Monthly Archives: April 2017

A Formidable Stack



Quote that may sum up Jonathan Demme, from John Simon: “Jonathan Demme is probably the most gifted young filmmaker to come out of the stable of Roger Corman.”


Review: The Lost City of Z


I wanted to see The Lost City of Z for two reasons: I love stories about explorers going into uncharted lands, and I read the book. The film, written and directed by James Gray from David Grann’s book, is a solid effort, but it’s like a dish that smells good but is missing an ingredient.

There had long been a legend among European explorers of South America about El Dorado, the city of gold. It was pretty much a fairy tale by the twentieth century, but a British officer, Percy Fawcett, hired by the Royal Geographical Society to settle a border dispute between Bolivia and Brazil, came to believe that somewhere deep in the jungle there was a lost civilization, which he called Z (Zed in the British). Over the course of three expeditions, he pushed farther into the Amazon, but never found it.

Gray is dutiful to the facts of the book, though Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, really isn’t a character as much as a means to an end. Grann’s book spelled out more of his eccentricities, but here he’s just a guy on a mission. The only really interesting character is James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a polar explorer who believes in Fawcett and joins him on his second mission, but does not fare well.

On Fawcett’s third expedition, over a decade after his previous one, his son (Tom Holland) joins him on the search for the lost civilization, but they disappeared and were never found.

All of this is what might be called a pretty good yarn, with indigenous people throwing spears and dangerous rivers and snakes and infected wounds (the book is full of descriptions of things that can kill you or make your life miserable) but there is a sense of incompleteneness, probably because Fawcett did not succeed and Gray can only guess at what happened to him (it’s one of the reasons I had a problem with Zodiac–a movie that doesn’t catch the killer is missing an ending). He was ahead of his time in believing that the so-called savages of Amazonia were not backward and capable of a civilization, and believe that women (including his wife, ably played by Sienna Miller) were intellectual equals.

The movie is more interesting than entertaining, and probably would have been served better as a Ken Burns-style documentary. In the book, Grann writes participatory journalism, as he covers some of the ground that Fawcett did, but this is completely cut from the film.

So, a near-miss for James Gray, who finally made a movie set outside New York. Maybe he was a little out of his depth.

Opening in the United States – Weekend of April 21st, 2017


Free Fire: Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise) comedy about a weapons deal gone bad. Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and terrible movie sign Sharlto Copley star.  A24 is bizarrely going wide with this…good luck with that, folks. (A24, theatrical)

Unforgettable: Call me nuts, but this throwback erotic thriller (it looks like a Lifetime movie on steroids) starring Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl looks kind of fun.  That 30% RT score is not a deterrent.  Directorial debut of Denise Di Novi, who produced most of Tim Burton’s good films. (Warner Brothers, theatrical)

Made in China: Another DisneyNature animal documentary.  This one is about Giant Pandas.  Do they get a tax write-off for these? (Disney, theatrical)

Phoenix Forgotten: Ridley Scott-produced extraterrestrial horror picture. It’s found footage, like it’s 2011 or something! No name cast and behind-the-camera talent from a Z-grade distributor.  Why is this theatrical? (Freestyle Releasing, theatrical)

Tramps: I was excited when Netflix acquired Adam Leon’s (2012’s excellent Gimme the Loot) sophomore effort at TIFF last Fall.  Unfortunately, they’ve completely buried their own release with zero on-site or in-app promotion.  Heck, the trailer only dropped a week ago. Netflix still seems to struggle in some key areas, the marketing of their lower budget acquisitions being a big one.

Anyway, it’s at 100% on RT right now with 8 reviews in.  I’m going to say this is your best bet this weekend. (Netflix, streaming)

Sand Castle: Generic-looking Iraq war drama with Henry Cavill, Nicholas Hoult and Glen Powell.  Reviews are harsh. (Netflix, streaming)

The Lost City of Z: James Gray’s Amazon adventure film is scoring rave reviews, despite the cast of warning signs (Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson) and how long it’s been sitting on the shelf.  Good luck finding this in a theater near you, fortunately it will be available free for Amazon Prime subscribers in the coming months. (Amazon, theatrical)

