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REVIEW: Free State Of Jones

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In American cinema, there’s plenty of liberalism, but radicalism is a true rarity, and that makes Free State Of Jones an even more fascinating filmmaking feat. Co-written and directed with a fierce lack of compromise by Gary Ross (who makes his first film since starting the cinematic Hunger Games, from which he was bounced and replaced by Francis Lawrence), this terse, harrowing, and breathtakingly immediate drama tells the strange tale of Newton Knight, a Civil War-era deep thinker and man of action who – for a brief, incandescent moment – scratched out a mini-utopia in the middle of a battle zone. As with any biopic, debate rages about the film’s alacrity, and whether or not it deifies an unworthy man. Truth-telling aside, the Newton Knight of this film – played with a canny mix of philosophical calm and broiling anger by a brilliant Matthew McConaughey – is as fascinating and compelling a character as you’ll ever see.

As the film begins, Knight is working as a nurse for the embattled Confederate Army, wrist-deep in blood as he grapples in vain to keep his eviscerated colleagues alive. Knight has a self-awareness lacking in his fellow soldiers, and when he learns that the Confederate Army has been sacking the farms of its own people to feed its men on the frontlines, he leaves his post to come to their defence. Eventually on the run, Knight ends up in the swampland of Mississippi, where he takes shelter with a group of freed slaves, kick-starting a community which soon swells with other Confederate deserters and exploited farmers of the region. Armed and angry, Knight and his followers take the fight to the Confederacy, and establish the “Free State Of Jones” in the area in and around Jones County, Mississippi, at the height of the war.

A scene from Free State Of Jones

A scene from Free State Of Jones

Though gifted a Terrence Malick-style Magic Hour gleam by master cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme (The Proposition), Free State Of Jones is one long, anguished cry of rage from Gary Ross at the horrors of America: at its bigotry, its ignorance, and its easy propensity for war. We’ve heard that kind of scream before, but this time, it’s delivered in a far different timbre. Its hero, Newton Knight, is a true leftist revolutionary, the kind that raises the bile in most Americans. The community that he creates is not only racially harmonious (Knight happily takes up with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Rachel, an escaped slave), but also built on socialist ideals. Knight calls out the Southern rich (those who owned twenty slaves or more were exempt from serving in the military, while dirt-poor corn farmers were exploited at every turn), and frames The Civil War as one of class, rather than ideology or geography. It’s a brave cinematic stand from Gary Ross (and a kind unseen since John Sayles’ 1987 masterpiece, Matewan), and it’s no surprise that Free State Of Jones comes without studio backing and 27 credited producers, perhaps pointing to the difficulty of its financing process.

But political daring aside, Free State Of Jones rates highly as cinema. As created here, Knight is a brilliantly drawn figure: he’s deeply conflicted at every turn, reaching for peaceful ideals while always cocking his guns with disturbing urgency. There’s a slightly maniacal quiver somewhere inside McConaughey’s performance, which makes Knight anything but saintly. McConaughey is superb, and he’s teamed with a fine ensemble – Gugu Mbatha-Raw is earthily angelic as Rachel, while Keri Russell brings a knowing sadness to the role of Knight’s first wife, Serena. Mahershala Ali, however, steals all of his scenes as runaway slave, Moses, a cornerstone of Knight’s swampland paradise. There are also battle scenes aplenty, along with moments of high tension and action, while a contemporary (and mildly jarring) aside reminds us that America’s bigotry has continued long, long after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Impassioned and brave, Free State Of Jones is a towering piece of leftist American cinema, commenting on the horrors of the nation’s past, which continue to echo into its equally fractured present.

 
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Down Under (The CinefestOZ Film Festival)

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With his cruelly under-celebrated 2003 gut-buster, Ned, writer, actor, and director, Abe Forsythe, lit the fuse on a wildfire comedy that poked irreverent fun at Australia’s most famous anti-hero. Well, if Forsythe didn’t court the ire of guys with Ned Kelly tattoos and spare tire covers enough with that film, he’s back for seconds with the far more mature and even-handed Down Under, a work of biting intelligence that finds comedy – yes, comedy – in amongst the bloodied debris of the 2005 Cronulla Riots. A blight on Australia’s image as a fair-go, laidback nation filled with knock-arounds and larrikins, December 11, 2005 saw one of Sydney’s most famous beaches turned into a battleground, as young Aussie guys staked their territorial claim on an area popular with visitors from Middle Eastern backgrounds, some of whom had caused trouble in the region.

