Free State of Jones

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a poor man fighting a rich man’s war, and he knows it. The rich men have cleverly saved themselves from war by enacting the 20 Negro Law, which exempts any man who owns 20 slaves. Nice loophole. Knight is less than pleased. When a very young recruit is gunned down beside him, he straps the body to a horse and sets off to return the boy to his mother for burial. The only problem is, this act stinks of desertion to everyone that matters.

Not content with hiding out, Knight (a real historical figure) instead founds free-state-of-jonesthe “free state of Jones”, made up of deserters, runaway slaves, and women, and they start their own mini rebellion against the corrupt Confederates in charge. The soldiers have been raiding local homes, taking their “10%” (more like 90), but leaving large plantations untouched. These people aren’t exactly hard to convince which side will benefit them most.

Free State of Jones is graphic from the get-go, but if you can survive the first two or three minutes, the worst of the gore is over. It helps to establish how bloody and senseless this war is (the civil war, if that’s not clear): no matter how perfectly rhythmic the marching, it doesn’t stop you from getting mowed down. Director Gary Ross also tries to give the film some context by intercutting the main story with courtroom snippets of a case against a man     1\8th negro, a coloured person in the eyes of the law, who thus is not allowed to be married to his white wife. I didn’t care for the splicing but came to appreciate it by the end.

This is absolutely a brilliant and worthy piece of history but it’s not quite done right by Free State of Jones. The movie’s well over 2 hours but feels as though FREE STATE OF JONESit lollygags from scene to scene, dwelling in weird places, then rushing through others. Perhaps Ross has simply bitten off more than he can chew, but you can see his good intentions shine through. What we need, though, is passion. It’s sadly lacking here. Even McConaughey’s strong performance is muddied by the white saviour characterization: Knight was a much more divisive figure.

I enjoyed this movie but was frustrated by its limitations. I would have liked to have seen more of Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I think  is spectacular but criminally underused in this film. I wouldn’t stop anyone from watching Free State of Jones, but I am endeavouring to temper your expectations. The civil war has many stories to tell, but they aren’t just historical ones. There are a lot of modern consequences, enough to give you shivers.

 

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs

I’m at a wedding today, one I’m helping to coordinate, so I know the brides and I are all hoping that it won’t be cloudy, nor will there by any weird weather events. Blue skies and sunshine please.

I saw Up in theatres with my best friend Rachel in the spring of 2009. The previews included a trailer for a movie I’d never heard of before – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. With our dorky 3D glasses on, the meatballs looked big and bad and only a glance between us was needed to establish that this is where we’d be when it came out in September of that year.

I did see Meatballs in theatres, with Sean. Rachel was dead by then. She died very suddenly on this day 7 years ago, the result of a motorcycle accident. She left behind a 9 year old daughter and was just a couple of weeks away from turning 30. She was buried in a sundress that I bought her. She was always older than me but now I’m older than she ever got to be. I’ve been without her for longer than I knew her, but her loss still smarts.

Meatballs was possibly the first movie I saw with Sean. He and I met just a month before Rachel died. He never knew her in life; they only “met” when he accompanied me to the hospital to say my goodbyes, but that swollen face and broken body weren’t her.

I’ve never been able to be objective about this movie. I like it. It has Mr. T. and that’s pretty objectively great. But it’s also a way to have one last date with the fabulous Miss Rachel. I never got to throw her that surprise birthday party, or be the maid of honour at her wedding. But I did see this movie, and I know she saw it with me.

Ghost Team

A man obsessed with the paranormal (Napolean Dynamite himself, Jon Heder) decides to put together a “crack” team, including Justin Long, Amy Sedaris, and David Krumholtz, to do a little ghost-hunting himself.

27-ghost-team_w1200_h630The team are meant to be losers and comically so, but that doesn’t explain away the incredibly bad acting, particularly by Justin Long who was never great to begin with but now has fallen down into the boggy ditch-water of has-been celebrities.

You may remember Justin Long’s brief time in the sun: 2006-2009. He’s Just Not That Into You was probably the pinnacle of, and the virtual end of, his career. The world just wasn’t that into him anymore. He’s continued to work, sporadically, nearly invisibly, in pity projects that his old friends throw him, like scraps to a dog. And god knows he does have those puppy dog eyes. But even among the B-listers in this movie, he’s a stand-out bathed in a spotlight of inferiority.

Anyway, the one interesting thing about this movie is that it fails on so many levels: it fails to be a juicy ghost story, it fails to be a decent horror, and it definitely fails to be remotely funny. It’s ostensibly trying to make fun of those paranormal “reality” shows but doesn’t have a goddamn thing to say about it, really. The jokes are paper thin. There’s a third act twist that’s almost good fun but they misuse it by throwing it in beyond the point of our caring. Most people will have turned Ghost Team off well before they ever see it. And truly, it’s not worth hanging in for. Nothing is. This straight-to-video waste of time is better left unwatched.

When Marnie Was There

I haven’t a single bad thing to say about this movie, except it just didn’t speak to me. I’m supposed to like it; it’s Oscar-nominated from the Studio of Ghibli, which are all the credentials it needs. But it’s slow. Painfully slow at times.

Anna-and-Marnie-boatI feel guilty for not liking this, for failing to appreciate the beauty of a more hand-drawn aesthetic. The truth is, I’m just not comfortable with someone that looks too much like Sailor Moon.

And the plot, based on an English book (which I suppose explains the awkward tripping over of the name ‘Marnie’ with a Japanese accent), relies too heavily on a 12 year old’s sensibilities. I couldn’t relate. And I didn’t care to. There were definitely some visuals with a watercolour beauty to them, but the whole thing didn’t add up to the usual magic I’m used to from Studio Ghibli, and by the middle of the movie I was so bored by the thing I just wanted it to wrap up already. Does this make me a terrible person? Probably. Everyone else loves this movie. It’s just really not for me.

 

Kidnap Capital

Phoenix, Arizona is the kidnap capital of the world; as many as 1000 drop houses in the city are hiding kidnapped illegal immigrants from Central America. This movie is the story of one such house.

A dirty, dark room houses a bunch of underwear-clad men. Some have been there a long time, some are new. All are grimy, desperate, and scared. All are being held for $2800 ransom, which none have. Most have already spent their life savings to get this far – to America, land of the free. Land of kidnappers preying on the vulnerable. Land of guns, (KIDNAP CAPITAL) - Publicity still 4.jpgterror, and violence. Although they’ve dreamt their whole lives of a better life in America, most just want to go home. A few have nothing to go back to. Manolo, newly arrived, is mostly concerned for his wife.

The women have been contained elsewhere, maybe not being held for money, but held for other reasons – the kind of reasons that give husbands nightmares. So if money isn’t going to solve their problems (and they don’t have any anyway), looks like the only way to survive is by fighting, easier said than done when the captors are armed and motivated gangsters.

Writer-director Felipe Rodriguez gives us suspense and agony in Kidnap Capital. It’s gripping and heartbreaking and takes place almost entirely in one suburban home. I would have liked to have seen more of the outside world, not because the interior isn’t enough (I actually think the sense of claustrophobia is brilliant), but because this whole thing is KidnapCapital_FeatImage@2x.pnggoing down in a nice, friendly neighbourhood just like yours. Like mine. And it takes an awful lot of looking the other way by an awful lot of neighbours, cops, friends and family, for a kidnap ring like this to work. And this is going on TIMES A THOUSAND in Phoenix. So that’s a lot of selective blindness by a lot of “good people.” And that made me so sad.

Immigration isn’t an easy issue, but I have tonnes of sympathy for people whose lives are so wretched that they sacrifice and risk everything for the chance at a better life. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know they don’t deserve this. And this is real. It could be happening in your neighbour’s basement right now. With Sicario and Desierto and now this, movies are giving voice to a forgotten, helpless people. Human trafficking isn’t just a movie plot, which is why this one’s going to stick with me for a good long time.

Sunshine

50 years into the future, the sun is a dying star, and Earth will die along with it. We send a ship of astronauts to bomb the sun back into shining but the team goes awol somewhere out in the million miles of space. So we send another one, but this IS IT. Mankind’s last hope. We’ve officially mined all of Earth’s resources for this motherload. No pressure!

sunshine02The new team includes Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, and Cillian Murphy. They’re clearly already under stress when we meet them several years into their trip to the sun, but shit’s about to get a whole lot messier. Just as they’re approaching the most dangerous part of the mission, they receive a signal. It’s a ping from the lost ship. It’s been 7 years since anyone’s heard from them…they can’t still be alive, can they?

The crew debates whether they should divert their mission to find out. But this is not a democracy, the captain reminds them. They’re scientists, and he gives the decision to the person most qualified to make it, the ship’s physicist, played by Cillian Murphy. No matter what he decides, he’s fucked. No matter what he decides, his crew will hold him responsible for the lives and the mission he’s risked. Classic lose-lose scenario. Fun!

Okay, fun is the wrong word. Writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle are reteamed after Sunshine_spacesuitbring us The Beach and 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle has more recently done Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Steve Jobs. Alex Garland wrote Ex Machina. These boys don’t do fun. They do: harrowing, intense, suspenseful. Sun-psychosis. The closer the ship gets to its goal, the more things fall apart. Fall apart literally and psychologically. And philosophically.

It starts out as an interesting, cerebral sci-fi adventure, on the lower end of the action scale, but not without daring stunts. But in Sunshine, getting closer to the sun is like getting closer to god. And reality unravels a bit like we’ve seen in Interstellar. Sunshine is ambitious. Boyle and Garland are asking us to consider some hot and heavy questions. Big Questions. Boyle manages to put story and character ahead of special effects, making this a very worthy, brainy, thoughtful entry into the sci-fi genre (and likely his last – he found this film to be extremely draining). The film makers actually want to make us understand what it’s like to get so close to our most glorious star. The increasingly fractured and subliminal scenes are almost reminiscent of some of the more hallucinogenic stuff from Boyle’s Trainspotting days, and the glimpses from inside sunshine-murphy-sunthe helmets of the striking gold space suits clutch at your throat. I had some very real autonomic responses to this film and I swear I could feel the heat. Boyle wisely uses actors who can take the heat and radiate some of their own. He even more wisely stays away from the love triangle cliché and sticks to things that feel very real for a set of humans staring into the sun and seeing their own deaths. There’s fear and panic and bravery and resolve.

If this movie was American, it would doubtless be a bunch of American cowboys being sent up with fireworks and catch phrases, but Sunshine includes an appropriately global response, which helps to underline the fact that in space, with human extinction on the line, there is no race or culture. It’s about those decisions to make sacrifices, to act for the greater good, to reach beyond which you think yourself capable. Sunshine stumbles in its final act – things get so weighty it seems to buckle a bit, but this remains a movie that is criminally underrated. Many thanks to my fellow film bloggers who pointed me toward this, and I hope maybe I’ve done the same for some of you.

Ratchet And Clank

I was just saying that animated movies were very strong in 2016 – I loved The Little Prince, Zootopia, Kubo And The Two Strings…and likely many more. What I did not love, or even like, was Ratchet And Clank.

ratchet-and-clank-screen-06-ps4-eu-02jun15A cute nearly-puppy looking protagonist named Ratchet is “trying out” to join a team of alien super heroes, the Galactic Rangers. He’s not strong or fast, but he has “heart” and lots of failed inventions and a robot sidekick named Clank. Sounds promising on paper but it just wasn’t interesting in practice. Small children may make it through but even they’ll know there’s just better stuff out there. It does nothing to distinguish itself. It has an admirable message lost somewhere amid the chaos about the surprisingly thin line between heroes and villains, but it’s so obviously just going through the motions that it fails to inspire. Even my idle curiosity and need to kill an hour and a half weren’t fulfilled by this in any way. If it’s mediocre animation you’re after, try Kung Fu Panda #Whatever, or The Secret Life of Pets.

