Film Review: LOST CITY OF Z (USA 2016) ***

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the_lost_city_of_z.jpgA true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s.

Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray (written for the screen by), David Grann (based on the book by)
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller

Review by Gilbert Seah


LOST CITY OF Z is an exploration film about British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnan) obsessed with finding the lost city which he nicknames Z (pronounced zed in Britain and in the film and Zee in North America) in the wild Amazon jungles of Bolivia in South America.

The film is as expected of this sort of big productions, a handsomely mounted production with lots of candid shots of the horrors as well as the beauty of the wild. But it follows the same mould as many past exploration films, those that say track the expeditions into Africa or up Mount Everest or into Antarctica.

These films normal includes the identical premise consisting of:

getting limited or no funds for the expedition.

The same can be said for LOST CITY OF Z. Though Percy is first coerced into taking up the plight to Bolivia, he is initially reluctant. He is a soldier and a major (he gets promoted later to Lieutenant Colonel) in the British military. There is extended segment of him fighting in World War 1, always advancing towards the enemy lines, showing him the titular hero, but distracts from the main story at hand. In fact, Percy makes no less than 3 separate expeditions. For his final expedition – he had to fight for funds, most of it provided by the Americans and secondly but he British Geographical Society. It is ironical that the film was also financed by the U.S. with director Gray (THE YARDS being my favourite film of his), an American director offered the job of director. He was himself surprised, as many, for the reason he was offered the job.

The objection of the explorer’s immediate family to the task and the conflict that ensues.

The wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) objects but also decides to join him, though never realized. A strong argument is given here to update the film on a strong feminist point of view. The son (Tom Holland, the new SPIDER-MAN) objects vehemently but buries the hatchet at the end by joining his father n the third expedition.

The white man always doing what is right in the wilds

It is odd to see white men in full uniform or suits traversing the humid and wet jungles. Percy is often seen in full military garb in the incredibly uncomfortable hot weather.
But there is always something fascinating about watching a film about explorers making an expedition to foreign lands. This fascination is present and Gray capitalizes it with the strange vegetation and dangerous insects and animals around. There are scary scenes involving piranhas devouring human beings and native shooting arrows at Percy and his men.

The film is based on a true story. Percy and his son never returned from the last expedition,. This fact elevates the film out of the normal exploration films. Gray etches the main character here to a romanticized hero, worthy of the audience’s time at the cinema.

LOST CITY OF Z is long and runs close to 140 minutes. But the 3 expeditions and the war segment make the time run fast. Still, Gray’s film is a beautiful piece of filmmaking.


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Film Review: LIVE BY NIGHT (USA 2016)

live_by_night_movie_poster.jpgDirected by Ben Affleck

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

Review by Gilbert Seah

Ben Afflecks’s fourth film (after ARGO, THE TOWN and GONE BABY GONE) is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane which like BURN,BABY, BURN is a novel that contains a lot of plot. But LIVE BY NIGHT contains too much plot dealing with as many issues as there are plot turns. Unfortunately, Affleck’s script is unable to cope and the film fails despite worthy efforts.

Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the story follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the prodigal son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson). Joe is a World War I veteran of Irish decent who is in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of the notorious gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister), the boss of the Irish Gang of Boston. Joe’s father disapproves of Emma. Joe and Emma decide to move to California escaping the wrath of White, but to their misfortune the head of Albert’s rival Italian Mafia Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) finds out about their affair and blackmails Joe to kill Albert. The story goes on, leading Joe to finally work for Maso and rising in the ranks. Success comes with a price with a lot of casualties in the process.

The best thing about LIVE BY NIGHT are its impeccable performances. Gleeson at his growling best, plays Joe’s chief of police, who unfortunately dies 20 minutes into the film. The gap, fortunately is filled by Chris Cooper as Irving Figgis, another chief of police, who is as pious as he is crazy. The other supporting cast members are uniformly good from Matthew Maher (as a creepy Ku Klax Klan member) and Anthony Michael Hall as an overconfident lackey for a crime boss.

Affleck’s script is all over the place and tries to handles too many issues like father/son relationship; romance; crime; good vs. evil; racism and loss of innocence just to name a few. The dialogue also includes a fair amount of ‘f’ words including the ‘mother f” words that are out of place in a film set in the roaring twenties.

