REVIEW: “The Lost City of Z”

zposter

“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.

z2

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.

z3

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.

z1

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 Rover”

ROVER POSTER

Director David MichĂ´d made a splash in 2010 with his critically acclaimed debut film “Animal Kingdom”. The movie would capture many people’s attention as well as numerous awards nominations. “The Rover” is MichĂ´d’s sophomore effort and in many ways it is vastly different from his first film. It’s a much more visual experience that employs atmosphere and environment over a stricter and more focused narrative. For some people that seems to have been a turn-off. I found it to be a fresh, unsettling, and thoroughly exhilarating package.

MichĂ´d wrote the screenplay based on a story he created with actor Joel Edgerton. The film begins with the words “Australia. 10 Years after the collapse”. Basically the world economy has crumbled and the Australian Outback has dissolved into a violent dystopia. The rule of law has disintegrated with the exception of small groups of soldiers who occasionally patrol the areas. Two very different men come together on this wasteland. Eric (Guy Pearce) is a bitter and enigmatic loner. He always seems to be laboring to keep his violent anger under control. Rey (Robert Pattinson) is a very simple and dependent American who is left behind by his brother and accomplices after a robbery goes bad.

Rover

Rey’s brother Henry is played by Scoot McNairy who always delivers in small roles like this. After leaving a wounded Rey behind Henry and his crew steal Eric’s car after wrecking theirs. We quickly understand that Eric’s car is extremely important to him, perhaps the last thing of any value that he has left. He sets out to get it back and in doing so crosses paths with Rey. The two develop a tempestuous relationship as Eric’s barely bridled violence clashes with Rey’s emotionally delicate neediness. Eric keeps Rey close as a convenience. He needs to get Rey’s brother while Rey just needs someone to cling to.

The dialogue in “The Rover” is sparse and I had to adjust to its style of storytelling. But I quickly found myself enamored with the effectiveness of MichĂ´d’s methods. I had no trouble comprehending the desolation and rigidity of the world these characters inhabit. I had no trouble seeing the violent complexities of Eric or the fractured yet sympathetic psyche of Rey.

Rover2

We are asked to seek answers and information through our senses and I really responded to that. MichĂ´d’s camera frames some truly captivating shots. I’m not familiar with Natasha Braier, but she was credited with the cinematography and I’ll definitely be looking for her name in the future. The two create a visually terrifying dystopian world that is both beautiful and threatening. Filming took place in the Australian desert and the cameras utilize the location to its fullest. All of this contributes to the storytelling but I do feel as if the film withholds small bits of meaningful information. I’m not saying I need or want everything spelled out for me. I think that would ruin the film. But just a touch more background would do wonders.

And how can I talk about the film and not mention the two lead performances? Readers of this blog will know that Guy Pearce is an absolute favorite of mine and his work here illustrates why. He gives one of my favorite performances of the year. He defines his character through several unconventional ways – through expressions, mannerisms, and even his bursts of violence. He hasn’t much dialogue but he doesn’t need it. He is mesmerizing. But for me the real revelation is Robert Pattinson, someone I’ve never believed in as an actor. Pattinson sheds every glimpse of his past “Twilight” pretty-boy status. It’s a very demanding role and I found myself shocked at how well he pulled it off. This could be a turning point for him.

In many ways “The Rover” reminded me of an end-of-the-world western. It quickly initiated thoughts of everything from “Mad Max” to “No Country for Old Men” to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. It’s a grubby, callous, and ferocious film that takes what looks like limitations and uses them as great strengths. This isn’t a movie that will resonate with everyone. It’s grim, violent, and hopeless. But it’s also captivating cinema that I couldn’t turn away from.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS