Movie Review: “Free State of Jones”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers
Director
Gary Ross

Gary Ross’ movies are nothing if not sincere and, generally speaking, kindhearted. This time around, the writer/director behind “Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit” and the first “Hunger Games” tackles far tougher material with “Free State of Jones,” a biopic mostly about Confederate Army medic Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). The film is often unwieldy, narratively speaking, but it’s also not without passion, telling a story that is frequently more brutal than inspiring.

The year is 1963, and though Newton has apprehensively signed up to fight in the Civil War, he opposes slavery and the ways of the Confederate Army. After his nephew is killed in combat, Knight becomes a deserter, sick of fighting in a war that he doesn’t believe in. He returns to Jones County, where he’s hunted by Confederates, and eventually flees with his wife Serena (Keri Russell), who ends up leaving Jonestown altogether. While hiding out in a swamp, Newt meets a group of escaped slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali) and his future wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), both of whom he develops close bonds to. Newton, Moses and others lead a rebellion against the Confederates, which is only the setup to a story that covers more time than one would think.

It’s easy to imagine the “white savior” version of “Free State of Jones,” but this isn’t that story, and Ross doesn’t treat it as such. The side characters, mostly Moses and Rachel, are at the forefront of this story almost as much as Newton Knight. Their arcs and struggles are the emotional backbone of the film. Of course, Jones is the lead, but this isn’t only his story. As for whether this is a white savior story, this is a film filled more with loss and pain than it is with Newton saving the day, and the characters he’s surrounded by often find the courage in themselves to stand up without his assistance. Most of the tropes linked to white savior stories are not present in here. Newton Knight is an inspiring figure, but he’s no more inspiring than Moses and other supporting characters.

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Movie Review: “The Neon Demon”

Starring
Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee
Director
Nicolas Winding Refn

Following up on the polarizing “Only God Forgives,” director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a movie that’s bound to split audiences just as much as the unconventional revenge thriller starring Ryan Gosling. “The Neon Demon” is a beautiful, hypnotic nightmare that goes to some comical, horrifying and unexpected places – places not all audiences are understandably willing to go.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved to Los Angeles, but not to be a star like most people. Though the teenage girl’s past is a bit of a mystery, it’s obvious she’s always had to survive on her own. Even when Jesse starts to find some success in the modeling world, she’s still fighting to survive. Being the new girl on the scene and finding success so quickly, she makes enemies with fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who are less taken with young Jessie than their friend, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). For the most part, Jesse is on her own in these cruel environments – whether in an off-putting nightclub, a photo shoot or a crappy motel – and surrounded by even crueler characters that want to devour her beauty.

Upon first viewing, Jesse’s journey doesn’t add up to much. The film, which Refn co-wrote with Marry Laws and Polly Stenham, relies more on atmosphere than plot, but the story isn’t as thin as it initially appears. There is a purpose to every scene and shot in “The Neon Demon,” and they’re always serving Jesse’s story. When a mountain lion trashes the teenager’s room, it seems random at first glance, but it’s a key piece of foreshadowing of what’s to come. Even a sequence that features two of the main characters showering together, which easily could’ve been laughable or gratuitous, reinforces the story Refn is telling – a story about animals.

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Movie Review: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Starring
Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rachel House, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby
Director
Taika Waititi

Chances are that you’ve seen writer/director Taika Waititi’s work before – whether it was his 2010 debut “Boy,” the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” or last year’s cult comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” – but the New Zealand-born filmmaker is about to blow up in a big way thanks to a pair of high-profile gigs for Disney. (In addition to directing “Thor: Ragnarok,” he also co-wrote the upcoming animated film “Moana.”) Before jumping behind the camera for the God of Thunder’s latest cinematic adventure, however, Waititi made this quirky buddy comedy set in his native country that’s somewhat reminiscent of another Disney release, “Up.” Granted, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” isn’t nearly as good, but it’s a delightful little movie that ranks as one of the more pleasant surprises of the year thus far.

Rebellious city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) has been in and out of foster care for most of his life, causing trouble wherever he goes. Given one last chance to find a suitable family, Ricky is placed with the kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cantankerous frontiersman husband Hector (Sam Neill) in their remote countryside home. When Bella suddenly passes away just as Ricky is beginning to warm up to the couple, he clumsily fakes his death and runs off into the wilderness rather than risk being sent to juvenile detention. Hector quickly tracks him down but fractures his ankle in the process, which forces the mismatched duo to work together in order to survive. But tenacious child services officer Paula (Rachel House) thinks that the bereaved Hector has kidnapped Ricky, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get him back, launching a nationwide manhunt that turns the two fugitives into folk heroes.

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Blu Tuesday: Midnight Special and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Midnight Special”

WHAT: On the run from the government, as well as religious zealots who covet his son Alton’s (Jaeden Lieberher) mysterious powers, Roy (Michael Shannon) enlists the help of his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to get the young boy to an undisclosed location on a specific date. He’s not sure why, other than that it will help Alton achieve his true purpose.

WHY: Director Jeff Nichols has a predilection for telling simple stories that focus heavily on character, but “Midnight Special” is almost too simple in execution, lacking the required substance to sustain its 112-minute runtime. Though the opening act is packed with tension and mystery, the story grinds to a halt in the middle as its characters become stuck in a holding pattern of sorts, only to eventually limp towards its disappointing conclusion. Nicholas has never been very good at sticking the landing, but “Midnight Special” contains his most uninspired ending yet. The movie is also mind-numbingly slow at times, weighed down by subplots that go nowhere and entire scenes where nothing happens. Fortunately, the acting is so good that it just barely manages to keep your interest, particularly Nichols regular Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver as an NSA agent helping to track down the fugitives. It’s a shame to see this much talent wasted on such a mediocre film, because while there was certainly a great movie within reach, “Midnight Special” stumbles too often to fulfil its potential.

EXTRAS: There are profiles on the five main characters and a making-of featurette.

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Movie Review: “Central Intelligence”

Starring
Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Danielle Nicolet, Aaron Paul
Director
Rawson Marshall Thurber

There is a really good movie just within reach of “Central Intelligence.” The casting is impeccable (no joke, Dwayne Johnson has never been better), and the premise is a strangely beautiful marriage of “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “True Lies,” with a few jabs at Facebook for good measure. They even used their PG-13, one-time-only F-bomb to tell Mark Zuckerberg to, well, you know.

Unfortunately, the dialogue reads like it was written by horny tweens who are really, really into toilet humor. It also falls prey to the age-old movie cliché that the most highly skilled soldiers in the world happen to all be lousy shots. No, no, no.

It is 1996, and Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) is riding high as a high school senior and multi-sport all-star. In the middle of his speech at the last assembly of the year, Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson), an awkward, overweight, overlooked kid, is thrown into the gym, naked as a jailbird, by a group of bullies. Calvin offers him his letterman jacket so he can cover himself up, and Robbie is eternally grateful. Twenty years later, Calvin is an accountant but frustrated that he, in his mind, peaked too soon. A day before his 20-year high school reunion, Calvin receives a Facebook friend request from a Bob Stone and accepts it. Bob Stone turns out to be Robbie, only now he’s tall and ripped, and he hasn’t forgotten that Calvin offered to help him during the most humiliating experience of his life.

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