Free State of Jones
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Leathery and wild-eyed, with a mossy beard and a skeptical attitude toward war, Mississippi native Newton “Newt” Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts his post as an orderly in the Confederate Army after the 1862 Battle of Corinth. He returns home to Jones County, where his relatives and neighbors live as subsistence farmers, to restore his nephew’s corpse to his kinfolk, but also as protest against the Twenty-Negro Law, which exempted planters who owned 20 or more slaves from conscription. As Newt tells one of his neighbors, a foot soldier in the same company, “I'm tired of helpin' 'em fight for their damn cotton.”
The most compelling, and certainly the most surprising feature of director Gary Ross’ (Pleasantville, Sea Biscuit) latest film is its origin story. The script, written by Ross from a treatment by Leonard Hartman, is based on the mostly unknown real-life Confederate insurgent Newton Knight. Not to be mistaken for any kind of pacifist, the Mississippi farmer led a band of his compatriots — mostly made up of other deserters —wage guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy. At issue were the Confederate tax collections, which stripped local families of their last scraps of food and clothing.
Under Ross’ ambition to touch on the many milestones of Newt’s life, the film expands into an unwieldy sequence of charged scenes, featuring those with McConaughey and also a frame story about an anti-miscegenation trial in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi. At 139 minutes, it attempts to be both an exhaustive biopic as well as a social issues movie, yet it still feels cursory; the viewer comes away with a simplified idea of the motives behind the mutiny but not much feeling for it beyond what Ross provides through speeches filtered through contemporary sensibilities.
In particular, Ross unequivocally establishes Newt on the right side of history by dramatizing his good deeds toward the runaway slaves who then become freedmen. Newt trades his desperately needed blacksmithing skills to Moses (Mahershala Ali) in exchange for learning how to survive in the swamp and other wise life lessons. How shallowly Ross sketches the men Newt meets in the swamp would be insulting except that no character, save for Newt’s wife Serena (Keri Russell), is portrayed in full flesh or with any complications. The villains are ruthless and bad; the good guys are righteous, written with the benefit of hindsight into history.
Still, between speeches there are several astonishing moments courtesy of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme. In one, Serena lies exhausted in bed, one arm covering half her face as she looks out with one eye. The silence finally allows an opening into the moment’s emotion. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/28/16)
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers
It’s easy to picture Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a wrestler, a football player or on screen battling mummies or driving very fast cars. Johnson is versatile to an extent as an actor — his imposing physique and car-grille-wide smile opens him up to a lot of roles but also limits his appeal when subtlety and finesse is the calling card of a particular character. It’s hard to picture Johnson slowly unraveling a murder mystery or patiently nurturing another to self-realization.
But Johnson carries a comedic element within him. He can be funny, and he is, at times, in Central Intelligence. But there’s a fine line between being stupid and being funny. As Bob Stone, CIA agent in trouble, Johnson stumbles across that line a few times.
Paired with Kevin Hart, it is Hart who demonstrates superior comedic skills and delivering a character that holds the story within a wide realm of believability. Johnson simply isn’t convincing, either as someone who actually could be in the CIA or as a manipulative genius bending Hart to his will while outwitting the bad guys.
Stone and Calvin Joyner (Hart) are former high school classmates. Not quite buddies back in the day but Stone, then known as clueless Robbie Weirdichit, always fondly remembers Calvin because he gave up his letter jacket to cover Robbie’s bare-bottom after bullies pull him from the shower and tossed him on the gym floor at the senior assembly.
Years later, Robbie, now agent Stone, searches out his high school hero to help break an accounting code and restore his reputation. Calvin, voted in high school as the one most likely to succeed, now laments his stupefying career choice as a forensic accountant while finding it increasingly difficult to relay his frustrations to his wife Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). Stone’s transformation from a doughy over-weight klutz to super-stud agent man invigorates Calvin . . . until the bullets start to fly.
But as Calvin tries to squirm away, Stone appeals to his high school persona and to the increasing danger Maggie faces if he tries to go back to his normal life.
