(Video on Demand, November 2016) As much as it’s not advisable to trust Hollywood for anything approximating a history lesson, Free State of Jones offers a quick dramatic primer on the incredible story of Jones County, a small area of the Confederate South that managed to rebel against the southern government and remain independent throughout much of the American Civil War. Matthew McConaughey stars in another substantial role as Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who defiantly returns home with his dead cousin and rebels against the local authorities, drawing more and more support along the way. This takes us through the Civil War, well into reconstruction and the difficulties encountered after the moment most war movies end. It ends up being an uplifting story about inclusiveness, rebellion against injustice and the power that small communities can have in shaping their destinies. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell have good supporting roles as wives who reach a curious understanding. Free State of Jones is not quite as successful as it could be: it feels long at more than two hours and a quarter, resorts to title cards to explain what it can’t dramatize, isn’t always able to make the most out of its scenes, loses its way in flashforwards and occasionally feels like it’s repeating the same thing. Still, it’s an interesting historical thriller, and it has a few weighty themes on its mind. It could have been better, but it easily could have been worse.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) Seemingly designed for maximum cuteness, Austeland plays with the tropes of romantic comedies as a lovelorn American heads to England to visit a Jane Austen-themed park, where she’ll spend a week in an idealized historical setting where romance is guaranteed. Of course, it becomes hard to distinguish between reality and fiction once the romances start piling up. Austenland benefits considerably from Keri Russell’s charm and Jennifer Coolidge’s over-the-top comic timing, but it’s the intertwining of romantic tropes and how they play out in the multiple realities of the theme park that really drive the plot and the interest of the film. Austenland certainly isn’t perfect: There’s something off in its low-budget staging (the park is definitely underwhelming once we get there: is there all it is to it?), lack of laughs in favour of knowing chuckles and ultimate adherence to rom-com clichés. Fortunately, romantic comedy clichés are such that they don’t leave much of a sour taste when they’re reinforced –Austenland isn’t entirely successful, but it’s partially successful in a genre that is very forgiving of imperfection. It’s a likable film, light and insubstantial but easy to watch and utterly sympathetic. Twilight haters may want to note abashedly that Stephenie Meyer co-produced the film and so helped make it come in existence.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) Astute commentators have already pointed out that stories about alien abductions now have more to do with horror than science-fiction, and Dark Skies does little more than demonstrate this with a perfect straight-faced lack of self-awareness. The story of how a typical suburban family is terrorized by alien invaders coming to abduct one of their own, Dark Skies ends up running through the motions of a formula-driven horror film with little more than competency. As the strange events pile up, coherency becomes less important than a steady drip of chills, and if writer/director Scott Stewart wisely avoids the cheapest shock tactics, what ends up on the screen is more eerie than straight-up scary. The assaulting aliens have near-omnipotent powers, making the idea of resistance a farce. Still, there’s a bit to like in the surrounding material: The portrait of a family being threatened is realistic enough in its domesticity, Keri Russell gets a good role as the mother under duress and JK Simmons makes the most out of a thankless exposition-heavy role. While the material is generally handled with a fair bit of skill, Dark Skies remains uninspired and uninspiring throughout: There’s little zest to the movie, and the results just pale in comparison with some of the better horror movies of the past few years. (For a much, much better recent family-in-peril horror thriller, see Sinister.) For genre commentators, there’s something depressing in the way SF stock elements such as abducting aliens are used as serviceable props in a mediocre horror film: but so things go when mythologies get absorbed by the mainstream.