No chin-stroking meditation on the riots themselves, Forsythe instead crafts a scathing attack on institutionalised racism (on both sides of the cultural divide) by focusing on two fictional car-loads of young men still hot and angry from the riots and ready for retaliation. Though divided by their racial backgrounds, they have many things in common, with basic stupidity and ignorance being the principal uniters. One car is filled with angry boys from Cronulla (with Damon Herriman’s Jason and Justin Rosniak’s Ditch the true believers, and Alexander England’s hapless Shit-Stick and his Down Syndrome cousin, Evan – winningly played by Chris Bunton – basically bullied into rolling along), while the other hails from Sydney’s south-west. This lot is similarly divided: Nick (Rahel Romahn) is fired up and ready for violence; D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi) is a wannabe rapper with little talent and less brains; Ibrahim (Michael Denkha) is an older, religious Muslim who prods his younger charges on; and Hassim (Lincoln Younes) is the sensible, increasingly compromised voice of reason. Both car loads spend the film cruising around looking for trouble, and a collision is not only expected, but inevitable.

For the entire running time of Down Under, Abe Forsythe walks a tonal tightrope, but he never sways or comes close to losing his balance. The mix of comedy and tragedy is voluble and perfectly judged, and his handling of the film’s characters is impeccable. In this world, vile racists still love their (hilariously foul mouthed) wives and (often neglected) children; even the most awful people have a sense of humour; and horrible acts aren’t always committed by horrible people. Despite their spray-gun-like hurling of f-and-c-bombs (Down Under may very well challenge 44 Inch Chest for the most effectively used c-bombs in one movie) and their propensity for violence, Forsythe has an obvious love for these characters.

Yes, they’re dickheads, but there’s a kernel of goodness (some bigger than others) in all of them, and that makes them indelibly watchable and relatable. Forsythe is way too smart to lay a condescending blanket of authorial scorn over these characters, all of whom are essentially misfits. His malice is justifiably saved for the older men (Marshall Napier’s fire-eyed suburban racist; Michael Denkha’s funny but dangerous fundamentalist) who so gleefully lead them astray. This, of course, all sounds po-faced and serious, but make no mistake: Down Under is, ahem, a laugh riot, peppered with witty dialogue and brilliant performances (check out David Field’s wild cameo as a sleazy drug dealer!) and bolstered by a canny know-how when it comes to the often vicious vernacular of young men for whom violence is a first option. Thought provoking and profoundly hilarious, Down Under is as entertaining as it is culturally significant.

Down Under plays at The CinefestOZ Film Festival, which runs from August 24-28. To buy tickets to Down Under, head to the official site.

 
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REVIEW: David Brent: Life On The Road

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The Office’s David Brent is back! In the decade plus since we last saw him at Wernham Hogg, David’s moved on, repping cleaning chemicals across Berkshire, but still dreaming of making it big with his band, Forgone Conclusion. Unfortunately, due to children, mental illness, and a conviction for sexual assault, The Conclusion are no more, so forming Forgone Conclusion Mk II and booking an intensive eight date tour over three weeks, in and around the Slough area, David takes his not so happy band of troubadours out to do what he does best. Unsurprisingly, the rocky start to the tour gets progressively rockier from one date to the next. Poor attendances, tensions within the band, and shooting a woman in the face with a t-shirt gun are just the start of Brent’s problems. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel when David persuades a record label to come down and check out one of their final gigs that could finally be his big break. It’s not. But it could be.

Bringing Brent to the big screen is a pretty tall order. After all, transitions from cult TV shows to feature length movies are, more often than not, less then successful at best and just plain terrible at worst. This, coupled with the fact that Gervais didn’t co-write this with The Office co-creator, Stephen Merchant, doesn’t bode well at all for David Brent: Life On The Road.

But it is with great relief that Gervais really pulls this off, and the feature length debut of David Brent does fit in with the previous material and doesn’t feel strained or laboured in the slightest. There’s even a little pathos halfway through when you feel bad for David as his relentless optimism is tried and tried again.

The majority of the supporting cast, with the exception of the band’s rapper, Dom Johnson (Ben Bailey Smith) and potential love interest, Pauline (Jo Hartley), aren’t particularly well fleshed out, but ultimately this isn’t an ensemble piece, it’s all about Brent. Sure, there’s a heavy dose of off-colour humour and toe curling awkwardness as David looks to the camera yet again after delivering another highly dubious dose of his home-brand “philosophy”, but what did you expect? If you’re not a fan of The Office or Ricky Gervais, then David Brent: Life On The Road will do nothing to change your opinion. But if you are, then you’re in for an hour-and-a-half of Brent at his best.

