REVIEW: “The Lost City of Z”

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“He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” We get this key line of dialogue early on in James Gray’s masterful biographical adventure “The Lost City of Z”. This snide, condescending jab is aimed at the film’s lead character Percy Fawcett and surprisingly it gives a ton of insight into what makes this complex fellow tick.

Percy Fawcett was a British officer, geographer, and eventual South American explorer. His intriguing life was made all the more fascinating by his mysterious disappearance in the Amazon during a 1925 expedition to find a long-lost ancient city. Many theories blossomed concerning his vanishing but there has never been any concrete evidence to help determine his fate.

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James Gray writes and directs this sweeping epic that’s based on David Grann’s 2009 book. As with his previous film 2014’s “The Immigrant”, Gray exhibits  a strickingly classical form of filmmaking and an impeccable eye for period detail. There is an undeniable familiarity with many of his visual and narrative choices, yet he stays away from common cliches and he’s not afraid to hold a magnifying glass to subjects glossed over in similar movies.

Fawcett is played with sturdy authenticity by Charlie Hunnam whose performance travels the spectrum from dashing and gentlemanly to rugged and determined. We first meet him in 1905 where he is stationed in Ireland but called to London to meet with the stuffy heads of the Royal Geographical Society. He’s offered an assignment that would allow him to redeem his family name and finally earn officer decoration that has unfairly been denied him due to his father’s (wisely unexplored) past transgressions. The mission – represent the British government as a neutral party in surveying and mapping the border between the warring Brazil and Bolivia.

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Fawcett agrees but it will require him to be away from his young son and wife Nina. She’s played by Sienna Miller who is very good here. Nina is a strong progressive type but is also supportive of her husband. She vanishes for a good chunk of the film but plays a more significant part in the second half. We also get Robert Pattinson in another absorbing yet slightly underutilized role. He plays Corporal Henry Costin, a man familiar with the Amazon who faithfully accompanies Fawcett on his mission.

Upon getting wind of an alleged lost city somewhere deep in the Amazon, Fawcett is driven to push further into uncharted territory to prove its existence. Gray does several interesting things here. The dangers of the land grow more and more evident yet Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji offer a unique perspective. Often the dangers are camouflaged by a liberating sense of calm and beauty captured through the camera. I don’t mean to say it’s romanticized. In fact at times it feels downright tranquil – the result of a crafty visual touch that puts us in tune with Fawcett’s point of view.

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It’s also interesting to watch Gray tilt the Fawcett character towards madness without ever letting him topple over. Both script and performance move him dangerously close to the mental edge, but he never ceases to be sensible and empathetic. Hunnam is a perfect canvass for this, equally balancing Gray’s call for rationality and obsession. And despite the film’s massive scale, it always maintains an intimacy with its lead character.

“The Lost City of Z” is as beautiful and mysterious as the isolated world it explores. You can’t help but see shades of Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo”. Even touches of John Huston come to mind. Yet remarkably James Gray has created a movie that feels completely of itself. It’s his best film. It’s Hunnam’s best performance to date. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Lego Batman Movie”

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I think it’s safe to say that 2014’s “The Lego Movie” was a ground-breaking achievement for the plastic toy building block film genre. It was a hysterical and all-around unique animated feature that captured audiences with its gorgeous animation, sharp humor, and surprisingly big heart. It also incorporated a host of fun characters none more heralded than the Dark Knight himself.

Captivating cinema history aside “The Lego Batman Movie” is a spinoff that cashes in on the wildly positive reaction to the previous film’s Batman character. It features the same sense of humor but with (obviously) a more Batman-centric flavor. It steadily riffs on the dark, brooding tone of the many Batman films. It has a ton of fun playing with Batman’s extensive rogue gallery, even goofy obscure villains that comic fans are sure to find hilarious. It also spoofs the superhero genre in general. And with so many comical targets it’s amazing how many of them they hit dead-center.

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After a stellar supporting spot in “The Lego Movie” Will Arnett returns as the titular title character. His story is pretty familiar. Burdened by the pain of his parents’ murder, Batman finds sanctuary in crime-fighting, cool gadgetry, and alone-time in his dark, moody estate. Along the way we meet his colorful array of ‘acquaintances’ – Commisioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), and of course Batman’s faithful butler Alfred (voiced by the soothingly empathetic Ralph Fiennes).

When Batman unknowingly hurts the feelings of the fragile Joker (Zach Galifianakis) by denying him the title of arch-villain, the Clown Prince of Crime (I’ve always loved that nickname) sets out for the ultimate revenge. Bats has to decide whether he can stop him alone or go against his style and actually seek the help of others. Along the way he gets another lesson in togetherness in the form of an energetic young orphan named Robin (Michael Cera).

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Five writers combined to put together this story that is often too hyperactive for its own good. It’s not that they offer a barrage of jokes. It’s that the writing team, along with director Chris McKay, give them no breathing room whatsoever. The onslaught of gags can be relentless sometimes to the point of making them impossible to follow. It’s a shame because the movie has some big laughs (and I do mean BIG). I can’t help but wonder how many I missed simply because the filmmakers kept things constantly moving at 100 mph.

The same can be said for the action. Once again the animation is gorgeous and the Lego aesthetic still feels fresh and unique. But for every great action sequence (and there are a ton) you get one that is far too wild and frantic. Ultimately the film’s rambunctious pacing wore me down, not enough to ruin the movie but definitely enough to temper my enjoyment. I found myself checking out in the final act. But I still think the film has enough going for it to recommend and if you’re able to stay focused you will undoubtedly have fun with it. Just prepare yourselves with a few cups of coffee before heading in. That should help.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Les Cowboys”

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In “Les Cowboys” (or simply “The Cowboys” if you prefer) director Thomas Bidegain attempts to bring a modern French flavor to the John Ford western “The Searchers”. It’s certainly not the easiest undertaking considering the lofty status of the 1956 John Wayne classic, but Bidegain isn’t simply rehashing old material. He has his own story to tell. He just happens to nestle it within this well made homage.

Oddly enough the film begins at an American cowboy festival in France. Yep, a French hoedown complete with Stetsons, Wrangler jeans, line dancing, and the Tennessee Waltz. The entire cowboy fair is a celebration of the American country/western culture and you can’t help but giggle at the entire thing. At the same time it kinda fits with the story that will follow.

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This is where we meet Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne), his teenaged daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), and son Georges (Finnegan Oldfield). They seem like a normal, tight-knit family, well liked by everyone else in attendance. But as the family prepares to leave after a full day of festivities they notice Kelly is missing.

It’s hard to gauge how much more I should say about the story. It takes several dramatic turns and becomes a much different film as it moves forward. Alain’s obsession to find his daughter is both understandable and sympathetic. But it consumes Alain to the point where he loses everything. Bidegain doesn’t give a black-or-white depiction of Alain’s state of mind. Constant dead-ends drive his obsession to darker more complex places.

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A significant hunk of the story focuses on Alain’s son Georges. He joins the hunt for his sister, but pulls back after witnessing what it does to his father. Much like his father, his life is dramatically changed due to the disappearance of Kelly. It allows for an interesting conversation on grief, family communication, religion, and more. Bidegain has the writing chops having penned the scripts for “The Prophet” and “Rust and Bone”. Here we get some of the same intriguing character exploration.

I’ve tried dancing around the details of “Les Cowboys” simply because specific details  drastically alter the course of the story. Knowing them in advance would cost the film its edge. As it takes these turns the film ventures into several unexpected areas both narratively and geographically. It can be a bit clunky especially with its use of time lapses and setting changes. But if you’re able to navigate those storytelling hurdles “Les Cowboys” gives you plenty of emotional meat to chew on.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “The Lobster”

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Occasionally you stumble across a movie that is nearly impossible to describe. In many of these cases it’s tough enough wrapping your own mind around what your seeing much less putting it into words. That is certainly the case with “The Lobster”, the latest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.

Much like his Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” before it, “The Lobster” is a wacky surrealist concoction originating in the idiosyncratic mind of Lanthimos. I guess you could call the film a romantic dystopian sci-fi black comedy, but even that doesn’t cover all the bases. “The Lobster” once again finds Lanthimos toying with cultural standards and wickedly satirizing society’s view on love and relationships. For my money it’s funnier, stealthily more romantic, and a bit more digestible than “Dogtooth”. Yet it still requires a willingness to embrace the bizarre nature of its story.

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That last sentence is a biggie. “The Lobster” demands that we just go with it. It’s imperative. Spend too much time thinking on the absurdity and you’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot. Lanthimos starts off by setting the rules. In this ‘not too distant future’ being single is against the law. Those not married are taken to a hotel where they are given 45 days to find a new mate. If they do they are given the opportunity to earn their release back into the city. If they don’t they are transformed into the animal of their choosing and released into the wild.

See what I mean, bizarre beyond description yet within the boundaries set by the filmmaker it works. The main character is David (Colin Farrell). After his wife leaves him for another man, David is taken to the hotel where he begins his 45 days. Once registered David is placed within the hotel’s strict program featuring all sorts of weird companionship training and preparation. He makes friends with fellow residents John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw, but finding a future wife before his time runs out proves to be a challenge.

It’s best to be vague and let you sort through the nuttiness on your own, but I will say “The Lobster” has a sense of humor all its own. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud hysterical (although it can be). Instead the bulk of the humor is found in a variety of unexpected places. It’s all conveyed through an incessant deadpan style from straight-faced characters who live in a constant state of melancholy. There is also a smattering of brief bursts of violence to make things feel even more off-kilter.

There is a fairly dramatic shift at the midway mark and the second half sets off in a much different direction. The tone remains the same and the humor is still wacky and offbeat. But Lanthimos pulls back the reins and changes his focus as Rachel Weisz and Léa Seydoux are introduced into the story. Both actresses are really good, especially Weisz who gives us a reminder of why she’s an Oscar-winner. But the slower pace of the second half becomes an issue and it starts to wander as it makes its way to the finish line.

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And that brings me to the ending (without getting into spoilers). So many critics love ambiguous endings and “The Lobster” feeds those hearty affections. I too enjoy them as long as they leave me with something to chew on. This film’s abrupt, open-ended finish is more of an eye-roller than a thought-provoker. It doesn’t offer near enough in its ambiguity to contemplate other than the base narrative questions.

Despite its slow third act and frustrating end, “The Lobster” is uncompromising, provocative, and highly original at every turn. You literally never know where it’s going next. In this his first English-language film, Yorgos Lanthimos showcases his darkly funny form of absurdism through his own moody, muted lens. With “The Lobster” he works with a sharp satirical edge destroying our notions of companionship while also declaring our genuine need for it. The movie may lose some steam near the end, but it consistently engages us with this compelling idea.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Lion”

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“Lion” may best be described as a true account of two extraordinary, life-changing journeys experienced by young Saroo Brierley. That description gets to the  meat-and-potatoes of this moving, inspirational drama from first time feature director Garth Davis. And regardless of how hard you try, you’ll have a tough time leaving the theater dry-eyed.

“Lion” is adapted from Brierley’s memoir titled “A Long Way Home” which chronicles his separation from home as a young boy and his intense emotional struggle to reconnect as a young man. Australian poet and novelist Luke Davies wrote the screenplay which provided a series of unique challenges. From handling cultural shifts to avoiding the common trappings of highly emotional material, he and Davis masterfully present this complex tale.

Sunny Pawar stars in LION  Photo: Mark Rogers

The film divides Saroo’s life into two parts. The first features him as a 5 year-old boy living in a poor remote village outside of Khandwa, India. He’s portrayed through an astonishing performance by newcomer Sunny Pawar. Saroo’s mother (Priyanka Bose) collects rocks to provide food for her children while Saroo helps his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) doing menial jobs for change.

While in Khandwa for a week-long job Saroo is separated from his brother at a train station. After waiting for Guddu to come for him, Saroo mistakenly boards a train which takes him 1000 miles away to Calcutta. Once there the film confronts a number of issues through young Saroo’s eyes – the plight of street children, child trafficking, poverty, and even adoption which we see when Saroo is taken in by John and Sue Brierley, an Australian couple played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman.

20 years later Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is leaving home to study hotel management in Melbourne. There he meets and falls for a fellow student named Lucy (Rooney Mara). As they dine with a group of Indian friends Saroo is hit by a rush of memories and emotions. With his friends encouragement he begins to track down his birthplace through flashes of memories and Google Earth. But every dead-end compounds his pain and intensifies his longings to know who he truly is. Perhaps Saroo describes himself best when he simply states “I’m lost”.

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Watching “Lion” is like taking in two dramatically different movies yet there is a powerful human connection that links them. Young Pawar’s segment is both harrowing and heart-breaking. Davis’ camera often has us seeing things from Saroo’s perspective which adds an extra layer of distress and concern. He doesn’t overplay it nor does he feel the need to manipulate his audience by embellishing the peril. When Patel arrives the film becomes much more internal, at times even meditative as older Saroo not only wrestles with his identity crisis but also helplessly watches the effects it has on his relationships.

The final act wrings out every ounce of emotion left, but it feels honest and earned considering the journey we’ve taken. Aside from one slightly underserved relationship and the film drifting a tad in the second half, “Lion” eloquently handles this incredible multi-layered story. Patel’s leading man star has never shown brighter. Pawar is a delightful discovery. A quiet, understated Kidman melts into her character. It’s also a beautifully shot first feature from a director worth keeping an eye on.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Loving”

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“Loving”, the fifth film (and second of 2016) from writer/director Jeff Nichols, continues the Arkansas-born filmmaker’s impressive streak of well-received movies. Through his films Nichols has revealed a unique and refreshing cinematic voice and has emerged as a true rural America storyteller. The Mark Twain influences are undeniable.

“Loving” examines the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that abolished state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. But the film does so not by stressing the court room. Instead it focuses on the love between Richard and Mildred Loving. Nichols trusts the potency of their story enough to keep his approach admirably subdued. It’s sometimes a bit too low-key, but there is no denying the film’s subtle power.

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The performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are superb. Edgerton’s Richard is a simple but devoted man who wants to love and take care of his wife. Negga portrays Mildred with a quiet grace and dignity. She’s both sweet and gentle, but she’s also Richard’s emotional anchor. The Lovings saw their lives turned upside down in the summer of 1958. In the dark of night the Caroline County sheriff (here played by Marton Csokas) and his deputies stormed their home and arrested the newlywed couple for breaking Virginia’s laws on interracial marriage.

What followed was a series of arrests and court appearances until their case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Nichols doesn’t spend much time with the legal wranglings. He sets them up but mostly shows their effects. It’s a wise choice since they are when the film is at its weakest. Contributing to this is the odd casting of Nick Kroll as a young, green ACLU lawyer who takes the Lovings’ case. It’s a strangely stiff performance with Kroll routinely looking as if he’s holding in laughter. John Bass doesn’t fair much better as a constitutional law expert helping with the case.

There are some fantastic supporting turns though. Nichols favorite Michael Shannon has a small but fun role as a LIFE magazine photographer profiling the Lovings and their case. And I adored Sharon Blackwood’s performance as Richard’s straight-shooting midwife mother.

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Perhaps my favorite thing about “Loving” is this – Richard and Mildred aren’t activists. They aren’t vocal, aggressive crusaders for a cause. They don’t seek the attention. They don’t want the press. The Lovings just want to live their lives together. That simple innocent desire highlights the despicable nature of the Virginia law far more effectively than if this had been a more pointed activism film. Through this emotionally detailed couple we learn all we need to know about the true rights and wrongs of the story and it invests us on a much more intimate level.

While it can be a bit slow at times and the approach may not be abrasive enough for some people, “Loving” gracefully and truthfully tackles an issue by putting its focus on the human element. Nichols’ delicate portrayal is slyly potent and speaks volumes about its subject without leaning on layers of dialogue. Instead Nichols asks his audience to watch, observe, and feel a closeness with his two central characters. If you do that the power of the message will be unavoidable.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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