The Lost City of Z (Gray; 2017)

Charlie Hunnam plays Major Percival Fawcett, a member of the British military whose father tarnished the Fawcett family name through his various addictions.  “Percy” is also an experienced surveyor, so when war is near breaking out between Brazil and Bolivia due to a burgeoning rubber industry combined with a lack of a distinct border between the two countries, Fawcett is called upon to head to the jungles between the two countries and determine where the border definitively lies.  When he discovers the remnants of what can only be an ancient civilization during his mission, he develops a life long obsession with finding the lost city which only the “savages” in the area seem to know even ever existed and prove that the native people of the area aren’t really savages, after all.

james-gray-explores-jungles-obsession-the-path-to-glory-in-the-e28098lost-city-of-ze28099-review

The marketing campaign for The Lost City of Z made the film look as if it’s a pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) style adventure complete with hostile natives, death defying escapes, and lost treasure hidden around every corner.  What the movie really is, is a biography which covers the span of decades, following Percy from a time shortly after the birth of his first son, through World War I, and finishing with his final trip to the South American jungles.  While archaeology and the Lost City do cast a shadow across the entire film, and Percy Fawcett’s story revolves around them, this is the story of a man, not a mission nor a place.

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson (Henry Costin, Percy’s right hand man), and Sienna Miller (Nina Fawcett, Percy’s wife) headline the cast and all give performances that can best be described as proficient, but never exciting.  All the actors give us a fully developed, realistic character whom we can fully believe, but for some reason they never allow us to become fully invested in them, the simulation of a life is there, but the spark is missing.  The one exception to this is Angus Macfayden as James Murray, a man who insists on accompanying Fawcett on one of his trips which Murray funds.  Murray ends up being a truly pathetic sham of a human being who jeopardizes the entire mission with his arrogance and incompetence, but he is also the one character that truly seems human, like a life we can be honestly witnessing.

lostcity

Competent, but with no spark, is a good way to describe the entire film, actually.  The camerawork gives us some beautiful shots, but what it gives us is more like looking at a landscape which you’d buy at an art fair rather than a Van Gogh or a Renoir.  Sure, the cinematographer (Darius Khondji) knew what they were doing well beyond just where to point the camera, but there was no personal touch to it.  Everything was pretty and easy to follow, but again – no spark.

The story itself is well written, the screenplay is probably the best part of the film, but could have been edited better.  The Lost City of Z is a long movie, 2 hours and 20 minutes, and while I wouldn’t call that overly long if the time is well used, there are large chunks of the movie which could have been trimmed.  The pacing of the entire film is a slow, even one, which doesn’t have to be an issue, but it seems that director James Gray was overly enamored with too much of his material, choosing to linger on conversations which served a very minor purpose or leaving in scenes which added little to nothing to the story.

lost-city-of-z-raft-xlarge

Final verdict:  As a history lesson, The Lost City of Z is actually pretty great, but know going into it that that is what you are getting, a biographical history lesson.   Any adventure and excitement to found in the film is spaced very far apart and doesn’t last very long.  What we have is a very clinical look at an interesting life.  If you take a lot of interest in biographies and history then there is a lot to catch your interest in The Lost City of Z, for anyone else, though, I’m afraid this film may be too slow paced and aloof. There is a lot to learn here, but not a lot to enjoy.

 

Silence (Scorsese; 2016)

This story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in order to find out what happened to their former master and bring him back home both literally and spiritually has a long history.  Silence is originally a novel written by Shusaku Endo in 1966 and was given to Scorsese as a gift when he had finished filming The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  One year later Scorsese was asked by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to play Vincent Van Gogh in Dreams, and Scorsese decided to read the novel while he has working in Japan.  The intellectual outsider’s take on the Catholic religion appealed tremendously to Scorcese and he knew he wanted to make a film out of it but other contracts and projects kept getting in the way until he had finished The Wolf of Wall Street.  Now his passion project of close to thirty years is finally getting a general release and the world gets to see a Scorsese piece focusing on his passion other than New York, his Catholic faith.

