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Writer-director James Gray has made a powerful film about Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who disappeared in 1925 while looking for a lost city in the Amazon.

Charlie Hunnam gives an impressive performance in The Lost City of Z as Fawcett, a man so hell-bent on restoring his family’s good name that he leaves his wife and children, for years at a time, to explore the Amazon. After many brushes with death in his travels, he returns to England—only to find himself fighting in World War I.

Eventually, Percy’s son, Jack (Tom Holland … yes, Spider-Man!), joins him for one more quest in the Amazon, and it turns out to be Percy’s last. There are many different accounts regarding the fate of Percy and his son, and Gray comes up with a conclusion that is powerful and beautiful.

Hunnam is great here, as is Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin, a co-explorer. Holland, in just a few scenes, leaves a great mark on the movie, especially in his final moments. Sienna Miller brings grace to the role of Nina, Fawcett’s strong-willed wife.

This is one of the year’s better-looking films, and a great example of a real-life story being as amazing as anything someone could make up. Fawcett was a fearless guy, and this movie displays that.

The Lost City of Z is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Ben Affleck’s Live by Night is a period piece/costume drama that looks like a lot of work went into it, although it never feels like a cohesive picture.

Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, one of those gangsters you just gotta love, fighting the gangster fight during Prohibition in sunny Florida. Joe rises to the top of the gangster field, despite being the son of a cop (Brendan Gleeson), and despite basically being an all-around good guy.

The problem is that Affleck fails to give his central character a true identity and emotional toolbox. The character feels stilted, and the movie around him feels like a costume party. It’s as if Affleck was afraid to make Joe the truly bad guy he should be. The fedoras and sweet suits all look good, but it’s in the service of a story that has been told before—in far more powerful ways.

Sienna Miller is good as Joe’s early love, and Elle Fanning, who had a great year with The Neon Demon and 20th Century Women, is also good as a disgraced actress who finds a new career in preaching. Again, the movie looks good, and Affleck’s performance is OK, but the story feels like a rehash of every gangster movie ever made.

Live by Night is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director Ben Wheatley, who made a couple of weird films with A Field in England and the brilliant horror-comedy Sightseers, gets even weirder with High-Rise, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about class warfare inside a high-rise building.

Tom Hiddleston is Robert, a doctor who moves into the building to get a new start on life. He has an affair with the beautiful woman downstairs (Sienna Miller), makes himself some new friends, and even gets to know the building’s eccentric architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons).

Things are going relatively well, other than a couple of control panels and elevators breaking in the building, when an occupant falls to his death. That sets off a chain reaction during which the tenants fall into an anarchic state. They rape; they pillage; and they paint their own apartments with no authority to do so.

Wheatley’s movie has echoes of Gilliam and Kubrick, although he has an incredibly unique vision himself. Hiddleston is good in the lead, a character who slowly falls into madness. There are times when the film doesn’t make much sense, but it’s always insane and somewhat enjoyable.

Having lived in apartments most of my life, I’d say much of what happens in this complex is fairly accurate.

High-Rise is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Bradley Cooper goes all-in for Burnt, in which he plays a chef psychotically determined to get his third Michelin star.

Too bad it’s in service of a character who’s a totally unlikable prick.

After going sober for more than two years and shucking a million oysters as penance for his previous bad behavior, Adam Jones (Cooper) heads to Paris, intent upon regaining his status as a legendary chef and attaining that hallowed “third star” status.

He starts his quest by terrorizing restaurant owner Tony (Daniel Brühl), a friend turned enemy who had a crush on him but now hates him. Jones sets up a scenario with a food critic (Uma Thurman) that would probably get most people arrested for fraud, but in the movies, it gets him control of a kitchen.

Jones stocks his kitchen with a motley crew of cooks, including Michel (Omar Sy), a fellow chef he double-crossed years earlier by setting rats loose in his new restaurant; and David (Sam Keeley) a young up-and-comer who idolizes Jones and allows him to stay at his apartment.

Best among his recruits would be Helene (the always-interesting Sienna Miller), another hotshot chef who Jones intimidates and basically forces to work with him. Admittedly, it’s cool to see Cooper and Miller re-team after American Sniper. Their natural chemistry is one of the better things about the movie.

What doesn’t work is the dour tone and Jones’ nastiness, ultimately leading to a film that is a task to watch. Director John Wells (August: Osage County) finds little moments of humor in the story that wind up being quite refreshing. The film’s tone, however, is all over the place. One second, it’s a kitchen comedy; the next, it’s an ineffective story about some asshole’s struggle with sobriety. It never comes together as a whole.