Opening in the United States – Weekend of April 14, 2017


The Fate of The Furious: The 8th installment in the franchise just scored the largest global opening in film history.  Not bad for a series that nearly went DTV a decade ago.  I throughly enjoyed Fate of the Furious, although the behind-the-scenes drama is beginning to have a detrimental impact on the storytelling. Despite being co-leads, Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson do not share a moment of screen time together.  (Universal, theatrical)

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Lovers of bad cinema rejoice!  After an 18 year absence, the cult classic returns with 14 new episodes on Netflix.  Series creator Joel Hodgeson spearheaded the resurrected MST3K with comedian Jonah Ray taking over hosting duties. (Netflix, streaming)

Sandy Wexler: Adam Sandler stars as a Danny Rose-esque talent manager trying to make a living in 1990’s Los Angeles. Jennifer Hudson co-stars along with Sandler’s usual cast of characters (Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, etc.) (Netflix, streaming)

Opening in Las Vegas, April 7, 2017


Crap at the multiplexes, but in the art houses some interesting stuff. It can’t be a bad week when a new Werner Herzog movie comes out.

That film is Queen of the Desert (39), which unfortunately is getting bad reviews. It stars Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell, who was the female Lawrence of Arabia. Herzog has been mostly in the documentary field for quite a few years, and may have lost his touch on narrative filmmaking, but I would like to see this, perhaps on DVD.

The other interesting film that I would like to see someday is Your Name (79), an anime feature that has two high schoolers exchanging bodies. It’s not a Studio Ghibli film, but was a huge hit in Japan, becoming the fourth-highest grossing film in that country’s history.

Now for the crap. Of all the movies to remake, why Going in Style, a 1979 film starring George Burns. I suppose every thirty or forty years this film will be remade with a trio of codgers. This version (50) stars Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, directed by Zach Braff. It seems to have standard old people humor, like the hilarity of an elderly person trying pot.

And for the kids and the parents who must suffer for them, there’s Smurfs: The Lost Village (40). Nothing more needs to be said.

Review: Personal Shopper


For his last film, Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas cast Kristen Stewart as a personal assistant, and at the time I wrote about what a strange job that must be. Essentially, you’re an extension of someone, but you do the less glamorous things. You’re around someone rich and glamorous, but only get to orbit in their world, not take part in it.

In his follow-up film, the even better Personal Shopper, he again has Stewart in a job that destroys the identity, that of the title. She is a moorless American living in Paris and working for a socialite, going to fancy stores and picking clothing and accessories for her. It’s not a hard job, but it certainly isn’t rewarding in a sense of personal satisfaction.

The film is also a ghost story. Stewart had a twin brother who died of a congenital heart defect, one that she shares but is under close supervision for. Before her sister-in-law sells the house, Stewart attempts to see, or feel, if her brother is still there.

This makes for some creepy viewing, as Stewart seems to attract ghosts wherever she goes. She also gets involved in a murder (I won’t say of who) and a mysterious person who texts her as she goes to London and back. This scene is both fraught with suspense and a gamble–in this day and age, texts are a common form of communication, but if you would told me watching someone text for ten minutes would be exciting I would have been dubious.

Stewart is Assayas’ muse. You get the feeling he wrote the film for her. She is a big star, and did the star routine backwards–she started with the mega-hit and then went to independent films. She has made many small and interesting films, and the more I see of her the more I realize how talented she is. If you judge her talent by the Twilight films you’re making a mistake, even though she does seem to take roles that are sullen and emotionally locked people. But in Personal Shopper Assayas brings more out of her than any director I’ve seen. She is a sad person, yes. Maybe she should do a screwball comedy.

As with all of Assayas’ films (and I’ve seen seven of them, I think) they are not always easily deciphered. In Clouds of Sils Maria Stewart’s character disappears and is not seen again with no explanation. In Personal Shopper, there is a scene late in the film when she meets someone in a hotel. We don’t know what happens, though it would seem to be a key scene. It’s almost like someone cut the scene out and forgot to put it back in. You never leave an Assayas film with all the answers.

Personal Shopper, I think, is ultimately about identity. A twin has lost her other half, and is the eyes of another person though she can never wear her clothes (or her skin). She frequently says she wants to be someone else, and there is an electrifying though quiet moment when she tries on her boss’s clothes (which is forbidden, which makes it even more exciting for her). Does she envy her boss being rich and famous? Not really, I think she just envies that she is someone else.