance as his uncle vows to bring him and his newfound friends to justice. The other, also an attempt to balance perspectives, finds an outspoken animal rights activist (Greta Gerwig with HUGE hair) stumbling upon a potential conspiracy involving the corrupt mayor and a group of scientists featuring Yoko Ono. (Like I said, there’s just a lot going on.)

Much of the ambition pays off. How can it not when you have a filmmaker as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson, and especially here, when he is in complete control? Unfortunately not all of it succeeds and a few bells and whistles feel unnecessarily tacked on. Frances McDormand’s inclusion is a shining example of Anderson trying to do too much. The talented actress fulfills this really weird-bordering-on-condescending role as an English translator in select scenes where Japanese is spoken. She more often than not just gets in the way, neither becoming an interesting character nor a necessary plot device. In fact her function is borderline insulting, not simply to the few Japanese characters who actually do get speaking roles, but to those of us who are even decent at reading body language and facial expressions. Never mind the fact that the movie stops dead in its tracks just to explain such superfluity.

Ultimately though, Isle of Dogs does a lot of good. It is as uplifting in its action sequences as it is saddening in its darkest trials, of which there are quite a few. The whimsical spirit of the adventure and the often comical physical renderings — the scrappy dog fights are true highlights — go a long way in making a somber reality more palatable. The film is perhaps the darkest one yet in his filmography, yet it is perpetually buoyed by its fascination with the simple but unconditional love a dog has for his owner. Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson at his narrative best, but its flaws are not enough to stop me from asking for more of the same. Please, just. More.

Dog day afternoon

Recommendation: Isle of Dogs represents only the second time Wes Anderson has gone the way of stop-motion, but it is a welcome return to a form that I find he actually excels even more in. Barring a few niggling detours here and there, Isle of Dogs is consistently entertaining, surprisingly dramatic and a visually enthralling experience. Four barks out of five.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You’ll meet a bitch named Nutmeg. Tell her Chief says, ‘I’ll see you in Megasaki.'”

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

Decades Blogathon — Empire of the Sun (1987)

Welcome back around to another week in ‘Decades.’ Lucky Number Seven may be entering into its final stretch these next few days, but it bears worth mentioning again — it’s been another really fun event for me and my wonderful co-host Mark of Three Rows Back. There were so many things to choose from — evidenced by the fact that no one claimed perhaps the most obvious choice, a certain Star Wars episode. Yet we do have another ‘Empire’ title in the mix though, and it is brought to you by Rob of MovieRob, who is returning for his third straight blogathon. His contributions have been greatly appreciated, and please do check out his site after you’ve read his piece! 

“Learned a new word today. Atom bomb. It was like the God taking a photograph. ” – Jim

Number of Times Seen – Between 5-10 times (Theater in ’87, video, cable, 24 Aug 2008 and 17 May 2017)

Brief Synopsis – A young British boy living in pre-War Shanghai must learn to fend for himself when the Japanese occupy the city.

My Take on it – I’m sure that most people will be shocked to learn that this film was the debut of Christian Bale who played the small role of Batman in a little known trilogy by Christopher Nolan.

This film has always been a favorite of mine ever since I saw it in the theater in 1987 when I was 13.

Bale is actually three weeks younger than I am, so I always find it interesting to watch him on film because I can always imagine that the character he is portraying is my age too.

This is one of Steven Spielberg’s least appreciated film despite the fact that he did an amazing job filming this movie.

The way that the film is shot gives it such an epic feel and I loved the fact that there is actually one scene which depicts the main character wearing a red blazer walking through a crowd hundreds of people all dressed in white or gray is quite reminiscent of one of his best scenes from Schindler’s List (1993) which he would make 6 years later.

The idea to keep this film’s narrative wholly from the perspective of a child is a great one because it gives us a viewpoint not usually seen in films.

I really loved the way that the story unfolds around the main character and we get to see how the war affects him and how he changes over the course of the experiences depicted here during this very turbulent time in his life.

Besides Bale, the cast is pretty good and I liked seeing John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and even spotting a young Ben Stiller as a prisoner in the POW Camp, but Bale is able to carry this whole film all by himself which shows us that even at such an early stage that big things were in store for this young actor.

My favorite part of this film tho is the music which was composed by John Williams which also helps give this film an epic feel.  In addition the song ‘Suo Gan’ is among my all time favorite musical pieces in a film.

Check them both out here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NY_v93S_Xfg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU0yI2ugvgA

Bottom Line  Excellent portrayal of the depiction of war from the perspective of a young child.  Loved the way that the story unfolds around the main character and how we get to see how he changes based on his experiences during this turbulent time of his life.  The cast is pretty good, but the fact that Christian Bale carries this film all by himself shows how much of a future he would have in the industry.  My favorite part of this film tho is the music which is spectacularly done by John Williams.  Spielberg does a great job giving this film the epic feel that it deserves.  Highly Recommended!

