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

George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead


George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead

Hellllllllloooooooooo handsome!

(2009) Horror (Magnet) Alan van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Stefano Colacitti, Athena Karkanis, Steano DiMatteo, Joris Jarsky, Eric Woolfe, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Josh Pearce, Michelle Morgan. Directed by George A. Romero

And in the end of days, the dead shall rise and walk the Earth. We just didn’t think that was meant literally. However, George A. Romero took it one step further yet.

Eight days after the dead begin to walk, the army quickly realizes they are fighting a losing battle. There are far more dead than living and the living may be turned dead not just by dying but by getting bitten. One company led by Sarge Nicotine Crockett (van Sprang) sees that this is a hopeless cause and determines to head somewhere remote where the people are few and the dead are fewer. Fewer people means fewer reanimated corpses to kill…again.

Sarge and his guys Tomboy (Karkanis), Kenny (Wolfe) and Francisco (Colacitti) as well as young Boy (Bostick) make their way to a dock which, Boy informs them, has a boat that can take them to Plum Island, just off the coast of Delaware. This land is inhabited by two families only – the Muldoons and the O’Flynns who have been feuding ever since anybody could remember. These days it’s about how to deal with the zombies. The O’Flynns think the zombies should be destroyed, since their animating spirits are departed. The Muldoons believe the dead are merely diseased and should be treated with compassion and chained someplace meaningful so they can go through their lives…er, afterlives with some sort of comfort until a cure can be found.

In the middle are caught Sarge and his crew and it won’t be long before the crossfire starts creating more problems than it solves; after all, every new corpse creates another zombie for them to deal with.

Romero is one of those directors who is legendary among the demographic he serves – to wit, zombie lovers. Most of the mythology of zombies in general in modern literature both graphic and traditional was evolved by Romero in Night of the Living Dead and its succeeding films. Romero’s contribution to the horror genre in particular and film in general cannot be understated.

This is not Romero at the top of his game. The story is pedestrian and a bit disjointed. Romero is known for making social commentary thinly veiled as a horror film and this could easily be construed as a parody of the two party system. However, the characterizations are so cliché and the plot so thin and quite frankly, the acting so uninspiring that if Romero’s name wasn’t on this you might easily be persuaded to give up on the movie early on.

But this being Romero, he knows how to kill zombies and the zombie kills are at least interesting but at this stage of the game you really need more. It is kind of sad that the real innovating in the zombie genre is being done on cable (although Zombieland introduced a nice comedy element into it).

Still, it’s George Romero and watching even the weakest work by a master of that magnitude beats the best days of thousand of lesser talents out there. This isn’t his most entertaining work by any stretch of the imagination and there are plenty of zombie films that are better than this one. There are also better films to start with if you are unfamiliar with Mr. Romero’s talents. While the score it’s getting is poor, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a watching – it’s just you probably won’t want to give it any more than that. And that is not normal for the film catalogue of George Romero.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s George. Effin. Romero.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It simply doesn’t measure up to his previous work.

FAMILY VALUES: It is a George Romero zombie film, so it comes as no surprise that there’s a surfeit of gore. There’s also no shortage of bad words, a smattering of sexuality and yes, all the violent zombie goodness that only Romero can deliver.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film that Romero has used major characters from a preceding film as leading characters.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of interviews with Romero as well as a fascinating featurette on how to create your own zombie bites on a reasonable budget.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $143,191 on a $4M production budget; a certain box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: “The Walking Dead”

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Day 2 of the Six Days of Darkness 2012

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Season of the Witch


Season of the Witch

Oh, those kinky Catholics!

(2011) Supernatural Action (Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee, Stephen Graham, Rory McCann. Directed by Dominic Sena

In a land ruled by fear, decimated by plague and depleted by war, innocence and guilt can be more of a matter of political expedience. Fingers, looking for blame to point at, may choose the most convenient target.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are medieval knights, pledged to the service of the Church in the Crusades of the 13th century. For a dozen years, they labor in the Lord’s army, smiting down the infidels and butchering the soldiers of God’s enemies. When they are ordered to put an entire city to the sword, butchering innocent women and children, Behmen balks.  He rejects his oath and deserts from the army, his faithful pal Felson walking off with him.

They return to Europe to find it in the grip of the Black Plague, victims rotting in their beds. They ride into a town to purchase horses and supplies but they are recognized – apparently word travels fast in Medieval Europe – and arrested. In order to avoid execution, they agree to transport an accused witch (Foy) to a remote abbey where the last copy of the Key of Solomon, a document containing all the spells meant to exorcise demons and destroy witches, resides.

They will be accompanied by Debalzaq (Moore), a zealous priest and Eckhart (Thomsen), a grieving knight whose entire family (including his beloved daughter Mila) had been taken by the plague. They also recruit Hagamar (Graham), a swindler who is the only one who knows the way to the abbey. Behmen, weary of killing the innocent, agrees to go on the condition the girl gets a fair trial at the abbey and is not just summarily executed.

Along the way they’ll deal with escape attempts, a precarious bridge, a wolf-infested forest and things that go bump in the night. The journey is so perilous and things go wrong so coincidentally that it’s not a coincidence even Behmen wonders if the girl may not actually be a witch. 

This movie was a victim of MGM’s financial difficulties passing from studio to studio, release date to release date. It’s actually been in the can for two years but only just saw the light of day as the first wide release of 2011, which may sound like an honor but is generally bad news for a movie; usually the first weekend of the year is absolute death for a new release, competing against the big releases over the Christmas week.

I think that some of the critics who saw this were predisposed to disliking the film given its checkered past. It’s gotten really horrible reviews and I found some of the criticism unfair. Quite frankly, this is an action movie with horror overtones that’s not meant to be a serious study of life during the Black Plague; it’s supposed to be fun and mindless, and boy does it succeed in that regard.

Nicolas Cage has taken his lumps as an actor of late, and he has taken his lumps for this performance. He underplays the role big time, leaving his over-the-top twitchiness which he often employs at home. Behmen is terse and all business; it’s perfect for what the role requires.

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman. He’s great not only in the Hellboy movies but in virtually every role he assays, going back to his “Beauty and the Beast” days. He has enormous presence and he can take over a movie without thinking about it. Here, he acts as a great foil to Cage and they play nicely off of one another. It’s a bit of a buddy movie in that regard. 

Graham, who was recently seen as Capone in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is fine in a small role. Foy mostly gets to cower although she has a few moments where she displays her considerable sexuality. However, of all the backing players Moore is the most memorable, walking a fine line of the character’s dogmatic devotion to the Church and his desire to be a caring prelate. Christopher Lee is unrecognizable in a brief cameo as a cardinal stricken by the plague – that’s him on the bed in the photo above.

The action sequences are fairly well-done, although the battle sequences from the Crusades at the movie’s beginning are almost all filmed with hand-held cameras which is annoying as all get-out. There are a number of battles placed back-to-back with minimal differences, which drag on far too long. The point could easily have been made with a single sequence and a few lines of dialogue.

Most of the special effects are practical make-up effects until near the end. The climactic battle is well done, and the shots of plague victims are stomach-churning but in a good way. While the vistas are meant to portray a dying land, the Austrian Alps are far too beautiful to have their majesty hidden by mud for too long. It isn’t what I’d call grand sweeping cinematography but it suffices.

This really isn’t a bad movie at all. There are far worse movies out there wrestling for your entertainment dollar but the horror aspects might be putting off a certain segment of the audience while the medieval fantasy elements put off another. It’s a tough sell, but at the end of the day, it succeeds in entertaining and you can’t really ask for more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Decent special effects and solid performances by Cage, Perlman and Moore made this a better movie than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many battle sequences in shaky-cam style and a few action film clichés submarine what could have been a really strong movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and some disturbing horror imagery. In addition, there’s some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Key of Solomon is an actual work, a grimoire attributed to the biblical king but more likely first produced during the Italian Renaissance. Several editions exist today.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a few of the scenes are definitely better on a big screen, the movie works just as effectively on the small.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Quarantine