Saturday, July 2, 2016

Movie Reviews: Free State of Jones, 13 Hours, Cell

Free State of Jones
directed by Gary Ross
Alright, alright, alright. This could have been a better movie. Maybe if this were the seventies or eighties some of the critical reaction to this movie would have been both more accepting and more vitriolic depending upon the critic's race and politics. It seems incredible now but remember that some white critics actually attacked Spike Lee's eighties film Do The Right Thing for raising the chances of massive race riots against white people because of a fictional depiction of a character throwing a garbage can through a window. Apparently millions of black Americans were just one film away from running amok. Those were silly, even hysterically (and historically) stupid criticisms. Now some black critics are attacking Free State of Jones because (1) it doesn't place black people at the center of a true story about a rather extraordinary white man or (2) show to their satisfaction the exact levels of heroic resistance which Black Americans attempted in a losing struggle against post-Civil War state and individual white terrorism and disenfranchisement. I think the second criticism is fair. It can be argued at least. There were post Civil War pitched battles between white racists intent on strangling black freedom in the cradle and desperately outgunned and outnumbered newly freed black citizens trying to exercise their political rights. Most of these battles and massacres are forgotten today. But the first criticism is sour grapes. If you go to the theater to watch a movie touting itself as the Ray Charles story would you expect that the entire film will center on the importance of Charles' friend, country star Buck Owens? Probably not. Although there is understandable resentment to fictional white savior stories I would argue that Free State of Jones is not such a film. Newton Knight really did put his life on the line in opposition to slavery and white supremacy. He really did lead a resistance movement in Civil War Mississippi. So complaining that a movie about his exploits puts him at the center of the story seems unwise. I want to see movies about black heroes as much as anyone else. I'm looking forward to the Nat Turner movie. I'd like to see a film about Toussaint L'Ouverture or Antonio Grajales. I don't need made up white savior films. But Newton Knight was real. There are valid and torrid criticisms that can be made about this film. I'll mention a few below. But its mere existence isn't one of them. 
If you want to know more about the real Newton Knight, you can read the book about his life story which we reviewed here earlier. The short version is that a poor white anti-slavery pro-Union Mississippi farmer joined the Confederate Army under protest and duress to avoid conscription, provide for his family and watch out for similarly situated friends and relatives. Knight regularly deserted and finally left for good to protect his family and friends from Confederate tax collectors and draft officials. Tax collectors were then, as they are today, utterly indifferent towards a family's particular hardships. Knight fled to the local swamps where he built an interracial force of freed slaves, Confederate deserters, unionists, draft dodgers and tax protesters. These guerrillas defeated Confederate forces in a few irregular skirmishes and swore allegiance to the USA. But nothing good lasts. With the war's end and the later cessation of Reconstruction, most whites who had rallied to Knight's side suddenly rediscovered their disdain for Knight's racial equality convictions and his interracial polygamy. Racial hatred and contempt proved stronger than appeals to religious or class solidarity. Using murders, mutilations and beatings to intimidate black citizens and their white supporters, conservative whites reimposed what amounted to slavery and apartheid throughout the South. Black people lost almost all citizenship rights for the next century or so. And a few disruptive or violent actions by Knight could not stop this. Knight remained in Mississippi all of his life. He became so closely identified with the black community that he was counted as black in later census surveys.

Matthew McConaughey effectively and almost effortlessly conveys Knight's intensity but the film goes sideways from the start by not grounding Knight's political beliefs in his strong Primitive Baptist religious convictions about the equality of all men. Both Knight and his father despised slavery, something that presumably made his branch of the family the (ahem) the black sheep at family gatherings. Certainly Knight didn't inherit any slaves or property from his grandfather. The film doesn't mention any of that back story. So Knight's backwoods Jesus musings about race and equality don't appear as something based in Knight's church and family history but something that Knight started believing after eating too many mushrooms of uncertain origin. You'd follow McConaughey's Knight into battle because he's cool as f***, but you'd also want to keep an eye on him in case he suddenly orders people to bring virgins to him or starts demanding in his drawl that everyone drink the Kool-AidSo does this film work as historical documentary? No it does not. But it wasn't designed to do so. Does the film show the tragically forgotten struggle of the transgender feminist bisexual biracial illegal immigrant in 1867 Mississippi? No I can't say that it does. It is not meant to be all things to all people. Does it work as somber entertainment which attempts to shine a light on an ugly part of our history? Well, mostly it does. 

