Blu-Ray // The Lost City of Z

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UNCHARTED AMAZONIA HOLDS A LOST KINGDOM AND THE FATE OF A BRITISH SOLIDER IN THIS WARTIME ADVENTURE.

On an expedition mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia, soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) finds traces of a great civilisation deep in the jungle, but is ridiculed upon return for his lack of evidence. To prove his critics wrong he returns with the Royal Geographical Society to find the lost city of wonder, dubbed “Z”.

As a film that embraces the romance of the unexplored, The Lost City of Z is an impressive piece of modern filmmaking, as it feels and looks like a classic explorer film from a long past era. It nicely strikes the balance between the romantic nature of European “New World” pioneering, while still showing how difficult and unforgiving the jungle can be.

Hunnam plays stoic Fawcett, head of a large family with varying opinions on his ambitions. Tom Holland’s portrayal of his eldest son shows an actor with a great future and Robert Pattinson’s turn as haggard fellow explorer Henry Costin is impressively unrecognisable. Their odyssey, pitted against the outbreak of the Great War, shows the struggle Fawcett faced between leaving his family in England and his battle to right his disgraced family name. It’s a story that could easily be mistaken for fiction, but it’s as true as it is remarkable.

Christopher Spelman’s score is excellent, allowing the beautiful visuals to take over and the sweeping strings in the sombre scenes are genuinely moving. The hazy camerawork compliments the dense jungle, captured in it’s claustrophobic glory. The lucid night sequences were very reminiscent of Apocalypse Now which was clearly a big influence, but thankfully the film has its own distinct character. Director James Gray’s work with “The Beach” cinematographer Darius Khondji is a winning combination, and while the film doesn’t feel like a huge Hollywood blockbusting adventure, neither it should. Sitting far more comfortably as a smaller budget film with an artistic heart.

With some sporadic pacing and a slightly one dimensional performance from Hunnam, The Lost City of Z is not without its flaws. But it’s still a wonderful film, the likes of which has not been seen for a while. The sense of adventure is very genuine and Gray successfully pulls off a very difficult task. How do you make a film about exploring that’s exciting, in an era where no stone has been left unturned?

Review // Dunkirk

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The heart of British stoicism pulses like the tide in this outstanding epic, chronicling the greatest military disaster in our history.

Told from 3 different viewpoints, Dunkirk is the story of the 400,000 men left surrounded by German forces in Northern France, featuring Fionn Whitehead as a young Private stranded on the beach, Tom Hardy as an RAF pilot and Mark Rylance as a civilian captaining a drafted boat. Among these stars feature an incredibly talented supporting cast including Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles in his feature debut and Kenneth Branagh as commander of the beached forces.

The week-long ordeal is neatly split up across the three stories, each with their own climaxes and conclusion. Whitehead as the young “Tommy” is joined by Styles and Aneurin Bernard, forming a group of soldiers desperately trying to flee the beach. Tom Hardy gives a great performance almost entirely from the cockpit of a spitfire in airborne sequences that are absolutely enthralling. The civilian boat ordeal contains a sombre story, highlighting the sacrifices that everyday people made in order to rescue the stranded soldiers. In a jam packed 1hr 50mins, the film is never far from the action, avoiding politics altogether and all the better for it.

Nolan has been careful not to glorify any of the evacuation and every aspect of Dunkirk contains an element of struggle. From the constant screeching of the German bombers to the landscapes that never quite shake their misty coats, bleakness permeates every level. Hoyte Van Hoytema, cinematographer of Interstellar returned to shoot Dunkirk and the two are strikingly similar visually, having traded the heavens for the seas. Yet where Interstellar was technically contrived, Dunkirk is far simpler, allowing full cinematic freedom to be explored.

Screened in various formats including the holy grail of 70mm, Dunkirk is pure cinema at it’s finest. The production cost alone of shooting on such expensive film could only ever be justified by a director such as Nolan, and justified is the word. Having produced a film as fine as this, it would be unjust for anything other than a slew of oscar nominations to be thrown his way with a view to a clean sweep come awards season.

Dunkirk is a much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes. A truly dread-inducing score from Hans Zimmer, complimented by terrifying sound effects bring the audience as close to war as is comfortable. It contains very little dialogue, focusing on the physical journey, allowing their exhausting movements and relentless obstacles to tell the story without unnecessary distraction. But when required, the speeches are moving and words are certainly not wasted.

In a career that has spanned more than two decades, Christopher Nolan joins the increasingly small list of directors who deal exclusively in cinematic works of art. Almost certainly his best film, Dunkirk must rank among the greatest British films and solidify his place as one of the best living filmmakers.

77 years on, there can hardly be a more terrifyingly realistic interpretation of this great disaster. Do yourself a favour and see this spectacle on this biggest possible screen and enjoy what will undoubtedly be remembered as a landmark film.

Retrospective // Men In Black, 20 Years On

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“This little gadget is gonna replace CDs soon, guess I’ll have to buy The White Album again”

Men in Black celebrated it’s 20th birthday this month. The sci-fi classic rested on a few fault lines that have shifted in various ways. So have the two decades since been kind to the men?

One of Will Smith’s breakout film roles, Men In Black was a smart move. Perfectly tailored to his sense of comedy that brought great success with Independence Day the year before. His chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones was hilarious. Jones had recently starred in the critically panned Batman Forever, but his performance in MiB was proof that the haggard Texan even had comedy chops. Together, the agents of new and old saved the world from a threat we didn’t even know about and looked impossibly cool doing it.

