Wednesday, June 7, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: The Lost City Of Z

I'm WAY behind on movie reviews here at Bob Canada's BlogWorld, so I'm desperately trying to catch up in the next few days. I saw this movie several weeks ago and it's long gone from theaters, but I sat through the goddamned thing so you're all gonna share my pain!

Apparently May of 2017 was Charlie Hunnam Month at the cineplex, as he starred in two major films at the same time (this one and King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword). Unfortunately for him, both turned out to be huge box office flops. So what went wrong? Was it a case of bad timing? Bad scripts? Or do people just really, really not care for Charlie Hunnam?

The Lost City Of Z was written and directed by James Gray. 

Gray previously wrote Blood Ties, and wrote and directed Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night, Two Lovers and The Immigrant. I admit I'm not familiar with Gray's work and have never seen any of this films. I think the only one I've even heard of on that list is 
We Own The Night.

The film's based on the book of the same name by David Grann, which tells the "true" story of one of Britain's greatest explorers, Lt. Col. 
Percy Fawcett, who searched the Amazon jungle looking for a mythical lost city he called "Z."

Sadly, as with most biopics, little or nothing in the story actually happened, and it's all a load of crap. More on this below.

Don't be deceived by the trailer, which promises a rollicking Indiana Jones-type adventure. Instead the film feels like a throwback to epic adventure movies of the past, such as The Four Feathers or Lawrence Of Arabia. And if you don't know what either of those are, then think Downton Abbey in the jungle.

The Lost City Of Z is a well-made and well acted film that's lush and beautiful to the eye. 
I could easily see it being a contender come Oscar™ season. Unfortunately it's aimed at a mature audience, tells a morally ambiguous story about obsession and doesn't feature any CGI or blue lasers shooting up into the sky, meaning modern audiences will have little or no interest in it.

It also takes its sweet time telling its story, clocking in at an overlong 141 minutes, so prepare your ass! 

Curiously, The Lost City Of Z was produced by Amazon Studios. Yep, THAT Amazon. That means that I just paid Amazon TWICE to see this movie. They used my Amazon Prime membership money to make this thing, and then I bought a ticket to see it!

So far the movie's an enormous box office flop, grossing an anemic $8.3 million against its $30 million budget. And that's after fifty four days in 866 theaters. Yikes! For comparison, The Bye Bye Man is easily the worst movie I've seen so far this year, and it managed to gross $28 million. People REALLY had no interest in discovering The Lost City Of Z!


The Plot:
The movie begins in 1905 Ireland, where British officer Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) is attending a shindig for the visiting Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (the same Archduke Ferdinand whose death started WW1). Fawcett, whose father shamed the family name, hopes that by hob-knobbing with the upper crust he can restore his honor. He participates in an elk hunt on the estate and easily bags the animal, to the cheers of his fellow hunters. Unfortunately he's snubbed during the banquet when the nobility discovers his lineage. D'oh!

A year later, Fawcett's summoned to London by the Royal Geographical Society. They tell him that Bolivia and Brazil are disputing their common boundary, and have asked a neutral party to map it for them. Fawcett's reluctant to leave his wife Nina and their son Jack, until the Society tells him that going on the survey mission could restore his family name. Blackmail much?

On the ship to Brazil, Fawcett meets Colonel Henry Costin (played by Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame), a hard-drinking explorer who's familiar with the Amazonian area. They arrive in Brazil, at a rubber plantation owned by Baron de Gondoriz. There, Fawcett and Costin meet Corporal Arthur Manley, who warns them against going on the expedition. Fawcett insists, and de Gondoriz gives him an Amazonian slave named Tadjui to serve as a guide.

As the expedition sails down the Amazon river, Tadjui tells Fawcett stories of a mysterious, golden city deep in the jungle. He says the city was once populous, but is now abandoned and lies in ruins. Fawcett dismisses the stories, believing them to be nothing more than local legends. After several months, the expedition completes their mapping mission (I guess?).

Tadjui tells Fawcett where to find the source of the Amazon river before he disappears into the jungle. Fawcett follows his directions and amazingly finds the source, right where Tadjui said it'd be. Unfortunately it looks like a small waterfall, which is kind of disappointing. As Fawcett tromps around the waterfall, he finds shards of broken pottery on the jungle floor, and begins to suspect Tadjui was right about the lost city.

Fawcett returns to England and is reunited with Nina, who's given birth to their second son. Fawcett appears before the Royal Geographical Society and tells them of his findings. They poo poo the idea that the "savage Amazonian natives" could have possibly built a thriving civilization that predated the British Empire, and threaten to run him out of town for his borderline heretical beliefs. Fortunately, biologist James Murray believes him and offers to join him on his quest to find the "Lost City Of Z." Houston, we have a title!

For some reason, even though the Royal Geographical Society dismisses Fawcett's lost city theory, they agree to fund an expedition to further map the Amazon basin.

The expedition sets off, but is bogged down by Murray, who's not used to the reality of jungle exploration. The expedition is attacked by hostile natives, as several members are killed. Fawcett manages to make peace with the natives, and asks them if they have any info on the Lost City. Murray injures his leg, which quickly becomes infected. Costin and the others want to turn back and get help for Murray, but Fawcett refuses. He leaves Murray behind (after giving him a horse and directions back to the native village) and pushes on. After surviving many hardships, the expedition is finally forced to turn back without finding the Lost City.

Fawcett returns to London, and is surprised to see that Murray survived and recovered. He meets with the Royal Geographical Society, where Murray accuses Fawcett of leaving him for dead (which is true). He demands the Society dismiss Fawcett, along with a public apology from him. Fawcett resigns rather than apologize. That'll show him!

At home, Nina's happy to finally have her husband back. Fawcett's restless though, as he's obsessed with finding a Lost City which likely doesn't even exist. His son Jack accuses Fawcett of abandoning his family for a stupid ideal (which is also true).

Suddenly World War I breaks out, adding another half hour to the film as Fawcett and his pal Costin go off to fight. During the Battle Of The Somme, Fawcett is injured in a mustard gas attack (too bad he didn't run into Wonder Woman!). He wakes up in a hospital, completely blind. Nina visits him with their now three children. When Jack sees Fawcett lying helpless in his hospital bed, he tearfully reconciles with his father.

Eventually Fawcett's sight returns, and he lives a peaceful life in England. In 1923, America's interest in exploring the Amazon is at a fever pitch, mostly due to Fawcett's claims of a Lost City. Millionaire industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. contacts Fawcett, and offers to fund a new expedition. The Royal Geographical Society, not wanting to be one-upped by the Americans, agrees to reinstate Fawcett and co-fund the expedition as well.

Fawcett feels he's too old to go traipsing off into the jungle again. Amazingly, Jack, who once denounced his father's quests, is now gung-ho to explore the region himself. He badgers and pesters Fawcett into going, until he finally agrees. The two men somehow convince Nina to let Jack go along on the expedition.

Fawcett tries to convince his old friend Costin to come with him one last time, but he refuses, saying he's content to enjoy the peaceful life. Before he leaves, Fawcett meets with Sir John Scott Keltie, a member of the Royal Geographical Society. He shows Keltie his compass, and says when he finds the Lost City, he'll send it back as confirmation (Plot Point!).

For some reason, Fawcett and Jack go alone on their quest, which seems like a bad idea, but what do I know about exploring? Months later (or maybe years, it's impossible to tell), the two encounter a hostile native tribe. They run from them through the grasslands, in a scene that looks exactly like the opening of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

At the last second they're saved by the timely appearance of a second tribe, that scares off the pursuers. They're taken back to the natives' village, where the elders confer. After a short deliberation, they decide that the two men's souls must belong to the tribe, whatever that means. They drug Fawcett and Jack in an elaborate ceremony, and take them deep into the jungle, as we get a brief glimpse of what might be the ruins of an ancient city.

Several years later, Nina meets with Keltie, who's now the head of the Royal Geographical Society. She says she's heard rumors that her husband and son are still alive, and asks Keltie if he has any news. He tells her they sent more than a hundred people to search for them over the years, with no luck. He says it's time she came to terms with the truth— that Fawcett and Jack are dead. She refuses to believe this, and shows Keltie a package she received. He opens it, and sees Fawcett's compass inside.

The End. OR IS IT?!!?!?!?!?


• First things first— the title of the movie is actually The Lost City Of ZED and not The Lost City Of ZEE. I think America's the only English-speaking country in the world that pronounces the letter Z that way.

• I'm not quite sure how the movie wants me to feel about the main character. Am I supposed to admire Percy Fawcett? Is his refusal to ever give up supposed to inspire me? If so, then the film failed miserably. Despite the fact that the movie does its level best to romanticize him, he was not a hero. 

Fawcett was a failed explorer whose obsession to discover a lost city that never existed bordered on insanity. He never discovered anything, and ruined his life trying. Does the script want me to applaud his tenacity or pity him?

Watching the film, I couldn't help but think of his poor family. He obviously cared far more about glory and restoring his name than he did about them, leaving his wife for years at a time, forcing her to raise their three children alone. He wasn't a hero, he was a pathetic loser and an asshole.

Who wouldn't want to see a film about someone like that?

• At one point in the film, one of Fawcett's men receives a telegram during an expedition (?). He reads the message to Fawcett, saying, "It seems Bingham just discovered a lost city in Peru! He calls it Machu Pichu." 

When I heard that I thought, "Gosh, that sounds a lot more exciting than this movie! I wish I was watching a film about THAT guy!"

• Oddly enough, despite the film's excessive 141 minute runtime, it absolutely races through its plot as it attempts to cover EVERY major event of Fawcett's life. 

Fawcett goes on his first Amazon expedition and BOOM! It lasts all of fifteen minutes and he's there and back again before you know it. WWI starts up? It's barely given ten minutes worth of screen time. You could actually miss the entire war by visiting the restroom or going out for more popcorn!

As a result of this breakneck pace, few scenes get the screen time they deserve, and there's no gravity to any of the events. This makes the movie feel like an extra long trailer, or a highlight reel of Fawcett's life. 

It would have improved the film considerably if they'd just briefly touched on the early events of his life, and had the bulk of the film concentrate on his final expedition.

• Brad Pitt produced the film, and was originally slated to star before dropping out. Benedict Cumberbatch was also considered for the lead, but had to cancel due to scheduling conflicts with Doctor Strange.

• Robert Pattinson plays Col. Henry Costin in the film, complete with a full beard and scruffy, disheveled appearance. Apparently Pattinson is trying his best to distance himself from his pretty boy Twilight persona.

• In the film, Charlie Hunnam plays the father of Tom Holland. In reality the two actors are only sixteen years apart. Not impossible, but unlikely.

That's still far short of the "ridiculous age record" set by the 1974 movie Earthquake. In that film, Lorne Greene played the father of Ava Gardner, even though the two were only seven years apart. You've not lived until you hear Ava Gardner calling a man nearly the same age as her, "Daddy."

• Speaking of Holland, he had to wear a fake 1920s mustache in the film, as he reportedly couldn't yet grow one of his own.

• Ian McDiarmid (aka Emperor Palpatine) gets seventh billing in the film, despite the fact that he appears for literally fifteen seconds and has exactly two brief lines. Now THAT'S a good agent!

• Near the end of the film, Fawcett and his son Jack run through a jungle plain from hostile natives.

The scene's practically a shot-for-shot recreation of the one in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Too be fair, there are probably a limited number of ways to film someone running from a native horde. Still, note to filmmakers: Don't remind the audience of more exciting movies they could be watching instead of yours.

• As regular readers of Bob Canada's BlogWorld know by now, I am not a fan of biopics. That's because even when they're well made, they usually contain far more fiction than fact, in an effort to make the subject's life more interesting and cinematic.

The Lost City Of Z is an unusual film in that it's very close to the book on which it's based. Unfortunately, according to real life Canadian explorer John Hemming, David Gramm's book is wildly inaccurate.

According to Hemming, the real Percy Fawcett was "a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist, and so incompetent that the only expedition he organised was a five-week disaster."

Hemming claims that Fawcett was severely ill-prepared for his one and only expedition, which resulted in the deaths of five of his crew. On a later survey mission, he actually shot an indigenous Indian, something that was forbidden by the Brazilian government.

Fawcett wrote of his encounters, describing the natives as "large hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and foreheads sloping back from pronounced eye ridges… villainous savages, hideous ape men with pig-like eyes." Which of course was nothing even remotely close to the truth.

Fawcett heard rumors of a lost city reportedly seen by explorers in 1743, and became obsessed with finding it, despite no evidence it existed. He made a couple of half-hearted attempts at discovering it in locations hundreds of miles from where it was rumored to be (?). 

In 1925, a penniless Fawcett made one last desperate attempt to find the city, taking his son Jack and friend. Fawcett insisted they travel light, assuring his tiny crew that the Indians would look after them (??). They were never seen again.

Twenty years later, the Chief of the Kalapalo tribe gave a detailed account of Fawcett's visit, claiming his people killed the unwelcome explorers (!!!). 

Fawcett's efforts were forgotten until 2009, when David Grann published his book The Lost City Of Z, which Hemming claims blew the story all out of proportion and quite wrongly painted Fawcett as a great explorer. According to Hemming, most of the book is nothing more than utter nonsense.

So which account is right— David Grann's or John Hemming's? I'm going to side with Hemming, since he's the one who's an actual explorer with many expeditions under his belt.

For what it's worth, here's a rundown of the film vs the book vs reality:

In The Movie: Fawcett went on three expeditions to the Amazon over the years. 
In The Book: Fawcett went on a whopping EIGHT expeditions! The movie thankfully condensed these to just three.
In Reality: Fawcett went on ONE actual expedition. He went on a couple of survey missions for the British government, but they were for map making purposes only.

In The Movie: Fawcett's father sullied the family name. 

In The Book: This is true, as he squandered the family fortune by drinking and gambling.
In Reality: ?

In The Movie: Fawcett was a member of the British Secret Service. 

In The Book: This was sort of true, as the British Secret Service often recruit members of the Royal Geographic Society, believing that map making was the perfect cover for a spy.
In Reality: Fawcett was an artillery man in the army, and took a surveying course. The Bolivian government asked the Royal Geographical Society to send a "mature" surveyor to map their northwest border.

In The Movie: Fawcett's claims of an ancient Amazonian civilization rocked stuffy British society, and he was ridiculed for his beliefs.

In The Book: Also true, as experts believed that the heavy rains and flooding in the Amazon would prevent crops from growing, meaning large populations would never be able to flourish.
In Reality: ?

In The Movie: Fawcett seeks advice from a psychic during WWI. 

In The Book: Yep. He became a devotee of charlatan psychic Madame Blavatsky
In Reality: Hemming confirms this.

In The Movie: Fawcett sent home coded letters to his wife Nina, so as not to give away his location to rival explorers. 

In The Book: True.
In Reality: ?

In The Movie: Fawcett's fame grew with each expedition. 

In The Book: All eyes were on him during each of his trips. On his final expedition, millions of readers scoured newspapers for word of his exploits.
In Reality: Hemming claims that Fawcett's disappearance in the Amazon became a media sensation.

In The Movie: The Royal Geographical Society sends out thirteen expeditions to find Fawcett, resulting in one hundred deaths. 
In The Book: This is supposedly true, as early expeditions hoped to find him alive, and later ones looked both for his remains as well as his fabled lost city.
In Reality: Hemming says only two search parties were sent out. One was sent in 1928 and discovered that Fawcett and his two companions had been killed. The other was a failed expedition sent out in 1935 for some reason. The total death toll from these two rescue attempts? Zero.

The Lost City Of Z is an old-fashioned adventure tale that feels like a throwback to films of the past. It's a story about a flawed man obsessed with discovery and glory, which will be of absolutely no interest to the eighteen to thirty four demographic. As with all biopics, the vast majority of the movie is largely fabricated. I wish I could judge it just as a piece of fiction, but the fact that it's filled with misinformation and outright lies drags down my score quite a bit. I really want to love this movie, but unfortunately I just can't. I give it a B-.

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