This movie is based on a video game I know nothing about, nor do I want to after this exposure. Ratchet and Clank, as far as I’m concerned, can go back to living underneath the rock I accidentally unearthed. Bye, Felicia.

Short Film: TUB

797 151 Americans are masturbating right now. You’re welcome for that mental image. A single man might rub one out anywhere there’s a wifi connection and a box of tissues but for many married men, the shower is stealthier. With so much spilled seed washing down shower drains on a daily basis, have you ever thought about what happens to it all? Of course you haven’t. You’re not a sick fuck. But do you know who has thought about it, and thought about it a lot? Bobby Miller.

Sorry to out you, Bobby, but actually, he kind of shined the wank spotlight on himself when he debuted a short film called TUB at Sundance in 2010. For a brief time, it was all anyone could talk about, and here’s why: a young man who can’t commit to his girlfriend impregnates his tub instead. Accidentally, of course. But still. A controversial 12 minutes.

When we saw Bobby Miller at Fantasia Film Festival, he was introducing his first feature, a little slice of body horror called The Master Cleanse. He struck me as a very funny guy with an offbeat sense of humour and a certain sensitivity. His film impressed me by being well-written and way more thoughtful than any such movie has a right to be.

Miller has said that he hopes TUB will “become the new Jaws, but y’know, for masturbation” which is about the greatest ambition I’ve ever heard publicly stated and I sincerely hope it’s the headline of his resume. Because I’m certain I’ve aroused your curiosity (though hopefully no more), here’s a link to the brilliant short film TUB.

His name is Bobby Miller, folks. He’s going to be famous some day.

Kubo And The Two Strings

A little dark, and a little melancholy for kids, but for me, near perfection.

Kubo is a little boy with a magical, ancient Japanese banjo. Well, technically the banjo wasn’t ancient at the time – he lives in ancient Japan. And the banjo isn’t actually a banjo, it’s a shamisen. When he plays his magical shamisen, his origami comes to life and helps him tell awesome stories about warriors and samurai. He’s busking, essentially, and the captivated crowd rewards him with a few coins – a good thing because he provides for his sick mother, who lives outside the village in a cave.  When she’s not in a trance, she’s adamant that Kubo always return before sundown. It was surprisingly sound advice from the mentally ill because THE ONE TIME he doesn’t, hell breaks loose. Ancient Japanese hell.

kubo-and-the-two-strings-530x298Turns out, Kubo’s grandfather is some sort of Moon God. Grandfather has already “stolen” one of Kubo’s eyes and wants to get his hands on the other – in blindness, his grandson can join him in immortality, ruling the sky. He sends his 2 creepy daughters to do the dirty work while his 3rd daughter, Kubo’s mom, struggles to protect him with what little magic she has left.

The movie is a grand adventure with more beauty in any random 30 seconds than The Secret Life of Pets has in its entire running time. As usual with Laika productions (they brought you Coraline), there are darker feelings at play, a sometimes ominous and foreboding tone unusual in a children’s movie, and yet the kids in the audience seemed to tolerate it better than they did Pete’s Dragon. It’s a glorious act of story-telling that feels like something genuinely passed down for generations. Every time Kubo picks up his shamisen, be prepared for some of the loveliest music you’ll hear at the movies. It sweeps you up into the magic of his origami, and the whole thing feels alive and vibrant, steeped in a culture filled with divine tradition.