MovieRob’s Favorite Trivia – About almost halfway through the film, Jim is taken to Basie’s den in the internment camp and the window behind him looks suspiciously like the window the Emperor sat in front of in the Death Star (while watching the Rebel Alliance take down the shield generators on Endor) in Return of the Jedi. Basie is even seated in a chair on the left-side of the frame in one shot with Jim on the right side, lower, similar to the placement of the Emperor/Luke and Basie’s “guards” leave when Jim enters the room. Since Spielberg and Lucas are close friends, it seems evident this was a nod to Star Wars suggesting that Basie is the Emperor of the internment camp. (From IMDB)

Rating – Oscar Worthy (9/10)


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

Your Name.

Release: Friday, April 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Makoto Shinkai

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai

To say Makoto Shinkai’s massively acclaimed anime is ambitious would be an understatement. Your Name. seems to be an opus on everything from teen awkwardness to the relationship between time and memory to astrology. At its core it’s a grand romantic tale but fastened to that are numerous other bells and whistles that make the prospect of caring more of an ordeal than it ought to be.

Your Name. tells of a country girl named Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) who’s grown tired of her adolescent life in the hills and yearns to live the life of a handsome city boy, perhaps someone like Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) who lives in Tokyo. One morning Mitsuha awakens to find she has body-swapped with this boy and he with her. Dismissing the phenomenon initially as a dream, both are soon corrected with reminders from their own friends of how strange they have been acting recently.

That they seemingly can’t control when this happens, or even explain why it’s happening, is disconcerting to say the least. But as they experience the switches over and again the pair learn to establish “ground rules” so as to not leave too much of a footprint in one another’s daily lives. The opening third of the film is spent playing in this esoteric sandbox, approaching concepts like astral projection (or something like) pragmatically so that all of this, merely the set-up for the film proper, can feel both whimsical and “believable.”

Indeed, Your Name. doesn’t really get going until the body swapping stops and the perspective switches to that of Taki, who has once more become fidgety in his mundane existence. Determined to find a way to actually, finally meet this mystery girl, Taki begins exploring all his options. Understandably, his friends become concerned over his obsession. Armed with only a drawing and his rapidly fading memories, Taki makes the trek out to the fictional town of Itomori, only to find it destroyed in the aftermath of a comet that fragmented and collided with earth three years ago. For Taki, distance seems to be no object to finding true happiness. But traveling through time, well that’s another prospect entirely. Will they ever find a way to reunite?

More importantly, will anyone care by the time they do? I still haven’t really addressed the proper, metaphysical significance of that cosmic event, but at this point I’m starting to mimic Shinkai’s worst habits, I’d be stuffing more …. stuff into an already exposition-heavy review. Not that a more complete examination of the plot would rob potential viewers of the surprises in store, because quite frankly there are too many twists and turns to remember, much less ruin. Perhaps this is me not doing my due diligence here, but there’s so much about the film that I just don’t understand and have come to accept as that which I never will. Like how we make the leap from Mitsuha wanting to BE Taki to her actually falling in love with him. Or how each can forget the other’s name seconds after learning what it is.

The mental gymnastics that are required to keep up with everything ultimately make this romantic epic a chore to sit through. And it’s not enough to have a labyrinthian plot to sort through; we have to try to make sense of it alongside two prototypically “annoying” and angsty characters. It is all a little too precious and pretentious. But, to damn with faint praise here, at least the photorealistic animation makes all that mental taxation somewhat worthwhile.

Recommendation: I’ve often described my reactions to anime as something like binary code: there are ones and zeroes. I either love these films — like, really, really love them — or feel totally turned off by them. Alienated. If you are anything like me in that regard, you might do some research on the film before you buy a ticket. Shop around for similar films, maybe things you’ve seen before and make an informed decision. There’s a ton of stuff to absorb here. I can’t even say Your Name. is a “bad movie;” it’s just a little overwhelming, especially for those of us who aren’t devotees. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

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

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

Silence

silence-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017 

[Theater]

Written by: Jay Cocks; Martin Scorsese

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Marty’s new film is so tonally different from what he last put out it made me feel like I was atoning for all those good times I had with Jordan Belfort and company in his Wall Street-based bacchanalian. Silence is such a brutal watch I left the theater pining for them good old days of Leo snorting coke off of Margot Robbie’s chest. Fortunately Scorsese finds a way to make the suffering not only worthwhile but essential viewing.