The handsome mounted production from the vintage cars (in the robbery car chase) to the wardrobe, music and props make the film a memorable period piece. Affleck dresses himself very sharply, always in pressed white suits and hat.

As the story deals with war between crime families, LIVE BY NIGHT will inevitably be compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s GODFATHER films. Joe keeps his criminal activities from his wife, Gracilea (Zoe Saldana) reminiscent of how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) hid his crime duties from his wife played by Diane Keaton. This is when one can detect the inferiority of of LIVE BY NIGHT. The power and bite are just not there.
LIVE BY NIGHT is well paced with a good speed in the first third of the film. The varying pace from the highly edited car chase to the slow paced meeting a a tea shop between Joe and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fannng)
The film also contains dialogue with heavy Irish accent (from Gleesona nd Miller) which is occasionally hard to understand.

The film could have done with some script doctoring. Affleck taking the co-producing, writing, directing and lead acting duties has obviously got his plate full in this $65 million production.



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Movie Review: HIGH-RISE, Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller

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high-rise.jpgHIGH-RISE (UK 2015) ***
Directed by Ben Wheatley

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Sienna Guillory

Review by Gilbert Seah

HIGH-RISE is a much anticipated film among cineastes. The rights for J.G. Ballard’s (best known for his novel CRASH directed by David Cronenberg) book had been snapped up by producer Jeremy Thomas for decades and a number of directors were slated to make the film, among them Nicholas Roeg. But director Ben Wheatley, British new film enfant terrible snatched the prize after directing two art-house low budget hits A FIELD IN ENGLAND and THE SIGHT-SEERS. Ballard’s book on a dystopian society set up in a 1970’s tower block (film shot in Northern Ireland) where the higher classes occupy the higher floors with better privileges such as parking spots and facilities usage like the summing pool, is a difficult one. The social strata eventually breaks down following a string of building malfunctions.

HIGH-RISE opens with a Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) at his high rise building flat apparently roasting and eating a dog’s leg on the balcony. The film flashes back three months earlier to the events that led to this odd state.

Dr. Lang arrives and occupies in the centre section of the building – reason not given. He meets the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who lives in the penthouse and various other occupants including Charlotte, Royal’s aide (Sienna Miller) and a nasty documentary-maker (Luke Evans) who ends up creating a lot of trouble including wanting to take down Royal. Wheatley’s film charts the downfall of order and the rise of anarchy in the building. Finally, the residents stay in and do not venture out to work, waging wars with each other. Wheatley has directed films with similar themes. THE SIGHTSEERS sees the volatile and violent breakdown of the relationship of a new couple while A FIELD IN ENGLAND featured a battlefield among warring factions.

The Korean film SNOWPIERCER two years back featured a similar premise. The last inhabitants on Earth are stuck on a train travelling around the Earth forever with the lower working classes at the back of the train and the richest at the front. The workers revoke and move up the front of the train.

But HIGH-RISE fails to engage the audience despite the Ballard’s difficult novel. It should be noted that Ballard used to hang around with William Burroughs whose NAKED LUNCH with Ballard’s own CRASH ended up as one of the most unlikeable/difficult films ever made. Given that Amy Jump’s script and Wheatley’s direction make little attempt in tying to make their film more coherent or engaging. When Dr. Laing first meets Chartlotte, her comment is on Laing’s body being almost a perfect specimen implying a detachment of human nature.

The rise of the building’s anarchy is also not well orchestrated. Wheatley appears more interested in the film’s sets and images than anything else. To the film’s credit, the production values look great with the film having a past future feel and a look like the old 70’s futuristic films like Joseph Losey’s MODESTY BLAISE. Whereas films like SNOWPIERCER relied on action to grab the audience’s attention, HIGH-RISE consists of a whole lot of cinematic/dramatic set-ups with too much left to the audience to decipher as to what is happening.

Hiddleston delivers a good nuanced performance appearing out of place and finally connecting with the anarchy just as his confident behaviour at the start of the film breaks down to insecurity. Still Wheatley’s film is an intriguing one and one that shows his ability to set his imprint on a story, whether it be successful or not.


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