Chuck Koplinski: 'Lost City of Z' a fascinating journey

Chuck Koplinski: 'Lost City of Z' a fascinating journey

Though he denied purposely seeking out stories with a common theme, one of the issues that was constantly at the forefront of director John Huston's films was that of the futile quest and the honor and fortitude of the men who undertook them.

Whether it was searching for gold ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"), an obsessive pursuit that leads to destruction ("Moby Dick") or an attempt to rule a lost society ("The Man Who Would Be King"), Huston's movies focused on the quest and how those involved in them responded to the obstacles that presented themselves, not whether they were successful or not. It was all about the journey, not the ultimate goal.

James Grey's "The Lost City of Z" is cut from that same cloth, a rousing adventure that finds one man willingly facing impossible odds and the disdain of his colleagues while trying to find a lost Amazonian city. Based on the engaging history by David Grann, the film covers two decades in the life of its hero, Percy Fawcett, one that sees him travel into the wilds of South America three times in an effort to find a civilization only he is convinced exists, leaving behind a loving wife and family in the process.

Repeatedly passed over because of a stain on his family name, Lt. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is eager to find a way to advance through the ranks. An opportunity falls in his lap when he's approached by England's Royal Geographical Society to lead a small expedition to determine the actual border between Bolivia and Brazil. Seems a war between the two countries, which would staunch the flow of rubber to the rest of the world, is brewing, the true boundaries of these nations being the central question.

He sets out with guide Henry Costin (a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson) and a handful of aides and is quickly fascinated by the region of Amazonia he has been sent to chart. During one of the group's last stops, they stumble upon shards of pottery and other indications that a city might have once existed in the jungle wilds.

Unfortunately, they don't have the time to explore this any further, yet the idea takes hold, and Fawcett ends up returning three times over the course of 20 years to find what he has come to call the city of Z.

Comparisons to "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Apocalypse Now" are inescapable and perhaps welcome by Gray as each journey Fawcett takes leads him further from civilization and its mores, as he plunges deeper and deeper toward what he hopes will be a hidden Eden.

Ultimately, his long-suffering wife Nina (Sienna Miller), who raises their two children alone, comes to see him as a stranger, as do his colleagues. However, the suggestion is that Fawcett has transcended them somehow, having shaken off traditional material pursuits, coming to some deeper realization where life and existence is concerned. Hunnam is quite good at conveying this, transforming over the course of the film from a man eager for personal glory to one governed by a Zen-like approach to life.

Shooting on location in Colombia, Gray drops the viewer into this magical, dangerous place, seducing us with its beauty, yet never holding back in showing the predators who lurk there or the privations Fawcett and his crew suffers. This is effective in helping us appreciate the character's fervor — while he may be in constant peril, knowing he has survived this harsh environment has its own reward.

At times, the movie has a fragmented feel to it — which is inevitable with any film that covers such a long period of time — and the climax does come off as a bit rushed and abrupt.

Still, this is an impressive piece of old-fashioned filmmaking that powerfully explores man's need to conquer, not simply his surroundings but any demons or insecurities that lie within.

'Lost City of Z' (★★★ 1/2 out of four)

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Patterson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Edward Ashley, Ian McDiarmid and Clive Francis.

Written and directed by James Grey, based on the book by David Grann; produced by Dede Gardner, Dale Armin Johnson, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner and Gray.

An Amazon Studios release. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing imagery, brief strong language and nudity) At the Art Theater and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Honest approach elevates "Gifted" (★★★ 1/2). There's definitely some merit to W.C. Fields famous warning about the dangers of working with children and animals. They're unpredictable, at times amateurish and guaranteed to upstage you just by being in the same scene.

That's the danger that films like Marc Webb's "Gifted" run, what with its main character being a cute-as-a-button 7-year-old who happens to be portraying a child genius. All the focus is going to be on her, and if the young actress cast in the role is the slight bit too childish or unable to convey a sense of realism, the movie will be doomed.

Credit Webb for dodging that bullet in casting young Mckenna Grace, a 10-year-old dynamo who takes on the role of math prodigy Mary Adler with a sense of maturity that belies her age.

Not one grandstanding moment nor false note is to be found in her performance, a compelling turn that allows the audience to be swept away by the custody drama that unfolds around her character, a protracted battle in which nobody walks away a winner.

Raised by her protective uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), the pair are living a peaceful life in Florida where the young girl is reluctant to attend public school. Having home-schooled her, her guardian realizes that its time his niece gets out in the world in order to make friends and learn how to socialize.

It doesn't go well as on the first day she tells off the principal, and during the next week, she breaks a bully's nose. During this time, her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) notices that she's far ahead of her other students, particularly in the area of math. It doesn't take her long to realize her new charge is operating on a genius level and recommends she attend a private school for the gifted.

Aware of the pressures Mary's mother faced in dealing with her own genius and her ultimate suicide, Frank resists, hoping to shepherd the girl through a normal life. These plans are scuttled when his mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), arrives on the scene, requesting custody, intent on seeing that her granddaughter realizes her potential.

Echoes of "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "I Am Sam" resound throughout, yet the smart, witty script by Tom Flynn and Webb's delicate approach help this film carve its own path.

Much of this is due to the fine cast who know not to oversell any of the film's key emotional moments nor overstate the deft lines of dialogue they're given. The chemistry between Evans and Grace is genuine, the actor's laid-back style holding him in good stead, a solid anchor to the actress' smart, precocious nature. There's never a moment between them that's overly cute or sentimental, while their conversations have a genuine quality that, at times, gives the movie a fly-on-the-wall feel.

Slate, Duncan and Olivia Spencer as Frank's helpful neighbor, are very good as well, each of them responding to Grace in a remarkable way. And while Fields' statement does come into play here, as you find yourself constantly drawn to the young actress, it's not because she's cute or affected, but genuine and honest.

This contributes greatly to the grounded nature of the story, which, in addition to its surprise ending, puts "Gifted" at the head of the class where child-based dramas are concerned.

Familiar "Void" ends strong (★★ 1/2). It has been said that there are only seven basic plots used in storytelling and that they've simply been recycled through different narrative prisms since we were gathered around the prehistoric fire spinning tales. That being the case, you could argue that every movie is derivative in nature, the product of the filmmaker in question's viewing and reading habits.

That's all well and good, but finding an unique way to present a well-worn plot is a difficult row to hoe as the difference between an homage, a variation on a theme and an out-and-out rip-off can be very, very thin.

Upon seeing the crowd-funded horror film "The Void," I can say with some certainty that directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski have seen and studied John Carpenter's films extensively. Cut from the same cloth as "The Thing," "Assault on Precinct 13" and "Prince of Darkness," this siege thriller finds a small group of people trapped in a location, threatened by something they can't fully see or understand. (As a side note, Carpenter has readily admitted that Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" was his inspiration for "13").

If you know any of these films, then this plot description will sound familiar. The locale is a nearly abandoned hospital manned by the most skeletal of skeleton crews, with a well-meaning cop and a couple of good ole boys thrown in the mix. They're trapped by a group of shrouded individuals whose intent is unknown but surely malevolent. Things go from bad to worse to worser as this roster of victims are killed in increasingly violent ways by the mysterious enemy.

I suppose it would be unfair to knock this well-meaning duo for a lack of inspiration as one premise after another has been reused to positive effect. However, the film's first two acts are so pedestrian in execution and poorly acted that it invites the viewer to pick nits and make comparisons to other similar, better-made movies. The fact that the script spins its wheels, with false starts and repeated beats, certainly doesn't help.

All that being said, there's no question that the film's third act takes a decisive turn for the better, intertwining elements from H. P. Lovecraft with its cosmic alien threat that's truly disturbing. The ultimate explanation for the presence of these invaders and the reveal of who invited them is inspired and comes off as a genuine surprise. The reasoning ties together various, seemingly disconnected plot threads that are in a logical yet startling manner. The level of violence increases with every scene, as does the gore, until it reaches a horrific, bloody climax that will satisfy fans of the genre.

Birth, death and resurrection are at the core of this movie, and in a sense, that same theme could be used as a metaphor for the horror genre itself, whose trends are likewise cyclical in nature. Gillespie and Kostanski are aware of this, and while I don't see "The Void" kicking off a new series of invasion-from-within features, these filmmakers could end up being key players in the genre if they can produce a feature with a distinctive look or feel to it, even if it might be a story we've seen a few times before.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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