The customarily near-three-hour running time (which is totally justified and passes by in no time at all) encapsulates a journey the auteur has been wanting to share with the world for some time — nearly 30 years as a matter of fact. Silence is no doubt a passion project for a director renowned for depicting complex morality tales fueled by themes of guilt, corruption and redemption and it carries the kind of weight that suggests this is what he has been building towards throughout a protracted and distinguished career. Whether it’s the director’s crowning achievement is debatable, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Silence is no ordinary theatrical release. It’s a transcendent experience that will haunt you long after viewing.

Scorsese adapts his material from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsakū Endō, who identified as a Roman Catholic. Endō’s sprawling saga told of the life-altering journey undertaken by two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan from Portugal in search of a mentor who goes missing and supposedly apostatizes under extreme duress. The book has inspired two other cinematic adaptations over the years but it’s hard to imagine either of them achieving the same magnitude of emotional and psychological discomfort the noted (and self-confessed lapsed) Catholic has here.

In 1600s Japan Christianity is outlawed, yet small factions still practice in secrecy in the mountainous regions surrounding colonial Nagasaki, where the Spaniard Saint Francis Xavier had decades earlier attempted to plant the seeds of Catholicism in a country that already had an established national belief system. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has for all intents and purposes vanished. Scorsese wants to know what kinds of forces would be necessary to shake a man of his beliefs.

Now we watch as Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) similarly attempt promulgation as they are led deep into the mountains by an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas-like snake in the grass who vacillates between denying his Christian roots and wanting desperately to repent. He is an enigma not worthy of our trust, unlike the rest of these “hidden Christians,” who simply yearn for a conduit through which they can confess their sins to God.

Scorsese’s meticulous, methodical direction complements an altogether brilliant screenplay that barbarically strips away hope and conviction from those who find themselves at the center of a bitter ideological conflict. Co-written with three-time collaborator Jay Cocks, Scorsese’s appropriately expansive treatment deals with some upsetting material in a refreshingly blunt but unbiased manner, as emphasized by the numerous observational shots taken at a distance from the violence visited upon the innocent by merciless shogunates like Inoue The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). As the story unfolds we are challenged to question how much suffering is too much suffering. At what point does a cause become lost?

Several conversations take place that delineate the fundamental disagreement between practicing Buddhists and Catholics. These conversations are simultaneously fascinating and devastating to behold. Whereas Buddhists believe the individual can liberate himself from the perpetual cycle of ‘rebirth’ and ‘death’ (samsāra, which shouldn’t be literally translated as ‘suffering’ but rather a state of bliss that can never last) by choosing not to become obsessed with the material world, Christianity teaches that man can achieve salvation by governing their lives in a manner congruous with that of Jesus Christ. Of course, we all know how complicated it becomes when interpreting what is meant by following in his footsteps. All bets are off when what we’re arguing is whether or not being on Earth is merely another train station or the final destination.

Those conversations are largely what make Silence such a tough watch. Sure, the movie is violent and cruel in ways that you probably have never imagined, but it’s the stalemate we arrive at time and time again when neither party can convince the other. When no concessions can be made. What fuels emotional devastation is a combination of our steadily accrued respect for the priests and the narrative’s balanced perspective. It neither vilifies the Japanese nor glorifies Western influence. No party is entirely right and no party is completely off-base. We listen, we observe. We try to understand both views, though ultimately we are meant to empathize with one side more than the other.

Garfield, on the back of his portrayal of a similarly beleaguered soul in Mel Gibson’s tribute to real war-time hero Desmond Doss, essays a role for the ages as the Christ-like Father Rodrigues. Perhaps it’s worth noting how good Scorsese is in bringing out the absolute best in his actors, lest I lay too much at the foot of the budding British actor. Still, this is Garfield like I’ve never seen him before and it is an utterly heartbreaking performance that almost assuredly promises a nomination. Long gone it seems are the days of slinging webs in Manhattan.

If his co-star occupied the same amount of screen time, he too might’ve found himself on the ballot. Perhaps he still will. Driver’s contributions to the story, in particular that first third, are invaluable. Even though neither actor can quite convince us of their Portuguese descent — accents most notably slip when emotions run high — Driver in particular is good at reminding us of the flesh that lies beneath the cloth. He exudes self-doubt and vulnerability, at least more readily. Indeed, these are just men caught up in some extraordinary circumstances.

The mortality of these priests is what challenges us to really embrace the existential crisis at the heart of Silence. Scorsese of course is not asking the audience to do anything crazy like renounce their faith in a movie theater but he is challenging us to ponder ‘what if.’ That almost assuredly is the direction he gives his two leading men. What if what these priests are doing is actually causing more harm than good? What if you surrender everything you have known to be true for the sake of sparing others of their pain? Does self-doubt mean you have compromised everything? Does a simple physical act confirm what you feel in your heart?

Few of these questions come with answers. If we’re to pursue them, we’re better off trying post-viewing. That’s assuming answers are to be found at all. That kind of open-endedness could prove frustrating for some viewers, but I found it cathartic. Silence is a monumental achievement you have to experience for yourself, no matter what your beliefs are.

hero_silence-2016

5-0Recommendation: Whether you identify as devout, agnostic or atheist you owe it to yourself to see Martin Scorsese’s historical/religious epic. It is going to be one of the hardest movies you’ve ever tried watching but come the end of it you’ll be glad for the opportunity. As for replay value, however, Silence might prove less successful. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

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.rogerebert.com 

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Justin Krook

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, not to be confused with Mike Hodges’ British crime thriller starring Clive Owen, is a globetrotting documentary following around popular EDM deejay Steve Aoki as he prepares for the biggest show of his career. It promises a unique look at a unique life, but unfortunately it suffers from the same identity crisis nonpareils of iPod-shuffling-based music do. Very little about the piece ends up distinctive, much less memorable.

That’s a shame given the subject gives an altogether different impression. Aoki, born in Miami to fairly traditional Japanese parents Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki and Chizuru Kobayashi, is a fountain of perpetual youth. One thing that’s apparent even to the uninitiated is his inability to stand still, to release his foot from the gas pedal as he continues jamming as many live performances into one calendar year as possible despite being nine years deep into a career one might reasonably describe as exhausting. The Guinness Book of World Records has him pegged as the planet’s most well-traveled deejay based on miles logged in the air alone. And in the live setting, where he regularly plasters raging fans with birthday cake (while he himself gets plastered by chugging whatever liquor he has handy), Aoki is a 21-year-old stuck in an almost-40-year-old body. Put simply, he’s an enigma.

Justin Krook is clearly an admirer. His film is concerned with all things Steve Aoki, slowly separating out the personal from the professional, but the profile doesn’t quite evolve into something truly compelling. You get this sense that the background checks — the majority of which boils down to a fairly stock E! True Hollywood story based upon artists who spent their lives trying to crawl out from the shadows cast by their parents — have been obligatorily stitched on, as if Krook knows the majority watching is far less interested in where Aoki comes from as it is in where he’s going next. The end result is a muddled assemblage of timelines both past and present that culminates in a unique (and, of course, massive) show that takes over the streets of L.A. in celebration of Aoki’s latest release, the double-album ‘Neon Future.’

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is at its most fascinating when talking Steve’s ultra-ambitious father. A wrestler-turned-restaurateur, Rocky seemed to live a life that was the stuff of dreams. As if founding popular Japanese cuisine chain Benihana wasn’t enough, Rocky became obsessed with pursuing high-risk outdoor activities like hot air ballooning over the Pacific and off-shore powerboat racing. The latter nearly killed him after a high speed accident under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1979, at which point he recognized his limitations. His refusal to provide his musically-inclined son any sort of financial support isn’t really surprising when you learn more about the man. The tension between Steve and his father becomes the quintessential story of self-motivation, despite a consistently supportive mother who never told her children not to follow their passions.

The film pulls interviews from a variety of industry staples, the likes of which might mean something to those who have immersed themselves in this cacophonous culture. They attempt to illuminate Aoki’s influence upon the scene but intelligible commentary becomes so obscured by empty descriptors like “fucking rad” and “epic” and “extreme” that it’s difficult to glean much of a message behind the words. The gist is that very few deejays work as hard as Steve Aoki. More so than his free-flowing hair, it’s his work ethic that has come to define him both as a person and as a professional. That’s pretty cool. I guess.

Recommendation: If you listen to this kind of music (I don’t, or at least not with any degree of regularity) you might get a kick out of this behind-the-scenes look at the life of one Steve Aoki. But even then fans might find it disappointing how hollow the experience is. After spending nearly an hour and a half with someone we should feel like we get to know that person but that’s just not the case here. Exclusively on Netflix.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 79 mins.

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.steveaoki.com 

Godzilla

Godzilla-2014-Movie-Poster2

Release: Friday, May 16, 2014

[RPX Theater]

I AM GARETH EDWARDS, HEAR ME ROAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Who?

Oh, a nobody, other than the guy who’s responsible for retrofitting the world’s most famous monster for a 21st Century outing.

