The Lost City of Z (2016)

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You’re a long way from Government now. At the dawn of the 20th century, British explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is encouraged by his superiors to redeem his family name following his father’s dissolute actions, ruining the Fawcett reputation.  Although married to the supportive Nina (Sienna Miller) with a young son and one on the way, he journeys across the Atlantic to South America to carry out a survey of the Amazon in order to help adjudicate borders and to establish national territories.  On board the ship he encounters Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson)  a man who knows the rainforest. He joins the party which includes aide-de-camp Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley) and they go into the Amazon, where they experience the surreal pleasures of an opera in the middle of the jungle and discover evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilisation that may have once inhabited the region, triggered by stories told them by their guide. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment back in London when he reports his findings, which contradicts their bias against indigenous populations as savages, the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, Costin and Manley, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. After another set of discoveries he is challenged by biologist James Murray (Angus MacFadyen) who falsely claims they left him for dead so Fawcett leaves the Royal Geographical Society. He is injured on the Somme when he fights in WW1 but in 1925 when his son Jack (Tom Holland) grows up he wants to help his father pursue his obsession and find the City of Z that Nina found out about in a conquistador text at Trinity College Dublin... To look for what is beautiful is its own reward. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? It comes off a little like Fawcett of Amazonia at first but then this James Gray film establishes its own insistent rhythm with a hallucinatory bent that comes first from obsession and then with repetition. Indeed one is forced into a world recognisably that of David Lean but also Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (quite literally, at the opera) and perhaps Conrad. However the difference is in the doggedness and the feminine element – here Nina plays a crucial part in Percy’s evolving obsession when the document she finds fuels the fire in his belly and ironically leads to increased separation. Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction book, this has some of the usual flaws besetting Gray’s films – a kind of muted incompleteness or psychological lack and a physical darkness – but the facts of the story, the deadly nature of the pursuit and the fascinating history compensate and it has a decent pace. Hunnam grows into the role as the story progresses, caring about slavery and native peoples and expressing proper awe at the sight of sculptures and ancient artefacts; and Miller is fine as the proto-feminist who reads from the letter she wrote when she thought she wouldn’t survive childbirth:  as she tells her husband, “You haven’t even seen it for two minutes,” when he protests the jungle is no place for a woman and takes off yet again leaving her pregnant. It’s an admirable corrective to the standard male-oriented expedition narratives, with an amazing coda. In the end, this is actually spellbinding. There is great irony deployed: Fawcett meets Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Ireland and years later in South America he sees the story about his assassination and is told it will trigger a great war:  his escape across the Atlantic was precisely to avoid conflict and now he is going to be catapulted back into something quite dreadful.  He has a wonderful wife and happy domestic life yet he is truly at home in an utterly alien environment where the natives happily shoot poison arrows. He goes back, again and again, despite ridicule and disputes. He has a higher aim and it becomes something verging on mystical. The cinematography by Darius Khondji and score by Christopher Spelman are quite wondrous at times. Executive produced by Brad Pitt. There is no going back. We are already here

The Bible (1966)

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In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The first 22 books of the Old Testament are dramatised in 5 main sequences:  Creation, narrated by God (John Huston);  Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) meet and procreate;  Cain (Richard Harris) slays his brother Abel (Franco Nero);  Noah (Huston again) creates his ark for the animals and there’s a spectacular flood;  and Abraham’s (George C. Scott) story is recounted – his long life with the beautiful but barren Sarah (Ava Gardner), the conceiving of his only son Isaac, with Sarah’s maid, and his calling by God to make a sacrifice. There are two shorter sections, one recounting the building of the Tower of Babel;  and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah… Am I my brother’s keeper?  An awesome epic of tension-free tedium that is quite literally beyond belief with some (few) honourable exceptions:  director Huston himself, who also narrates this Italian-American co-production and makes for an amiable animal lover;  the lustrous Gardner;  O’Toole in his brief appearance as the Three Angels; and the final sequence in which Abraham comes closerthanthis to putting his only son Isaac on the BBQ instead of the more conventional sacrificial ram. Nero was the film’s still photographer until Huston spotted him and started his screen career. Adam and Eve’s nude frolics were choreographed by Katharine Dunham. Huston’s girlfriend Zoe Sallis features as Hagar. Notable for a score by Toshiro Mayuzumi with uncredited work by Ennio Morricone, this will have you reaching for your own traveller’s friend – it’s light work after this. The screenplay, on the other hand, is credited to Christopher Fry although Orson Welles and Mario Soldati also contributed something or other. There is nothing that He may not ask of thee?

Letters to Juliet (2010)

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I know what you’re going to say because you saw this and you know, it’s no good. But hey! The temperatures have plummeted to almost absolute zero, there’s driving rain and the wind is cutting through my ability to discern truth from reality TV this week, but… It’s Italy! Verona! It’s romantic! There’s food and drink and sunshine! And some very bad acting. Amanda Seyfriend wants to make her name as a journalist instead of just fact-checking at The New Yorker, her fiancé chef Gael Garcia Bernal wants to research wines for his new restaurant so they decamp to the most beautiful country in the world. And she gets involved in the team of secretaries who write back to those lovelorn gals and guys who want romantic advice from Juliet (maybe they think a) she’s real b) she’s still alive after that poisoning incident) and reunites a couple who lost each other decades earlier … The idea for the film was inspired by the 2006 non-fiction book Letters to Juliet, by Lise Friedman and Ceil Friedman, which chronicles the phenomenon of letter-writing to Shakespeare’s most famous romantic heroine. Gael gets lost in vino, Vanessa Redgrave gives one of her battiest ever performances (and that’s saying something) and she’s back together with real-life love, Django himself, the delectable Franco Nero (together for the first time since Camelot), in a sub-plot that has the distinct ring of truth from their own experience. Amanda gets to reinvent her own romantic story with Vanessa’s grandson. There’s some seriously bad production design – couldn’t they have faked a better view of the famous balcony?! I’ve been there and I know the restrictions but it’s the movies! Written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, directed by Gary Winick. There were some major tricks missed here storywise. Terrible. But lovely, if you know what I mean. I know that you do!

Django (1966)

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What an iconic piece of work by the Italian auteur Sergio Corbucci, this spawned loads of imitators (c30) but none holds a candle to this nor stars that most beauteous of men, Franco Nero, except a very late ‘sequel’ in 1987, made without Corbucci. Of course it was influenced by Leone’s work but gained a major following for its equally laconic leading man who fought for the Union but is now drifting, dragging a coffin, in the company of a half-caste whore Maria (Loredana Nusciak) and becoming involved in a dispute between Confederate racists and Mexican revolutionaries. What can be in that coffin? All is revealed in highly symbolic fashion, with fighting in the streets and the graveyards. Exceptionally violent. What a delight it was to see Nero pop up in Django Unchained, but… The original and the best.

 

Camelot (1967)

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“Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.” Might for Right. Justice for All. Proposition:  does nominative determinism predispose one to a penchant for a particular film? Um, yes, in my case I was named to love all things Arthurian – even this, a famously lambasted adaptation of the long-running stage hit from Lerner and Loewe. The show was adapted from TH White’s The Once and Future King and Lerner did the screenplay which was directed by Josh Logan, a man not unfamiliar with the musical genre. King Arthur is looking back at his life on the eve of battling his best friend, Lancelot du Lac, whose romance with Queen Guinevere has broken up their marriage and the Round Table and the dreams of law and chivalry, with impish David Hemmings as the bastard Mordred planning a takeover. If you don’t find your heart beating lighter when Franco Nero sings to Vanessa Redgrave one of the great songs, If Ever I Would Leave You… then you must be made of stone. They fell in love in real life, Redgrave bore him a son and then in 2006 they finally married. In an art-imitates-life-imitates-art scenario they were reunited onscreen as former teenage lovers reuinited in old age in Letters to Juliet (2010). Even at 3 hours there are several songs omitted as well as the character of Morgan Le Fay, but hey, it’s less problematic than time-travelling to Broadway circa 1960. This is the musical that made Richard Harris a very wealthy man when he spent years touring it. Great Bank Holiday viewing! Now, where’s my soundtrack album…