Free State of Jones

Posted on June 23, 2016 at 5:40 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence including battle scenes, hanging of adults and children, brutal abuse, rape, and lynching
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2016

freestateofjonesThe timing is not great. “Free State of Jones” is a Civil War drama based on the true story of a community of Confederate deserters and runaway enslaved people who banded together to fight for their own vision of freedom. It was filmed once before as “Tap Roots,” with Van Heflin, Susan Hayward, and Boris Karloff (as an Indian!), but this version, from “The Hunger Games'” Gary Ross, deals forthrightly with the racial issues, or at least tries to. There is an inescapable and maybe unconquerable problem in telling a story set in Civil War era Mississippi with a glorified white man as the hero, in a time when one of the most anticipated films of the year is the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience award winner “Birth of a Nation,” a film that grabbed and repurposed its title from the blatantly racist D.W. Griffith film of the silent era.

Ross brings the same passion for tackling tyranny to this story that he did to “Hunger Games.” It’s just that we’re no longer dealing with speculation and metaphor, and that means a political overlay reflecting both historical and contemporary controversies.

Matthew McConaughey plays Newt Knight, a Mississippi farmer with a wife and young son who is serving as a nurse in the Confederate army. Early on, we see him removing the uniform from a wounded enlisted man so he can tell the doctors he is an officer and get him treated. Increasingly frustrated with the endless carnage on behalf of wealthy elites who exploit the poor, it is too much for him at last when his nephew is killed in battle and he leaves, taking the body home to be buried. There he finds the Confederate forces are taking all of the food from the local farmers, leaving them to starve. On the run from the military seeking defectors, he hides out in a swamp, where he meets up with runaway slaves. There he decides that his allegiance is not to the Confederacy, which is sending poor boys to fight to preserve what today we might call the 1 percent. “I ain’t fighting for cotton,” another solider tells him. “I’m fighting for honor.” “That’s good,” Knight responds. I’d hate to be fighting for cotton.”

Writer/director Ross, working with the locations where these events occurred and a touching score from Nicholas Britell, evocatively conveys the hardscrabble lives, the literal and spiritual grit, the desperation and conviction it inspires. Knight hands guns to three little girls and, when the Confederate officer does not take them serious, Knight tells him that guns will shoot anybody. “It don’t seem to matter where the bullet comes from.” The depth of research is evident throughout, but it is never pedantic. The storyline is grounded in historical events like the Confederacy’s requisitioning of food and supplies, and post-war exploitation and terrorism, led by former Confederate officials, that prevented former enslaved persons from basic rights and murdered those who tried to assert them. There are brief glimpses into a conflict 85 years later, as the descendent of Knight’s relationship with a former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is criminally prosecuted for marrying a white woman in violation of the state’s laws prohibiting mixed marriages. It is there to remind us that we can never dismiss the events of the past as behind us.

Parents should know that this film has very intense and graphic violence including Civil War battles and skirmishes, hanging, rape, and lynching, adults and children injured and killed, very disturbing images, some strong language with racist epithets, some sexual references

Family discussion: What did Knight find most unjust about the Confederacy?  What did we learn from the 1948 courtroom scenes?

If you like this, try: “Glory” and “The Red Badge of Courage” and read about the story that inspired the film.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Movies -- format Race and Diversity War

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted on July 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm

dawnoftheplanetoftheapesceasarAll hail Caesar!

The intelligence-enhanced ape from Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes center stage in this sequel, which begins ten years after the last film. The virus we saw infecting the human population has now wiped out almost all human life. The assorted apes, led by Caesar, have asserted their primacy over other animals. In the opening scene, we see them hunting with spears they have crafted, killing a bear, and riding on horses. They live in homes they have constructed from logs, communicate — mostly via sign language — teach their children the alphabet in school, and have an organized society, with Caesar as their leader. They demonstrate loyalty and tenderness.  They adorn themselves; Caesar’s mate wears a small crown.

Ceasar is played by the brilliant motion-capture actor/artist Andy Serkis and the CGI work of the geniuses at Weta Digital.  The seamless integration of the CGI characters and the human characters and the subtlety of the apes’ eyes and facial expressions brings us straight into the story, underscored by the immersive 3D.  It is dramatic, not stuntish, with the possible exception of some spear-throwing toward the screen.

The film recalls old-school cowboys-and-Indians westerns, with the apes riding into battle on horses and the humans and their armory holed up in the ruins of San Francisco like it is Fort Apache.  Then the apes get the guns, and everything escalates fast.  The film wisely gives both groups of primates a range of characters, some wise and trustworthy, some bigoted and angry.  Both species have to learn that respect has to be based on character and actions, not on genetics.  The division is not between man and ape but between those who can envision a future with cooperation and trust and those who cannot.

There are some thoughtful details.  The destroyed city tells the story of a decade of unthinkable loss and also of great courage.  A dropped sketchbook conveys information that in a world without mass communications is revelatory.  A long-unheard CD plays The Band and we see the humans react, thinking of where they were the last time they heard it and what access to electricity could mean for them now.  The humans have the advantage of knowing how to create and use power; they also have the disadvantage of needing it.

In the midst of the battle, there is a quiet moment when a small mixed group hides out together in a location with a lot of resonance from the previous film.  It lends a solemnity to the story, even a majesty, that gives it weight.  Even those who seem from our perspective to be making decisions that are disastrously wrong do so for reasons we can understand.  The action is compelling but it is the ideas behind them that hold us.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril and violence, post-apocalyptic themes and images, many characters injured and killed, guns, fire, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why were there so many different opinions within both the ape and the human communities? How did they choose their governing structure? Why didn’t Carver want to listen to Ellie’s explanation of the source of the virus?