The British director has been in charge of at least one more monster-related movie. It was actually ingeniously titled Monsters. Now, he’s been tapped to awaken a beast living deep within our oceans — an effort, it’s hoped, that should eradicate any last vestiges of the memory of what Roland Emmerich did to the legend back in 1998. The last man to touch Godzilla controversially recast the giant lizard as some unexplained and malevolent force of nature bent on destroying the world uptown Manhattan. He has posed on occasion throughout his lengthy film career as the villainous type, but never did he feel as disconnected from lore or irrelevant as a threat to mankind as he did then.

Now Edwards has arrived on the scene and there’s a detectable escalating tension in the room. With a restless fan base growing ever desperate to see Godzilla as it truly wants to see him, the time is now to deliver on promises. No more messing around. No more straying from the truth. Just deliver the goods, and no one else gets upset. Or hurt.

Godzilla, the creature, receives a quality facelift in 2014. (I emphasize quality just to ensure no one here’s under the impression of an un-sexy beast; that this is the Joan Rivers of monster lizards.)

He’s so massive the cameras have to take their time in a particularly memorable, vertical panning shot, the moment his true size is revealed. He possesses a thunderous roar that will give the most hardened of ex-cons no choice but to go running for their favorite blankey; and the combination of sheer size and the way he moves in an epic, lumbering gait makes the big guy, for all intents and purposes, the standard against which any forthcoming CGI-fests are to be measured. Behold, the Godzilla we’ve been awaiting, expecting, maybe even demanding — a behemoth so positively ridiculous it couldn’t do anything but sit and wait for technology (namely, visual effects) to catch up and be able to support its very scary ambitions.

In 1999 scientists working in the Janjira Nuclear Plant in Tokyo experience a catastrophic disaster in the form of a series of earthquakes that threatens to expose the entire city to toxic levels of radiation. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are dedicated researchers/engineers on the hunt for something enormous. As fate would have it, their dedication, a stubbornness woven into the fabric of human nature, would become a means to a very certain end.

A collaborative effort among Edwards’ three screenwriters, a trio which includes the one and only Frank Darabont, produces a screenplay that paints the human race as a mostly likable yet largely incapable species. Our sense of self-importance is quickly curtailed by the arrival of two massive insect-looking monsters the government is quick to label MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Mankind’s inability to stop experimenting has ironically produced its inability to continue living in its current state, apparently. Hence, Edwards’ decision to root the Brody’s at physical, emotional and psychological Ground Zero — they are a decent, hardworking family who clearly represents the best of humanity.

While not everyone’s performance strikes the same note — the movie’s biggest crime is that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Lieutenant Ford Brody is on occasion a bit too dry — the cast do what they need to in order to elevate the non-fantasy component to a suitably dramatic level, while still stepping back enough to allow our own fears and concerns to boil over quietly. We have time to ponder what we would do in these people’s shoes. And while characters fail to break the mould of archetypes — Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa might be the most irritating of the bunch, and Sally Hawkins needn’t even have bothered showing up on set her role is so limited — such is really all we need if we’re talking about retelling a classic and not reinventing it.

Godzilla is one of only a few films that succeeds in producing that gut-feeling, a fear so palpable we wish we don’t keep digging into the unknown. There’s a visceral reason to fear what we don’t understand or have never experienced. In the horror genre of today it seems copious amounts of blood and cruel, unusual ways of suffering and dying translate to “stuff that should scare people.” I mean, that works too. But it’s time the trend is bucked. Here’s a completely new taste for the palate. Packed with scintillating imagery, a generation of suspense that’s comparatively lacking in even recent superhero films, and crafted out of love and passion, the Alpha Predator is back and bigger than ever in an old-school film experience that recalls a bygone era in moviegoing.

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Godzilla is smiling. How can anyone be terrified of a smiling Godzilla?

4-0Recommendation: Quite possibly the biggest film of the summer, Gareth Edwards’ hotly debated second film understands how important it is as it handles the challenge of redesigning the beast on his 60th birthday with aplomb, with room to give plenty of attention to its A-list cast. While some characters are definitely better than others, there’s enough here to keep even the most casual attendee engaged in this global crisis. A movie that would never escape criticism, but considering the alternative (let’s never mention Dr. Nico Tattoo-lotsa-lips. . .or whatever his name was from the Emmerich version. . .) it has done alright for itself.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The arrogance of men is thinking that nature is in their control, and not the other way around. Let them fight.”

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

TBT: Lost in Translation (2003)

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There are some titles out there you know you have no good excuse for avoiding for so long. It’s not even like you were accidentally putting them after others in a queue because you wanted to see those others first. You just, forgot about them. I’m not just referring to small, independent movies that have a tendency of slipping between the cracks. Those movies almost go out of their way to be avoided, either because they’re trendy arthouse pictures with highly niched audiences, or are movies whose presences just weren’t advertised well. No, I’m talking about a major motion picture event that you’re pretty certain everyone has seen but you. You pretty much believe that’s the case because when you’re done watching the movie that was gathering dust (thanks, Netflix!), the first thing out of your mouth is ‘Wow, how have I not seen this before?’ It’s a reaction you just can’t help having, a guiltiness that makes you feel as though you are re-joining society. Such an experience happened to me this week when I finally got to this entry.

