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A Film Diary

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Watched: 5 November

Warning: text below contains important plot details.

Given that there doesn’t appear to be much demand for slow-paced, old-fashioned adventure stories among the majority of mainstream cinemagoers in 2017, it’s hardly a surprise that this release only managed to claw back half of its $30m budget (though I suspect that audience indifference to lead Charlie Hunnam – who also starred in King Arthur, another recent and notable box office flop – also played a part in that). It’s a shame, because watching James Gray’s latest is a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, and for all his struggles a leading man, Hunnam’s not exactly bad here… just a little beige.
The screenplay is based on David Grann’s book of the same name, which charts the life of late-19th/early-20th century geographer, soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett, a Devonian who disappeared in real life during an expedition in Brazil while trying to find the remains of a lost city (which he termed ‘Z’, though ‘El Dorado’ might have been more apt). The existence of El Dorado has inspired numerous TV shows and movies, with Aguirre, The Wrath Of God being the most notable of the latter, while the real-life Fawcett and his adventures have begotten numerous characters and stories across various media during the past 80 or 90 years; in fact Indiana Jones was apparently partly based on the explorer, though The Lost City Of Z seems a somewhat po-faced, plodding affair when compared with Indy’s capers (its stateliness has been much-praised elsewhere, though).
Unfortunately Hunnam isn’t able to provide any sparks and can’t quite ignite this film through sheer presence alone, though I think the various hatchet jobs on the actor – which mostly seem to imply that he has all the charisma of a sloth on Xanax – are a tad unfair. For one thing, Gray has clearly set out to make a serious, realistic film, and it’s entirely possible that the actor was given instructions to tone down his performance. That said, there are times here when you expect to see fear and wonder and fire in the eyes of Fawcett, but occasionally what you get is a man who looks like he’s thinking about wallpaper paste. Perhaps it would have been a better move to cast Robert Pattinson – who plays second fiddle to Hunnam as Corporal Henry Costin – in the main role.
There is some lovely photography throughout the film, not just within the jungle but also when the action shifts to the wood-panelled walls of the Royal Geographic Society in London, and on to France and the Battle of the Somme. The abrupt transitions between these locations – or episodes of Fawcett’s life – are jolting, if not wholly unexpected. So… a mixed bag. (**½)

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Watched: 5 November

Oscar-nominated earlier in the year, Land Of Mine is an intense, pared-back drama about the clean-up of landmines on Denmark’s beaches by young German POWs at the end of the Second World War. I say ‘pared-back’ because much of the action takes place in just two locations: either on the vast expanse of sand hiding thousands of ‘Bouncing Betty’ S-mines, all previously placed there by the Wehrmacht, or inside the POWs’ temporary home – a cramped wooden cabin. And there’s certainly an obvious contrast between these two places; on the wide open beach – a place ordinarily associated with freedom and fun, of course – the young boys are forced to carry out their dangerous work, which ends up claiming the lives of some of the characters, while the tension and stress caused by their situation eventually leads to arguments, fights and mental breakdowns, most of which are depicted as happening within the claustrophobic confines of their living quarters.
In reality, around 2,000 German POWs were made to carry out the clean-up of the beaches, but this story concentrates on a small squadron of a dozen or so young men responsible for a small-ish stretch of coastline. They are led by the Danish Sgt Rasmussen (played impressively by Roland Møller), a compelling character whose attitude to his charges fluctuates throughout the film, as time passes and various tragedies occur. None of the German characters or the actors portraying them stands out to a similar extent, though director Martin Zandvliet’s decision to emphasise the group over the individual, and the bond that forms between the prisoners, is to the benefit of the overall piece. At times horrifying, at times vaguely hopeful in the way it depicts brief moments of post-war cooperation and reconciliation, and often tense. (***½)

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Rewatched: 4 November

Third time of watching for me this year. It’s a stunningly beautiful and lyrical cinematic achievement. Not an overstatement. (*****)

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Watched: 3 November

Superior noir by Norman Foster, all canted angles, murky shadows and paranoia-fuelled dashing around San Francisco. Ann Sheridan’s Eleanor does the majority of the latter as she tries to find her husband – who witnesses a gangland murder during the first scene – before the killer can rub him out. Joining or tailing her are Dennis O’Keefe’s smarmy newspaper man and Robert Keith’s curt detective, an excellent pair of supporting characters. Entertainingly snappy. (****)

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Watched: 2 November

A documentary depicting Al Gore’s apparently tireless efforts with regard to raising awareness of issues related to climate change during the past decade, following the success of earlier film An Inconvenient Truth. It looks closely at natural disasters befalling the world, particularly catastrophic flooding, provides a snapshot of Gore’s work relating to the Paris Accord – the film was updated in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull the US’s support earlier this year – and spends time with the former VP as he passionately promotes solar powered energy. I wish more politicians were like Al Gore. (***½)

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Watched: 1 November

This fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary is made up almost entirely of footage shot during a four-day group therapy session within Folsom State Prison. The programme involves incarcerated inmates – including several current and former gang members serving multiple life sentences – and members of the general public, who are apparently admitted after a strict vetting process that involves the input of prisoners (though there is not much information given on the procedural aspects of the whole affair, despite brief use of title cards). What happens is surprising – a very confrontational, testosterone-fuelled series of sessions that include plenty of primal screams and physical contact as the participants work through a variety of issues (though, it must be said, several seem to revolve around long-standing problems with their fathers). It’s utterly compelling to watch, and clearly of considerable benefit to those who take part. (****)

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Watched: 31 October

Stanley Kubrick’s lush, epic adaptation of Thackeray’s18th century tale The Luck Of Barry Lyndon – which tells of an Irishman seeking a place among the aristocracy – looks incredible from start to finish; not only in terms of the period production design, but also the cinematography – with shots specifically designed to recall the paintings of William Hogarth, and DP John Alcott working wonders with natural light (he still holds the record today for the lowest f-stop lens used in a film). It’s a rare director who can sustain such meticulous planning, visual beauty and attention to detail across three straight hours, but the delights of Barry Lyndon don’t just stop with its appearance; there’s the playful narration by Michael Hordern, the enigmatic central performance by Ryan O’Neal and the mark-making supporting turns, my favourite of which is by Leonard Rossiter, who sadly exits the film after roughly twenty minutes. Split into two acts, Barry is very much on the up throughout the first, despite certain disasters befalling him (robbed by a notorious highwayman, caught by the Prussian Army not long after he deserts the British Army, etc.). Having achieved the status he covets, it’s all downhill in the second act as his luck noticeably runs out, though equally various decisions he makes contribute to his downfall from high society. An excellent, thoroughly engaging film. (*****)