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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Lost City of Z


The Lost City of Z is based on the adventures of Col. Percy Fawcett, a British Explorer from the early-20th Century who many believe served as inspiration for Indiana Jones.  I love the Indiana Jones franchise--the first and third films, anyway--and Z does fall into the action-adventure genre.   But where Steven Spielberg's classics hearken to Saturday morning serials--part homage, part satire, all action--James Gray's true-life odyssey is more contemplative, more poetic, more Zen--more Terrence Malick.  Both the drama and the action scenes have a dreamlike quality.  It took a little while to get in synch with the pace and tone of the film, which is is a throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood historical epics with a touch of Masterpiece Theater, but once we did, it drew us in.

We meet Percy (Charlie Hunnam) in 1905 on a stag hunt with fellow British soldiers, where his intelligence, strategizing, and marksmanship are evident, as is his ambition to return lost honor to the Fawcett name.  Loving wife Nina (Sienna Miller) tries to cheer him, saying some life-threatening situation, a war or something, would come up, and that she and their son Jack would stand by him (though Jack, as he grows, isn't happy about having an absentee dad).  Unexpected opportunity knocks: Brazil and Bolivia are close to war over their murky common border, putting colonial rubber plantations at risk.  The Royal Geographic Society is selected as a neutral third party to map the border, and Fawcett is recruited, due to his proven cartographic skills.

He sets off with seasoned explorer Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), and a team of Englishmen and natives.  Dodging arrows, disease, and wildlife, their trek up the Verde River is a heart of darkness experience, highlighted at the headwaters, where they discover relics--pottery, carved faces in trees--of an ancient culture, mystically guarded by a black panther.  Returning to London a hero, Fawcett is nonetheless jeered by RGS members when he claims there may be a non-Caucasian civilization that predated the British Empire.  An established explorer, James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), argues in Fawcett's behalf, and a second excursion is mounted to find Z (or Zed, in British parlance).  Murray proves more nemesis than benefactor, though, and the expedition becomes an expensive failure, setting Percy's star in another descent.  He returns to his growing Fawcett brood, but they provide little solace to Percy's obsessions.

Opportunity knocks again when WWI breaks out.  Fawcett valiantly leads his brigade against the Germans, but he is hit with chlorine gas, blinding him.  He receives a field promotion and returns home, again a hero, but resigned to retirement and family life.  Miraculously, though, his eyesight returns, and his son Jack, now 22 (played at this age by Tom Holland), has resolved his abandonment issues and is also bitten by jungle fever.  He nags his father, arguing that the two of them should complete the Amazonia quest Percy began almost two decades earlier.  Percy cautions that they will have to seek approval of a higher authority: Nina, who, of course, can't say no.  The RGS and Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, provide funding and the two, traveling light and fast, set off on their fateful excursion.

The Lost City of Z trailers raise swashbuckler expectations, and while there are some harrowing scenes, it is more accurately a historical biography.  As such, it has to establish the narrative, a difficult thing to do during action sequences.  As Gray presents him, Fawcett is sympathetic toward and respectful of native cultures, arguing against the ethnocentrism prevalent at the time.  (Ironically, the only negative reviews we have seen for Z are from critics whose politically-charged jeers resemble those initially heard from the Royal Geographic Society more than a century ago.)  Another tide of that time was international suffrage, which Gray reflects in Nina, though she presents a confused picture--fiercely outspoken and intelligent, yet her "independence" is displayed in her ability to stay at home and raise the kids following Percy's unilateral decisions to leave them for years at a time.

Charlie Hunnam is earnest, forthright, and serviceable, but he lacks the charisma of Benedict Cumberbatch or Brad Pitt (both at times mentioned to star in the film).  Sienna Miller is strong yet sympathetic in the ambiguous role of Nina.  Robert Pattinson, unrecognizable behind a beard and wire-rim glasses, is excellent, bringing philosophical heart to the excursions.  The dialogue is stilted, yet fitting for the film and the period--e.g. Percy is "father" not "dad"--it never strikes a false note, and it fits in well with Darius Khondji's lush cinematography that brings both gauzy Edwardian London and verdant Amazonia to life.  Much like Fawcett's quest, The Lost City of Z's reach exceeds its grasp, but it is a strong effort that haunted us for days afterward.

