Monday 20 February 2017

Free State Of Jones, Tanna, and American Honey: Your Week In Film (February 20-26)

Break Free: Matthew McConaughey is Civil War deserter Newt Knight

Movie picks for the next seven days on TV, DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and in cinemas...

Why did Free State Of Jones (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW bomb at the box office and get nary a look-in during awards season? Well, for a start, it carries the undeniable whiff of Oscar bait and, at two hours 19 minutes, goes on a bit. But I suspect the main reason for its failure lies elsewhere. Maybe following 2016's #oscarssowhite controversy there was little appetite for a film about the Civil War and slavery with a white lead. Now, while that's certainly a sentiment I understand, it's also a shame because Free State is, more often than not, powerful, worthwhile stuff.

Based on a true story, Gary Ross's film sees disillusioned Confederate army deserter Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) flee to Mississippi, where he hides out in a swamp with fellow deserters and runaway slaves. It isn't long before he's organising this raggle-taggle band into an effective fighting unit and inspiring an uprising against the corrupt local Confederate government. Told over several decades, Free State is perhaps at its best during an uplifting but heart-breaking final third in which Ross explores slavery's corrosive legacy; the continued rise of the Ku Klux Klan and how plantation owners could bend the law to keep African-Americans under their control (something also recently put under the microscope in Ava DuVernay's bravura documentary, 13th).

The problem is that despite the film's subject matter, McConaughey is front and centre at all times, while black actors such as Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) are relegated to the sidelines a little too much. As has surely become apparent since the 'McConaissance' started in earnest, you don't cast the Dallas Buyers Club actor in your movie if you intend to allow anyone else to get a word in edgeways. And so it goes here. Still, Free State's heart is clearly in the right place, even if its execution is imperfect.

The State we're in: More than just another Civil War drama

Surprisingly nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar over the likes of Elle and Julieta, Tanna (in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema) WWW is set on the eponymous South Pacific island and depicts the true story of a young couple who defied the strict 'arranged marriage' traditions of their tribe and planned to wed for love. It's a Romeo And Juliet affair shot entirely on location, but what makes Aussie duo Martin Butler and Bentley Dean's film interesting is that all the actors are from the tribal village itself. Not only had none of them acted before but, until their contact with Butler and Dean, they'd never seen a film either.

As it turns out, the tribespeople are absolute naturals, especially young Marceline Rofit, who plays Selin, the sister of bride-to-be Wawa (Marie Wawa). A loveable scamp, the camera clearly adores her and, given half a chance, I suspect Hollywood casting agents would be queued up outside her door.

Tanna is smartly told, compelling and possessed of charm in abundance, while the island's sumptuous fauna (including an active volcano) offers Dean the opportunity to really flex his muscles as a cinematographer. In truth, though, it lacked a bit of emotional heft and, at times, felt like the characters were playing second fiddle to the demands of the plot rather too much.

Treasure island: Tanna boasts sumptuous visuals

Despite being a fan of writer/director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road), American Honey (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW½ left me a little cold on the big screen. A sprawling, interminable road movie, filmed in the old-fashioned square academy format, it sees down-on-her-luck Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) abandoning her old life to set off across the American Midwest in a van with Shia LaBeouf and his gang. Are they an out-of-control rock band on tour? A criminal gang plotting a big score? No, they're off to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door, silly!

Apart from its punishing length (just 17 minutes shy of three hours), my biggest bugbear is that pretty much everyone in American Honey is profoundly annoying and unsympathetic. The kids with whom Star shares her great subscription-selling adventure are just awful - a gibbering, braying, squealing, drugging, boozing, boring collection of unmitigated gits you'd leave the country to avoid. It does, however, have something interesting to say about America's directionless youth and boasts a very fine soundtrack (Rihanna, Mazzy Star and a bunch of great hip-hop), while Riley Keough is superb as Krystal, the gang's flint-hearted boss. Maybe I'll warm to it on a second viewing...

Taste of Honey: Sasha Lane impresses as Star

Since Sky Movies rebranded as Sky Cinema last year, there has been a definite uptick in the number of interesting, under-the-radar movies showcased on its various channels. This week is very much a case in point. The Goob (from today, 10pm, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WW½ is a gloomy coming-of-age drama set in the Norfolk Fens. It focuses on the titular Goob (Liam Walpole), a teenage boy struggling to come to terms with not only impending adulthood but also the behaviour of his step-dad, a deeply unpleasant bully played to evil-eyed perfection by Sean Harris. Writer/director Guy Myhill conjures a potent but dispiriting vision of what it is to be young and trapped by poverty and circumstance.

If you're looking for something a little more peculiar, there's Men & Chicken (from Wednesday, 9.50pm, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WWW, a Danish black comedy which stars Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik as brothers who, following their father's death, seek out and attempt to connect with the family they never knew they had. Bizarre, hilarious and disturbing in equal measure, it's Monty Python meets The Island Of Doctor Moreau. Just as bonkers is bizarro comic-horror The Greasy Strangler (from Thursday, 10pm, Sky Cinema/NOW TV) WWW. Chock-a-block with catchphrases ("Bullshit artist!") and lines of dialogue you can imagine boozy students bellowing at midnight screenings, Jim Hosking's film - an unholy marriage between Troma and Harmony Korine - clearly fancies itself a future cult classic. This story of a serial killer who is, quite literally, covered head to toe in a thick layer of grease, would all seem a bit contrived and cynical if it wasn't genuinely funny, gratifyingly repulsive (even the soundtrack made me queasy) and riotously entertaining. 

Grease monkeys: No one is safe from the strangler (NSFW)

Finally, don't forget that Sunday night is the Oscars or, if we're being formal, The 89th Annual Academy Awards. Sky have a dedicated channel for the event (Sky Cinema Oscars) with coverage from 11.10pm (the ceremony itself commences at around 01.30am on Monday morning). Will I be staying awake for it? Hell, no, but I'll be dreaming of acting gongs for Isabelle Huppert and Casey Affleck all the same...

What I shall be watching this week: Looking forward to seeing Jeff Nichols' Loving (Blu-ray), and I may well drag myself out for John Wick: Chapter 2 at the cinema.

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