In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Calvin gets away from Stone and keeps an appointment with Maggie to see a marriage counselor. When Calvin arrives he finds that it’s Stone impersonating the counselor. Unable to reveal who Stone really is to his wife, Calvin falls into a momentary lapse of revealing his emotions as Stone dutifully listens.
The plot itself is confusing and mostly irrelevant, heightened to near absurdity with Amy Ryan as over-the-top hard-ass CIA supervisor Agent Pamela Harris on the trail of rogue Stone, and Stone’s former partner and “real” bad guy Phil — played to the max by Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” fame. Yes, you’ll hear “Bitch” more than once as Phil threatens Calvin and Stone in his best Jesse Pinkman voice
Despite some stumbles by Johnson in nailing what his character is about, Central Intelligence, directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers),pulls out the laughs for fans of both Johnson and Hart. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 6/20/16)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Because Pixar is involved, it shouldn’t be surprising that the movie that examines humanity in the most honest way so far this year is a cartoon about fish.
In addition to being a sequel to Pixar’s hit Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is a heartfelt, clever and often hysterically funny movie in its own right. Writer-director Andrew Adamson revisits the characters from his previous film and finds new depth to them while never forgetting to entertain.
In the 13 years since the previous installment hit the big screen, computer graphics have improved exponentially, so the characters and their surroundings look more lifelike. Thankfully, Adamson and co-writers Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson haven’t forgotten how to tell stories while they were playing in their new 3D toy box.
While young Nemo (voiced in this installment by Hayden Rolence) and his father Marlon (Albert Brooks) are back, the new film focuses on the amiable Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), whose eagerness to help other aquatic creatures is almost negated by her inability to remember anything longer than a few seconds.
In Finding Nemo, Dory was around for comedy relief, but DeGeneres and Stanton reveal that she’s a complicated blue tang who’s cheery manner belies a troubled past. Adamson handles Dory’s condition with a remarkable sensitivity. He and DeGeneres present Dory in a dignified manner even if some of her memory lapses do lead to amusing outbursts.
Dory has had her short-term memory lost since she was a little hatchling (Sloane Murray), but her parents Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton) try to teach her a variety of techniques to compensate for her inability to retain important facts (like avoiding undertow) for more than an instant.
Despite diligent planning, Dory still gets separated from her folks and becomes part of the story in Finding Nemo. A year later, long dormant memories start popping into her head, tipping her off that she might still be able to reunite with her parents.
The clues lead to a California seaside aquarium nearly half the Pacific Ocean away from her current spot. Because Dory assisted Marlon and Nemo get back together, the normally risk-averse Marlon agrees to help her.
When they arrive on the shores of the Golden State, Dory discovers that some of her memories are more accurate than she realizes, but she can’t find the context to process them. She winds up convincing an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) to help her find out which of the many exhibits at the facility might be holding Charlie and Jenny. Despite having one of his limbs inadvertently ripped off by a child (technically making him a “septipus”), Hank has no desire to return to the open ocean. By comparison, Marlon is a gushing fountain of courage.
Dory’s quest becomes both bittersweet and side splittingly funny. Adamson and his collaborators also find a variety of clever explanations for Dory’s endearing and not-so-endearing quirks. For example, there’s a reason that she speaks fluent whale. It also turns out her mysterious but repetitive singing “just keep swimming” has a purpose.
In the process, Adamson and DeGeneres make her a much more identifiable character even with her amusingly unfiltered personality. DeGeneres demonstrates a range she’s never had to use in her on camera roles. She can be both poignant and goofy at the same time.
When Dory gate crashes a field trip for Nemo and his classmates, she forgets that explaining how the little fish came into the world might not be appropriate for the lesson at hand. Because Adamson treats Dory’s condition with respect and cuts her off just before the play-by-play can begin, the sequence is funny instead of demeaning.
Adamson has kept most of the characters from the first film, including his own amusing turn as a laid back sea turtle. Hank and the rest of the new cast are a lot of fun as well. Who knew that watching two seals (Idris Elba and Dominic West) zealously guarding their rock could be so funny?
Adamson’s last movie was the sadly misbegotten live action sci-fi adventure John Carter. In returning to animation, he thankfully demonstrates that his wit and creativity weren’t lost in the debacle and that his cartoons have a lot to teach supposedly serious filmmakers about storytelling and what it’s like to be alive. Perhaps we should make an effort to remember lessons from a blue tang with recall issues. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (06/20/16)
most amusing when she becomes
a forgetful fish.
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
During the series' best moments, X-Men comics and movies are a celebration of being different. What's disheartening about Bryan Singer's new offering X-Men: Apocalypseis that seems like more of the same.
As with Matthew Vaughan's X-Men: First Class, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg introduce characters from the previous X-Men movies by casting younger actors. Sadly, neither they nor the actors have found anything fresh or interesting in their interpretation of the roles.
Not only are the familiar characters rendered in a lackluster manner but mutants who are new to the big screen aren't that memorable either. Even the returning thespians aren't given anything worthwhile to do. For example, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique has the ability to transform herself into just about any other person on the globe. In X-Men: Apocalypse she turns herself simply into the Mystique's blue-skinned default mode. It's like watching a Superman movie where Clark Kent never makes a dash for a phone booth.
X-Men: Apocalypse does have a plot, but it's not that detailed or engaging. A long dormant ancient Egyptian super mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) rises from his three millennial nap in the 1980s and decides that he must personally purge the world of what he believes is corruption. If a few billion people or even fellow mutants die is immaterial to him.
En Sabah Nur quickly gets up to speed with how the world has changed during his beauty sleep and recruits Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to tear up the planet with their powers. Naturally, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his students are determined to stop them.
Singer tries to set up enough ruin porn to justify X-Men: Apocalypse, but watching Magneto waving his arms and sending metal flying is getting old pretty quickly. The destruction looks like something off of a gaming system monitor, and because of the sheer amount of damage, it's easy to get numb to it all.
By concentrating so much on how to fit in as many effects as possible, Singer and Kinberg seem to have forgotten how to develop characters beyond giving them mutant powers. In particular, Munn's Psylocke look imposing in her tight costume but doesn’t do much except toss around wavy lighting bolts.
Singer and Kinberg load X-Men: Apocalypse with dozens of nods to the previous films, but these simply reminds viewers that the previous installments were more fun. The future General Stryker (Josh Helman) simply looks upset during his brief time in the film. Considering the indelible impression Brian Cox made in the same role, one wonders why the character is in the new film at all.
Normally, a Wolverine cameo would be a highlight of an X-Men movie because he embodies the misfit appeal of the series. Unfortunately, Singer seems more interested in getting things over with instead of finding new ways to explore the character. It's easy to share his ennui. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/20/2016)
Mutant movies are
no fun when the X-Men are
just not weird enough
The Conjuring 2
Reviewed by Mike Ireland
In this sequel to his wildly successful 2013 haunted-house movie, director James Wan (also responsible for the Saw and Insidious franchises) proves once again that screen horror, without a cohesive story and compelling characters, is often much less than the sum of its scary parts.
Again based on a true story, in 1977, six years after the events of the first film, husband and wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren are flown, at the behest of the Catholic Church, to look into the possible demonic possession of 11-year-old Janet Hodgson in the north London borough of Enfield.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson return as the Warrens, but it takes nearly an hour for them to reach Enfield. A gratuitous prologue walks us through a portion of their famed Amityville investigation, an appearance on a TV talk show pits Ed against a skeptic, and Lorraine is beset by visions of what looks like Marilyn Manson in a nun's habit.
Meanwhile, in their tatty council flat single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are under attack by what seems to be the spirit of a former resident. Unfortunately, either the spirit world or screenwriters Wan, Chad & Carey Hayes (The Conjuring), and David Leslie Johnson are out of ideas. Viewers are forced to settle instead for hoary old haunting conventions: slamming doors, heavy footsteps on the ceiling, a chair that rocks on its own, a TV set that abruptly switches channels, a toy rolled into the shadows that mysteriously rolls back. And scary faces. Lots of scary faces--popping into view, lurking in the shadows, and peering out from portraits.
That's not to say that Wan can't set up an effective scare. He and cinematographer Don Burgess (Terminator 3, Flight) skillfully manipulate the camera and atmospherics to generate some effective jolts and jumps. But at a running time of over two hours, even these grow wearisome.
Equally irritating and mystifying are the film's tone-deaf musical choices. As the setting shifts from 1974 America to 1977 England, the soundtrack launches into The Clash's "London Calling," which won't be released for two years. Later, faced with a family fighting for their lives against the forces of evil, Ed picks up a long-forgotten acoustic guitar left by the former Mr. Hodgson, gives the tuning pegs a twist, and delivers an (admittedly accomplished) Elvis imitation, performing the 1961 hit "Can't Help Falling in Love" as the camera pans across the children's smiling faces. And when the Warrens pull out of the investigation because of evidence that the whole thing is a hoax, poor Janet (Madison Wolfe) stands weepy-eyed at the front window, rain falling outside, as Robin Gibb warbles the Bee Gees 1968 "I Started a Joke."
Half an hour shorter and more concisely edited, The Conjuring 2 might have been the equivalent of a good commercial haunted house. Regardless, despite his technical mastery of the jump scare, Wan has yet to grasp the deeper roots of true psychological horror. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/13/16)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
There have been several recent attempts to subvert the tropes of the mainstream, modern romantic comedy, such as the gender reversal in 2014’s That Awkward Moment, the meta They Came Together and Trainwreck starring Amy Schumer’s commitment-phobic bad girl. Nonetheless, those movies disappointingly fell back on entrenched conventions, particularly the third act grand gesture and final resolution. The credit of coming closest to following through on its promise to undercut the typical narrative of the genre in recent memory goes to writer/director Rebecca Miller’s (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) latest film, though it too loses its power of surprise by at least the end of the second act.
Applying her patent awkward bossiness that still magically reads as charming, Greta Gerwig (The Dish & the Spoon, Frances Ha) stars as Maggie, the antidote to the typical rom-com protagonist. She’s forthright, efficient and refreshingly real — as opposed to the purposely objectified and deservedly reviled manic pixie dream girl. Not that Maggie doesn’t have her own assured mania: She’s convinced she’ll never find a suitable partner so has decided on single-handedly raising the baby she plans to mechanically conceive with a hipster artisanal pickle maker Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former math genius she met in college.
Gerwig shines as Maggie so even when her plan goes awry, as they inevitably do, and she’s paired up with the ever-pretentious Ethan Hawke. The result, at first, isn’t entirely awful. It helps that Miller has crafted the perfect persona for the simpering actor; he plays John, an adjunct instructor in the obscure field of “ficto-critical anthropology” and aspiring novelist. But there’s a hitch, as there inevitably is, John is married, albeit unhappily of course, to Georgette, a narcissistic Danish tenured academic played mostly in broad strokes by Julianne Moore, unsuccessfully reprising her role as Euro avant-garde artist Maude in The Big Lebowski.
What Miller’s script gets oh-so right is the rapid erosion of identity caused by the friction of long-term relationships. (As Maggie’s best friends, married to each other, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph exhibit a hostility toward each other that’s both funny and a tad too realistic.) Not long after the initial grand gesture from John to Maggie, which occurs at the first juncture of the movie instead of near the end, our formerly intrepid female lead, who at first longed to be the gardener to John’s budding flower, finds herself overburdened, wanting to be left to raise her daughter alone like in her original plan — and as her mom raised her, a story she reveals in a wonderfully tender moment in her early courtship with John.
The film’s conflict begins the moment most other romantic comedies would end. It’s a bold and commendable move but regrettably the plan of the film’s title, Maggie’s plan B, so to speak, gives more on-screen time to John and Georgette’s rekindled relationship, including a slow scene showing a meandering hike in the snowy woods, than displaying how Maggie’s new scheme could help her recoup her previous dynamic energy. Maggie needs a new plan. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06-10-16)