THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images, brief Strong Language and some Nudity

Directed by: James Gray

Written by: James Gray

(based on the book THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann)

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Edward Ashley, Ian McDiarmid & Franco Nero

Percy Fawcett was a British explorer whose life was so interesting that David Grann wrote a non-fiction book about him. That book, titled THE LOST CITY OF Z, sold many copies and garnered lots of critical praise. Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B bought the rights to a film adaptation and seven years later, here we are with THE LOST CITY OF Z. I was quite looking forward to this film. I’ve read about Fawcett’s life and was intrigued to see how a big screen version of it might play out. While LOST CITY OF Z has moments of greatness, a couple of problems significantly weigh this film down.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is looking to redeem his disgraced family name by completing the treacherous task of mapping Amazonian jungles. On his first venture into the dangerous territory, Percy hears rumblings about an ancient undiscovered city from his native guide. Fascinated by the prospect of discovering this lost city, Percy ventures back on another adventure. Percy’s obsession over finding this lost city (which he calls Zed) soon hits a boiling point that threatens to tear his family apart and possibly lead to a very unfortunate fate.

LOST CITY OF Z was filmed in South America and its gorgeous locations bring an air of authenticity to the entire project. The sense of possible death lurking all over the jungle feels threatening. We see all sorts of dangers present in: hungry piranhas, scary snakes, flesh-eating diseases, and natives who enjoy shooting arrows at any white person who may be coming down their river. This film’s adventure scenes are appropriately adventurous and made even more so because they come from reality. One long sequence that sees Percy and his two companions meeting a friendly tribe of cannibals is absolutely fascinating to watch.

The performances range from good to great. Charlie Hunnam, who’s been wooden in the past, is great as Percy Fawcett. He plays a proper British gentleman who has adventure in his heart and seems to always be perpetually excited. Hunnam also gives an appropriate amount of weakness to the man’s softer side and his faults. The latter mainly come in scenes that show his neglectful attitude towards his family. Sienna Miller plays Fawcett’s wife and delivers a powerful performance as a woman who has to cope with her always-absent husband. Hunnam, Miller and Tom Holland (as their grown-up son) have believable chemistry as a family unit, which convincingly sells the quiet dramatic scenes.

Robert Pattinson delivers one of the best performances of his career (which isn’t exactly high praise) as Fawcett’s rough-around-the-edges, witty companion Henry Costin. Edward Ashley gets in some good lines as another adventurer Arthur Manley. A big stand-out is Angus Macfadyen as explorer James Murray. I won’t dive too much into this character for fear of spoiling some unexpected plot turns, but I will say that I wanted to punch Macfadyen’s Murray in the face multiple times.

The cinematography that brings this film to life is grand and lush, making the jungle scenes even more exciting and beautiful to look at. There also seems to be a deliberately duller color scheme and lighting to Fawcett’s home scenes and London interactions. This visual contrast was an interesting way of showing how bored he was in these locations and how he’d much rather be exploring the jungle. However, the film falters quite a bit in its pacing and a handful of dull spots. This film is over two hours long and feels like it.

THE LOST CITY OF Z attempts to cover not only Fawcett’s quest to find the titular ancient city, but also tries to be a biopic of his entire life. This means we get a lengthy chunk of the film devoted to his service in World War I. There’s a battle scene that feels like it’s been ripped out of an entirely different movie and some conversations in a bunker are flat-out boring to watch. The same can be said of an overly long prologue that seems entirely useless in the story’s grand scheme. Some might say that it was there for character development, but we already get plenty of character development after that prologue and before Fawcett’s first jungle journey.

THE LOST CITY OF Z has moments of greatness, mainly the scenes in the jungle and solid performances from everyone. However, the bloated running time and messy pacing really drag this movie down quite a bit. I’m glad that I watched this film for those great bits of filmmaking and acting. However, the narrative is drawn out to the point of being dull and that kills any possible enthusiasm for a second viewing. This is a one-and-done history lesson of a film.

Grade: B-

LIVE BY NIGHT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Written by: Ben Affleck

(based on the novel LIVE BY NIGHT by Dennis Lehane)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper & Robert Glenister

Before the end of 2016, Ben Affleck’s LIVE BY NIGHT was being touted as a potential gangster epic and an Oscar contender. Things didn’t quite work out in Affleck’s favor though, because this film wound up empty-handed with no major award nominations and lost an estimated 75 million at the box office. This was especially disappointing for me because I’m a giant gangster movie fan and Affleck has proven himself to be a capable director/writer in the past (e.g. THE TOWN). A lot of NIGHT’s problems come down to its mixed bag script and messy pacing, but it still remains a decent outing for gangster fans.

It’s the 1920’s and the place is Boston. Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WWI veteran turned outlaw. Joe doesn’t consider himself a gangster, but he hangs out and commits crimes with gangsters on a regular basis. Joe also has developed a major crush on Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the gal pal of dangerous Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). After things unexpectedly go south, Joe finds himself saddled with a three-year prison sentence and a desire to get revenge on White. Joe’s chance for vengeance comes in a highly illegal job opportunity in Tampa, Florida. However, Joe’s newfound gangster lifestyle (though he still refuses to call himself a gangster) presents a series of new challenges.

The first positive qualities that immediately stick out in LIVE BY NIGHT are stellar production values. This film nails the time period it’s presenting through lavish costumes, convincing effects, old-fashioned settings, and authentic-looking vehicles. This is a period piece gangster story through and through. However, it also contains a number of well-worn gangster clichés. These include: an admittedly cool car chase, Joe’s by-the-numbers quest for revenge, lots of threat-laden conversations, a few bullet-ridden confrontations, and a cheesy voiceover narration that guides the viewer through the entire story.

LIVE BY NIGHT injects a fresh component into the clichéd Prohibition-era gangster story through its Tampa, Florida location. Plenty of gangster epics have been set in Boston, the Bronx, and Chicago, but I can’t think of many that took the Tampa approach. This setting throws a new an interesting flavor into the clichéd gangster recipe. One business-related subplot involves Joe building a partnership with a Cuban crime family and the most entertaining events involve a bloody feud with the Ku Klux Klan. Another interesting challenge comes in the backwoods religious folks who are deeply opposed to rum-running and gambling…because God.

Even with this neat location, LIVE BY NIGHT falls far short of its gangster epic ambitions. This is mainly due to shoddy pacing and one unconvincing subplot. The film’s opening fifteen minutes are dedicated to a prologue that somehow feels like it’s on fast-forward, despite taking fifteen whole minutes to set up. The film also has a disappointing tendency to run through some of the most interesting bits (like a gang war and Joe rising to the top of Tampa’s rum-running businesses) in montages. The script’s most egregious offense of poorly developing its plot comes in a half-assed romance that consists of a dance montage, brief flirting and one of the worst sex scenes that I’ve sat through in a long time. Still, we’re supposed to care about Zoe Saldana as Joe’s newfound love-interest, even though the viewer is given no reason to care at all.

Ben Affleck deliberately plays Joe as an “outlaw,” not a gangster. Sure, he affiliates with gangsters on a daily basis and isn’t above killing or stealing, but he’s no “gangster.” Affleck’s downbeat performance as solemn-faced Joe has good bits and bad bits, ultimately making for a so-so protagonist. Chris Messina is far better as Joe’s comic relief sidekick and lends a fierce attitude to the action-oriented moments. Chris Cooper gives the film’s best performance as a “non-corruptible” sheriff, while Elle Fanning has a memorable part as his faithful preaching daughter. Meanwhile, Robert Glenister and Remo Girone are intimidating as two rival mob bosses. Disappointingly, Brendan Gleeson has about five minutes of screen time and Sienna Miller plays an over-the-top Irish stereotype.

LIVE BY NIGHT has the pieces of a great film lurking somewhere within its messy execution, but bad pacing and a few forgotten subplots really kill this film’s lofty aspirations. The Tampa location adds much-needed freshness into the fun (but dusty) gangster clichés. The cinematography is beautiful and the production values are big. Occasionally, a truly fantastic scene makes its way through the film’s numerous problems (e.g. a suspenseful car chase, a showdown with the KKK, and a bullet-filled finale in a hotel). Still, LIVE BY NIGHT can’t live up to its gangster epic promises. This is an entertaining enough time for gangster movie fans, but don’t expect anything great.

Grade: B-

HIGH-RISE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Images, Strong Sexual Content/Graphic Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

HighRise poster

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Written by: Amy Jump

(based on the novel HIGH-RISE by J.G. Ballard)

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy & Keeley Hawes

A film adaptation of HIGH-RISE has been in the works for decades. The project passed through many hands and was originally thought to be unfilmable. Despite the odds being stacked against him, director Ben Wheatley took the reins of J.G. Ballard’s novel with a screenplay written by Amy Jump (who also happens to be Wheatley’s wife). It should be noted that I had read Ballard’s novel before walking into this movie and I was still taken aback numerous times by on-screen shocks, unforgettable moments, and a consistently uncomfortable tone. This oddball dystopian-ish sci-fi thriller is sure to gain a steady cult following over time, wind up the subject of many film theory essays, and serve as one hell of a unique ride!

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Searching for a fresh start in life, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) decides to move into the 25th floor of an illustrious high-rise apartment tower. The building is extravagant in its layout and has everything you could possibly want available within its walls. These accommodations include: swimming pool, roof garden, school, spa, gym, and even, a supermarket. There’s practically no reason to leave and after one man plummets to his death from the 39th floor, residents become more reluctant to venture into the outside world. A class system forms in the building, with the most powerful residing on the highest levels and the poverty-stricken surviving on the lower floors. As the tower deteriorates (frequent power failures, no running water, clogged garbage shoots), so do its residents. The high-rise becomes a forty-story battleground for a literal class war.

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HIGH-RISE’s script follows a handful of main characters through various levels, but disturbing deeds and darker than dark humor are equally present in a number of the film’s subplots. The lack of a consistent main story might turn certain viewers off. The film doesn’t give you a likable protagonist, but that’s sort of the point. This is basically LORD OF THE FLIES relocated to a high-rise apartment tower. Speaking of which, this movie’s atmosphere is unnerving in part because it feels like an alternate version of the ’70’s. Completing this illusion are a few tongue-in-cheek song selections, including two covers for ABBA’s S.O.S. (one of which is used to highlight an especially disturbing sequence). The detail put into every inch of the high-rise setting is breathtaking as it seems like you’re gazing into another world, one that’s simultaneously familiar and eerie. One might argue that the high-rise tower itself is the real star of the movie and sets most of the action in motion.

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Even though the main character is wealthy and has a medical degree, Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing as an everyman. He’s obviously supposed to represent the middle-class and doesn’t necessarily want to get involved with the ever-growing chaos in the building. However, we see his attitude slowly shift as the film moves forward, captured wonderfully in a particularly chilling montage. As Laing’s upstairs neighbor/love interest, Sienna Miller is great as single mother Charlotte Melville. This character wasn’t given too much thought in the novel and has more time dedicated to her here. The same can be said for the characters of lower-class pregnant mother Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), snobby actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and sadistic top-floor resident Ann Royal (Keeley Hawes).

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Jeremy Irons is somewhat sympathetic as Anthony Royal, a top-floor architect who stands out from the horde of murderous aristocrats. The most memorable of these high-society monsters is gynecologist Alan Pangbourne, played to teeth-snarling perfection by James Purefoy. Finally, Luke Evans steals every scene he’s in as lower-level Richard Wilder, who becomes a literal social climber as he begins to scale his way to the top of the building. Wilder is arguably the film’s main antagonist and his frequent rage-filled outbursts are equally amusing and frightening to behold.

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The structure of HIGH-RISE can be split into two distinct halves. The first half slowly builds tension and unease, while developing the story’s many characters along the way. We see petty squabbles become borderline fist-fights and witness injustices between floors (lower levels suffer from power failures, rich dwellers have a fancy private elevator). Then we get the 39th floor incident (already mentioned in my summary) and things go to hell in a hand-basket. Charlotte notes that “It’s as if everybody suddenly decided to cross some line,” and she couldn’t be more correct. Viewers craving mayhem with manners will find their thirst quenched by sophisticated madness in the last hour.

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HIGH-RISE is not necessarily pleasant or easy to watch (nor should it be), but it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, wholly unique, and disturbing as bloodshed is treated with a casual indifference. A child calmly munches on corn flakes whilst watching a man brutally beat another man to death over a bucket of paint. People casually walk by a swimming pool littered with floating corpses. Hulking piles of garbage bags become prevalent in every shot as the building slowly falls apart and many residents decay along with it. Even though I had read the novel before watching this movie and knew what to expect, I was constantly being thrown for a loop in very good ways. HIGH-RISE is definitely not for everybody. People will love it and just as many people (if not more) will absolutely hate it. I imagine that fans of experimental and counter cinema will appreciate the dark genius of this film. I surely won’t forget my visit to the HIGH-RISE and plan on returning many times in the future.

Grade: A+

BURNT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout

Burnt poster

Directed by: John Wells

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Matthew Rhys, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson & Lily James

The Weinstein Company (notorious Oscar whores that they are) flaunted BURNT as a potential awards season offering before reviews were even in. Despite the heavy pre-release hype (opening in select theaters before expanding onto screens nationwide), showcasing many talented performers, and following a screenplay by Steven Knight (who recently impressed with LOCKE), BURNT is a half-baked melodrama that tastes a bit bland (pardon the obvious cooking puns). The film may be technically well-made (shot on location in London and using an almost Kubrickian shooting style) with a number of strong performances, but it crumbles under the weight of cheesy clichés and a generically by-the-numbers plot.

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Meet Adam Jones. He’s a former chef turned coked-up bad boy turned professional chef again. After running a pristine French restaurant into the ground, Adam Jones sentences himself to three years of shucking oysters before returning to London in hopes of adding a third Michelin star to his reputation. This is easier said than done as Adam finds himself beset by many obstacles. One of which is securing a venue, then there’s the process of employing a talented staff who are willing to follow his lead and tolerate his fiery temper. Finally, he must concoct a menu that equates the level of a culinary orgasm. Adam will face his demons, open himself up to others, and accept his faults…or fail horribly in the process.

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The best thing in BURNT is front and center on its poster: Bradley Cooper. Cooper has proven himself as a performer who can make even the most menial of characters into someone interesting. The role of culinary bad boy Adam Jones is no different. Adam Jones commands the screen with an authority that echoes of a young Gordon Ramsay, someone who clearly served as a real-life inspiration for this protagonist. Bradley Cooper’s performance is easily the best thing to be found in this film…well, that and lots of plates of gorgeous food. There are many shots of delicious looking dishes that will make your stomach growl. It’s probably not the best idea to watch this movie when you’re hungry.

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The supporting cast members don’t necessarily pale in comparison to Cooper’s dominating presence though as we get Sienna Miller as a frustrated mother/cook who also doubles as a potential love-interest for Cooper. As Cooper’s former friend turned co-worker, Daniel Bruhl is totally enjoyable and is doing his damndest to bring believable emotion to his scenes. Special mention should also be made towards Matthew Rhys as a rival three-star chef who adds more flavor into the mix. The chemistry between Cooper’s and Rhys’s characters is genuinely fun to watch as they both hate each other in an almost friendly way. Also on the sidelines are: Omar Sy (as a former enemy turned co-chef), Alicia Vikander (as a familiar face from Adam’s past), and Emma Thompson (as Adam’s frequently glimpsed therapist).

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The performances are definitely not the problem in BURNT. Instead the film’s big flaws primarily stem from a weak script. There’s plenty of interesting drama to be found in real-life kitchens. Just stick on any one of Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows and you’re bound to be hooked for at least one episode. Some of that drama and suspense translates into the plot as Adam desperately tries to earn a third star to his name and strives for constant perfection (a goal that doesn’t seem realistic). It would be nice if the script didn’t sweep Adam’s mistakes under the rug with haphazard explanations, vague exposition-filled conversations, and silly coincidences. After all, it seems like the film’s overall message is to face one’s demons and accept ourselves as imperfect creatures. The screenplay frequently undermines itself with frequent predictable plot developments and unbelievable clichés (to go into specifics would be delving into spoiler territory). BURNT’s script isn’t up to the level of its performances and that’s a noticeable (often distracting) problem.