 
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Endless Night

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In 1909, American, Robert Peary, embarked on an Arctic expedition, and – after a momentary stop over to impregnate a fourteen-year-old Inuit – claimed to have reached the geographical North Pole for the first time. Whether Peary actually reached the Pole was and remains a fact of some contestation. Nevertheless, his life and works, particularly his imperialist treatment of the Inuit people, are dramatic enough to make for a compelling film.  Unfortunately, it isn’t this one. More Godot than Kurtz, Peary is the shadowy eminence whose fabled presence never materialises, not even for a cameo.

Rather, Endless Night entirely concerns his wife, Josephine Peary, played here by Juliette Binoche. Living in Greenland, Josephine grows tired of waiting for her husband to return, and so sets off on her own trek through the ice to find him, guided by Gabriel Byrne, egregiously cast as a native Sherpa. Naturally, the decision proves disastrous, and after losing Byrne to the auspices of nature, Josephine finds herself sequestered in an igloo for The Polar Winter with the Inuit girl, Allaka (Rinko Kikuchi), who is carrying Robert’s baby.

Endless Night is a terribly inconsistent film. It starts off like African Queen on the tundra, but Byrne is gone after thirty minutes, and it devolves quickly into an unhallowed mixture of Nanook Of The North meets She’s Having A Baby. While the decision to make a film about the explorer’s wife rather than the explorer may have seemed an interesting usurpation of roles on paper, there is not enough genuine substance in the characterisation, nor enough excitement in the film, to merit its existence. There are a few touching moments between Josephine and Allaka, but mostly it proves difficult to get past the tired stereotypes – the haughty, out of her depth society matron; the wise, tender native – and the clunky humanism which are supposed, but fail to, compensate for the actual lack of a story. Even the scenery proves undiverting, being as it is, made entirely of ice. Endless Night – despite its occasional rays of sunshine – is likely to leave you cold.

 
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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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As the credits rolled after the final mission of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a trophy notification pinged on screen. That trophy read, “Pacifist: you completed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided without killing a single soul. Bosses are people too.” I found myself suffused with a genuine sense of accomplishment. At the start of the game, I had decided to play non-lethally, using a combination of stealth, stun gun, hacking, and a tranquiliser rifle. After 30-something hours of tense, engaging gameplay, I had succeeded, and damn it feels good to be a cybernetically augmented Gandhi.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Set in 2029, after the shocking “Aug incident” – where augmented humans went berserk and started attacking everyone in sight – we find ourselves in a world where mankind is, you know, divided. The unaugmented humans are scared of “clanks” (the pejorative term used to describe augmented humans) and have segregated them into specific communities and camps. Naturally a large number of Augs are less than delighted with this indignity, and are becoming radicalised and ready to strike back. Society is a powder keg, and soon after Adam Jensen (the gravel-voiced, heavily augmented protagonist who inexplicably has retractable sunglasses bolted to his head) enters the story, the first spark is lit and a train station is destroyed in a shocking terrorist attack.

Jensen, an agent of Interpol who has friends and loyalties on both sides of the “mechanical apartheid”, now needs to find out who committed this latest atrocity and how to end the violence. Exactly how he does so is up to the player, but really the big two options seem to be lethally or non-lethally. Pleasingly, both options are a great deal of fun. Jensen comes equipped with the ability to briefly turn invisible, remotely hack into computers, turrets and CCTV cameras, shoot explosives, unleash blades hidden in his mechanical arms, and leap tall(ish) buildings in a single bound. He feels tough but never utterly overpowered, and players will have to think laterally if they want to triumph.

A screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

A screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

In terms of gameplay, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a lot of fun, once you get used to the initially confusing, slightly clunky, mechanics. The graphics are decent, if not spectacular, but the lighting, music and general mood of the piece is utterly engaging, particularly in the spectacular, Blade Runner-esque Golem City, a location just as evocative and intimidating as it sounds. The dialogue veers occasionally into silly territory, and some of the characters’ facial animation is a bit stiff; Jensen himself is animated like a bobblehead doll left on a dashboard, but the story will hook you. On that note, the story raises fascinating mysteries and concepts, but then ends before many of them can be resolved! This isn’t a deal breaker in a game dense with solid worldbuilding and genuinely significant side missions, but those looking for closure and a definitive answer will be disappointed.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided also comes with a new game mode, Breach, which is a more fast-paced, combat-focused hacking game that provides much-needed catharsis after you’ve been sneaking your way around air vents and storage closets.

