Friday, April 21, 2017

In Theaters: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Written and directed by James Gray. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Franco Nero, Ian McDiarmid, Edward Ashley, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello, Matthew Sunderland, Johann Myers, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Murray Melvin. (PG-13, 141 mins)

Though he's been at it for nearly 25 years to significant critical acclaim, James Gray is a filmmaker perpetually in search of his big break. The first half of his career was plagued by long stretches of inactivity--his 1994 debut LITTLE ODESSA was followed by Harvey Weinstein shelving THE YARDS for two years before relegating it to a limited release in 2000 and several years passed before he returned with WE OWN THE NIGHT in 2007--while the second half was stalled by Joaquin Phoenix's Andy Kaufman-esque faux-meltdown while hitting the talk shows to plug 2009's TWO LOVERS, and 2014's THE IMMIGRANT was all but personally sabotaged by Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the kind of movie that cleans up during awards season and buried it in a blatant display of score-settling after clashing with Gray on THE YARDS. Gray could be forgiven if he was starting to feel that the entire movie industry was conspiring against him, but he's built a passionate cult of admirers among cineastes with his consistently excellent work over the years. Arguably the best American filmmaker working today that nobody knows about, Gray is an artist who was simply born too late. Influenced by the icons of past generations, from Sidney Lumet to Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, Gray would've flourished in the 1970s. His early, gritty films have the distinctly vivid NYC feel that Lumet mastered, and THE IMMIGRANT--Gray's best film thus far--recalled the early 20th century immigrant experience in NYC as effectively as the young Vito Corleone scenes in THE GODFATHER PART II or the whole of Joan Micklin Silver's HESTER STREET.

Coming just three years after THE IMMIGRANT, Gray's latest film is the most radical departure of his career thus far, an adaptation of David Grann's 2009 non-fiction chronicle of British Army Lt. Percy Fawcett's obsession with finding a mythical ancient city deep in Amazonia, eventually disappearing with his son sometime in 1925, never to be seen again. As the film opens in 1905, Fawcett (played here by SONS OF ANARCHY's Charlie Hunnam, in a role originally intended for executive producer Brad Pitt), is a career military man and exemplary officer and marksman who's nonetheless consistently passed over for promotions and commendations as a result of his being the son of a drunken disgrace ("He's been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors," one high-ranking general from the "jolly good, old chap!" school harumphs to another). Fawcett doesn't rock the boat, going wherever he's ordered even if it means being away from his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their young son Jack. He's given an unusual opportunity by the Royal Geographical Society to put his cartography skills to use by journeying into Amazonia to map out a border between Bolivia and Brazil, who are ready to declare war over the region's rich rubber plantations. Assembling a small expedition that includes appointed aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and fellow officer and friend Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), Fawcett also traces the source of the Rio Verde river and is hailed a hero when he arrives back in England. But while in the harsh region, Fawcett found traces of the existence of an ancient culture, an indigenous people who left evidence of art, craftsmanship, and language centuries earlier. The Society and its stodgy old-timers are expectedly incredulous, refusing to believe that "savages" are capable of sophisticated, intelligent thought and reason. Fawcett organizes another journey into the region, this time accompanied by James Murray (Angus Macfadyen, BRAVEHEART's Robert the Bruce and CRADLE WILL ROCK's Orson Welles in his best role in years), a veteran Arctic explorer who was second-in-command on the Shackleton expedition. The aging and out-of-shape Murray proves to be dead weight in the heat of the rain forest, growing ill and being sent off on his own with a native guide only to later accuse Fawcett of abandoning and leaving him to die. WWI beckons and Fawcett's explorations are put on hold until years later, when he and his now grown eldest son Jack (Tom Holland, soon to be seen as Peter Parker in the upcoming SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) set off to find Fawcett's Moby Dick--The Lost City of Z (pronounced "zed")--to prove his theories of the existence of the ancient, yet advanced culture.