Kubo And The Two Strings is surprisingly well-balanced tonally, able to incorporate gags meant Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-just for kids between bouts of horror, humour, and yes, tragedy. It’s quite brave, when you think of it. Suicide Squad pulled back on the Joker’s villainy, and Ben-Hur rewrote some of its savagery. This, a meticulously animated piece of art, has the backbone to trust children with some rather heavy themes. And it does it while also being the most visually arresting thing I’ve seen at the movies this year. It’s a spectacle, and a technical triumph. Having no wordly idea how they pulled some scenes off just adds to the magic. Laika is no stranger to Oscar nominations for animation, and is sure to earn another, but this movie demolishes even their own high bar. Laika doesn’t have the cachet of Pixar so politically, beating Finding Dory will be difficult. But the proof is on the big screen: it is undoubtedly the better film.

Ben-Hur

The weird thing we all noticed in the trailers of Ben-Hur is that there were no big names. No names mentioned at all. No recognizable faces. I know the actor playing Ben-Hur – it’s Jack Huston, and I came to know him on Boardwalk Empire – but he’s not well-known. Matt never recognized him without the half tin-face, and Sean doesn’t know him from the third freckle to the left of his arsehole. Huston’s decent in it, but he’s no movie star. Isn’t it weird that a studio would spend $100 million dollars on a movie and neglect to cast any celebrities? And I don’t mean Kanye West as Jesus (Yeezus?) – but to cast a whole roster full of nobodies seems like a gamble.

So Ben-Hur is a bonafide flop. Not because Jack Huston couldn’t carry it, but because he benhur-faithtrailer-1-1024x426.pngshould never have been asked to. And of course you could say that Ben-Hur didn’t need a remake, but the simple truth is that no movie needs a shitty remake. If you insist on having a go at a famous and beloved movie, you’d better be bringing something to the table. And Timur Bekmambetov thought he was: CGI. But he failed to appreciate that a lone 10-minute sequence of blood-rushing speed just doesn’t cut it anymore. This is the era of action. 60% of the shite in theatres right this very minute, competing against it, is action-packed. Suicide Squad, which is a pretty terrible movie, is at least more energetic. Star Trek Beyond is full-throttle. The days where Charlton Heston going all fast & furious on a chariot could save a movie are gone. Long gone.

I’m trying my hardest to think of one nice thing I can say about this, but I’m drawing a blank. The editing is tumultuous. I think the film makers are relying on our general knowledge of the classic Ben-Hur to pull us through this one’s bumpy ride in story-telling (quite general: lots of details are changed, and I’m not sure to what end). That, and two really genius visual aids: 1. white horsies vs. black horsies (guess which ones the good guys ride) 2. Caesar haircuts vs. Jesus haircuts (guess which ones the good guys wear).  Subtle enough for you? Not that it matters. This movie lost me in its first 5 minutes. You know why? It’s stupid. You’re going to want to kick a black horse. It was a camera angle that took me out of the time period. It made me feel like Judah Ben-Hur was wearing a GoPro. He may as well have posed for a selfie.

The 1959 epic Ben-Hur used 2500 real, live horses and 10 000 real, live people. It was made with love – I know this because one of the last living American crew members told me so

BEN-HUR

Morgan Freeman plays Ilderim and Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

in a documentary recently (The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur. Unfortunately he died before he could save us all from this one). Ben-Hur 2016 is a re-imagining lacking imagination. It used just 86 horses, 400 extras, lots of computer fakery, and – fuck me – GoPro cameras. Jesus fuck. Speaking of whom: unbelievably, the 2016 version is the more Jesusy of the two. I suppose producers were hoping for a built-in Christian audience, but the heavy-handed message will likely ring false even with them.

I’m afraid that this iteration of Ben-Hur is a symbol of our culture generally: devoid of our own ideas, we steal old ones and then make them crappier by half-assing things and cutting corners. Tell me I’m wrong.