Today’s food for thought: Lost in Translation

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Release: September 26, 2003

[Netflix]

Sofia Coppola and my relationship is apparently a bipolar one. I’ve loathed her and now I love her! And I have no idea what to expect next. The first, and only other film of hers that I’ve seen — The Bling Ring — I regarded as one of the most tedious film experiences I had had throughout all of 2013. It failed on all levels to connect, and I walked out not feeling like a baller at all.

Interestingly enough, ten years ago almost to the day of that release she had created something stylistically similar that would hit virtually all of the right notes with me, to the point of it looking for a place to stay on my list of all-time favorites.

If The Bling Ring could be described as a story progressed by action rather than explication and a whole lot of dialogue, the same could be said of her early 2000s romantic comedy Lost in Translation, with the most notable difference being a cast of characters that are actually likable, even if they are still imperfect. With a camera following characters that seem to be wandering, both films share a relative lack of dialogue and explanation so as to put emphasis on visual clues and context in order for the story to have weight. Whereas her 2013 effort focused on rather dislikable, superficial fame-obsessed youths (I’m sure this is somebody’s crowd — not mine, though) her prior work found two lost souls traveling abroad in the rather hectic tech hub that is Tokyo.

Not much else is shared in common between the two films, but the directorial style is identifiable already. In Tokyo an aging actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whose career had experienced a big slide recently, came across a recent college graduate named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who’s traveling with her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), an apparently busy and successful photographer. Bob was finding it difficult adapting to the new culture, even if it was only to be for a brief period of time while he shot a commercial for a Japanese whiskey; and his marriage back home was going through a difficult spell. On the other side of the room, Charlotte was constantly being left alone to fend for herself in the big city because John was always working. She was growing more and more distant and depressed at the same time Bob was becoming more tired of his life.

And cue the eventual first meeting in their hotel’s bar and dining area.

Lost in Translation was a thoroughly enjoyable and breezy film that sailed on its charming central characters. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray proved to be an excellent pairing, with a young Johansson giving wonderful life to a character that perpetually suffered. It was the kind of performance that would indicate a promising talent, as she was wise beyond her years as a philosophical young woman trying to understand her position in life. As a jaded older man who was trying to understand the very same thing, Murray’s reserved poise never felt better suited. He didn’t come up with any goofy, memorable one-liners but his simple presence was strong enough to affect a constant smirk. Even though both characters hurt, they were never unlikable and allowed the film to pass by with the quickness.

Though this was truly Murray and Johansson’s show, the side characters had a moderate impact in that they were so peripheral they bothered us. They were those loose eyelashes poking us in the eye and irritating it for days. Ribisi with very limited screen time convinced us he doesn’t really want much to do with his wife and would prefer to be snapping photos all the time. . . especially some requested by an old college friend (Anna Faris). Faris’ Kelly was a silly and self-serving diversion and not much more, but she was memorable for that reason.

There is a sense of exoticism because of where the film’s set, there is no doubt about that. The experience often seemed more surreal than it actually was. When it comes to analyzing the characters’ morality and their motivations, the film truly opens up. In terms of justifying this clandestine relationship in Tokyo, how does one do that, exactly? Though the people involved were truly likable, both were in committed relationships. But did anything ever reach a point where their faithfulness might be questioned? The moral lines blur with the physical ones in this emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening romantic comedy.

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4-5Recommendation: Lost in Translation is a quality picture both in terms of its lead performances and in its design. It impresses like a delicate piece of art yet it maintains the feel of a mainstream production. Often lighthearted and quickly paced, it also bears heavy emotion and speaks to heavy hearts, and is one that likely won’t leave either the heart or memory very quickly. For the small percentage of you who has not seen this yet, let me be another person to tell you it is highly recommended viewing.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

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

The Wind Rises

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Release: Friday, February 21, 2014

[Theater]

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is poetry in motion. It was also Oscar-worthy this year, receiving a nomination for Best Animated Feature. Unfortunately the spotlight fell upon Disney’s Frozen in a move no one is really going to call surprising. It is unfortunate only because this is a film that deserves more than just the tip of the hat. Its a hats-off kind of motion picture event, not just because of the gorgeous animation but due to its epic sweeping narrative that has the presence of mind to include a heartfelt romance, engaging historical context and a dreamlike, thought-provoking perspective.

