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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DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

January 2, 2013

django Greetings again from the darkness. Well, after two viewings and endless analyzing, it’s time to commit thoughts to the page. Over the years, it has become very clear that a Tarantino movie generates a first reaction, and then proceeds to slither through your mind and morph into something else entirely. It would be very easy to accept this latest as an outrageous peek at slavery disguised as a spaghetti western. For most filmmakers, that would be plenty. The “whole” here is exceedingly impressive, but the real joy for cinephiles is in the bits and pieces.

One need not be a Quentin Tarantino expert to enjoy his movies, but there are a couple of things that help. First, he is at heart, a true lover of cinema and quite the film historian, showing sincere respect to the pioneers of this art form. Second, he loves to bring visibility to issues (large and small) by poking a bit of fun at the evil doers who wield unnecessary influence and control over weaker parties. Morality, vengeance, revenge and come-uppance invariably play a role in django4his story-telling … a bonus this time is the inclusion of the Brunhilde/Siegfried legend from Norse mythology and the Wagner operas.

In his two most recent films, QT has been on a kick for creative revisionist history. Inglourious Basterds made a strong statement against the Nazi’s, while this latest goes hard after slave owners. As you might expect, historical accuracy is less important to him than are the characters involved and the tales they weave. And to that point, it seems quite obvious that where in the past, Tarantino would center his attention on crackling dialogue and searing one-liners, he now offers up much more complete characterizations … these are people we understand, even if we don’t much like them.

The obvious love he has for Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, the driving forces behind spaghetti westerns, is plastered on the screen. We even get the beautiful camera work through the snow as a tribute to Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). While this is not a remake or sequel or prequel, Franco Nero’s “I know” response to “The D is silent” generates a laugh and memories django2of a 25 year old Nero in the titular role of Django (1966). The Blaxploitation genre plays a significant role here as well since Jamie Foxx plays Django, a freed slave who buddies up with a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, so that Django can get revenge on those responsible for the torture and mistreatment of his wife.

The details of the stories will not be exposed here, however, I would encourage you to pay close attention to the moments of film brilliance. There is a running gag with townspeople and slaves alike struggling to accept the sight of Django on a horse. You’ll laugh again when Django is offered the opportunity to pick out his own clothes and we next see Foxx in a velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit straight out of The Blue Boy painting from Gainsborough. There is hilarious banter django5between Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Betina as he tries to give guidance on how to give Django a tour of the plantation.  The phrenology sequence is not just unusual, but an incredibly tense scene and fun to watch.  Watching the final shootout reminds me of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch … only ten times as violent!

Some of the best moments occur when we recognize the actors in the vital foundation scenes. Don’t miss: bad guy Bruce Dern, Don Stroud (the drummer in The Buddy Holly Story) as the ill fated sheriff, Tom Wopat as a patient Marshal (“Dukes of Hazzard”), father and daughter Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Jonah Hill who struggles with the eye holes in his “bag”, the eyes of Zoe Bell, Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), “Dexter” dad James Remar in two roles, Walton Goggins as a gunslinger, Michael Parks (multiple roles in Kill Bill and Grindhouse), and of course, Mr Tarantino himself (as an explosive cowpoke from down under).

django3 While each of these provide wonderful moments, the real bingo occurs courtesy of the main performances of Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr King Schultz, bounty hunter), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie, plantation owner), and Samuel L Jackson (Stephen, Candyland house slave). Any combination of these characters in any scene could be considered a highlight. It’s especially enjoyable to see DiCaprio cut loose after so many uptight characters recently. Samuel L Jackson has long been a Tarantino favorite, and his delivery as the diabolical Uncle Tom house slave who has some secrets of his own, will bring the house down when he first sees Django and, in a much darker way, when his suspicions are confirmed. Power is a big player in the story, and even as a slave, Stephen knows what to do with power when he has it. Mr. Waltz won an Oscar for his Inglourious Basterds performance, and his dialogue here is every bit as rich. It’s obvious how much Tarantino enjoys hearing his words spoken by Waltz. Foxx’ performance could be easily overlooked, but it’s actually the guts of the film. He is quiet when necessary and bold when required.

django - dj We must also discuss the soundtrack. Franco Migiacci‘s original “Django” theme is featured, as are classics and a new song from the great Ennio Morricone. If you doubt the originality of the soundtrack, try naming another western that utilizes a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur. How about a spot-on use of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name”? The film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, and Fred Riskin takes over for Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010.

It should also be noted that the script puts hip-hop to shame by using the “N-word” more than 100 times. It is a bit disconcerting, and you can google Spike Lee’s comments if you care to read more on the topic. Otherwise, dig in to the latest gem from Tarantino and appreciate his approach and genius … either that, or stay away!

**NOTE: I have purposefully avoided the scandal associated with the film.  If you are interested in reactions from the African-American community, there is no shortage of published reports on those who support the film and those who are outraged.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC8VJ9aeB_g


LETTERS TO JULIET (2010)

May 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, for me there is a fine line between an acceptable chick flick and one that is pure fluff. Oddly enough, this one brings a few fine moments to the screen despite its simplistic predictability and overall lack of creativity.  It easily could have been titled “Where for art thou, Lorenzo?”.

Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia) stars as Sophie, a wannabe writer who stumbles on a 50 year old letter at the wall of Juliet in Verona. She then tracks down the Secretaries of Juliet who let her answer the letter. Poof! Just like that, the author of the original letter (a radiant Vanessa Redgrave as Claire) shows up in Verona to meet Sophie and track down Lorenzo, the lost love of her life (the reason for the letter).

There are absolutely no twists or surprises in the movie. We recognize immediately that Sophie and her fiancé (a miscast Gael Garcia Bernal) are all wrong for each other. How this will end is very clear when Claire’s grandson (Heath Ledger clone Christopher Egan as Charlie) first confronts Sophie in cliched rude Brit manner.

The road trip to find lost love Lorenzo is of course a road of discovery for not just Claire, but also Sophie and Charlie. I am struggling to avoid typing yada, yada, yada. The coolest part of the film is when Claire finds her Lorenzo … a dashing Franco Nero on a galloping steed, who also happens to own the vineyard for Claire’s favorite wine (insert eye roll here).

Anyway, the Tuscan scenery is staggeringly beautiful. And watching real-life couple Redgrave and Nero walk hand in hand is very heart-warming. These two first fell in love during the mid-60’s while filming Camelot. This cost Ms. Redgrave her first marriage (famed director Tony Richardson), but the lovers did not marry until 2006. It’s never a good sign when real life is more interesting than the movie.

If you are cool with an obvious and uncomplicated story line (similar to Amy Adams’ Leap Year) set in the gorgeous Tuscan wine country, then the film will be fine for you. On the other hand, director Gary Winick was also responsible for Bride Wars, so the least he can do is turn in his director’s card and move into a second career dealing with pure maple syrup.