Ultimately, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided feels more like a solid next chapter in the Human Evolution saga than a standalone experience. But when the chapters are this compelling and engaging, it’s hard to be salty about that fact. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start my second playthrough, and this time I’m going to rain bloody death on all who even look at me sideways.

 

 
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REVIEW: Ben-Hur

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With a brief prologue that explains how adopted brothers become deadly rivals, Ben-Hur begins with a tease of the notorious chariot race that forms the film’s exciting climax, and then melts into a tedious flashback that laboriously explains the preceding events. It’s a 95-minute slog before we return to the thrilling horse-drawn contest, and somehow those seven minutes of pure excitement just don’t feel like enough of a payoff.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince living a life of privilege with his family in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. After he is falsely accused of treason, he is sentenced to a life of slavery, enduring five years in the galley of a Roman slave ship until his escape during a sea battle. Meanwhile, his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), ascends the ranks as an officer in the Roman army. The pair eventually face off during the grand chariot race spectacle.

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in Ben-Hur

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in Ben-Hur

A handsome carpenter with a sexy Brazilian accent pops up from time to time spouting revolutionary ideas such as, “God is love” and promising, “He has a path planned for you.” Rodrigo Santoro is suitably charismatic as Jesus, especially in his shaping of the destiny of Ben-Hur. Sporting grey “Predator-style” dreadlocks, Morgan Freeman is also good as the wise Sheik Ilderim, but the gambling deal that he presents to Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), the governor who oversees the chariot race, is pure nonsense.

Russian filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, directs, but all his idiosyncratic appeal (seen in Night Watch and Wanted) seems to have been worn away by the producing team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (The Bible), rendering his film the cinematic equivalent of a bland, smooth pebble. Despite being heavily reliant on CGI special effects, plus random felled-driver point-of-view shots, the chariot race is chock full of thrills and spills. The gruesome pileups and ferocious battle makes for welcome drama. Post-race, the story shifts into an accelerated version of the tale of Christ, from his arrest at The Garden Of Gethsemane to his crucifixion. A handful of miracles bring the story to a close

A complete snore-fest and, thanks to its generic approach, utterly lacking in heart, this fifth film adaptation of the 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, by Lew Wallace, feels entirely pointless for a 21st century age.

 
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Green Room

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About 20 minutes into Green Room, the third film director from Jeremy Saulnier, a mosh pit is shot in slow motion; the vicious spitting and kicking to punk tunes is morphed into something calming and poetic. This is the quiet before the storm, and after this point, all bets are off.

Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, was a taut revenge thriller as beautiful as it was violent. He applies that same aesthetic here, when a young punk band agree to play at a right-wing club for some extra cash. Their idealistic roots are clearly in stark contrast to the patrons’ Nazi sympathies, but money is money. Unfortunately, when the band’s bassist, Pat (Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles before his passing), witnesses a murder, hospitality quickly sours, and the group are put under house arrest in the club’s green room, along with another witness, Amber (Imogen Poots).

For all its ferocity and intensity, Green Room is a controlled affair, as Saulnier uses the titular enclosure to stoke up the tension in preparation for the lynchpin that takes the film towards its brutal closing act. That lynchpin being Patrick Stewart as Darcy, the softly spoken owner of the club with the mind of a military strategist. Stewart is a stoic monster who plots to dispose of the band with the same casualness of someone remembering to put the recycling out. It’s a grand performance that contrasts sharply with the organised carnage that he unleashes. Special mention must also go to Macon Blair, a regular in the director’s films, who this time plays Darcy’s right-hand man, and manages to make a murdering racist almost sympathetic. Saulnier has created a worthy follow up to Blue Ruin that walks a fine line between mainstream cinema and exploitation. The moments of calm that he chooses to give us are merely opportunities to recuperate before he throws us to the dogs again.

 
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Bastille Day

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Bastille Day is the third film from British director, James Watkins (Eden Lake), and it received a fair amount of press attention after its 2015 release was delayed due to the Paris terrorist attacks, before being pulled altogether in France after the tragic events on Bastille Day earlier this year.

