Free State of Jones Review: Captain Confederacy – Civil War


Director: Gary Ross

Writer: Gary Ross

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: STX Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 140 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Matthew McConaughey.

Worst part: The courtroom-drama sub-plot.

No other Hollywood A-lister has experienced more critical and commercial ebbs and flows than Matthew McConaughey. The man’s man went from dumb action flick/romantic-comedy lead to crime-drama superstar. True Detective Season 1, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club showcase his range and commitment. Free State of Jones continues the McConnaissance’s post-Oscar run.

Like Interstellar and Sea of Trees, Free State of Jones is sure to divide critics. Based on an inspiring true story, it’s another docudrama more necessary than worthwhile. The plot chronicles the timeline of events in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War and following years. As a Confederate Army battlefield medic during the 1862 Battle of Corinth, Newton Knight (McConaughey) becomes desensitised by bloodshed and chaos. The former farmer snaps after his nephew Daniel’s death. He defects and returns to his homestead and wife Serena (Keri Russell) before befriending slave girl Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

The best docudramas explore one part of a famous person’s life, expanding upon their social and cultural relevance. The worst ones, however, stretch from birth to death. The latter approach makes Free State of Jones one of 2016’s biggest disappointments. Based on two major texts, its reach well exceeds its grasp. Sure, writer-director Gary Ross’s pet project has good intentions. Stories about Civil War history, important historical figures, slavery in America and American politics resonate with wide audiences. This one is a high school student’s ultimate cure for insomnia. Ross captures enough material for a HBO mini-series. The plot takes multiple turns after Knight’s return home. He, seeing poor men fighting a rich man’s conflict, plans revenge on his former army. He, fellow defectors and runaway slaves take down Confederacy taxation agents and give back to local farmers. As a mix of Defiance and Glory, the first half is peaks the interest levels.

However, the second half features several underdeveloped subplots ripe for parody. The three-way romance – between Knight, the slave, and his frustrated wife – is worth its own movie. Worse still, the courtroom scenes – chronicling Knight’s ancestor fighting for rights in the 1950s – adds nothing to the narrative. The Ross packs in an exorbitant array of dot points including the Ku Klux Klan’s formation, freedom and voting rights for slaves, the Census etc. His stylistic choices merely pad out the running time. Title cards, delivered every 10 minutes, halt proceedings to display real-life footage and paragraphs’ worth of text. However, the battle scenes unleash an eye for period detail and unflinching violence. The performances also shine. McConaughey, bouncing off quality character-actors, is a charismatic force.

Free State of Jones is an example of potential ruined by execution. Stuck between gargantuan historical epic and TV mini-series, it contains too much and too little. McConaughey still gets away Scot-free. 

Verdict: Disappointing but worth watching.

Ben-Hur Review: Sword and Sorrow


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writers: Keith Clarke, John Ridley

Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2/5

Best part: The chariot race.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

Hollywood has latched onto organised-religion crowds for greater box-office returns. Movies including God’s Not Dead, although strange to most, appeal to a large segment of the population. Tinseltown’s most talented are also getting on board, with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings also aiming for that market. 2016’s Ben-Hur remake may single-handedly destroy this trend.

Actually, this is not the first ever Ben-Hur remake. The William Wyler-directed 1959 version is the quintessential version. The huge budget, Charlton Heston’s vigour, chariot race and epic scope helped it score 11 Academy Awards and become an instant classic. Surprisingly, there were multiple Ben-Hurs in the early 20th Century. This version never strays from convention. Here, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) grow up together in Jerusalem’s higher class. Messala, despite his affections for Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), feels alienated by matriarch Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and the family’s faith. After his enlistment and time in the Roman Army, he returns to warn Ben-Hur of oncoming threats. From there, the two butt heads and become fearsome foes.

The 1959 hit influenced Gladiator and sword-and-sandal epic in between. This Ben-Hur begs the question – Why now? No matter what the studio, cast, creatives etc. created, nothing would have eclipsed the 1959 version’s quality, exhaustive length, touching religious commentary and revolutionary tricks. Writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (the latter behind 12 Years a Slave) deliver irritating and alienating dialogue. The first half relies on religious discussion between the characters, grinding the pace to a screeching halt. Non-religious folks will despise the movie’s feckless stance on faith and history. Sadly, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not fit for the material. Lacking Ridley Scott’s deft touch, the schlock filmmaker appears bored by everything besides the action, special effects etc.

Ben-Hur follows the long line of laughable, anachronistic and feeble-minded modern historical/mythical epics. The movie never diverts from the standard revenge-drama narrative. It’s predictability is almost cowardly – the good guys are sweet and vanilla, the love interest – Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) – is whispy, the bad guys snivel and twist moustaches, Morgan Freeman plays the wise cracking mystical-magical black man etc. Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up to deliver bumper-sticker lines. This version may be remembered for its South American-looking depiction of the famous carpenter. Bekmambetov, halfway through, appears to wake up. The slave-ship sequence, training montages and almighty chariot race are particularly inventive. The grand sound design and fun action beats reduce the tedium.

Ben-Hur, like most of 2016’s blockbusters, is unnecessary, generic and borderline offensive. This useless remake squanders a fantastic cast, capable director and momentous resources. Attention Hollywood: Not everything should be remade!

Verdict: Pointless and unnecessary. 

War Dogs Review: Bros in arms


Director: Todd Phillips

Writer: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic

Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper

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Release date: August 18th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Hill and Teller’s chemistry.

Worst part: The derivative structure.

Director Todd Phillips exists in the same realm as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. He began his career with adult-comedies Old School and Road Trip before delivering smash hit The Hangover. However, with the Hangover sequels and Due Date, his career fell over. Now, he’s back with something completely different and exactly the same.

War Dogs provides more meat to chew on than his earlier works. This docudrama, black comedy, war, crime flick chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most baffling true stories. Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article and book – Arms and the Dudes – its follows twenty-something layabout David Packouz (Miles Teller) being put through the ringer. David is a disappointment – spending maximum time smoking pot and tending to rich clients as a massage therapist. After quitting his job, his one-man bed sheet business fails spectacularly. At an old friend’s funeral, he reunites with former partner in crime Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Diveroli is also a pot-smoking loud mouth. However, he is also a gunrunner/arms contractor for start-up AEY with ties to the US Government and troops overseas.

War Dogs resembles a blender with all-too-familiar ingredients thrown together. This sloppy and inconsistent mess is slow-moving-car-crash fascinating. Phillips, evidently, idolises Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. Similarly to Bay’s 2013 sleeper hit Pain and Gain, it’s an assortment of excessive visual flourishes and questionable decisions. With any docudrama, ethics and moral quandaries come into play. Phillips – along with two other screenwriters – beef everything up for cinema purposes. The frat-boy humour and serious material never congeal. It follows the rise and fall narrative structure at every turn. Of course, the first half depicts the dynamic duo’s transformation from slackers to successes. Phillips becomes indulgent, even borrowing whole sequences from The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas and Boiler Room.

Compared to the genre’s aforementioned big-hitters, War Dogs struggles to keep up. Phillips floats between admiring and despising the lead characters. Seriously, what does his movie say about these events? Does it salute young entrepreneurs slipping through the cracks? Or condemn Cheney’s America and the military-industrial complex? Nevertheless, he makes no apologies for their behaviour. Packouz, despite being the audience avatar, starts off as an unlikable schmuck and gets worse. He either blindly follows his crazy business partner or lies to his pregnant girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas). Despite the first half’s many fun moments, the second trudges towards the predictable dénouement. If anything, it proves Teller and Hill are charismatic enough to escape with their reputations in tact.

War Dogs is the gym junkie of rise-and-fall movies – tough and mean with little depth. Phillips’ latest places him on thin ice. This, essentially his version of a ‘serious’ effort, is The Social Network and The Big Short evil, immature brother.

Verdict: A middling docudrama.

The Shallows Review: Shark Bait Ooh Ah Ah


Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Writer: Anthony Jaswinski

Stars: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Sedona Legge, Brett Cullen

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Release date: August 18th, 2016

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 86 minutes


3/5

Best part: Blake Lively.

Worst part: The CGi shark.

Sharks are fearsome and fascinating members of the animal kingdom. Jaws, since its 1975 release, has scared people from going into the water. The Steven Spielberg classic is essentially an expertly crafted B-movie. It also paved the way for many shark-related thrillers from Deep Blue Sea to Sharknado (sadly). The Shallows is…yet another one.

Although better than most of them, The Shallows is Hollywood’s perfunctory return to the sub-genre. Its marketing campaign relied on two things – the monster in question and Blake Lively’s stunning post-pregnancy body. If that sounds appealing, this survival-thriller is cinematic gold. It follows former medical student turned permanent traveller Nancy (Lively). Nancy’s trip through Mexico includes a secluded beach her mother had once visited. Whilst surfing throughout the afternoon, she meets two beefcake surfers (Angelo José Lozano Corzo and José Manuel Trujillo Salas). Catching that one last wave, she is stranded 200 metres from shore.

Of course, a massive Great White Shark forces her between a rock and a hard place. In shark-thriller fashion, The Shallows balances between genuine moments and silly plot twists. The central premise is simple – placing one person in one dangerous place/situation for 90 thrilling minutes. Like your average survival-thriller (Life of Pi, 127 Hours, Gravity), the drama pinpoints our basic fears. Lively and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) stick by the simple-yet-effective formula. Collet-Serra handles the loneliness-in-a-large-space set-up expertly. The first third sees Nancy connect with the picturesque setting. It’s easy to lose one’s self in the blue sky and pristine ocean vistas. However, its surfware-commercial style and fetishistic butt-shots extend this sequence several minutes too long.

Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski tries and fails to develop Lively’s character. Her back story – her mother’s death, dropping out of medical school, daddy problems etc. – has been done countless times before.  However, once the mayhem begins, Collet-Serra and Lively elevate the material. The movie devotes time to the lead character’s intelligence. Developing multiple survival strategies, Nancy is a fun and interesting character by the third act. Monitoring the shark’s behaviour, She puts her medical skills and tenacity to the test. The movie’s most exciting moments see her rushing between the reef, nearby whale carcass and buoy. The third act is a schlocky, over-the-top thrill-ride between obstacles. Lively puts her impressive physicality and neat comedic timing to good use. Sadly, her shark co-star never looks convincing. The gleaming CGi aesthetic undercuts opportunities for jump scares.

The Shallows may be one of 2016’s most entertaining blockbusters. Its simple-yet-effective formula overshadows the dumber elements. It lacks the pretentiousness, cynical attitude and haphazard storytelling of most of the year’s bigger-budget efforts.

Verdict: A silly survival-thriller.