If you like this, try: the original “Apes” movies to compare not just the stories but the technology used by the filmmakers

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book Drama Fantasy Romance Science-Fiction Series/Sequel Talking animals

Austenland

Posted on August 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm

austenland2Edward Arlington Robinson wrote a poem about a man named Miniver Cheevy who wished so much that he could have lived in the days of knights and ladies that he refused to participate in the life before him.  Author Shannon Hale wrote Austenland about a young woman named Jane who is so in love with the romance and elegance of Jane Austen’s Regency-era romances that no real-life modern relationship can ever measure up.  She has a lifesize cardboard photo of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice” and her bedroom is like a deranged bed and breakfast version explosion of 19th century fantasy.

So she spends all of her money going to an immersive theme park called Austenland, where fans of Austen’s classic novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and the swooningly romantic movie versions can pretend to thaw the hearts of proud men in wearing breeches who would never think of addressing them by their first name or presuming to try a kiss.

“Napoleon Dynamite” co-author Jerusha Hess wrote and directed the film adaptation, with “Twilight’s” Stephenie Meyer as producer.  A radiant Keri Russell (“Waitress”) plays Jane, who is taken aback when she arrives at the 18th Century Italianate mansion (played by the historic Wycombe estate, also seen in “Downton Abbey”).  It is presided over by the redoubtable Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), who crisply informs Jane that as the purchaser of the “Copper Package,” she will be known as the fortuneless “Jane Erstwhile” and live in a small room near the servants’ quarters.  (Janeites, think Fanny Price.)  Also visiting Austenland are the wealthy “Miss Elizabeth Charming” (Jennifer Coolidge, hilarious as always), who has no idea who Jane Austen is but thinks she will look good in Regency dresses, and Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgina King) (Janites: think Jane Fairfax with a touch of Crawford).  Having paid for the premium package, Charming and Heartwright have luxurious rooms and clothes.  And, apparently, first choice of the very handsome men who are there to provide the full Austen experience, or at least the simulation/stimulation thereof.

As a full-on Janeite who has read all of the books several times, I laughed out loud at some of the references and variations on Austen’s themes and at the silliness of the juxtaposition between the 18th century period details and the intrusion of the present day.  At one point, Jane is left out in the rain and romantically rescued by the severe Mr. Nobley (J.J. Feild, whose Austen credentials include playing Mr. Tilney in a “Northanger Abbey” television movie).  (Janeites, think “Emma.”)

At first, Jane plays along as though she was really in the Regency era.  But then, around the time that her soaking wet dress splits up to the hip, she cannot help reacting like the 21st century young woman she is.  And how very un-Fanny Price for her to decide that it is time to depart from Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s directions and write her own story, starting with getting rid of the dowdy hairstyle and clothes she has been assigned and moving on to spending quality time with the groundskeeper.  This is less Lady Susan than Lady Chatterly.

Like all Austen heroines, Jane has some lessons to learn.  And a very happy ending, including a hilarious final credit sequence.  Hess manages to both send up and pay tribute to the core conventions of romantic comedy, and for fans of the genre that has been all but absent from theaters in 2013, that is a very happy ending indeed.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and situations, some bawdy and crude, some strong language, and drinking.

Family discussion:  What was it about Austen’s books that was so important to Jane?  If you could visit any fictional place, what would it be?

If you like this, try: Any of the many movie and television versions of Jane Austen’s novels, especially “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson and “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth

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Based on a book Comedy Romance

Bedtime Stories

Posted on April 10, 2009 at 8:00 am

Once upon a time there was a movie studio that thought it could produce a hit with a performer best known for raunchy slacker comedies and a lot of money for special effects. This story does not turn out very happily ever after.

Adam Sandler plays Skeeter, a hotel handyman who dreams of being the manager. His sister Wendy (Courtney Cox) asks him to stay with her children while she interviews for a new job. He tells them a bedtime story which they embellish and the next day some of its most outlandish details start to come true, even a shower of gumballs. As Skeeter competes with the obsequious Kendall (Guy Pearce) who is the boyfriend of the hotel owner, for the position of manager of a fancy new facility, he tries to direct the bedtime stories to help him succeed. Each night’s story — whether about a knight, a cowboy, an outer space adventurer, or a gladiator — influences the next day’s events.

The children in the audience laughed a lot at some of the silly details and schoolyard humor. And they enjoyed figuring out before Skeeter did that it was not the details he added to the story but the children’s ideas that shaped the real-world events. There are some marvelous special effects in the depiction of the stories, too. But anyone over the age of seven is unlikely to be more than mildly entertained by the film because of Sandler’s pudgy, barely-interested performance and a present-day storyline that is lackluster in contrast with the wild adventures of the bedtime sagas. Wendy’s “funny” restrictions on the children’s food and activities and a subplot intended to be suspenseful about whether her school will be torn down are distracting, especially when near the end there is a big waste of time when the film has to step up the pressure by putting children in senseless peril and dragging out the suspense. Keri Russell is radiant as always as Wendy’s friend and Skeeter’s love interest. Her brief appearance in the fantasy stories are as dazzling as the most elaborate special effects. The other characters are never as interesting as the time allotted to them means them to be. British bad boy Russell Brand is completely out of place as Skeeter’s friend and Guy Pearce is fighting at way below his weight class as Skeeter’s nemesis. We would all have done better if the children wrote the story.

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Comedy Fantasy
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