THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

April 20, 2017

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues (similar to Out of Africa) that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The minor quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our true to life hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us pining for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Although the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

watch the trailer:

 

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DIFF 2017: Day Eight

April 9, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s the second Friday of DIFF which means a high profile new release in the prime time slot. This year it’s The Lost City of Z. The epic and historical tale hit theatres nationally next week, so it’s nice to get an early peek. Below is a recap of the 2-and-a-half films I watched on Friday April 7:

 

THE LOST CITY OF Z

We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji’s (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us wishing for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Though the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

 

CHEER UP (documentary)

Well I was due for my first major disappointment, and it came courtesy of a documentary with an interesting synopsis. The leader of Finland’s “worst” cheerleading squad travels to Texas to gain tips and training ideas to improve her squad’s performance. I only lasted 40 minutes of the listed 86 minute run time, and I’m still not sure if this is director Christy Garland’s final version of the film, or if this was simply a rough cut rushed for a festival screening. And that’s where I will leave my comments

 

SKY ON FIRE (Chongtiang Huo)

A late night screening of an action movie from China/Hong Kong has a responsibility to the genre to check certain boxes, none of which included thought-provoking or socially conscious issues. Instead, success depends on a visual onslaught of explosions, car chases, helicopter flights, sleek and modern tall building sets, loud and massive gun battles, and confined area martial arts duels.

Writer/director Ringo Lam and his cast (Daniel Wu, Hsiao-chuan Chang, Amber Kuo) subject themselves to all of the violent perils listed above, and even toss in cancer and the battle for revolutionary healing drugs to ensure there is never a moment of peace and quiet during the film.

The “ex-stem cells” are the McGuffin that creates the good guys vs bad guys scen ario. Will this medical breakthrough be used to cure cancer and other diseases, or will they be weaponized for power? So while that’s the question asked in the film, my movie-buddy JJ asked the real question … has Michael Bay already begun work on an Americanized version? Surely that mammoth skyscraper explosion is already on his Bay-splosion radar.


CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

October 19, 2015

crimson peak Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts.” Leave it to writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to make this distinction. The line is spoken by our lead character Edith, who is striving to write like her literary idol, Mary Shelley. She is explaining her most recent writing effort to a publisher, but the line also represents the movie we are watching … ghosts appear (some grisly ones at that), but they certainly aren’t the focus.

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century as young Edith has just experienced her first family tragedy, the passing of her mother. She grows into an independent young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) being raised by her successful self-made-man father Curtis Cushing (played by Jim Beaver, “Justified”).  Tip of the cap to del Toro for his tip of the cap to the horror film great Peter Cushing.  Edith has remained steadfast in her independence despite the advances of her lifelong friend, the handsome Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”).  Things change when a mysterious stranger sweeps into town. Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investors for his “clay harvester”, a machine he designed to automate what now takes many men and much hard labor.  The elder Cushing senses something is “off” about Sharpe and his sister and travelling companion, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but the strong-minded Edith soon finds herself waltzing and blushing with Sir Thomas.

It would be pretty easy to recap the balance of the story, but that is actually the film’s weakness. It plays like a re-imagined script from one of those old 1940’s or 50’s movies that I watched on Friday nights as a kid. In other words, it’s not very frightening and the viewer’s enjoyment is totally based on the atmosphere. Fortunately, that’s where del Toro and his team excel. The set design (Tom Sanders) and costumes (Kate Hawley) are truly spectacular and among the best ever seen, especially for a horror movie. Dilapidated Allendale Manor features a hole in its roof allowing the elements to freely enter the colossal entry foyer. The furnishings and fixtures, as well as the layout of the house are perfection as a setting. The costumes for all characters are superb, but pay special attention to the fabrics and frills of Edith and Lucille. Camera work from Cinematographer Dan Lausten ties it all together for the eerie feel.

The film is so stunning and interesting to look at that it’s actually quite easy to forgive a story that has little to offer, and often … and I do mean often … relies on horror film clichés in what should be moments of difference-making. Having five such talented lead actors, who each go “all in” for their characters, help us overlook the script weakness, and it’s really the look and atmosphere of the film that make it worth watching … not words I have written many times over the years. For del Toro fans, you should know that Doug Jones does play the creepy ghost that inspires Edith’s first words (as narrator) … “Ghosts are real, that much I know”.

watch the trailer:

 


PACIFIC RIM (2013)

July 15, 2013

pacific rim1 Greetings again from the darkness. Plain and simple … this is not my kind of movie. I fully understand there exists many movie-goers who are thrilled that director Guillermo del Toro‘s latest has finally hit theatres, but I really struggled with this mash-up of Transformers, Battleship and Godzilla, as well as what I believe to be a new world record for noise level. That being said, I do have some positive comments to make.

The technological aspects of the movie are exceptional. It has a unique look with some of the best CGI ever seen. There is no shortage of action, which is typically good for an action movie … but here, it seemed that one monster vs robot fight led right into the next one, and the next. The cast is very talented and represent some of the most entertaining shows on TV: “Sons of Anarchy”, “True Blood”, “Homeland”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Justified”. The downside is many of them don’t seem overly excited to be spouting some of the worst dialogue of the year.

pacific rim4 The basic story is a war between mankind and the Kaiju – monsters from another world. World leaders work together to develop the Jaeger program … fighting robots co-piloted by two people who are drift-compatible (a kind of mind meld that let’s them fight as one). After years of struggling against the Kaiju, the world leaders decide instead to build a security wall around the main cities. Clearly they had not seen World War Z or read any of the “fence” stories from the US/Mexico border. No surprise, but the robots have to be reactivated for the climactic battle scene.

pacific rim3 Iris Elba runs the Jaeger program and commands the pilots that include Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Max Martini, and Robert Kazinski. Hunnam is battling inner demons after the death of his brother (Diego Klattenhoff). For some reason, Hunnam plays his part with an overdose of bland. He seems to have been cast for his effectiveness in his shirtless scenes. Martini and Kazinski stand out here, probably because competition is so uninspired … oh and they have a dog. Ms. Kikuchi seems to be under the impression that her scenes were rehearsals as she can’t quite hash out a consistent approach (translated: she is painful to watch). The usually great Elba alternates between a mumbled whisper and a full-out yell … neither working too well. His “canceling the apocalypse” speech seems to be right out of Independence Day.

pacific rim2 The comedy relief is provided by the shared scenes of Charlie Day and del Toro favorite Ron Perlman. Day is at his screechiest and Perlman at his most flamboyant, but it’s not enough of the story to salvage much hope. Instead we get an endless number of hand-to-hand combat scenes  the Jaeger and Kaiju. And they mostly all look the same fight: waist deep in water while its dark and rainy. Unless they happen to be completely underwater, where it’s even darker.

For all the negatives tossed out here, it must be ended with the reminder that the movie is a technical marvel to look at. I much prefer del Toro in the Pan’s Labyrinth mode, and I would even prefer the old Japanese Godzilla monster-fests to this, but he has raised the bar for robotic and monster CGI. Maybe that’s enough for your eyes and ears.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of CGI and prefer your movies BIG and LOUD!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t have ear protection

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ef6vQBGqLW8