The film starts on a battlefield and tracks Knight's movement from medic to deserter to guerrilla warlord. As discussed, the director chooses to make most of these transitions based on personal, not political stances. When Knight meets the man who will become one of his best friends, Moses (Mahershala Ali), an escaped slave, their friendship is not initially based on Knight's opposition to slavery but shared experiences. Kerri Russell is Knight's white (legal) wife, Serena; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is his black (common-law) wife, Rachel. The film uses Rachel's character to show the viewer, albeit thankfully offscreen, the capricious sexual violence of slavery. Serena is a cipher. We don't know if she shares her husband's political beliefs or not. We never know what she thinks of sharing her husband with another woman. And speaking of motivations, we see that when whites recruited by Knight join this previously all black group of runaway slaves, many do not drop their racism. But we don't learn what the black people already living in the swamp thought about these arrivals. Surely they must have had their own resentments and doubts about the influx of whites into their group. Even whites who didn't own slaves still worked as overseers, auctioneers and slave patrollers. For many whites the existence of slavery provided a sense of status. No matter how bad off they were, at least they weren't black. So if you were a black person who had run away from enslavement would you warm up to these people? Would you trust them with your life? With the exception of Moses and Rachel, few of the black characters get any sort of agency/individuality. The film doesn't bother, however briefly, to examine things from their POV. And it's weaker for it.

There are a few intense battle scenes. These are balanced with humor as Knight matches wits with an arrogant and not too bright Confederate tax official. We know that Reconstruction ended in betrayal and horror. So the film tries to avoid ending on a down note by skipping forward to a Mississippi court case in which a descendant of Knight's is accused of miscegenation. But the film doesn't successfully give the viewer any emotional involvement in that case. Free State of Jones correctly shows that slavery and white supremacy were primary motivators for the South's rebellion. Southerners didn't start the KKK after the war because they were pining for low taxes and deregulation. The newspapers and white politicans of the time were blunt in describing their dedication to maintaining Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic superiority by any means necessary. Knight learns to his dismay that race trumps class in Mississippi politics. A sizable proportion of the white working class had no desire to ally with black people no matter how much sense it might make economically. For a brief moment Knight's leadership showed what class and racial solidarity might have looked like. But it didn't last. It never does in American politics.  This wasn't a great movie. It was good. On balance I'm glad I saw it. It runs a little long at 2 hours and 20 minutes.

13 Hours

directed by Michael Bay
We live in a world where increasingly people live in their own truth bubbles. This is not something that is a partisan failing by one side or the other. People on whatever side of a controversy you care to mention will quote you chapter and verse proving that they are the calm rational ones while those overly emotional dunderheads on the other side believe in things that just aren't true. Folks have their own sets of facts. The attack on the US compound in Benghazi is thus, depending on whom you talk to, either an excellent example of what happens when heartless short sighted conservatives cut security outlays or an all too predictable illustration of what occurs when you have incompetent soft-hearted rookies in charge who blame America first. The release of dueling House Committee reports on Benghazi won't change anyone's mind on this. Smartly recognizing this the director Michael Bay mostly eschews political commentary, which isn't his strong suit anyway, for a gripping deep dive into the nuts and bolts of exactly what happened before, during and after the attacks on the American diplomatic compound and CIA outpost in Benghazi. The character details are really not very important to this story. It's a battle. No one is going to be sitting around talking about their feelings or any nonsense like that. What is relevant is that Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) is going to be taking up residence in a lightly protected diplomatic compound in Benghazi. He doesn't expect any trouble. But as Sollozzo told Tom Hagen, Stevens is not in the muscle end of the family. He doesn't really know the signs of impending violence. Some of the people who do know what to look for are the ex-military private security guards attached to the CIA outpost. These folks positively reek of testosterone, aggression and competence. They've been places and done things. They think that the American buildings are not well protected. They don't think they have enough men or enough heavy weapons. And they don't like it. But the CIA station chief  (David Costabile-- Gale from Breaking Bad) makes it clear that he doesn't much care what the hired help thinks about things.  He didn't hire them to think. There's a hierarchy here and he's at the top. So all these bearded bada$$es can have a nice warm cup of shut the f*** up!  If they don't the Chief will cancel their contract and put them on double secret probation!

