Film reviews round-up: Swiss Army Man, Free State of Jones, Under the Shadow

Matthew McConaughey stars as a real-life Civil War rebellion leader, plus a chilling Iranian-set horror and Daniel Radcliffe's farting corpse

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Free State Of Jones (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Gary Ross, 140 mins, starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali, 

Free State Of Jones is an American Civil War-era saga that would surely have worked better as a box set TV drama than as a feature film. There is just too much information to pack in – and the scenes set in the 1950s make no sense at all.

The film tells the story of real-life character Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medical orderly who deserted the Confederates and then led a makeshift army of fellow deserters and escaped slaves against his former colleagues.

Writer-director Gary Ross can’t quite make up his mind what Knight represents. At times, he seems a Christ-like figure, a visionary leader who took as his key principle the idea that “no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich”. He is fiercely anti-racist. As played by McConaughey, he has a hint of Robin Hood about him, hiding out in the Mississippi swamps with his merry men and stealing from rich southerners.

At times, especially when he is still serving with the Confederate army as it allows its soldiers to be slaughtered, he is cynical. He is also very vicious indeed, dispensing Old Testament-style revenge justice. In one chilling scene, we see him throttling a wounded southern commander with his belt in a church. This commander ordered his followers hanged and Knight is determined to repay him in kind.

McConaughey brings a familiar gimlet-eyed intensity to his role as the lank-haired, bearded Knight. It is, though, a one-dimensional performance. We’re given little sense of Knight’s inner life or of what drives him beyond his fury at the way poor farmers and slaves are exploited by the rich folk. This exploitation continues even after the war, as the southern legal system tries to maintain the status quo.

The Free State Of Jones - Trailer

Nor does the film deal in satisfactory fashion with his relationships with his wife Serena (Keri Russell) and with the slave woman Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with whom he has a child.

The film is very handsomely shot by Benoît Delhomme and makes excellent use of archive photographs. Its battle scenes are staged with considerable elan, most notably an ambush at a funeral in which gun-toting widows play a prominent part and an explosive street skirmish. This, though, is a story pulling in far too many different directions.

It’s an action Western, a political drama, a historical piece spanning many years and a closely focused character study. In telling Knight’s story, Ross would have been better advised not to have bitten off quite so much in one mouthful.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children 

★★★★☆

Dir: Tim Burton, 127 mins, starring: Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Judi Dench

There is a sense with Tim Burton’s work that he is continually remaking the same movie. Whether he is adapting Roald Dahl or Lewis Carroll or making Beetlejuice or Batman, his preoccupations remain the same. He relishes peculiarity. The heroes and heroines of his films are always the outsiders with the most vivid imaginations.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children isn’t his masterpiece but it will give audiences exactly what they expect from a Burton movie: gothic flights of fantasy, ironic humour, juvenile whimsy and as much pathos as you will find anywhere this side of Charles Dickens. The Ransom Riggs novel from which it is adapted seems tailor-made for him. Like all his best work, the film is genuinely strange – creepy and endearing by turns.

With Christopher Lee and Vincent Price both now sadly dead, Burton turns to Terence Stamp to play the ageing magus found in so many of his movies. Abe Portman is a doddery old retiree, living in the Florida suburbs, seemingly suffering from dementia. His teenage grandson Jake (Asa Butterfield) dotes on him and believes implicitly in the wild stories Abe spins him about a special orphanage on a Welsh island run by the remarkable Miss Peregrine.

The grandfather has old black-and-white pictures of his friends from the home, all of whom seem vaguely freakish (one is actually invisible.) Jake is a likeable but gauche adolescent who works part time in the local supermarket. His parents fret about him and have sent him to a psychiatrist.

In tow with his father, Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), Jake travels to Wales to see if he can find Miss Peregrine’s home and lay his inner demons to rest.

In its early scenes, the film is restrained by Burton standards. Florida looks pallid and a little murky (at least as seen through the 3D dark glasses.) It’s raining when Jake arrives in Wales. The local pub is pretty grim. The teenagers who guide Jake to the remains of Miss Peregrine’s home (which was bombed in the war) are surly and unfriendly – and rap very badly.