Wells does a decent job of capturing the intensity of a high-octane kitchen (although, oddly, there is very little focus on the actual food they are serving). The cast is convincing (Cooper boasts some decent knife dexterity) as cooks, and the kitchen scenes crackle with life. Outside of the kitchen … not so much.

Clichés abound as Jones is terrorized by drug dealers seeking past debts, as well as cross-town chefs looking to end his quest. A scene in which Jones falls off the wagon is overwrought, as is his meeting with a past junkie girlfriend. Simply put, the story of Adam Jones has been told before, just with less garlic and scallops.

Cooper tries his best, as he always does. The man put on a lot of muscle weight for American Sniper; here, he speaks some fluent French and is quite believable as a world-famous chef. Miller is good as the chef who will, undoubtedly, become Jones’ love interest. The problem here is that her character is far more interesting than Jones. Burnt would’ve been better had it been her story, with Jones as a supporting player. A full movie of Jones proves to be a tad much.

Brühl delivers another decent performance in a movie that doesn’t quite deserve it. Emma Thompson she seems too young for her role as a matronly investor representative who tests Jones’ blood for chemicals while doling out advice.

Burnt was a passion project for Cooper, and he definitely puts a lot of passion into it. But his film, in the end, is ruined by too much seasoning and a host of bad ingredients, resulting in something with a bad taste.

Burnt is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Chris Kyle was a legendary Navy SEAL, and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of him in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is powerful and compelling. While the film has plenty of problems, Cooper rises above patchy melodrama and overly slick segments to make the film worthwhile.

Kyle was killed while the film was being produced, shot to death by a veteran he was trying to mentor on a shooting range. Kyle did four tours in Iraq, with 160 confirmed kills—an American sniper record. His story is extraordinary, not just because of what he did overseas, but because of the way he eventually met his death.

The film works best when depicting Kyle at work in Iraq, featuring some tense battle scenes and sequences as seen through Kyle’s riflescope. On the flip side, there’s a subplot involving an enemy sniper named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) that feels like an entirely different movie. Eastwood employs a showier style in the scenes involving Mustafa, which feel a bit false and artificial.

Eastwood does a decent job of showing what soldiers like Kyle were up against in Iraq. Soldiers would sit down for what seemed to be a friendly dinner, only to discover a cache of weapons in another room. Women gave their children bombs to lob at Americans. Enemy torture artists took drills to the heads of children because their parents spoke with American soldiers.

The film is also powerful while dealing with Kyle’s stress when he returned home from the war. One of the film’s best scenes involves Kyle running into a former soldier while at an auto shop. It’s in these moments that Cooper does a fantastic job of depicting a man with a lot of bad memories that are clamoring for attention in his head.

Saddled with the film’s worst dialogue, Sienna Miller battles to make Kyle’s wife, Taya, an intriguing character; unfortunately, she can’t overcome screenwriter Jason Hall’s leaden lines. There are scenes in this movie involving Taya that you will swear you have seen before, because there is nothing original about them. Still, Miller is a strong actress, and she salvages as much as she can.

Eastwood’s film completely avoids some of the more controversial aspects of Kyle’s postwar life, such as his strange feud with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, and his alleged killing of two carjackers near Dallas. That was probably a good choice, since the film already feels a bit overstuffed at two-plus hours. It would have been interesting to see Kyle punch Ventura in the face (as Kyle claimed he did in his book), but it wouldn’t have fit in this movie. That would’ve been too much of a tonal shift.

Cooper underwent an impressive physical transformation to play Kyle. He shows that the transformation wasn’t simply cosmetic when he deadlifts what seems to be the weight of a small city during a training session.

Eastwood includes some footage of Kyle’s actual funeral procession and a memorial event held for Kyle. He shies away from depicting Kyle’s death, but we do get a brief glimpse of an actor portraying his assailant. It’s such a strange ending to Kyle’s story.

Eastwood did two movies in 2014, and American Sniper is far superior to his lousy Jersey Boys. Still, there are times when Eastwood doesn’t seem to have full command of the frame, and he’s working with a spotty script.

You will walk away from American Sniper amazed by the impact of Cooper’s dedicated performance. Cooper, currently starring on Broadway in The Elephant Man, is an actor forever taking risks and challenging himself. He does “The Legend” proud.

American Sniper is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews