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: “Interstellar”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, John Lithgow
Director
Christopher Nolan

A coworker of mine is hoping that he can convince his wife to take their two girls to see “Big Hero 6” while he ducks into another theater to see Christopher Nolan’s new film “Interstellar.” Here’s the irony: the moral of “Interstellar” is that he should see “Big Hero 6” with his kids instead.

This is both an impossibly dense movie, and a deceptively simple one. The quantum physics talk and the hypotheses regarding time and space turn out to be a bit of a red herring. The true essence of “Interstellar” is about love, and Anne Hathaway’s character sums it up perfectly: time can contract and expand, but it can’t go backwards. In a nutshell, Nolan spent $165 million and 169 minutes telling us to seize the day with our loved ones. That’s a great message, and he pulls a number of incredible technical achievements in the process, but with “Interstellar,” Nolan has fallen into a trap that has caught many before him: the pitfalls of autonomy.

Set in an undefined but presumably not-too-distant future, Earth is suffering another Dust Bowl period, crops are dying, and there is reason to believe that the children will be the last generation Earth will ever know. Former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has taken up farming to help the cause, but a series of strange events leads Cooper and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) to an off-the-grid NASA facility, where a team is preparing to investigate a series of planets in a far-off galaxy, courtesy of a wormhole, to see if life is sustainable. They need a reliable pilot, though, and they ask Cooper if he will join them. Cooper is understandably conflicted, since there is no guarantee that he will return, but he ultimately decides that the salvation of the human race is the nobler goal, and he joins Amelia Brand (Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) on a boom-or-bust mission to find another Earth.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with James Brolin (‘Christmas with Tucker’)

James Brolin has been a star of TV and film since the ’60s, rarely disappearing from either for very long before popping back up somewhere or other, and tonight at 9 PM he can be found starring in “Christmas with Tucker,” the debut original movie from the Hallmark Movie Channel (which, just in case you aren’t aware, is a separate entity from the Hallmark Channel), playing a gruff but loveable grandfatherly type fella who gets to have a lot of scenes with a very cute dog. I was fortunate enough to chat with Brolin for a bit when he attended this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, and – as you’ll read below – I was even more fortunate to be able to continue the conversation a bit later.

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Bullz-Eye: So you’re in a dog movie, but are you a dog guy by nature?

James Brolin: Yeah, but guess what? I don’t have a dog right now. But I’m kind of shopping! The thing is, I’m not sure where I’m going to be next, and I kind of hate to go off and leave a dog once I have it. I’ve found that didn’t work well in the past. But I got my wife a dog. And the dog is… I can’t believe she’s had it 10 years now. And it sleeps right here. [Points to his head.] It likes the top of the couch or the head pillow. So usually, if you roll over it or around it, it gets out of your way and just goes down to the other end. Anyway, I’ve been moved to the back seat of the car now. [Laughs.] Those two run things.

BE: Yeah, we just got a dog a few months ago, so I know what you mean.

JB: Oh, yeah. If it ain’t a baby, it’s a dog. [Laughs.]

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BE: How was this dog, Tucker, to work with?

JB: Fine! Really good natured. He would do all the things, and then when you’d go to shoot, sometimes the dog would have a little brain fade or confusion, but it’s not unusual. You just keep going. You have the trainer keep going, you run the camera, and now with digital, you can just turn the camera on and let it run for two hours, and then you go in there, wade through it, and pick out just what you need. But that’s Filmmaking 101, in a way. If you have time for that, you do that. And if you’re doing a dog picture, you make time. And the kids… Anyone youthful who was involved was just right on. Gage (Munroe) is just like a honed pro, so that wasn’t an issue. Kids weren’t an issue. But animals are always an issue, and you just need to schedule the time to shoot and shoot and shoot a little bit.

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Movie Review: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Dennis O’Hare
Director
Jean-Marc Vallée

Is there an actor who’s had a better last few years than Matthew McConaughey? Though he used to be somewhat of a punch line, known more for his shirtless roles in flaky rom-coms than his promising earlier work, recently McConaughey has been repairing his reputation with a string of outstanding performances in films like “Killer Joe,” “Magic Mike” and “Mud.” And while he earned his share of acclaim for all three roles, the actor’s latest turn as real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodruff might just be the crowning achievement of his career thus far. “Dallas Buyers Club” isn’t the kind of movie that would normally attract this much Oscar buzz – at least with such a generic script and uninspired direction – but it benefits from a couple of great performances that demand to be seen.

In 1985, the AIDS epidemic was front page news, but many people, including Texas electrician Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), were under the impression that it was a disease only passed between homosexuals. So when Ron is diagnosed as HIV-positive and given 30 days to live (note: he ended up surviving seven more years), he doesn’t believe it at first. Shunned by his friends and unable to get on the hospital’s drug trial list, Ron takes matters into his own hands by crossing the border into Mexico to purchase some non-FDA approved drugs that are more effective. Realizing a business opportunity when he sees one, Ron begins importing the meds to Texas to sell to other HIV/AIDS victims on the street. But when the government catches wind of his operation, he teams up with a transgender prostitute named Rayon (Jared Leto) to create a “buyers club” where they sell memberships and give away the drugs for free, exonerating themselves of any legal trouble.

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Hidden Netflix Gems: Bernie

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bernie” (2011)

When you live in a small town, everybody knows everyone else. They know what you’re like, who your parents were, what you do for a living, whether or not you go to church, and probably a few too many “dirty little secrets” that they use to gossip behind your back. For Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, small town life led to some speculation over whether his effeminate personality indicated he was gay. But it also meant that everybody knew him as the kindest, warmest, friendliest and most generous man they knew. Nobody was more well liked than Bernie.

Then he killed Marjorie Nugent. And despite the logic of that fact, while Bernie Tiede’s life changed, public opinion didn’t.

That’s the stranger than fiction basis of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film “Bernie,” which stars Jack Black in the title role. He’s a 39-year-old assistant funeral director loved by one and all. Kind-hearted soul that he was, he always delivered a gift and checked up on those the deceased left behind. Nobody made him do it, he wasn’t getting paid, he just cared. That habit leads to his befriending 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, who’s portrayed by Academy Award winner Shirely MacLaine.

Contrary to Bernie, nobody much cares for Mrs. Nugent. Even her own family hates her—she hasn’t spoken to two of her grandchildren in years after they sued her in an effort to get some of her husband’s money. She’s mean, nasty, and entirely lonely, but unwilling to bridge the gap of emotional connection. Until Bernie knocks on her door. Soon they’re eating meals and going on expensive vacations together. Eventually, Tiede even became the sole benefactor of Nugent’s will. She became controlling and jealous. Tiede was on call 24 hours a day, more a servant than a friend, but unable to walk away due to his inherent goodness (not to mention all the money being thrown his way). It was a clash of personalities, and Nugent’s hate beat out Tiede’s love. In a moment of weakness, Tiede snapped and shot Nugent in the back four times.

On paper, it was an open and shut case for Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the county’s district attorney. A young gay man had gotten wrapped up in the luxurious lifestyle that friendship offered a rich older woman. He was already getting a handsome amount of money, but stood to be the sole benefactor if she was out of the picture. So he killed her, end of story.

Only it wasn’t. Despite the facts, despite Tiede’s confession, the people of Carthage refused to believe their Bernie could have done such an awful thing. Those who would admit it would indicate the old bat had it coming to her. Believing he’d be unable to get a fair decision out a jury made up of people from Carthage, Davidson asked for a change of venue for the trial—a common request of defense lawyers, but a rare occurrence for a prosecutor.

In “Bernie,” Linklater takes the “small town folks who won’t believe the facts” idea and milks it for every bit of comedic and dramatic juice it’s worth. And it works, the film has a 92 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Linklater’s co-writer was Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” was the basis for the film.

“Bernie” uses a mockumentary style to give it that small town gossip feel. It often cuts to interviews with fictional East Texas residents (portrayed by real East Texas residents), who weigh in on its events. The question of whether they were genuine accounts was on my mind until McConaughey appeared on screen.

The film offers one of Black’s best performances to date. Perhaps the only role that could could compete came in 2003’s “School of Rock,” another Linklater project that allowed Black to mix in his quirk and musical talents. The actor makes you believe Bernie Tiede is someone who really could (and did) exist. He’s got funny characteristics, finds subtle humor in effeminate movement and body language, but never delves into the realm of the cartoonish. You understand why Bernie might’ve picked up that rifle, you might even approve (as the people of Carthage seem to).

Enjoyable and easy to watch, “Bernie” is a black comedy that mixes just the right amount of both ingredients. It seems to mock the eccentric Southern personalities it contains in a fashion that is loving rather than cruel while implying greater questions about the dangers of faith trumping fact.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

  

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