The Chief's job is to gather intelligence and schmooze with people. The Chief and his agents, including the winsome Sona Jilliani (Alexia Barlier) and the arrogant Freddie Stroma (Britt Vayner) can't do their jobs if the musclebound morons are constantly interrupting important business for security reasons. There might be some revenge of the nerd resentments playing out here also. The Chief is obviously not a former athlete. He and his people generally attended the best Ivy league schools, not rinky dink state colleges. And the Chief will remind anyone of this should they have the temerity to question his decisions. New team member and former Navy SEAL Jack Da Silva (John Krasinksi) barely has time to arrive in Benghazi, joke with his friend and team lead Tyrone Woods (James Dale) and skype with his wife and kids before things go from bad to worse. Well when the stuff hits the fan you send for the man. Ignoring the chief's orders, the team leaves the CIA outpost to try to save the Ambassador. Nothing goes as planned. No one even agrees on what the plan should be. This is a really good action movie which also shows the perfect storm of red tape, incompetence, bureaucracy and bad luck that afflicted the Americans that night.  It doesn't deal in partisan finger pointing or political conspiracy theories. Sometimes people get caught with their pants down. I liked how the film showed that close attention to details can mean the difference between life and death. 13 Hours also depicted the frustrations of modern urban warfare. A US security guard, soldier or mercenary may know beyond a reasonable doubt that the seeming non-combatant watching him from across the street is actually using a cellphone to obtain and pass along the GPS coordinates for the American position. But that American can't necessarily do anything about it. Stylistically this film is a descendant of various depictions of The Alamo or movies like Assault on Precinct 13. If you like action movies, this film can be enjoyed regardless of your political views provided you turn them off for a while.

directed by Tod Williams 
Have you noticed how everyone today spends so much time on their cell phone? I mean people seem to think that each and everyone one of us is a Master or Mistress of the Universe who is so important that we must be in contact with the internet or with other people 24/7. People check their email while they're walking on the street. People text each other incessantly. People stand still on escalators updating Instagram photos. Folks check their blog while they're driving. Family members have the nerve to get upset when I calmly explain that my cell phone is for emergencies that I have. It's not so that people can call me anytime something pops into their mind. The chances are quite good that whatever someone thought was so critical that they needed to speak to me right now, actually wasn't that important. Cell, based on the story of the same name by Stephen King, opens with one of the more inventive premises I've seen in a while. In Boston's Logan Airport, as graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) returns home, something happens to everyone who is using their cell phone. This something turns people into dangerous and possibly cannibalistic zombies. Clay has to use his wits and improvised or abandoned weapons to escape the mayhem at the airport. It's a very close call. The scene of everyday people suddenly going berserk is something to see. It takes a while for people who aren't impacted to make the connection (LOL) that it's the cell phones which are causing the transformations. A few particularly dumb unfortunate souls try to call 911. Just barely making it out of the airport, Clay hooks up with a train conductor Tom (Samuel Jackson) and one of his neighbors Alice (Isabelle Furhrman). As Tom apparently has nothing better to do or no family of his own, he decides to join Clay on his trek across New England to find his son and estranged wife. And since Alice lives close by she tags along too.
And that pretty much explains the first 10 minutes and only remotely exciting or interesting part of this movie. The rest of this movie was boring. It was something to watch at 2 AM if you wake up and can't get back to sleep. Do not waste your time or money on this film. You will regret it if you do. Cusack and Jackson lend this film more credibility than it deserves. But with a few exceptions they're just going through the motions. There's a message about the loss of individuality which was probably better explained in the book. In the movie it's muddled. The special effects aren't very good. Clay's connection to the outbreak makes little sense. Tom is alternately sarcastic and selfless but always flat. The ending was horrid. Yuck.

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