It will be unsurprising when you hear about the film’s content, which sees CIA agent, Sean Brier (Idris Elba), reluctantly joining forces with conman-turned-terrorist suspect, Michael Mason (Richard Madden), to track down the real culprits of a bomb blast in Paris. On paper, it sounds like a political hot potato, but isolated from the events of the last two years, Bastille Day is a run-of-the-mill thriller. Yes, it tips its hat toward French nationalism and racial profiling, but never to the extent that it feels like Watkins is trying to say anything profound. He’s merely reaching out for low hanging fruit – social network activism, corrupt politicians – in order to service the plot.

Bastille Day’s issue is that it never quite finds the sweet spot between the buddy comedy that it could have been, and the action movie that it desperately craves to be. Madden and Elba are given numerous situations that allow the pair to bounce off each other trading quips, all of which are delivered flatly in dubious American accents. It’s not entirely their fault, as the screenplay, co-written by Watkins, never gives either actor anything to sink their teeth into. The CIA operative is grumpy, whilst the con artist is sassy. That, unfortunately, is as much character development as you’re going to get. But there are still moments of enjoyment to be taken away from Bastille Day, including an energetic chase across the Parisian rooftops, where the character’s apparent Parkour skills are used to great effect.

 
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Pele: Birth Of A Legend

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Pelé: Birth Of A Legend pretty much lives by its title, being that it charts the formative years of Edson Arantes do Nascimento (aka the titular Pelé) from his impoverished childhood through to playing in the Brazil v Sweden World Cup Final. Considering his contribution to the “beautiful game”, and how lauded he is as an athlete, it’s surprising that Pelé hasn’t been given the biopic treatment before. And taking on board what we’re given in this film, produced by the man himself, there’s probably a better way to pay tribute.

There’s nothing particularly offensive about Pelé: Birth Of A Legend; it just plays everything extremely safe and by the numbers. Written and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, the film has the unenviable task of all biopics: boiling a person’s life down to a series of key moments. Unfortunately, here it feels like just that: a series of key events with no narrative flow. Like Mary McGuckian’s Best, which set its sights on George Best, it never really gets under the skin of its subject. Pelé plays with his friends, he gets discovered, and he wins the world cup…it’s a cinematic checklist.

The scenes of football themselves, though, are extremely enjoyable. Take the opening credits that show young Pelé and his friends running around their hometown, with a makeshift football bouncing between them, displaying incredible skill. The rest of the film engages as well as these scenes, even when it tries to add some weight by tying the narrative of Pelé’s life into that of Brazil’s identity in the world. “You’re the spokesperson for our nation,” Pelé (Kevin De Paula) is told at one point by his manager (Vincent D’Onofrio). It’s the kind of obvious dialogue that does the film’s intent a disservice. No one is asking for a warts and all biopic of the man, but equally we don’t just want the legend.

 
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Forsaken

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With superhero movies filling our cinema screens seemingly monthly, it’s sobering to remember that the western was once the big daddy of the silver screen. With the likes of last year’s The Hateful Eight and the upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven lighting up the screen, there could even be a resurgence. For now, whilst the genre doesn’t ride into town nearly as much as it used to, it’s always willing to show its face once in a while.

Take, for example, Forsaken, from director, Jon Cassar, and starring father-son combo, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland. Kiefer plays retired gunslinger, John Clayton, who returns to the roost to make amends with his father, Reverend William. Things don’t get off to an auspicious start, with William not only disapproving of his son’s former lifestyle, but also brooding that he missed his mother’s passing.

The Sutherlands have, surprisingly, never actually substantially shared a scene together, so those of you who have been waiting a long time for this scenario will be pleased as punch to see the two bumping heads over many an issue. Particularly the issue of how to deal with ruthless “businessman”, McCrudy (Brian Cox), who is using the services of a slick gunslinger (Michael Wincott) to frighten the townsfolk from their homes so he can sell the land off. Demi Moore also makes an appearance as a former lover of John’s wishing to reconnect.

And whilst the script cashes in on one too many clichés, it never does so in the manner of a wink to the camera. Instead Forsaken is a sombre, slow affair that allows its two leads to wrestle with emotions rather than just reaching for the six-shooters. Its discussions of conscience, forgiveness, and male pride paint the dusty landscape instead of blood. So much so, that when shots are fired in the finale, it’s almost a disappointment.