Quick Movie Reviews (The Report & Earthquake Bird)

The Report

It’s become something of cliché to say that an actor is so good that they can hold an audience’s attention just by reading the phone book to an empty room. But that’s more or less what Adam Driver does in the new political drama The Report, and it’s actually pretty riveting. He plays the dogged Senate investigator Daniel Jones, and he spends much of the film sitting in a windowless, sparsely furnished basement office, reading crooked details about illicit government operations off a computer screen. He gives the monologues the full Driver treatment, with rapid fire line-readings that escalate from a scarily controlled monotone to an intensely seething hiss.

Written and directed by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns, The Report tells a story ripped from the headlines. But they’re not recent headlines. Jones worked for California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) and spent years on a fact-finding mission, tracking the escalation of President George W. Bush’s war on terror into acts of torture. But one of a couple things that make The Report an interesting endeavor is that there are no scenes of Daniel Jones eating dinner or calling his parents or fighting with his girlfriend, like you may have seen in other procedurals of the past. In fact, the peeks into the personal of the real-life investigator are limited to just a few shots of him jogging — and even those often transition straight into a load-bearing or expositional conversation. Like its main character, The Report is all business: a procedural purely about the five-year investigation Jones did into the CIA’s Detention And Interrogation Program, and the subsequent attempts by both the agency and the White House to bury his findings.

The Report - Still 1
Image via Amazon Studios

As a director Burns doesn’t exactly invent a new cinematic language with The Report. He lacks the visual flair of his often collaborator Steven Soderbergh, who also produced the movie. But there’s an integrity to his refusal to gussy up the material; he’s solely interested in clearly and concisely conveying the importance of the investigation and the full scope of what was uncovered. And for a film this dense, the two-hour runtime moves pretty well (outside of the choppy opening tenish minutes). That in large part is helped by the energy of a top notch ensemble and by Burns’ (mostly) effective use of flashbacks, recreating what happened at the CIA “black sites.” And yet while The Report can be both chilling and infuriating, it also expresses a persistent faith in American institutions to keep the citizenry properly informed. All which Driver’s performance helps keep engaging — it’s not a performance that’s just gripping; it’s inspiring. He’s not just portraying Jones; he’s embodying an ideal. And in a way Burns has made a film that does Jones proud: He’s made a movie as square and professional and ultimately noble as its main character — a portrait of American heroism as a job carefully, thoroughly done. Lead by a compelling Adam Driver, The Report is an involving procedural about the persistency and moral certainty that’s needed to navigate the complex minefield that is Washington.

Grade: B+

The Report will be released on Prime Video on November 29

Earthquake Bird

Earthquake Bird is a movie that teeters on becoming as assortment of things and genres. It centers on Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), a translator working in Tokyo in 1989, who appears to be working on the subtitles for Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (a fun nod to the film’s producer). Her friend Lily (Riley Keough) has gone missing and a piece of her may have just been discovered in the river. That’s when detectives bring Lucy in for questioning and wind up hearing her side of a very long, yet not very eventful story. It starts with her meeting Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a photographer who lives in a studio behind the noodle restaurant where he works. He’s the kind of guy who tells women that he loves them for their scars, and he talks to Lucy like she’s a tourist looking for a story to bring home as a souvenir. When an earthquake interrupts their first night together, Teiji instructs Lucy to listen to the chirps that reverberate through the city after it stops shaking; there’s a metaphor there, but like the film’s knotted timeline, it isn’t worth the energy it would take to untangle.

Their awkward, mostly emotionless relationship in which he takes her picture, over and over again, while she tries to connect to him on a more intimate level continues for a bit. But it’s a little hard for Lucy since Teiji spends more time talking about photography and his ex-girlfriend than he ever does about her. But their relationship gets even trickier when a mutual friend introduces Lucy to Lily, an American who just moved to Tokyo, doesn’t know the language, and quickly latches onto our quiet protagonist. Soon Lily establishes herself as a regular thirds wheel in Lucy’s relationship with Teiji, and as they all spend more time together, Lucy gets increasingly paranoid that Lily might be taking her spot in the relationship. But as we continue it becomes clear that writer-director Wash Westmoreland is less interested in plot than he is in parsing the space between who the characters really are, and how Lucy thinks of them.

Image via Netflix

But as the film progresses we learn more and more about Lucy and why she came to Japan. Ultimately her truth is a lot darker than we might have anticipated; Lucy thinks that Death is following her, and she might just have a point. It seems she didn’t go to Japan to find herself, but rather to flee who she was, and her early encounters with Teiji are so involving because he’s able to see her for who she is without being able to grasp what made her that way. Watching Vikander try to keep him at a comfortable remove is the movie’s greatest pleasure, especially when the person she was and the person she fought to become are entwined together in a lengthy monologue that Vikander delivers in pretty flawless Japanese. In the rare moments when Earthquake Bird trembles with purpose, everything about it becomes easier to appreciate (Chung-hoon Chung’s lush cinematography and Atticus Ross’ ominously propulsive score, for examples). Vikander’s big monologue notwithstanding, the resolution to the story puts things on an empty note, leaving you feeling silly for digging so deep into it. And in the end, outside of the solid Alicia Vikander performance and the occasional compelling idea, Earthquake Bird gets lost in its flight, becoming a vague, depth-lacking experience.

Grade: C+

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