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.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review – Goin’ Apesh*t!


Director: Matt Reeves 

Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Stars: Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

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Release date: July 11th, 2014

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


4/5

Best part: Serkis’ fascinating performance.

Worst part: The irritating supporting characters.

1968, with new issues sprouting unexpectedly as the decade drew to a close, was certainly a revelatory and thought-provoking year for Hollywood cinema. Bolstering the decade’s taste in celluloid entertainment, sci-fi and action won out over the attention-hungry pack. 2001: A Space Odyssey proved Stanley Kubrick to be Hollywood’s greatest genre filmmaker, while Night of the Living Dead and Bullitt were dead-set box-office winners. However, one post-apocalyptic adventure flick dared to mix the zeitgeist with wild thrills. I’ll give you a hint: “You maniacs! You blew it up!”.

Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee

No, I’m not yelling at my readers. I’m, of course, talking about Planet of the Apes. Sadly, however, this type of blockbuster cinema has been left out in the forbidden zone to wallow in a slow, painful death. Nowadays, genres and styles are pushed and prodded to fit certain desires. Thanks to a hit-and-miss crop, 2014 was in line to become the touchstone for blockbuster fatigue. With this in mind, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes swings into our line of sight to save us all. Despite the lugubrious title, this sci-fi action thriller succeeds at being taut, relevant, and poignant at appropriate moments. Like the original, the outlandish premise is met with delicate minds. Following on from 2011 series jumpstart Rise of the Planet of the Apes, DOTPOTA begins by re-capping valuable information about this invigorating franchise. Using news reports and inventive graphics, the opening credits sequence charts man’s war against Simian Flu and complete anarchy. Our story then picks up 10 years later, as our favourite cinematic primates learn the ways of a once-thriving world. The ape’s leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), runs an intricate, hunter-gatherer system within San Francisco’s Muir Woods. Despite an uneasy alliance with scarred compatriot Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s hyper-intelligence and reasonable motives make for the tribe’s best chance of survival.

Gary Oldman.

At the same time, a pocket of human survivors, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), move into downtown San Francisco. From there, our ape and human populations spark brutal confrontations. Here’s the thing about DOTPOTA – despite the noticeable flaws, the positives elevate it above most blockbusters of its type. The movie, moving out of the ’68 original’s shadow, lives up to our overwhelming expectations. With ROTPOTA  being 2011’s most surprising blockbuster, many fans and foes walked into this instalment with trepidatious movements. How do you reinvent an already reinvented franchise? Would it dilute the series the way Tim Burton’s ill-advised remake did? Thankfully, director Matt Reeves chose to take this silly franchise to blockbuster angst’s darkest possible depths. Despite the recent spate of apocalyptic popcorn-chomping extravaganzas, this sequel stands out from the pack whist sticking to a set list of reasonable goals. Like with Avatar, the narrative explores the inner-workings of a civilisation’s highest quarters and lowest troughs. Communicating through sign language and phonetic dialogue, the ape interactions deliver emotionally resonant peaks. In several instances, Caesar, his family, their allies, and Koba share moments that amplify Hollywood’s true potential. The opening sequence, in which our apes chase down deer and kill a Grizzly bear, is a masterclass in CGI storytelling. The first third, delivering key sequences designed to change to the narrative’s trajectory, lures us in before the gut-punches come flying. Sadly, the ape characters are far more intelligent and reasonable than their human counterparts.

“Apes! Together, strong!” (Caesar (Andy Serkis), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

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Andy Serkis as Caesar!

Unfortunately, as the narrative reaches emotional peaks and enthralling set-pieces, cracks begin to occur in DOTPODA‘s stunning veneer. Throughout this simple tale of primates and humans going ape-sh*it, plot-holes and trite twists become unwarranted obstacles in this otherwise compelling story. Linking vital scenes to major action sequences and character beats, some moments are far more stimulating than others. Eclipsing these minor quibbles, this instalment examines, and delivers answers to, some of modern civilisation’s most confronting issues. With an arms race forming between our two stead-fast factions, Reeves and co. never succumb to corny speeches or obvious symbolism. In addition, with good and bad warriors on both sides, this post-war conflict exclaims profound viewpoints about man’s treatment of his fellow man. With peace coming second to firepower, the narrative clings onto Malcolm and Caesar’s quest for diplomacy. Fortunately, the visuals and attention to detail are the movie’s standout qualities. Thanks to Reeves’ atmospheric camerawork and stark tonal shifts, his unique direction keeps the audience on edge throughout the appropriate run-time. Extended takes, including a look at human/ape warfare from a tank’s perspective, deliver wondrous flourishes within an otherwise gloomy experience. Surprisingly, San Francisco’s breath-taking vistas are honoured with a post-apocalyptic aura. Of course, Caesar is this series’ most enlightening character. With Serkis at the helm, he and the SFX department deliver one of modern entertainment’s more meaningful creations.

Despite the hit-and-miss human characters and baffling conveniences, DOTPOTA is far-and-away one of 2014’s most intriguing blockbusters. With viewpoints and allegiances pushed to breaking point, the sombre tone and moral ambiguity hit hard during some of this year’s most heart-breaking scenes. With Serkis’ purposeful mannerisms and startling commitment shining through, his work may inspire others to revolt against Hollywood’s lack of respect for motion-capture performance.

Verdict: An entertaining and ambitious sequel.