The Purge: Election Year


Ol' Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

Ol’ Honest Abe hates what his country has become.

(2016) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor, Barry Nolan, Liza Colon-Zayas, Ethan Phillips, Adam Cantor, Christopher James Baker, Jared Kemp, Brittany Mirabile, Raymond J. Barry, Naeem Duren, Naheem Garcia, Steven Barkhimer, Tom Kemp, Portland Helmich. Directed by James DeMonaco

 

We are a violent nation. There’s no disputing it. It runs in our veins, out the pores in our skin, and in every crack and crevice of our souls. We never left the gunfight at the OK Corral; we’re still out in the middle of the noonday sun, blazing away with our Colts – or just sitting on the side of the street, watching the carnage from a safe distance.

But there are those who are tired of it, who think that the Purge is being used to cleanse the poorer neighborhoods so that the government doesn’t have to spend as much on social programs. Senator Charlie Roan (Mitchell) is running for President on a platform of bringing the Purge to an end. She has seen how the New Founding Fathers, in the person of candidate Minister Edwidge Owens (Secor) who is running against her, have been lining their own pockets.

Of course the powers that be can’t have their cash cow being threatened, so they conspire to bring the crusading Senator to a sticky end. They enact a law which exempts nobody from the Purge – which the Senator would be because of her office – and look to place some moles in her team. The only one she can really trust is her security chief, Leo Barnes (Grillo) who was the subject of the previous Purge is now in the Secret Service and he is constantly exasperated by the Senator’s willingness to go walking into a crowd of supporters to press the flesh. Of course, it’s a nightmare for those trying to protect her from nutjobs and assassins.

With the new law in place and little time to shore up the security at the Senator’s home in suburban DC, Leo sets up what is essentially a fortress and leaves the Senator with the only person he can trust – himself, and maybe her campaign manager (Phillips). Unfortunately, his security team has been compromised and when the Purge starts in earnest, her home is attacked. Leo barely gets her out alive. They are rescued by Joe (Williamson) who owns a deli he’s desperately trying to protect, and his employee Marcos (Soria) who has a vested interest in keeping the deli safe. After an attack by a couple of spoiled bitches who were caught shoplifting by Laney Rucker (Gabriel), a sort of local hero from the Purge a couple years previous (essentially taking over from Carmen Ejogo in a role rewritten for Gabriel when Ejogo turned down a repeat performance), the Senator and Leo make their way to a safe zone operated by the legendary anti-Purge activist Dante Bishop (Hodge), who has plans of his own. Can the Senator survive the night and end the Purge once and for all?

I have long since held that the Purge series is a metaphor for modern politics. The New Founding Fathers are essentially Donald Trump in John McCain’s body. This being lefty Hollywood, you can kind of guess the dim view of the NFFs that the filmmakers take. I am not so naive to think that the right are all monsters and the left are all heroically fighting for the rights of the little guy. As the recent WikiLeaks release has shown us, there is plenty of corruption in the DNC to go around as well.

Grillo, who is mostly known for being  a Hydra agent (Crossbones) in the Captain America movies, takes the unfamiliar heroic role and runs with it pretty well. He is not the matinee idol kind of guy; more of a rugged manly sort. Still, he has a future as an action hero if he chooses to go that route. Mitchell, best known for the TV show Lost, is luminous as Charlie Roan. Even the butt-ugly glasses she is forced to wear don’t take away from her natural glamour. Although some are comparing the character to Hillary Clinton, I think she is meant to be more of an Elizabeth Warren sort, although some may disagree. Secor is not really a Trump sort per se, but some will see certain figures of the Conservative Christian group in the good Minister (who is far from good). Mike Pence, anybody?

DeMonaco has helmed all three of the Purge movies and went from a home invasion story to a kind of overview tale to now one that attacks the mythology behind the story, which is a natural progression in my book and lets us see more into the circumstances in which the Purge would be allowed to continue for so long. In doing so, DeMonaco has helped create a cogent cinematic universe which is all the rage these days. Don’t be surprised if this does well that you don’t see a couple of spin-offs headed our way.

Politics aside, there is kind of a neo-Clockwork Orange vibe going on that is fascinating. It is also interesting that a film that is purportedly against the expression of violence is itself so violent. Some might find that a little hypocritical but I think that the irony is intentional; I’m big on giving Lefties the benefit of the doubt. What is less encouraging is that the movie seems a little more self-repetitive; I suspect the franchise could use a different perspective the next time around, assuming there is one. If there is, I wouldn’t mind but frankly, this was the most meh of the franchise so far.

REASONS TO GO: The movie really drills down into the Purge mythology more than any other film in the franchise.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be running a little bit out of steam.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, some of it graphic and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Edwin Hodge is the only actor to appear in all three Purge movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Perfect Husband

The Shallows


Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

Blake Lively hopes this film will buoy her career.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manual Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedoria Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey, Ava Dean, Chelsea Moody. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

 

If sharks had their own equivalent of the ACLU, there’d be picketing of Hollywood in general. No other animal has been demonized the way sharks have; perhaps Steven Spielberg would be Public Enemy Number One. Sharks are predators, yes, but they rarely attack humans and it is even more rare that they kill humans. More people die from interactions with horses than with sharks.

Nancy (Lively) has had some shit to deal with lately. Her mom (Bailey) recently passed away from cancer; this caused her to take a good hard look at her life and drop out of medical school, much to the consternation of her dad (Cullen) and her sister Chloe (Legge). Instead, Nancy has decided to take a vacation in Mexico with her party hearty friend but she’s not there for the tequila. No, Nancy wants to surf a beach that has personal meaning to her – it was a secluded beach that her mom used to take her to back in the day. It was a place where Nancy was truly happy.

When her friend is too hung over to go along for the ride, Nancy goes by herself and enlists the aid of a local (Jaenada) to drive her to the beach. It is just as secluded as it ever was; only a pair of surfer dudes (Jose, Corzo) is there. The day wanes and it has been a perfect afternoon. As the boys leave for home, Nancy decides to take one last ride. That proves to be a mistake.

You see, the surfer dudes weren’t the only ones out there; there’s also a great white shark who has been feasting on a whale out in the water. However, apparently having a whale that is ten times its size out there to dine on isn’t enough; the shark must have some human meat because, after all, variety is the spice of life. So the shark takes a bite out of Nancy who manages to make it to a rock 200 yards from shore. And there she will stay, and she will need all her ingenuity and the occasional help of a seagull named Steven (get it?) to fend off the most deadly of all predators.

Let’s get something straight; sharks rarely eat humans and when they do, it’s usually due to confusion. The fact of the matter is, sharks don’t much like the taste of human meat; they prefer more fishy sources of protein and frankly, if there’s a ginormous whale carcass ripe for the taking, they’re not going to bother with going out and killing something else. Sharks are not greedy by nature; they kill only what they can eat to survive. They don’t kill just for the sake of killing as they are depicted not only here but in popular imagination.

Mainly however this particular shark is there to menace Blake Lively and keep her in a bikini for the entire movie and admittedly she looks fantastic in a bikini. Although her character is ostensibly from Texas, Lively is the prototypical California surfer chick, so she is well-cast here. Lively needed to be solid here as she is basically the entire movie; she occasionally talks to her seagull buddy or records into a camera and/or cellphone but otherwise, it’s all her and all physical. This is the kind of demanding movie that pushed actors like Robert Redford and Matt Damon to their limits and this is also the case with Lively but she manages to keep our attention throughout and not just because of her bikini body. She does have a breezy personality that reminds me of Blythe Danner in the 70s and Kate Hudson more recently.

Jaume Collet-Serra is a Spanish director who has a knack for thrillers, particularly the action-based kind. This is more of a character thriller and he acquits himself well, considering that it is much more difficult to keep things interesting with a single character than it is when that character has other people and things to play off of. Lively doesn’t get that luxury; she has to interact with machines and an occasional bird, but has nothing else to work off of.

If you can forgive the egregious lapses in logic and biology here, this is a pretty good thriller. The conundrum of Nancy being so close yet so far from shore is tantalizing. There is a modicum of gore and of the CGI shark (which is much more realistic than Bruce in Jaws) which is a terrifying monster. As summer entertainment goes, you could do much worse – but also you can also do better. As it stands, this is a competently done edge-of-the-seat woman vs. shark film that certainly isn’t a waste of your time or money.

REASONS TO GO: Collet-Serra excels at keeping the tension high.
REASONS TO STAY: The basis of the plot is that the shark has some sort of grudge against Blake Lively.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a few bloody images, intense peril and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot under its original title, In the Deep. The title was changed because the movie takes place in shallow waters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Purge: Election Year

The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

The Fundamentals of Caring


Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

Craig Roberts channels Frodo Baggins.

(2016) Dramedy (Netflix) Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, Selena Gomez, Julia Denton, Megan Ferguson, Samantha Huskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Ehle, Donna Briscoe, Alex Huff, Alex Boell, Bill Murphey, Frederick Weller, Matt Mercurio, Robert Walker Branchaud, Eric Singer, James Donaldio, Matthew Pruitt, Ashley White, Kristi Von. Directed by Rob Burnett

 

One of the truths about caregiving is that often the caregiver receives from their charge as much if not more than they give to them. That isn’t always the case, but most of the time we see things in those whose care we are charged with that change how we see ourselves.

