With the cracking new comedy, Down Under - which screens this week at The CinefestOZ Film Festival - writer/director, Abe Forsythe, has crafted a potent, uncompromising work that should clearly be marked “instant classic.”
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
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.
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.
With the inventive sci-fi drama, Midnight Special, released this week on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital, we look at a host of other out-of-this-world movies that have hit the heights thanks to great ideas, and not huge budgets.