The Wind Rises is the Japanese artiste’s eleventh outing as a director whose filmography dates back to 1979 and includes the likes of critically and commercially successful animations such as Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso and Spirited Away. If Miyazaki’s other works are as colorful and emotionally satisfying as this film — and according to major sites, they seem to be that way — we are looking at a unique director insofar as he’s in a tier of consistently satisfying filmmakers that a great many will fail again and again at breaking into.

His swan song concerns the fascinating life and career of a hardworking and intelligent Japanese youth named Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English language version), as well as his quest for finding love and happiness in the arms of a woman.

The film opens with a young boy going for an early morning joy ride in a single-propeller plane mounted to the top of his parents’ home before things take a turn for the ugly. As it so happens, this all occurs in a dream sequence. One of the focuses of Miyazaki’s film is that Jiro tends to live a life filled with these. Unfortunately he is also acutely near-sighted, a condition that disqualifies him from ever becoming a pilot. So he decides to dedicate his life to working on planes. In time he would carve out a career as one of the world’s leading aerospace engineers. His efforts almost single-handedly propel his country into the forefront of technological advancement during the years of World War II.

The Wind Rises is filled to the brim with gorgeous animation. You’d have to dig deep to find another film not made by this master of animation that is as vibrant and passionately detailed as it (okay, one that’s also not this year’s Oscar winner). The sky is a robin’s egg blue canvas upon which planes streak like paintbrushes in little strips of white, diving and soaring. The places in which major character developments occur epitomize the romanticism in Miyazaki’s farewell film. Sunsets bleed oranges and reds. After watching, one tends to carry around in their memory vivid snapshots of the film’s strongest images, including the one found on the movie poster.

Color doesn’t just apply to the artwork, though. Characters bubble with eccentricities, and this includes our protagonist. Although Jiro remains as a relatively static character in terms of his genuine likability and affection for aircraft, it’s his obsession that makes him a curious specimen. As previously mentioned, he daydreams often and is frequently teased about this by some of his peers, including another brainiac named Honjô (John Krasinski). Jiro’s boss straight out of school is a comically short and ill-tempered man (Martin Short) who grows to appreciate Jiro as a company asset. This man’s greatest quirk is his hair, bouncing up and down whenever he moves or yells. Other, lesser characters are also imbued with some cartoonish elements as well.

What really distinguishes this anime, though, is its level of realism. A great many films that fall into the category of ‘anime’ tend to really overdramatize the stories they tell — such is the appeal of the genre. Characters’ voices are manic, their mouths and bodies move frenetically and the action surrounding them often can be chaotic to the point of causing headaches. By contrast The Wind Rises is patient, perhaps even a little plodding at times. At over two hours in length, it’s a sprawling journey that not only pays homage to a troubled nation in a time of great crisis, but one that features a tender love story at its center.

When in the earlygoing Jiro helps save a young girl named Naoko (Emily Blunt)’s maid by carrying her from the site of a train accident following a massively destructive earthquake, he seems to win her affection then and there. It would be many years before a chance run-in with the same woman, Naoko, would reunite the two. The couple’s passion for one another feels real and honest; sweet and worth the time required to buy into it.

Slow pace aside, The Wind Rises is a breathtaking production wherein style beautifully complements the spectacle.

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4-0Recommendation: Here is a thoroughly engaging film that many should spend the time watching, in whatever format they possibly can. It’s historically significant and emotionally rewarding. I, for one, have a great deal of homework to do as I attempt to go back and invest myself in Miyazaki’s other equally praise-worthy films that have been created over the course of several decades.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “Airplanes are just cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”

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 

The Wolverine

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Release: Thursday, July 25, 2013

[Theater] 

Picking up more on where we left off after X Men: The Last Stand rather than following directly in line with the most recent release (X Men: Origins — Wolverine), James Mangold directs Hugh Jackman et al with supreme confidence in his knowledge and conviction of the essence of the comics, while also attempting to feed the masses with a broader, more blockbuster-esque appeal — ideally one that should have everyone talking fervently about it afterwards. To an extent this happened after the Thursday screening I attended, though I could sense a mixed atmosphere of excitement and quietened “that could have been better” sentiment.

Maybe it was the late hour at which this showing wrapped up, but I somehow doubt this was the real problem. There was a lack of a punch that I felt might be coming with this latest remodeling of our clawed hero. Or it might have just been one of those punches that comes in hard and then eases up just before greeting your stomach, letting you off the hook as far as taking some real pain is concerned. Mangold seemed to go this route with his directorial touch.