Ben Benjamin (Rudd) is entering the field of caregiving after having spent most of his life as a novelist. He has been unable to write following a tragedy that left him devastated and he and his wife (Denton) on the brink of divorce. Picking up the pieces, he wants to help someone in need rather than just bag groceries or flip burgers.

His first client is Trevor (Roberts), a young man with Muscular Dystrophy and  a frazzled mom (Ehle). His American dad abandoned the two of them; the two ex-pat Brits are also starting over in Seattle, with mom working for a major bank but going through caregivers as caustic Trevor is a bit of a handful, with a penchant for playing practical jokes and insulting those closest around him.

Ben urges the routine-bound Trevor to get out of the house; Trevor has a fondness for cheesy American tourist traps, particularly those things that advertise themselves as the “Biggest” anything. Ben knows that watching specials on the Travel Channel is nothing compared to seeing these plays in person in all their chintzy glory. With mom getting ready to go on a business trip to Atlanta, Ben begins planning a road trip of his own with Trevor. At first, mom is appalled but eventually relents.

They pick up a foul-mouthed hitchhiker on the way, a comely girl named Dot (Gomez) who is headed to Denver and art school. They also pick up another stray, the very pregnant Peaches (Ferguson) whose husband is overseas. On Trevor’s say-so, this ragtag group makes a detour to Salt Lake City to confront Trevor’s no-account used car dealer dad (Weller) but eventually they make it to the Nirvana of Trevor’s bucket list – America’s biggest pit. Yes, he aspires to see a tourist attraction that is essentially a great big hole in the ground.

Trevor and Ben are in fact mirror images of one another; both are bitter at the hand life has dealt them and both have been shutting out others, using their sense of humor and/or grief to push the world away from them. The caregiving has, by movie’s end, gone both ways; Ben is able to move on and Trevor is able to live life more fully. That’s a bit of a Hollywood cliché and I’m not sure that was what the Jonathan Evison novel, which I haven’t read, intended.

One of a handful of projects that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that was picked up for theatrical and streaming distribution by Netflix, the movie has a somewhat accelerated pace that makes one feel like Burnett (who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel) was trying to cram too much into an hour and a half. The pace of the story isn’t organic at all as the closed-off Trevor seems to accept Ben way too easily, while for his part Ben who started off the movie sullen and uncommunicative seems to open up much faster in the film than humans usually do; there’s no sense of progression, only that the filmmakers wanted the relationship to reach the stage where the road trip could begin quickly.

Rudd is one of the most charming actors in Hollywood; he is so likable onscreen that even in off-beat roles (which are often the ones he takes) he still manages to capture your rooting interest. Here, it starts off with Ben deep in the throes of depression and the character is morose and grief-stricken. It doesn’t take long for Rudd to shine through even in those extreme circumstances and in some ways that’s not a good idea; Ben’s grief is part of the central aspects of his character and he seems to pull out of it way too quickly. It isn’t until the movie ends in fact that we realize that the movie has been about Ben all along and Trevor is the caregiver; the title is about how they both learn to care about life but the focus is certainly on Ben. Rudd pulls that aspect of it off well.

The movie is riddled with cliches and is predictable throughout. Gomez with her baby face looks is somewhat miscast as the fiercely independent Dot, while the character of Peaches seems to be unnecessary baggage. Cannavale turns up in an uncredited glorified cameo as Dot’s father who turns out to be following his daughter, making sure she gets to Denver all right.

I expected a bit more out of this film than it delivered. I enjoyed the road trip dynamic but there was no build up to it that would have given the personal growth more meaning. It just seemed to be too rote for a movie that came out of the independent pedigree it had. This could have easily been a remarkable film about the nature of caregiving, but in the end the script doesn’t serve the subject matter well. Netflix subscribers who are Paul Rudd films should check it out if they haven’t already; if you can take or leave Rudd, you are well-advised to find better movies to stream on the home video giant.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Rudd is as charming as always. Some fun road film moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels really rushed. The scrip is somewhat pedantic.-
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, sexually suggestive content and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rudd and Cannavale both appeared in Ant-Man last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jack of the Red Hearts
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The BFG

Swiss Army Man


Just another day at the beach.

Just another day at the beach.

(2016) Fantasy (A24) Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Antonia Ribero, Timothy Eulich, Richard Gross, Marika Casteel, Andy Hull, Aaron Marshall, Shane Caruth. Directed by Daniels

 

Look, some movies simply aren’t meant for everybody. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; in an era where Hollywood is constantly trying to create franchise films that are all things to all people, it’s refreshing once in awhile to happen upon a movie that is meant to appeal only to a narrow few and if you’re one of that narrow few, it’s like getting a private message from someone who shares your own particular interests.

On a deserted tropical island, a bearded and bedraggled Hank (Dano) is standing on a cooler with a noose around his neck, ready to step off and have an end to everything. How he got to this island is unimportant; the salient fact is that he’s totally alone – and sharp-eyed viewers will recognize that as a metaphor that drives the film.

However, his loneliness ends with the site of a man washed ashore on the beach. Forgetting his precarious position, Hank steps off…and fortunately for him, the rope snaps, allowing him to rescue the man…who is sadly, quite dead. The corpse, whom Hank names Manny (Radcliffe), is full of the gasses of decomposition and farts constantly. If you are the sort who is offended by flatulence, read no further and skip this movie altogether. You will not find a movie anywhere ever that revels in the act of breaking wind as this one does.

It turns out that Manny’s gasses can be used in a variety of ways, including as a propulsion system turning Manny into a kind of stinky Jet Ski that transports Hank from the desert island to a location of forest and ocean. The prospects are much better for survival here, and Hank builds…well, a recreation of his life for Manny because Manny is able to talk to Hank. Hank gives Manny tips on how to pick up girls and other assorted facts of life. As he does, we begin to learn that Hank is a deeply wounded and possibly deeply disturbed young man and that not everything he says can be trusted.

Which, once again, is a metaphor for this film. Not everything that the filmmakers show you can be trusted and as the story unfolds, our point of view is changed somewhat – more than somewhat, in fact. It is a bit of a carnie trick, a game of Three Card Monty that the filmmakers – a pair of young auteurs who got their start in the music video game and who are known collectively as Daniels – play on their audience. Some are going to feel a bit cheated and others will be delighted, as is usually the case in cinematic con games.

The movie is largely Radcliffe and Dano, with Winstead showing up mainly in the last reel as the object of obsession for both of the main characters, the living one and the farting corpse. There are other characters here as well but again, they show up late and have little impact on the story except to help bring it to an unexpected although not unsurprising conclusion given on what we witnessed in the rest of the movie. Dano has become known for parts like this and he performs it with gusto; this well may become one of his signature roles. Radcliffe continues to take chances while distancing himself from a certain boy wizard, and we are rewarded by a character who is sweet and funny and charming. I don’t know that Radcliffe will necessarily want to be remembered for being a flatulent cadaver but he seems to have promoted the role with a good sense of humor and a ton of enthusiasm.

There are some scenes that are heart-achingly beautiful here, as well as others that are downright crude. It is a literal mix of the profane and the sublime. I will say that this may well be the most imaginative movie of the year; certainly you won’t be seeing anything like it in the multiplex or at your local film festival. You may find yourself smirking at fart jokes, that lowest common denominator of all humor, but you will also find yourself thinking about the human condition. If the movie has a flaw, it is that the filmmakers seem to be completely aware that they have a high cinematic IQ and at times the movie feels a little condescending, a little hipper-than-thou.

Mostly though, this is an artistic endeavor that tickles the funny bone as well as the brain stem. I can’t say that every reader is going to fall for this the way I did. For that reason, I’ve given the movie a lower rating than it deserves; I can’t in good conscience say “everybody should go see this.” Everybody should not go see this. If your tastes run towards the adventurous, if you’re not easily offended by the scatological and if you are willing to allow yourself be taken in by the wonder, this is the movie for you.

REASONS TO GO: An imaginative exercise different than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s genuinely funny at times. This is truly movie magic on a budget.
REASONS TO STAY: This is most definitely an acquired taste. It may be a little bit too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the songs in the movie are sung a cappella, mainly by Andy Hull of the Manchester Orchestra (who also cameos as a cameraman near the end of the movie) and Robert Powell.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Fundamentals of Caring

Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

Independence Day: Resurgence


Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

Jeff Goldblum realizes it was a mistake to read the reviews.

(2016) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Jessie T. Usher, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Sela Ward, William Fichtner, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, Patrick St. Esprit, Vivica A. Fox, Angelababy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Deobia Oparei, Nicolas Wright, Travis Tope, Chin Han, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Robert Loggia, John Storey, Joey King. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

“If you’ve seen one alien invasion, you’ve seen them all.” That may not be an aphorism in Hollywood, but it damn well should be. Ever since the original Independence Day back in 1996, there have been a plethora of invasion flicks of technologically superior aliens trying to rid our planet of its native population and steal its resources for themselves, which sounds an awful lot like a metaphor for colonialism if you ask me.

In Independence Day: Resurgence, twenty years have passed since the last alien invasion failed. Technology scavenged from fallen ships has pushed our own technology far ahead, allowing us to rebuild more quickly and even expand our presence with a modern defense station on the moon. Daniel Levinson (Goldblum) is now in charge of defensive strategies for the planet, which has united after nearly having been annihilated. He believes, like most of the planet’s leadership, that the aliens will be back and we’ve been preparing for twenty years for the inevitability of that fact.

Former President Whitmore (Pullman) is visited regularly by his daughter Patricia (Monroe) who is now an aide to current President Lanford (Ward). Like her dad, Patricia is an ex-fighter pilot. She’s also engaged to hotshot maverick fighter Jake Morrison (Hemsworth) who was exiled to the moon after clipping the wing of the fighter jet of golden boy Dylan Hiller (Usher), son of the late Stephen Hiller, the hero of the War of 1996. The three of them had been close friends but were now leading separate lives. Those lives are about to get a whole lot different.

Because the aliens are back and this time they’ve brought a Mothership the size of a continent. When it lands in the Atlantic Ocean, it covers the entire ocean. The aliens, aware of what happened to the last invasion, are mad as hell and want to finish us off, something having to do with taking the molten core of the planet and using it for fuel. Dr. Brakish Okun (Spiner), who’s been in a coma since his own close encounter with an alien, awakens and has some ideas for saving the Earth (although we get to see a little bit more of his hind end than we ever wanted to) but some of those may well have to wait for the sequel that will one day come. ID4 Part 3 anybody?

There are those in Hollywood who believe that the secret to a great sequel is more of what was in the original, and that sums up this film in a nutshell. Emmerich has, justly or unjustly, gotten a reputation of delivering spectaculars with plenty of destruction but not a lot of thought in the plot department. Here, again, there are things in the story that anyone with even basic knowledge of science will roll their eyes over. For one thing, something that big landing in the Atlantic would send tsunamis that would essentially drown every coast on that ocean, as well as send enough steam and vapor into the air to cause a nuclear winter. Having something that size impact the Earth might also have consequences in terms of knocking the planet off axis. Keep in mind that a much smaller object impacting the Earth may have caused an extinction level event. Even at reduced speeds, the Mothership would have killed half the population of the planet off in an instant just by landing here gently; and they wouldn’t need to land gently to get what they’re after. It would actually be in their best interests to deliberately knock the planet off its axis; it would make their task easier.

It is a hoot to see Goldblum, Pullman, Spiner and Hirsch back in roles that we identify them with, and all of them make the most of their return. Goldblum and Pullman get the lion’s share of time, but Spiner and Hirsch are effective in their supporting roles. The “new kids;” Hemsworth, Usher and Monroe mainly are a little flat; none of them individually or collectively can replace Smith who really made the first film more fun with his swagger and his comic timing, as well as his action chops. Smith reportedly asked for $50 million to sign on here; I’m wondering if it might not have been worth it for Fox to give him what he wanted.

The special effects are, as you can doubtlessly imagine, spectacular although like much that is in this film, much along the same lines as what you saw in ID4. Monuments and icons get destroyed. People flee in terror down streets choked with cars. Dogs get saved. Catchphrases get uttered. Hordes of fighter craft engage the enemy. And as an added attraction, we get to meet the alien Queen. Note to Ellen Ripley on that one; you’re going to need a bigger boat.

This is what I would consider decent summer entertainment; no more and no less. The script is a bit lame-brained but I don’t think anyone is expecting David Mamet here. The effects are more than equal to the task, but they don’t really set the bar any higher; once you blow up the White House (as they did in the first film) the sight of famous places getting destroyed doesn’t really do much for a savvy audience. In short, this is a time-waster that is perfect fodder for shutting your brain off, drinking an ice cold soda, stuffing your face with popcorn and candy and escaping the summer heat for a couple of hours.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive visuals as always. It’s a hoot to see Goldblum, Hirsch, Spiner and Pullman still at the top of their games.
REASONS TO STAY: Plot riddled with holes of logic and science. A bloated and often incomprehensible plot is not helped by the absence of Will Smith.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of destruction (they always go for the landmarks), plenty of violence, some profanity and a couple of disturbing alien images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seven actors reprised their roles from the original; the part of President Whitmore’s daughter Patricia was recast from Mae Whitman in the original to Maika Monroe here because Whitman isn’t conventionally pretty met with outrage on the Internet. Also, Will Smith (whose salary demands were rejected by the studio) appears as a portrait in the White House.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Free State of Jones