Free State of Jones: not your typical American Civil War movie. Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi. The opening scenes portray the violence of battle you would expect from a civil war film but, thereafter, the story becomes much more than a military tale. From the time Knight decides to take his nephew’s body home and desert his Confederate regiment, the film concentrates on Knight’s struggle to forge a free state for both white and black people. This film is based on a true story about an individual who leads an armed rebellion against the Confederacy and much of the cinematic telling is accurate. Gary Ross is the director and screenwriter. Jones County is comprised of significant swamp land, which provides plenty of cover for those slaves escaping to freedom early on. When the Confederacy issues an edict that exempts sons of farmers owning 20 or more slaves from the draft, the individual white farmers of Jones County choose to throw in with Knight and the runaway slaves and fight the Confederacy. The romance between Knight and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a domestic slave who supplies fugitives with supplies from the plantation house, is true. Running through the film is a story from 1948 about a descendent of Knight who, because of his 1/8th Black heritage, is prosecuted for marrying a white woman. The period of poor white farmers and former slaves working together is short lived. This 139-minute film ends with scenes of the Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Smithsonian Magazine (March 2016) has an article about how controversial a figure Newton Knight remains to this day in Jones County. There are strong performances by Mahershala Ali as Moses and Brad Carter as bad guy Confederate Lieutenant Barbour. McConaughey’ s performance is excellent and he may earn another Oscar nomination. Cinematographer Benolt Delhomme also deserves mention as his ability to connect us with the physical environment is an integral part of the story. This film tells of a history I was previously not aware of so while being entertained, I received a lesson about our nation’s past. This is a film worth seeing.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Maggie’s Plan: a romantic comedy. We are told at the outset what “Maggie’s Plan” is. Maggie (Greta Gerwig) tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) that she wants to become a mother. During the course of the conversation, we glean bits and pieces of background information such as Maggie’s inability to maintain long term relationships. Maggie’s plan is to inseminate herself. She has found a donor, Guy (Travis Fimmel), someone both Maggie and Tony knew in college; friends with no romantic ties among them. Tony is married to Felicia (Maya Rudolph). More scenes with Tony, Felicia and Maggie would have made this enjoyable film even more fun. Donor Guy owns a pickle factory in Brooklyn and, as Tony notes, has social issues. As the arrangement with Guy starts falling into place, Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), a part-time professor whose area of expertise is “ficto-critical anthropology”. John is married to a tenured Danish Columbia University professor named Georgette (Julianne Moore) with whom he has two children. John is trying to write a novel. At this point, of course, Maggie and John connect and become a couple. The film then leaps forward about three years. Maggie is tired of taking care of John who, as we knew from the start, is self-absorbed and allergic to sharing, which is exactly how John describes Georgette. We know Maggie is a person who likes to be in control, however, trying to control her own daughter plus parenting John and Georgette’s children proves overwhelming. Maggie comes up with a new plan: get John and Georgette back together. The cast is excellent, and there is a cameo appearance by Wallace Shawn. While I never bought into the John-Maggie relationship, I still thoroughly enjoyed this film. Everything is done with a light and humorous touch under the talented guidance of Rebecca Miller, who is both director and screenwriter. This 98 minute gem shines with a delightful charm. The bounty of smiles, gentle laughs and adult humor make this movie a positive and pleasant respite.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Alice Through the Looking Glass: not what Lewis Carroll had envisioned. Quite frankly, it was not what I was expecting either considering that the script’s author is Linda Woolverton, the same person who penned Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. To create a successful movie based on a Lewis Carroll novel, a certain degree of nonsensical disorder is necessary. However, in this film directed by James Bobin, there is oftentimes only disorder. While certain individual scenes are brilliant, the overall result is massive disarray and confusion. Part of the problem is that much of the original story has been jettisoned without benefit of a solid creative replacement. We have the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) looking for his family, within a father-son schism, after we all understood the family had died. There is that Nice Girl/Mean Girl thing going on between the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Carter’s performance is strong while Hathaway is, again, just Hathaway. To the extent this movie has any storyline, it is about time travel: Alice (Mia Wasikowska) steals a gyroscopic time machine in an effort to alter the past. I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of Time, but even he has problems with the bizarre script. During the course of the film’s 113 minutes, the typical “Alice in Wonderland” characters make their appearance, and when Tweedledee & Tweeledum (Matt Lewis), the White Rabbit and company are on screen, the film has a more centered, enjoyable feel. Their presence, however, is quite limited and cannot rescue this confused tale. IF you’re set on seeing this film, see it in a theatre so you can at least savor the special effects. As to whether you should make the effort to see this film, my answer would be no.