REVIEW: “Pilgrimage” (2017)

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For those few folks needing more proof (assuming they still exist) that big budgets aren’t essential to good moviemaking, I present to you Brendan Muldowney’s “Pilgrimage”, a beautiful and propulsive medieval thriller anchored in 13th century European complexity and brutality. With a meager budget of just over $5 million, “Pilgrimage” looks and plays out better than many of its higher-priced counterparts.

The movie’s Crusade-era setting is an intriguing place in itself – a land filled with volatility and hostility. Just on the outskirts of the many conflicts we meet a small group of monks living on the western coast of Ireland. They are approached by Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber), sent at the behest of the Pope to retrieve and escort back to Rome an ancient holy relic being guarded by the monks. This quest (subtly reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”) becomes the centerpiece for Muldowney’s movie.

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Four of the Irish monks are sent to escort Geraldus. Among those chosen is Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), a young novice who has never known life outside the monastery, the wise elder Brother Ciaran (John Lynch), and a mute (Jon Bernthal) who has faithfully served the monastery since mysteriously washing ashore a few years prior.

The group’s cross-country venture takes them through lands filled with factions hungry for control. They encounter one such faction led by Sir Raymond (Richard Armitage) a soldier and a loyalist to his king. At the urging of his father, Raymond and his men agree to escort the brothers and the relic across the treacherous island. What follows is an arduous and sometimes brutal pilgrimage that stretches each of these men to their limits.

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“Pilgrimage” is more than a simple “quest movie”. Writer Jamie Hannigan’s story tests each character by fire – in many cases spiritually and in all cases physically. There is a steady examination of both the strength and weakness of faith, whether it be faith in God, faith in Rome, or faith in a king. And it’s fascinating to watch the film explore the contrasts between the natural and the supernatural, divine providence and unmitigated chance, men of the cloth and men of the sword. At times I wished it went deeper, but there was never a time when I wasn’t absorbed.

It isn’t just the historical setting that’s so potent. The way Muldowney and cinematographer Tom Comerford shoot the film is just as puissant. Ominous skies filled with boiling clouds and vast landscapes as beautiful as they are dangerous. And then you have the bursts of violence that gruesomely clash with the monks’ pursuit of piece and piety. They are brutal reflections of the real world outside of the monastery – a revelation of reality young Brother Diarmuid quickly becomes acquainted with.

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And what a stellar cast. This is Holland’s story and he continues to define himself as one of our best young actors. Weber, Armitage and Lynch are all very good. But it’s Jon Bernthal who steals the show. He is mysterious and subdued (he actually took a vow of silence to prepare for the role of a mute). But there is also a blistering ferocity to his performance that that adds yet another layer to his character and the movie.

Made with a small budget and shot in thirty days, “Pilgrimage” sleekly maneuvers through its limitations instead of succumbing to them. One one side it’s a driving medieval action thriller. On the other side is a story that delves into the various shades of faith found within the spiritual (“We are not alone. We are never alone. Have faith”) and the carnal (“Before one can plant new flowers one must cut away the weeds”). I was caught up in it from start to finish and was surprised at how much it gave me to chew on. A second viewing only confirmed my enthusiasm.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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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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“The Impossible” – 4.5 STARS

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Most of us remember the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the catastrophic devastation left in its wake. It was a tragedy on an epic scale and lives around the world were altered forever. “The Impossible” tells the incredible true story of a family who survived this terrible event against truly impossible odds. Going in I was expecting a potentially good disaster flick. But to categorize “The Impossible” as just a disaster movie would be to criminally throw aside the qualities that make this one of the best movies of 2012. You can dismiss it if you like, but I found it to be a devastating yet moving experience unlike anything I’ve ever had with a simple “disaster movie”.

“The Impossible” isn’t a film you enjoy. You endure it while at the same time realizing that you’re seeing something special – an example of skilled filmmaking from a confident and savvy director. You endure it while at the same time soaking up its powerful and committed performances. You endure it while at the same time realizing you’re not being insulted by dumbed down, clichéd material. This is an emotionally heavy movie and I did leave the theater drained. But I was also deeply moved and reminded of that great human spirit found both in the will to live and in the willingness to help others. I love it when a movie does that to me.

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But perhaps where this movie resonated with me the most was in its depiction of a parent’s self-sacrificial love for their children. We see motherly and fatherly instincts to protect their children in the face of danger, instincts that many of us can relate to. But hey, we’ve seen this before in the movies, right? Yes we have but rarely is it depicted with such realistic emotion. Everything coming out of Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts is authentic and completely believable. There isn’t an ounce of artificiality to these characters or how they react to their situations. It’s that genuineness that grabs us and latches us on to both of them.

For those that don’t know, McGregor and Watts play Henry and Maria Belon. They’ve brought their three sons Lucas, Thomas, and Simon along for a Christmas vacation at an beachfront resort in Thailand. Everything is great until, on a warm sunny day as the family plays by the pool, the tsunami hits. The family is splintered by the force of the waves and the rest of the movie documents their quest for survival and to be reunited. I talked about how good McGregor and Watts are but let me also share a little love for the children. The three child actors are fantastic especially newcomer Tom Holland as the oldest son Lucas. He gets the majority of the work between the three and he’s very good. He brings out a toughness and tenacity from his character while also having plenty of those moments that remind us that he’s just a child. It’s an attention-getting performance.

But again. a lot of credit has to go to director J.A. Bayona. It’s amazing that he has only a handful of credits under his belt. The way he lays out the story both narratively and visually shows a skill and technique usually reserved for more seasoned directors. I’ve talked enough about the story but I have to speak about the presentation. I loved the way Bayona uses sound in the first half of the movie. He has a very specific and strategic way of engaging your sense of hearing. He preps your ears in the pre-tsunami scenes by accentuating the sounds of the beautiful environment. Those sounds dramatically change in the post-tsunami scenes where we hear things like raging waters and far away screams. There is also the tension of every distant sound that may resemble the roar of another wave.

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The special effects are also intricate in drawing us into this disaster along with this family. The tsunami and the furious waters are shown just enough to shake us and then ground us in the situation. It’s never overused in an attempt to get more reaction from the audience. It steers clear of that which is one reason why I feel the scrutiny it’s received is misguided. Some have taken issue with the movie for depicting the catastrophe. But I think this is one of the most thoughtful and respectful treatments of a sensitive subject like this that I’ve seen. There have been movies that have exploited traumatic events but this isn’t one of them.

I loved “The Impossible” for a variety of reasons. It avoids soaking us in conventional sentimentality. Instead it tells an intensely affecting story and allows our senses to take it all in and react in our own way. And trust me, I reacted. I teared up more in this movie than in any other I’ve watched and I never once felt manipulated. This is a movie that will wear you out but then pick you back up. It shows us the resolve that lies in the heart of people and reflects how the best comes out of us during the worst of circumstances. This movie will stick with you and even though its a tough watch its a rewarding one and shouldn’t be missed.