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

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REVIEW: “The Immigrant”

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Whenever the topic of greatest working actress pops up Meryl Streep so often finds her name at the top of the list. I do belief Streep can be really good, but I believe a strong case could be made for Marion Cotillard. She is a sensational actress who has proven herself with every role she has tackled. She does it again in James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant”. This period drama was a very personal project for Gray. In an interview with Variety he said “It’s 80% based on the recollections from my grandparents, who came to the United States in 1923.” We see this personal connection running throughout the entire film.

The story starts in 1921 as Ewa (Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The two have left their home country of Poland, which has been ravaged by World War I, in hopes of starting new lives. But during the processing, Magda is quarantined for a suspected lung disease and Ewa is set to be deported due to some questionable immorality that took place on the boat to America. But she catches the eye of a man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who uses his money and influence with a particular guard to free Ewa and save her from deportation.

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With no place to go, Ewa accepts Bruno’s offer to work for him in hopes that she can earn enough money to get her sister the medical care she needs. The problem is Bruno runs a ‘gentleman’s show’ and the women he employs are prostitutes. Bruno is charming and persuasive but he also exploits Ewa’s desperation. Ewa is torn between the moral consequences of her actions and her desire to help her sister. Things are complicated even more as Bruno develops an infatuation with her which brings with it jealousy, rage, and even violence.

The movie centers itself on its characters and the different plights of each. Ewa’s circumstances are obviously difficult and the dream of a new life seems practically unattainable. Bruno is often a despicable and detestable man, but at times we see glimpses of compassion. The reasons behind his occasional generosity is a puzzle. Is it due to a genuine love he has for Ewa or is it in the interest of making money? Jeremy Renner plays a struggling magician named Orlando. He is a cousin to Bruno but the two haven’t been close in years. He too is drawn to Ewa and he looks to be a more gentle and loving alternative. But even he shows glimpses of instability making us question who he really is inside.

These characters are magnetic of themselves but they are even richer due to the brilliant cast. Phoenix is always good and while this role doesn’t ask him to dive as deep into the character as some of his previous work, he still has moments where he just takes over a scene. Renner is also very good and he often offers some needed changes in tone which he has no problem handling. But the true standout is Marion Cotillard who once again completely immerses herself in a role. Watching her dissect her character and give her such strong emotional form is akin to watching a fine artist. It’s heavy material and Cotillard expresses it with an emotional precision that we rarely see. She also has a classic-styled radiance that fits this type of movie well and translates beautifully with the camera. Cotillard is brilliant and this is my favorite performance of the year so far.

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James Gray’s story is engaging and heartbreaking. His characters are interesting and compelling. But there is also a perfectly realized 1920s New York City that plays a major role in the film. Gray’s vision combined with Darius Khondji’s cinematography creates shades of the city which sometimes look bustling and vibrant but often times looks cold, harsh, and unwelcoming. It’s a portrait that walks hand-in-hand with the characters and their situations.

There are a few things in “The Immigrant” that could be picked apart and a case could be made that it has a few lulls. But for me the selling point here are these characters who I happened to latch onto instantly. It’s also a period film featuring a master class in acting by Marion Cotillard who I believe is one of our finest. She absolutely owns the screen and she leaves nothing behind. That alone makes “The Immigrant” worth seeing, but I’m happy to say it has even more to offer its audience than just that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS