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Films I Neglected To Review: ''Wake Up''
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of the ''Donnie Darko'' restoration, ''Graduation'' and ''The Lost City of Z.''

Still crazy and disturbing after all these years, ''Donnie Darko,'' Richard Kelly's hymn to young love, alternate realities, time travel, youthful rebellion, the dangers of quack self-help therapy, hypnosis, the possible end of the world and questioning oneís commitment to the tenets of Sparkle Motion, all set during the official waning days of the Reagan era, is marking its 15th anniversary, more or less, with a return to theaters via a brand-new 4K restoration that is being presented in two formats--the 2001 theatrical cut that perplexed audiences during its short-lived release(due in part because it came out just a few weeks after 9/11, not a good time to be releasing a film that is focused in part around a bizarre airplane accident) or the 2004 so-called directorís cut that more closely adheres to the version that Kelly premiered at Sundance before doing some editing in order to clarify certain points for the audience. Although both versions have their separate virtues and flaws, I would probably lean more towards the original as the longer version spends a little too much time overexplaining things that were a tantalizing mystery the first time around.

Whichever version you pick, it is still astonishing to see how confident Kelly was as a filmmaker his first time out, both in his ability to conceive and execute such a defiantly one-of-a-kind narrative that deftly jumps from genre to genre without breaking a sweat and in his equally significant ability to tell it in a strong and interesting manner that is visually stylish without being garish and which finds him getting strong performances from an eclectic cast including the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Katherine Ross and the cast-against-type Patrick Swayze as a creepy motivational speaker who becomes one of the demons that our anti-hero (Gyllenhaal) must slay in the 28 days before the world may or may not come to an end. Kellyís subsequent career as a filmmaker may have been a bit checkeredóhis even-stranger follow-up ''Southland Tales'' was a notorious bomb when it came out in 2006 (though it would develop a cult of its own) and he hasnít directed since the failed release of the marginally less strange 2009 head-spinner ''The Box''--but watching ''Donnie Darko'' again will both remind you of his prodigious talents and make you wish that he could get another project going as soon as possible.

In the opening scenes of Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu's drama ''Graduation,'' the idealistic Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) drops his beloved daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) off a couple of blocks from her school before heading off to attend to some personal matters. He soon discovers that Eliza was assaulted by an attempted rapist and while she was able to successfully fight off her attacker, the incident has left her with an arm in a sling and feeling shaky about the final exams she is supposed to be taking the next day--a big deal since her scholarship to a prestigious U.K. university is dependent on her doing well. Although he prides himself on being above the kind of petty bribery and corruption that he sees all around him, Romeo quickly finds himself willing to extend certain favors to certain people to ensure that she gets good grades on the tests--this is her chance to leave Romania for a better life and besides, he knows she would have aced them if it werenít for her being thrown from the attack. No matter how well-intentioned they might have been, his efforts begin a chain reaction that goes spectacularly wrong and which exposes any number of dark truths that Romeo has never wanted to admit about himself, all the more ironic since Eliza herself isnít 100% sure that she wants to leave Romania in the first place.

Over the course of his first two films, ''4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days'' and ''Beyond the Hills,'' Mungiu has established himself as one of his country's most respected and innovative filmmakers for the way that he tells stories that are almost documentary-like in their specificity while still delving into universal truths. With ''Graduation,'' he has offered up a classically structured morality tale--perhaps too classically structured for its own good because it has a familiar and formulaic quality to it that winds up working against it. While his previous films had a sense of real life and energy to them, this feels more like a writer's construct with every twist, turn and speed bump arriving just in time to help move the narrative along. To be fair, the film still does work on some fundamental level because of the sheer directorial skill that Mungiu deploys to bring the material to life and through the strong central performance from Titieni as the increasingly beleaguered doctor. However, considering the power of Mungiuís previous efforts, ''Graduation'' cannot help but come across as being somewhat of a disappointment.

Because it was made by a highly talented filmmaker--James Grey, whose last film, ''The Immigrant,'' is one of the best films of recent years that you probably havenít seen--and because it is set largely in the heart of the jungle and deals with questions of obsession, there will no doubt be plenty of reviews of ''The Lost City of Z'' that strive to compare it to such classics as ''Apocalypse Now'' and ''Fitzcarraldo.'' While it may not quite live up to the high-water mark set by those two titles, it is still a bold and fascinating work in its own right. Based on the best-selling book by David Grann, it tells the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier with a checkered family past who is charged by the Royal Geographic Society with going off into the Amazon jungle to survey the uncharted land and discover the source of a river. While there, he uncovers pottery fragments that suggest to him the existence of a lost civilization hidden somewhere from view in the midst of the jungle. His findings are poo-poohed by the establishment, who donít want any suggestion that they may have been preceded in the creation of a complete society, but it becomes an obsession with Fawcett that dominates his life from then on in a series of expeditions that culminated with one in 1925 from which neither he nor his eldest son (Tom Holland) were ever heard from again.

From a dramatic standpoint, ''The Lost City of Z'' is a bit dodgy at times--it never really calls into question his determination to uncover a race of people who presumably have no interest in being uncovered and the stuff involving the family that he leaves behind--including Sienna Miller as his long-suffering wife--is so cliched that you can practically read the lines along with the actors as they play them. And yet, while Grey's adaptation may be somewhat wanting, he more than makes up for it by presenting the familiar material in a visually stunning way as he and cinematographer par excellence Darius Khondji recreate the Amazon in Colombia to a stunning effect that is enhanced further by the decision to shoot the entire thing in the glory of 35mm instead of the cheaper and less vivid digital alternative. (The film will be presented on 35mm in some theaters and if one of them is near, make a point to see it that way.) The actors are also quite good as well--Hunnum does manage to capture some of the presumed madness of Fawcett, a nearly-unrecognizable Robert Pattinson pops up as his loyal co-explorer and Miller almost manages to make much of her boilerplate dialogue seem close to convincing. ''The Lost City of Z'' may not be the masterpiece that it clearly wants to be but in its finest moments, it has enough visual panache and a genuine sense of adventure to make it still worth checking out regardless.

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originally posted: 04/21/17 23:36:50
last updated: 04/23/17 04:53:24
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