Even more ambitious than THE IMMIGRANT, THE LOST CITY OF Z finds Gray embracing the '70s auteur spirit, shooting on 35mm film (again working with IMMIGRANT cinematographer Darius Khondji) and actually taking Hunnam, Pattinson, and the other actors deep into remote regions of Colombia to shoot among the hazardous elements. Likewise, the bulk of the scenes at home in England are shot in actual locations (the scene where Fawcett's ship docks back home is a CGI effect that sticks out like a sore thumb). As a producer, Pitt seems to be someone who, when the opportunity presents itself, gets behind filmmakers drawn the kind of classical '70s aesthetic to which Gray subscribes, as seen in his work with Andrew Dominik (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and KILLING THEM SOFTLY) and even Angelina Jolie's turgid but very '70s Antonioni-lite BY THE SEA. The use of film and actual places makes you smell the jungle and feel the sweltering humidity, and it gives THE LOST CITY OF Z a sense of texture and the feeling of an adventure saga of old, something David Lean might've made made with Peter O'Toole in the 1960s or Werner Herzog with Klaus Kinski in the 1970s. It's hard not to be reminded of the Herzog/Kinski masterpieces AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARRALDO throughout THE LOST CITY OF Z, especially early on when, deep in the heart of the Bolivian jungle, they stumble on an opera house right in the middle of a rubber plantation owned by Baron de Gondoriz (Franco Nero), an actual historical figure whose depiction here is an obvious shout-out to Kinski's Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald in FITZCARRALDO. Comparisons to AGUIRRE come later as Fawcett descends into a certain level of madness, though subtly played, as he and Jack face certain death and he tries to calm his son with a wide-eyed declaration of "Whatever happens...it is our destiny!" But ultimately, the film THE LOST CITY OF Z most resembles is Bob Rafelson's acclaimed and unjustly forgotten 1990 exploration saga MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON--a throwback epic even way back then--which examined the rivalry between Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke's attempts--together and separate--to find the source of the Nile.

THE LOST CITY OF Z works best when it's on the river or in the jungle. It's when Fawcett is back home with his family that things get a little shaky. Gray doesn't do the best job managing the passage of time. It's never quite clear, at least as it's presented here, how he's "been gone for years" when every time he returns home, Nina has an infant child. In actuality, Fawcett mapped the Bolivia/Brazil border and discovered the source of the Rio Verde on two different expeditions. Here, it's presented as happening on the same one. While there were expeditions that lasted a few years, he had to return home to England more than is presented here or else the existence of the two kids can't be explained. At one point, it's flat-out mentioned "You've been gone for years," while Nina is holding what looks like a six-month-old baby. Whether we're supposed to make the leap that yes, he's coming home a lot and leaving again, isn't handled in the smoothest fashion. Hunnam turns in a powerful performance, though it's Pattinson who impresses in the quieter sidekick role. Pattinson never seemed at ease with the blockbuster attention that the TWILIGHT movies gave him, as one can see in his career choices since, which have seen him tackling two ambitious if unsuccessful projects with David Cronenberg (COSMOPOLIS, MAPS TO THE STARS) and David Michod's underrated Australian dystopian revenge drama THE ROVER. By the success of TWILIGHT, you'd think Pattinson would be locked in as the star, but he takes the supporting character and really creates something with it, and the bond that develops between Fawcett and Costin feels richer and more developed than anything involving Fawcett and his wife and kids, and the fact that we don't know a whole lot about Jack makes the father-son bonding  and the final act seem rushed, which ultimately compromises the impact of the closing scenes. Still, despite the hiccups, this is majestic, passionate moviemaking that you really don't see anymore (is it a sad state of affairs when you see an establishing shot of the jungle and feel a sense of relief that you aren't hearing CCR's "Run Through the Jungle" as accompaniment?), and we could always use films like THE LOST CITY OF Z that offer a tangible, organic "reality" that you just don't get with today's overabundance of CGI and greenscreen bullshit. I don't know about you, but I'm willing to go a little easy on some screenplay flaws for some believable scenes of actors in actual risky situations in actual unpleasant conditions.

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