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You can pretty much guess where BURNT is heading from the moment it starts and there’s nothing to keep the viewer hooked other than strong acting and food that will make you wish that you were eating instead of watching this film. Though the cast is great (especially the performances from Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, and Matthew Rhys), they can only do so much with a script that frequently drags its feet and doesn’t reward the viewer for sticking through it. BURNT’s title is rather ironic, because the film is disappointingly undercooked.

Grade: C

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong and Disturbing War Violence, and Language throughout including some Sexual References

AmSniper poster

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Written by: Jason Hall

(based on the book AMERICAN SNIPER by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen & Jim DeFelice)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Max Charles, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict & Navid Negahban

In recent years, audiences seem more willing to watch intense dramas about the Iraq war. It’s not as if these films are prettying up the conflict as the immediate ones springing to mind (ZERO DARK THIRTY, LONE SURVIVOR, THE HURT LOCKER) offer bleak views on the horrors of war and the heavy toll it takes on soldiers. As of writing this review, AMERICAN SNIPER has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards, has broken two box office records (highest grossing January opening, biggest single-day gross) and has gone on to become the second-highest R-rated debut ever. It’s nice to see all of these accomplishments because this movie is a near-masterpiece and the best war movie to come out in a decade.

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Chris Kyle was raised from a young age to stand up for those around him. Being a cowboy, Chris can’t help but feel unsatisfied with his direction in life. That’s when he sees news footage of 1998’s US embassy bombings and decides to serve his country. As a Navy SEAL, Chris falls in love with his future wife and becomes a stellar shot behind the trigger of a rifle. He’s sent to Iraq and quickly builds a reputation as a legendary sniper. Chris’s service is seen as he deploys four times through various missions in the war, but we also see the mental and emotional weight this is placing on his shoulders.

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AMERICAN SNIPER graphically depicts bloody combat through some of the best wartime sequences that I’ve ever seen. You’re not likely to be cheering as shots are fired, but instead feel yourself placed in the same tough decisions that Chris (and plenty of other soldiers) have to make on a daily basis. Clint Eastwood masterfully directs this film. Things could have easily become very repetitive as this is following a guy whose primary job is to shoot people from long distances. Instead, each sequence stands alone as a memorable piece of the film. Most of which are utterly nail-biting. This is a movie you’ll want to see in Imax (or its equivalents) if you can because it reminded me just how much a good viewing environment can change a solid movie from just a piece of art into an unforgettable experience.

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AMERICAN SNIPER isn’t solely centered on Chris in combat though as the viewer is shown enough to realize what a strain this is putting on this soldier’s family life. Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as Chris, already bearing a remarkable resemblance to him. He’s a likable guy who makes you root for him to save as many people as he possibly can, but it also makes things harder when you him willfully ignoring his obvious PTSD. Sienna Miller (who was recently in FOXCATCHER as well) is remarkable in her role as Chris’s concerned spouse. You feel her frustration with him, but can also grasp why Chris wants to go back and help more people (at the cost to his mental health and normal life).

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As brilliantly constructed, acted, and amazing as AMERICAN SNIPER is, I do have one gripe with the film. This is a small compliant but bothered me enough to knock the planned A+ slightly down as I exited the theater. The movie doesn’t necessarily know where to end. It keeps going long after a possible awesome conclusion and there’s a solid reason for that. However, the movie doesn’t spend enough time on that reason and suddenly cuts to a title card giving that information as opposed to showing it. It’s a minor complaint, but enough to take a tiny bit off an otherwise perfect film.

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AMERICAN SNIPER should be seen by everyone. It’s an incredible glimpse into the hellish battlefield of war and the toll that it takes on the soldiers in combat and at home. The performances are stellar (Bradley Cooper has proven himself to be a hugely talented actor in any role) and the story is compelling. It does stumble a tiny bit in the ending, but can be otherwise be considered a flawless masterpiece. This is a must-see!

Grade: A

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