Then, the time travel begins and the filmmaking takes wing. Jake is whisked back to 1943. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, smoking a pipe and looking like a bluestocking version of Morticia Addams) and her charges are in a “loop”; they are living their own version of Groundhog Day, thereby avoiding the Nazi bomb which will destroy the home if time is allowed to move any further forward.

The residents of the home all have their own peculiarities. One little girl has shark-like teeth on the back of her neck, all the better for eating chicken. A boy has a hive of bees living inside him. Enoch (Finlay Macmillan) can make inanimate objects move. Emma (Ella Purnell) is beautiful, blonde and ethereal: she floats through the air and has the ability to manipulate air.

Jake is accepted warmly by these charming misfits (although the jealous Enoch frowns on his intimacy with Emma.) Pitted against the “peculiars” are the “hollows”, giant creatures which look as if they’ve stepped out of a very grotesque Francis Bacon painting – and Jake is about the only one who has the ability to see them.

Plot-wise, the film is sheer hokum. For reasons not entirely clear, the evil Barron (Samuel L Jackson giving a pantomime villain performance) wants to kill the peculiars and eat their eyeballs. The denouement to the story takes place on Blackpool pier. You’re never quite sure why Miss Peregrine turns herself into a bird of prey or just what purpose the cameo from Judi Dench serves. What isn’t in doubt, though, is the sheer protean force of Burton’s visual imagination.

Straddling a line between live action and animation, he throws in very spectacular, very surrealistic imagery. Rupert Everett pops up (again you’re not quite sure why) as a camp and sinister bird watcher with an impressive array of cameras and lenses. There’s an extraordinary sequence in which Ella and Jake visit an underwater liner, sunk during the First World War, and a very strange one in which funfair skeletons do battle with the Hallows.

You’re never quite sure how seriously to take the film. It is dealing with death, bereavement and persecution. It has some very dark elements, including oblique references to the Holocaust and some notably violent deaths. Even the most fraught moments are undercut with humour. This is a romp which has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Burton again demonstrates his ability to charm the kids and intrigue the adults with the sheer outlandishness of his storytelling.

Under The Shadow (15)

★★★★☆

Dir: Babak Anvari, 84 mins, starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian

Under The Shadow is Britain’s foreign language Oscar contender this year. Not that it feels remotely British. UK-based but Iranian-born Babak Anvari’s very cleverly crafted Farsi language horror film is set in Iran in the 1980s at the height of the Iran/Iraq war. There is terror that Tehran is about to be bombed.

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is left alone in the city with her young daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), after her doctor husband (Bobby Naderi) is called up to join the Iranian army. In spite of his pleas, she refuses to leave town. When Dorsa loses her doll, an evil spirit (a djinn) begins to torment the family.

Under The Shadow - trailer

What’s refreshing about the film is that it comes at the genre from a new angle. This is as much a study of a desperate and traumatised woman as it is a conventional horror pic. Shideh has been forbidden to continue her own medical studies because of her activities during the revolution. She has not only the terror of the Iraqi bombing to contend with but her extreme frustrations at the cul-de-sac in which she finds herself.

Her one relief is exercising to her Jane Fonda videos (which she plays on a VCR she’s not supposed to own) – and the demon won’t even let her do that in peace. Anvari does a fine job in combining the familiar horror movie tropes (mangled dollies, cracks in the wall, strange noises, nightmarish visions) with Polanski-esque psychological thriller elements.

Swiss Army Man (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, 97 mins, starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead,

Two fine actors giving full-blooded performances can’t prevent Swiss Army Man from seeming pretentious and self-indulgent. The film begins like a student riff on a Samuel Beckett play. Hank (Paul Dano) is on a desert island, about to hang himself, when he spots the body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the shore.

Manny’s not quite dead. As he farts and belches, Hank is able to use him as a human jet ski to take him to the mainland. Here, the two oddballs hang out, role playing, looking at a copy of Sports Illustrated and discussing life and love. They have a mobile phone which has no signal and 10 per cent charge.

Daniel Radcliffe talks Imperium and Swiss Army Man

This is essentially a two-hander although a marauding bear puts in an appearance at the campfire and we do eventually encounter Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the woman Manny has come to idealise. 

With lines like “if my best friend keeps his farts from me, what else is he hiding from me”, it is little wonder that the film is such a miasmatic affair.

Comments