The Wolverine begins with a damn bang. Japan. World War II. The last days are laying waste to the Japanese landscape, and there amidst the chaos is Logan/Wolverine, who has managed to become the next P.O.W.; fortunately he uses his powers to save a camp worker (a man named Yashida) who is debating the merits of dying a noble death (by committing suicide) or letting the ensuing atom bomb devastation do the job. Wolverine intervenes, saves the guy and himself from the blast, and we then see that this has all been a flashback, and a thoroughly gripping one. A strong start to the film.

Unfortunately it was immediately after this where things took a turn to the familiar, and the resultant film pans out to be little more than a hodgepodge of the spirit of the comics — even if it is well-suited and recaptured here — and several nondescript kung fu films, only shot much better and with no funny spoken/translated overdubs. Indeed, there is a lot to like and be easily entertained by in the adventures Logan/Wolverine has when he’s one day summoned back to Japan in order to bid farewell to the ailing man he saved those many years ago. When a bar fight breaks out in an area where Logan is currently holding up in, he meets a young girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who insists he go pay Yashida a visit. We are provided the initial hesitation at first, with Wolverine claiming his home is here, in Canada; but eventually he caves and yields the movie.

Of course, Yashida has more on his mind than just having a pleasant chat with Logan. The head of an international technology developer that specializes in medicinal research, the man whom Wolverine had saved finally tells him that he can “fix” Logan’s immortality. He knows of a way to introduce his amazing healing powers into another person; as if his inability to die is some sort of dormant genetic trait. Yashida gives him the chance to lead a normal, mortal life. Cue Wolverine’s polite “Thanks, but no thanks.”

During the brief time he stays with Yashida he meets his son, Shingen, and his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). After a few suspicious events transpire, Wolverine soon finds himself becoming Mariko’s protector, despite her requests to be left alone. No can do, apparently, as the strange but dangerous aura surrounding her keeps Logan intrigued. And even despite his constant struggle with his nightmares of Jean Grey and other events, he manages to keep focused on his mission to protect her and get to the bottom of her situation.

Along the way, he finds out that he’s in deeper than he thought; members of the Yakuza are quickly implicated as they take Makiro hostage during a funeral procession for Yashida, and in the process, Wolverine gets injured and realizes he isn’t so quick to heal now. It turns out the Yakuza certainly aren’t the only baddies to worry about here; no, a much more intimidating — is intimidating the right word? — villain remains at the center of our main conflict. Viper, chosen for whatever reason to be the villain in this edition of the X-Men franchise, single-handedly destroyed a lot of the momentum for me. Played by a terribly bland Svetlana Khodchenkova, this mutant is meant to be the true opponent to Wolverine, but she winds up doing more damage to the movie than to our clawed hero. Either the casting was a poor choice, or the intention was to make this villain seem as calm, cool and coldblooded as possible. Whatever it was, she just does not work here at all and from the moment she was introduced to the story, The Wolverine started losing credibility with me.

But perhaps that’s not fair to say. The movie doesn’t intend to win any Oscars, therefore I maybe shouldn’t take the movie so seriously. It’s meant to be an entertaining, light-hearted affair. Unfortunately, though, the previews and trailers released weeks and months prior were telling a very different story. I got the impression we were in for a darker, more brooding story. That is true of the character of Wolverine — he’s perpetually miserable in this movie, constantly awakening from horrible dreams and fearing for his life around many a corner. He’s been cursed with the ability to live forever, yet someone challenges him in the beginning to take on a life of mortality. These things do take their toll on the character, and that was interesting, yes. But the story simply crumbled around him in comparison.

And Hugh Jackman, of course, is as likable as always. I have no problem whatsoever with the work he turned in here in 2013, despite the fact he’s not doing anything radically different than from before. Additionally, I must give credit to the main girls following in Wolverine’s tracks: Yukio and Makiro both are intriguing characters and aren’t quite as cardboard as the Viper. Yukio is a brilliant girl who can “see” or “feel” what’s going to happen in the future and acts as a bodyguard to the temporarily ailing Wolverine, a relationship that allows a few jokes here and there. Makiro is convincing enough as the damsel in distress, and although its a cliched character arc, her situation managed to make me empathetic.

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2-5Recommendation: Most of my disappointment, it should be noted, could be traced back to the pre-release hysteria coming from the studio. “Wolverine fans, rejoice. This is the movie you’ve been waiting for. . .” Given the fact I am not the most devoted follower of the X-Men story to begin with, it might be easier for me to think this has turned out to be a bit of a lie. More passionate fans might find themselves enjoying this much more freely. There’s not much that distinguishes it from its downright corny predecessor. Lest I sound ignorant to what the spirit is all about in the superhero realm, it’s okay to be corny but it’s not okay to be unoriginal and lie about it being original.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

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

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