In terms of performances, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio and Linda Fiorentino were all spot on too, but beyond the main cast lay some now-problematic casting issues. Faceless minorities as pawnshop owners and taxi drivers, the reveal of a border crossing alien to literally be an alien, plus uncomfortable parallels between royalty and Jews probably wouldn’t sit too well nowadays. Despite this, J in the original comic was a white blonde, so credit should be given for casting a black actor in a leading role originally written for a white guy. As another positive, Fiorentino’s character was a strong, educated woman, without whom the film would’ve lessened, and certainly had a lot less to salvage for 2017’s ethnically more diverse film industry.

Aesthetically Men in Black hasn’t aged much. The film owed a lot to the 1960’s and its oscar nominated art direction was heavily inspired by the early FBI and classic cars. Finnish designer Eero Saarinen’s work was the basis for MiB HQ and many other oddities throughout. The weapons were designed not from a 90’s point of view but were 60’s projections of futuristic weapons, campy and overblown. The monochrome palette was simple but effective in conveying the many dualities than run through the film; black and white, good and bad, de-atomiser and noisy cricket. While it didn’t win the oscar, the film had a very unique artistic character that was a huge part of its initial success.

If Men in Black was released in 2017, the black suits would probably be monopolised. A masculine MiB Gillette ad would dominate billboards and product placement would wreak havoc through the film. MiB did well to steer clear of it in 1997 but the sequels suffered. Relying on the mystique of the black wardrobe from shows like The X Files, MiB banked on black never going out of fashion. Sure, the boxy suits of the late 90’s look pretty terrible now. But so do the skinny suits of the late 2000’s. The changing nature of fashion will punish and praise the wardrobe as and when trends dictate, but the Men In Black will always look sharp.

Danny Elfman’s score was fantastic, harbouring something otherworldly in the choral swells and minor riffs as J & K pounded the streets. Great scores have always stood the test of time and MiB is no exception. Will Smith’s featured song, not so much. RnB may have been huge in the 90’s but Smith’s clean rap style would probably struggle today. Pitbull’s “Back in Time” released for 2012’s MiB3 failed to even make the top 10 in the UK or US, whereas Smith’s effort held the top spot in both for over a month. Perhaps this is more indicative of a change in music consumption, but it’s a change nonetheless.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld wanted as little CGI as possible, opting for prosthetics and costume design from acclaimed designer Rick Baker. The extraterrestrials looked great in 1997 and remarkably still do. The wormy aliens of the MiB staff room were given CGI treatment for the 2002 sequel and looked a lot less realistic. “Edgar the Bug” involved a rough looking D’Onofrio donning some serious make up, but he still looked fantastic because there was a great actor under all that. MiB proved that much like Jurassic Park a few years earlier, using as little CGI as possible always looks best because genuine effects are still very difficult to beat.

A film so reliant on technology will inevitably date, but we’re not quite there yet. Branding was kept to a minimum and everything was sleek the point of anonymity. Using little realism meant that there was nothing to compare to in 1997 and nothing to compare to now. The true power of the MiB was that they could erase memories, which would involve jumping through some serious hoops today considering nothing happens without being caught on camera. This partly overshadows modern viewings of the film, but complaining about realism in a sci-fi film is pretty unfounded. By the time MiB3 came around, the role of the neuralyser was significantly downplayed which is as good a way as any to address it.

A lot has happened since 1997 socially. In today’s Snowden era, the idea of government espionage is a lot less romantic than it once was. Knowing the American government has hidden various scandals means that where once a secret organisation walking the streets might’ve been comforting, it is significantly less so now. The missing twin towers that dominated so much of the film are a representation of how America has changed in the years since. The US edging towards war with North Korea and the UK leaving the EU are a far cry from the comparative social ease that was the 90’s. Would the public still flock to see a film about government agents operating under the radar? Probably, but it wouldn’t be without claims of propaganda and distraction tactics now.

All things considered, good humour lasts forever and Men in Black is worth a revisit to remember some great performances in a film that really stood out from its contemporaries. Somewhere between the streets of New York and the stars above there was something incongruous in the air which Sonnenfeld captured beautifully. Interestingly, the comic book company that spawned the original series (Malibu) is now owned by Marvel and with a reboot in talks, we may see J & K on the big screen again before the decade is out.

Review // Song to Song

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A group of intertwined people cavort in the Austin music scene battling vices, heartbreak and derailment along the way.

BV (Gosling) and Faye (Mara) are songwriters working with music tycoon Cooke, (Fassbender) a man of great means but a penchant for control of anyone he crosses paths with (Portman). Their trials and tribulations under the Texas sun show the darker side of stardom and the sacrifices that must be made to succeed in the music world.

With four of today’s biggest stars in a web of artistic and sexual aegis, Song to Song has a hell of a lot of chemistry. But one must first indulge Terrence Malick’s many signature tropes to enjoy it. The film’s basic premise, the quest for success, is fleshed out by his typically existential dialogue and oddly beautiful camerawork. The performances themselves are as we’ve come to expect from some of Hollywood’s greatest assets; convincingly tragic. With Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling shining in particular.

The soundtrack regularly varies from New Orleans bounce to Saint Saens. A jarring combination that much like the opening 10 minutes of the film, takes a long time to settle. While they’re modern musicians, EDM still feels very out of place when consistently juxtaposed with recognisable classical music, when interludes from the likes of Patti Smith & Lykke Li offer a far more refined musical break.

Despite the cyclical tour-based storyline, the film ticks along nicely and the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki is absolutely breathtaking. This is their fifth collaboration and there’s no doubt that they’ve crafted some of the most beautiful films of the last 20 years. However, their “show but don’t tell” style filmmaking has recently left audiences lacking and could definitely be argued for this venture too.

Occasionally distracted but always beautiful. Song to Song takes influence from films like Mulholland Drive and more recently La La Land, asking the age-old question. Is the suffering worth the art?