The reason Scorsese has become such a legend of film making is his incredible eye for setting up intricate camera shots.  He’s a master at setting up both moods and story using methods which are anything but “by the book” while also often incorporating many pieces.  In Silence, Scorsese uses simpler, though no less beautiful, methods than he normally does, eschewing the wonder of intricacy for the starkness of simplicity.  We see more shots from one angle held for a long time than is normal, and with edits spaced far between.  While due to the sets and set pieces no one could ever confuse Silence with a stage play, the visual work on display here has a lot in common with one worrying more about facial expressions and dialogue for extended periods of time than on scenery and action.silence-refer

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the major roles of the two priests on the mission in Japan, with Andrew Garfield being the true focal character, and both really get a chance to show their acting chops here.  Their characters immediately realize that they may have gotten themselves in far over their heads in a situation where not only is their very existence illegal, but they don’t understand a thing about the people they want to help. Both excellently express their feelings of helplessness, frustration, fear, and bewilderment while still maintaining individual identities.  The rest of the cast aside from Liam Neeson are various Japanese peasants or members of the Japanese Inquisition, and again, the acting on display is phenomenal, possibly even better than that of our main characters.  The Japanese in the film not only have to present complicated relationships to the priests and to the Catholic religion, but they have to do it using a very broken English, but not so broken that it is overly difficult to understand.  Issei Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue gave a particularly impressive performance having to be intimidating, charming, vicious, and ultimately the focus of Silence‘s deep and somewhat astonishing themes about culture and religion, while still having a very thick accent and limited English vocabulary.

In the screenplay which gives us these astonishing themes, we have quite an excellent adaptation, though I can’t speak to how accurate it is since I haven’t read the novel.  The story itself, and this is the one rather large weakness of the film, is very slow paced.  There is little action in Silence‘s 2 hour and 41 minute running time, and even the tension is spread out over long intervals interspersed with conversations on religion and philosophy as well as extended camera shots of the Japanese landscape and its denizens.  I found, in fact, that the majority of the interest and entertainment to be had from Silence is not during the period you are actually watching the film, but in the hours and days afterward when you are letting what you saw play out in your head and you get a chance to interpret and ponder everything contained in the film.  This is a film that demands a second viewing to get from it everything you can, the first viewing really just being little more than a preparation for the true experience.

silence-scorsese-movie-image-2-600x247

As to those themes themselves, I can’t say I am certain I caught everything in one viewing, but Scorsese has a lot to say about the nature of religion in relation to the culture it has permeated.  A Christian in Europe and a Christian in Japan are not only limited in communication, but they can be said to be following an altogether different religion with only the most surface and dogmatic elements of the religion being the same.  How it inspires and affects its followers, and even what the followers perceive themselves to be worshiping can be radically different, and thus the effect the religion has on the culture of a given region can also be radically different.  It’s this observation which gives Silence its power, and which also make it an odd companion piece to Arrival released earlier in the year.  Silence also has strong similarities to the book and television miniseries Shogun in its portrayal of Europeans impacting and causing upheaval in Japanese society.

Final recommendation:  Silence is not a film for everyone.  While it is intensely thoughtful and has as deep a message as one can hope for in cinema, it’s plodding pace and nearly meditative style means that the rewards you get from the film are gained after you have left the theater and find yourself thinking about it, not in the moment.  If you are ready for something methodical and philosophical, however, Silence not only delivers on those fronts, but can also be beautiful and has some fantastic acting on display, as well.

 

 

 

 

Allied (Zemeckis; 2016)

Allied is a film that seems so hard to be trying for Oscar nominations.  From its well regarded stars to its subject matter to the period in which its set to its high profile director it’s a film that is just begging to be important.  What we get, unfortunately, is a somewhat well made slog.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an officer in the Canadian Air Force working for the British government during World War II and Marion Cotillard is Marianne Bausejour a spy in the French Resistance.  These two meet up during an operation in Casablanca, fall in love, and go to London together to get married.  Shortly afterward the RAF discovers that Bausejour may not be who she claims.

Allied is a movie that defies criticism, not really because it is so good or so bad, but because there is so little here.  It’s a fairly dull film with poor chemistry between its actors, a plot so thin and with so little in the way of subplots to speak of that it seems like at least two thirds of what we see is filler to give the movie an ample running time, and dialogue that never stands out in any way.  Allied does a decent job of keeping us guessing about its main premise, dropping what seems like obvious clues as to what is really going on with Cotillard’s character then giving us reason to doubt what we’ve seen over and over again, but that really is all the script and the performances have going for them.

5834e6e562dd7-image

I even look bored during the action scenes.

The production values of the film are better than the story, but even they can be a little inconsistent.  The sets and locations are downright spectacular, looking so real and so much like a war torn era London that you have to wonder how they were able to get the local residents allow the film crew to totally transform their neighborhood for the film’s purposes.  The costumes and interiors had more character than the actors did, and you can truly allow yourself to get lost in the period of the movie, if not so much in the story.

The camera work and special effects, however, are a little more inconsistent.  They are excellent for most of the time, but occasionally give way to an awkward shot or an obvious green screen effect or the like blemishing an otherwise great effort, and in an odd way these stand out mistakes can be more annoying than work in poorly made films as the mistakes really stand out and make for added distraction.

brad-pitt-and-marion-cotillard-fall-in-love-during-wwii-in-allied-trailer

Don’t look over there, look over here.

Allied seems like a film that was made in a hurry.  Everyone involved is quite skilled, and it really does show much of the time, but it’s also obvious that so much of that skill was put into half-assed, “I just want to get this over with” effort.  There’s a lot of good here, a lot of bad, but mostly it’s a lot of filler and lack of passion.  It’s lackluster artisans at work.

Rating:  4.4 out of 10

The Witch (Eggers; 2015)

Applying genre to a work of fiction can be a very useful tool.  The most basic genres of comedy and drama, the foundations of theater and film, let us know at the very least if what we’re going to see has a lighthearted or serious tone.  Go a little farther into science fiction, or romance, or horror and we have an even clearer picture of the tone of what we are about to see.  Sometimes.  Sometimes assigning a genre to a piece of fiction just muddies the waters, and The Witch is one of those cases.

On its surface, The Witch is a horror film about a Puritan family in the early 1600’s (very shortly after Europeans began settling the North American continent) trying to survive in the wilderness after leaving their colony and being beset upon by the witch who lives in the nearby wood.  The storyline focuses much more on familial relations and in particular their Puritan customs and faith.  Supernatural forces drive the narrative, but once they set things in motion, they stay out of the way for long periods and let the prejudices and preconceptions of the family (who don’t appear to have a last name) provide the conflict.

05-review-the-witch-w529-h352

It’s okay.  I’ll get a surname when my father sells me off to some 40 year-old man to be his bride.

Robert Eggers is both the writer and director of The Witch.  The writing on display is good, but tries to be too authentic to the period.  Eggers actually used the first-hand descriptions of witches from trials of the era when writing his dialogue, but rather than immersing the viewer even more into the period, it actually serves as a bit of a distraction.  The dialogue not taken directly from trial notes does not have the same depth of language as that which is, and this fact does call attention to itself, plus having to do a quick translation in your head for much of what the characters just said can also break your immersion in the story.

The acting on display here is also strong for the most part, but can be a little hit or miss. Both Ralph Ineson as William the father of the clan and Anya Taylor-Joy as their eldest daughter Thomasin give excellent performances.   Kate Dickie, the mother of the family, gives a somewhat more uneven performance, however, prone to occasional overacting when compared to most everything else in the rest of the film.  The other major characters are the younger children in the family, and the performances given by them is what you would expect from child actors who have a very proficient director overseeing them.

That directing is the true outstanding element in the film’s overall make up.  While the script is good, but flawed, and the same with the acting, the direction has just the touch it needs to turn this story into a cohesive whole that emphasizes its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses.  The Witch could, in fact, be a text book study on how the more imperceptible aspects of filmmaking can have a strong impact on the story, and how the director is very much part stage magician focusing our attention right where it’s wanted.

The Witch is a more creepy than scary or gory horror film, and it can be a bit uneven in its overall quality, but if you are in the mood for something cerebral that can give you the wiggins in a big way you could do far worse.

 

Rating:  6.2 out of 10

x240-kpj

My performance was the best of all and Shaun didn’t even mention it..