Awards Level: 7.5 out of 10; Entertainment Level: 8 out of 10

Beauty and the Beast


Beauty and the Beast Review

Why remake a classic that became the first animated film to score an Academy Awards Best Picture nomination?  The 1991 version holds a special place in my heart because I took my daughter, and the joy and awe reflected her 4-year-old face is a cherished memory that proved the film an all-time classic in my mind and heart.  With that unattainable summit, I approached the live action version with some trepidation.  I'm glad to say that director Bill Condon's update provided not only a warm nostalgia trip, it also carved its own path, thanks to insightful casting and intelligent updates.

In prologue, a vain prince (Dan Stevens) is hosting a ball when a wizened old woman shows up, seeking shelter and sustenance.  You know what happens next: rejection, wizened hag turns enchantress (Hattie Morahan), staff becomes knick-knacks, a rose, and castle frozen and forgotten.  Cut to the village where Belle (Emma Watson) lives with her papa, Maurice (Kevin Kline), an eccentric tinkerer.  This time, his daughter's sheer creativity trumps his manual dexterity and her brilliance and curiosity outstrip not only the village's meager library but the village itself.   Enter Gaston (Luke Evans), the preening "catch" who despite the evident longing of every girl in town has eyes only for Belle.  At his side is his too-admiring sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), effete comic villain.

As you will recall, Maurice's misadventure bring him imprisonment at the Beast's castle, causing Belle, all bravery and self-sacrifice, to take her father's place.  She resigns herself to a life of misery in the cold, bleak castle until she discovers humorous housewares with good voices--Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) the candlestick, Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) the clock, Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) the teapot, her son Chip (Nathan Mack) the cup, Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) the wardrobe, Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), and Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Better, the Beast offers the most thrilling part of the castle: his massive library.  And best of all, Belle discovers the suffering and humanity beneath the Beast's gruff, uncouth exterior.  By this time, though, Gaston has massed the townfolk, replete with pitchforks and, well, you know how the story goes.

This version has added 45 minutes runtime to the original, so Alan Menken added several new songs to his original score, each blending seamlessly and performed exquisitely with brio.  The art direction by James Foster and Neil Gottschalk, the set direction by Katie Spencer, and the costume design by Jacqueline Durran aided by typical Disney VFX all combine to recreate and translate the animated film to real yet enchanted world.  In fact, this live action film pays homage to the animated original while carving its own path with an even more independent, intelligent, and assertive Belle, and it is difficult to imagine anyone more suited to play this version than Emma Watson.  She heads a uniformly excellent cast with Dan Stevens' eerie look-alike Prince, Luke Evans' lusty interpretation of Gaston, and Josh Gad's second-banana with a twist.  I think I'll watch it again with my daughter.

8.5 out of 10

Popcorn Flicks: The Great Wall, Kong: Skull Island, and Life


This is the time of the year for excellent independent films, action films with good franchise potential that are testing the waters, and "B" pics hoping to sell popcorn in a slow time for the industry.  Guess which ones we have here.

The Great Wall
On Oscar night, Jimmy Kimmel ridiculed Matt Damon: “He handed an Oscar-caliber role over to his friend and made a Chinese ponytail movie instead,” referring Damon's decision to reject the lead in Manchester by the Sea (a role that earned Best Actor for Casey Affleck).  That "ponytail movie"  was The Great Wall, the story of a Middle Ages-era European mercenary (Damon) who travels with his Sancho Panza-esque sidekick Tovar (Pedro Pascal) to the Far East in search of black powder.  On the way, they run into some scary reptilian creatures and barely escape with their lives, only to be captured by the royal army guarding the Great Wall of China.  There, they meet Lin Mae (Tian Jing) the beautiful but deadly commander of a brave female unit--and soon to become the leader of the entire garrison--and the ever sleazy Willem Dafoe as another Westerner who traveled East for nefarious reasons.  We also learn an alternative history that the Wall was built to protect the Imperial City from the creatures, who have recently risen from their decades-long hibernation, each awakening bringing a smarter and more dangerous enemy.  Director Yimou Zhang mounts a colorful and impressive CGI-display, but the writers' wooden dialogue and increasingly preposterous developments are difficult to defend, even in good-natured fun.
6 out of 10

Kong: Skull Island
We never were fans of the Kong oeuvre after the 1933 classic.  Each retelling sucked me in, each one disappointed.  Only the entreaties of dear friend Ambrose Woolfinger, Ph.D., an expert in gorilla behavior, got us to the theater.  Pleasant surprise: K:SI had thrilling action, imaginative CGI, and most importantly, it isn't another tired remake but rather a re-imagining, a barely-veiled mashup of Jurassic Park and Apocalypse Now (is it a coincidence that Tom Hiddleston's character is named "Conrad"--as in Joseph, the author of Heart of Darkness,  source material of Apocalypse Now?).  At the end of the Vietnam Era, shady DC operative (John Goodman) convinces the government to fund an expedition to a mysterious cloud-shrouded island where ships and planes disappear.  The team consists of the requisite heroes and victims: a bureaucrat (John Ortiz), a lethal tracker (Hiddleston), a spunky Liberal war photographer (Brie Larson), a couple of scientists (including Tian Jing again, nerdy, not heroic, this time), and an air cavalry unit led by war-loving Col. Wild Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson).  Almost immediately, they meet Kong, who carries himself not so much as a great ape as he does a 100-foot tall NFL linebacker who uses palm trees like javelins.  Kong is also a total ass-kicker, which is good because he's not the wildest of the wildlife in the neighborhood.  They also run into John C. Reilly, a downed WWII pilot who has become somewhat of a leader of the aboriginal tribe on Skull Island.  He is the veteran tour guide and comic relief who asks the requisite anachronistic current events questions ("Have the Cubs won the pennant yet?").  Together, the ensemble of cookie-cutter characters crumbles under the mortal threats the island poses, but eventually, the good guys are separated from the bad, bad the guys are separated from their constituent body parts, and we left the popcorn flick having had loads of fun.
7.5 out of 10

Life
A claustrophobic, Alien hopeful with better lighting and neater gizmos but less soul.  Aboard the International Space Station, a diverse crew of six attractive scientists banter and bond, each with just enough backstory to be a caricature: David (Jake Gyllenhaal), a doctor whose record for time in space betrays a wish to stay there because of what we do to each other on Earth; Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), the security specialist with a secret; Rory (Ryan Reynolds), the daring wiseguy tech-mech, Hugh (Ariyan Bakare), the paraplegic scientist who loves the zero gravity that erases his disability; Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada), the computer whiz and brand new father; Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya), the brave Captain.  They are studying soil samples retrieved from Mars and find a one-celled creature; they bring the little cutie and its wavy flagella to life, creating a worldwide sensation.  An elementary class wins a contest and names it "Calvin," after their school: Calvin Coolidge Elementary (which should have been the first warning).  Using a safety glove inside a reinforced glass case, Hugh nurtures Calvin and the creature grows rapidly. A biological analysis shows that Calvin is  "all muscle, all brain, all eye" (now really, is there any chance this is going to turn out well?), and it shows curiosity and no fear (and, as you may have seen in the trailer it has a strong handshake--haven't these folks seen The Blob?).  As expected, things quickly go downhill.  Life has two surprises-one is a shocker; the other telegraphs its punch.  In the end, it's a neat space horror flick and Calvin is coolly creepy, but the paint-by-numbers storyline wastes a very good cast.
7 out of 10

Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper


I guess we should explain how Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper arrive on this spot lumped together.  The two films are not related and each stands alone; however, they are linked together in several key ways.  Respected French auteur Olivier Assayas wrote and directed both films in succession, both opened at Cannes, and Kristen Stewart appears in both as a behind-the-scenes support person to a female celebrity.  In both, Stewart is astute and efficient, shows impressive facility with a phone (it's important, honest), and has a complex relationship with her employer.

Clouds of Sils Maria never made it to the backwaters (where we live).  Life went on, and other movies caught our fleeting attention span.  Then a few weeks ago Personal Shopper arrived at a nearby art house!  So Guy S. Malone, Researcher, and I got cracking.  We streamed CoSM one day and caught PS a few evenings later in the theater, dragging Ambrose Woolfinger and Serfing Dude along for the ride.  Yay!  Here are our musings:

Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas' shrewd drama handles big ideas--the traps and trappings of celebrity, midlife crisis, and intergenerational conflict--and brings them to a personal level through the stellar naturalistic performances of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, with Chloe Grace Moretz in a smaller but key role.  The title of the film refers to a meteorological phenomenon in which the clouds that form over an Italian lake snake through the Maloja Pass in the Swiss Alps ... It's metaphoric.

International film star Maria Enders (Binoche) is on her way to Zurich to accept an award on behalf of the man who wrote Maloja Snake, the play that launched her to stardom 20 years before.  In it, she played a young personal assistant who draws her 40-ish female boss into a lesbian relationship then drives her to suicide.  Coincidentally, up-and-coming director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger) wants to stage a revival of the play, this time with Maria playing the older woman and current Hollywood It-Girl and wild child Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) as the young femme fatale.

Maria is traveling with her own personal assistant Valentine--"Val"--(Stewart), who effortlessly handles two phones at once and is seemingly attuned to Maria's every want and need.  The culturally with-it Val urges a reluctant Maria into taking the role as a great career move, even as a tragic death and the consequential run-in with an old lover throws Maria out of sorts.  She goes into seclusion at a chalet high in the Alps, with only Val for companionship.  There, the two women eat and drink and talk and read lines, with Val taking the role Maria played so long ago.  Days pass, each revealing more and deeper thoughts and feelings.  It becomes difficult to tell the difference between line-readings and real exchanges, so by the time the women set off to witness the mysterious clouds of Sils Maria first hand, the Maloja Snake has brought changes in both of them.

There is more, much more, in fact, but this is a good jumping off point.  Assayas' Mobius-strip screenplay establishes a personal assistant/boss relationship that is also a personal relationship between two women.  He then displays that in a play within the film, and we have life imitating art imitating life.  It's a difficult trick to pull off, and Assayas does, thanks in large part to the relationship Binoche and Stewart sell as if they aren't acting but rather just being.  CoSM was nominated for six Cesar Awards (the French version of an Oscar): Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography.  It would have been deserving of equal Oscar consideration.
8.5 out of 10

Personal Shopper
After Kristen Stewart was awarded a Cesar for her supporting role in Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas wrote Personal Shopper with her in mind, this time in the lead.  There are other actors in the film, but this is Stewart's show.  She is Maureen, an American in Paris and the titular shopper for Kyra (Nora VonWaldstatten), a high-end model.  Maureen spends bits of her time Skyping with her boyfriend or hanging with her brother's girlfriend (Sigrid Bouaziz), but the majority of her life is spent either shopping for her boss or trying to contact her twin brother, Lewis.  Lewis, you see, is dead, a victim of a hereditary heart disease.  He was also a medium--as is Maureen--and the siblings made a pact that whoever died first would send the other a message from beyond.  By night, Maureen stalks through a dark, musty mansion, calling out to Lewis; by day, she tools around Paris on a motorcycle, picking out clothes and baubles for Kyra.

One day, as she is delivering clothes and accessories, Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), Kyra's erstwhile boyfriend.  As each awaits an audience with the model, they strike up a conversation, and both let slip their well-deserved resentment toward the woman.  Frustrated, Maureen drops the clothes and departs to continue her equally frustrating but ever more creepy search for Lewis.  Apparitions become more vivid and threatening, driving her out of the mansion.  Meanwhile, she gets no respite at her job where she begins to receive anonymous texts from someone who seems to be watching her at all times (to Stewart's credit, she can text throughout a shopping trip to London and make it interesting).  The texts challenge Maureen to engage in forbidden behavior.  As if possessed, she complies, leading to ever more risky decisions.  Forces converge that should race to a fitting conclusion; unfortunately, Personal Shopper strolls through the checkout.

With Stewart as his muse, Assayas may have hoped to catch lightning in a bottle twice.  It's not clear whether or not her charismatic performance in Clouds mesmerized him, clouding his artistic sensibilities, but K-Stew is in every scene, often alone.  Thankfully, she is eminently watchable, and Assayas has her reach beyond her typical laid-back cool persona to find sorrow, twitchy anxiety, and fear; and her honest portrayal sells it all.  But unlike Clouds of Sils Maria where she volleyed dialogue with the wonderful Juliet Binoche, each woman's talents upping the other's game, Personal Shopper offers only cursory contact with other humans.  So, while Stewart dominates the screen--and further embeds herself among the best of her contemporaries--the film itself is the lesser for it.
7.5 out of 10

Captain Fantastic, Midnight Special, and The Lobster.


Three Quick and Dirty Reviews

I've been meaning to write for weeks, but the culmination of a long stretch of educational consulting, a surprise presentation of my novel Condemned to Freedom, and TAXES, turned my head from this fun spot.  I got to catch up on some less recent movies with good reputations and mine the current releases for something worth seeing.

There are a few highly regarded indie darlings that even made a few "best of" lists that I never got around to reviewing when I saw them due to lack of time, distraction, or simply laziness.  They nonetheless tap my blogging responsibility--Captain Fantastic and Midnight Special because you may not have considered seeing them (and may not have even heard of them) and you should; The Lobster because critics, film snobs, and lemmings might encourage you to see this and maybe you shouldn't.

Captain Fantastic
Viggo Mortensen earned a Best Actor nomination as Ben, a throwback hippie-type father raising his six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest.  His child-rearing practices mix spartan survival training and martial arts with Classical liberal arts and advanced scientific rigor, and a strong dose of anti-materialism and communism.  Their idyllic state is shaken when they are called by honor to a mission of mercy.  Ben loads up the family bus and the stirring bagpipe strains of Scotland the Brave bring the children face-to-face with modern America, and modern America face-to-face with them.  The journey tests the children's idealistic beliefs, and it is to the credit of director Matt Ross that it doesn't test ours.  While it veers around the corner of corny and maudlin at times, Captain Fantastic's earnest good intentions see it through.
8 out of 10

Midnight Special 
In this engaging and surprisingly star-studded sci-fi drama, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy with powers so strange and terrifying that a religious cult wants to worship him and the US Government wants him for their own nefarious purposes.  Alton's father Roy (Michael Shannon) wants to save him from both.  To this end, he enlists true believing State Policeman Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to help spring Alton from cult-leader Calvin Meyer's (Sam Shepard) ranch compound.  Director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Loving) continues to build his resume for slow-boil suspense, action, and surprise with the rescue and ensuing chase across the rural South to help Alton find his way home.  Along the way, Roy enlists the help of his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) as the fugitives try to stay one step ahead of pursuing cultists and the NSA, led by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).  Close calls, narrow escapes, and a surprise convert lead to a thunderous and fitting conclusion.
8 out of 10

The Lobster
In a dystopian future, "Short-Sighted" David (Colin Farrell) is dumped by his wife, dooming him to a bizarre hotel where single people have 45 days to find a mate or they will be turned into the animal of their choice and set off into the wild.  We soon learn why guests have earned their single status--"Heartless Woman," Lisping Man" (John C. Reilly)--as they move from passionless mixers to deadpan dinners, their only real excitement being the dart gun forays to hunt down "loners," with each hit adding an extra day to their stay.  Unable to find a short-sighted mate, David pretends to be a sociopath, in hopes of matching up with "Heartless Woman." That ends, predictably (and horribly), and he escapes the hotel to live free among the "loners" whose despotic leader (Lea Seydoux) forbids loners to mate.  Of course, David finds a Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) and ... well, what is there to add, really?  Writer-Director Yorgos Lanthimos' film has all the artsy trappings--the muted palette, limited settings, restrained performances.  All of which dazzled critics and art house audiences, and I'm sure they would argue that Guy Malone, Researcher, and I didn't "get" it.  Believe me, we got it: a Monty Python satire, but replacing the Python's good-natured wit with sadism and facile references to a Facebook/Match.com world.  The Lobster is a film more to be appreciated than enjoyed; even at that, we walked out of the viewing room and opened the fridge wanting anything but crustacean.
7.5 out of 10

 
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