Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Lost City of Z

I hope like heck that I get a chance to see this on 35mm sometime soon; it's a smart, impressive film to start with but its photography of the jungle in which its main character spends much time is not just spectacular, but the sort of environment that 2K digital never seems to do justice. The credits seemed to indicate that there were 35mm prints made as opposed to it simply being photographed on film, although I haven't heard from anybody who has seen one in the wild, so it's possible I just misread them.

Hopefully, Amazon and Bleecker Street have made one or two to send around when repertory screens inevitably start calling. I can almost see that becoming a regular strategy - make a few prints, but not use them on the original release when they'll get run a few times a day for several weeks, just when you know they'll play once or twice with a good projectionist in the booth. Maybe we'll see when/if the Brattle brings it out for a screening later this year, which I could see happening. I caught this in what is probably its last weekend in the Boston area, and expect that a lot of folks are going to feel bad about just missing it, especially if it gets awards talk.

At any rate, I find the timing of seeing it theatrically kind of amusing - there was a lot of talk last weekend about how Cannes was looking to exclude films which don't intend a theatrical release in the future, a move clearly aimed at Netflix, which had a couple of films there which likely won't see theaters in a number of characters, with Bong Joon-ho's Okja being the one this all crystallized around. I'm with those who want releases in general principle - something I'd elaborate on if I could find the time - and I think The Lost City of Z is a great example of why. What a loss it would have been if this had landed at Netflix rather than Amazon, immediately vanishing into a walled garden rather than anybody getting a chance to see it on a big screen and likely being close to invisible when the time came for awards consideration.

(Plus, it's fun to have a movie about exploring the Amazon in the hands of a company with the same name, right?)

The Lost City of Z

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 21 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

Stories like the one James Gray tells with The Lost City of Z can often seem to be just as much a relic of bygone eras as the evidence of fallen civilizations that the people playing them out find. The world has fewer unexplored corners, the people doing the exploring have a few more questions about filling them in, and wrestling with these questions doesn't seem like the basis of an entertaining adventure. That relative rarity and difficulty is what makes Z such a terrific and different night at the movies; it combines the excitement of early-Twentieth Century pulp with the perspective of the Twenty-First.

The film starts in 1905; when Major Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a capable soldier but one who has had little opportunity to make a mark or achieve social rank. When offered a commission by the British Geographical Society to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil, he hesitates - it will mean two years away from his wife Nina (Sienna Miller), pregnant with their second child - but ultimately accepts, sailing to South America and making his way up the Amazon with fellow explorers Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), as well as native guide Tadjui (Pedro Coello). They lose people, but they do finish their mission, with one final surprise: Fawcett finds scraps of pottery, indications of ancient settlement and civilization which give new credence to legends of a city of gold. The desire to find this city, which he calls "Z", will come to define him, leading to further expeditions: One, before the war, sponsored by aristocrat James Murray (Angus Macfadyen); one after, undertaken with now-grown son Jack (Tom Holland).

That's a lot of time to cover, but director James Gray is relaxed with his pacing, allowing the audience to feel that passage even if there's not a lot of padding. As he lays out his themes clearly, he seldom seems to be wasting time. Take the opening scenes, where the Fawcetts are guests at an estate for a hunt. It seems disposable in terms of the actual plot, but Gray establishes so much that will shape the way that he and the audience will see the world and time over the rest of the film: The sight of the hunt is that of the British Empire in its fine uniforms attempting to overwhelm a deer with sheer numbers, while Percy's breaking off from the pack establishes his capability for both excellence and savage obsession, even if there is very little satisfaction in the scene of him standing over the dying animal. He and Nina talk about the lack of medals on his chest - he has never been sent to war - in a way that acknowledges both the attitudes of the time and how these two can see some of the absurdity of it. Before the action proper has truly started, the audience has an unusually nuanced perspective on these characters and the world they live in, and it's been done through action and moments of sly wit, so the time spent doesn't feel like clunky set-up.

Full review on EFC.

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