Tricia Youlden

The Free State of Jones ★★★ MA

Matthew McConaughey stars in this period piece as Newton Knight, a commendably idealistic farmer, who assumed leadership of a small Mississippi state during the American Civil War. Director Gary Ross adapted his screenplay from the story by Leonard Hartman.

At well over two hours in length, The Free State of Jones contains much enlightening information about the American Civil War. The inclusion of so many facts is, however, a tad overwhelming and becomes outright confusing when the film cuts to scenes from a 1948 miscegenation trial in which “Newt” Knight’s great-grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is the key defendant.

The film certainly scores highly on liberal values. It attacks the carnage of war, political and judicial corruption, discrimination and inequality based on race, gender, wealth and religion. Whether it is pro or anti-gun control is, however, a moot point. Throughout the film, men, women and children assert their constitutional right to bear arms.

The attention to detail paid by production designer Philip Messina and costume designer Louise Frogley, combined with the skills of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and editor Pamela Martin, produces a sense of immediate engagement in the audience — which is not for the squeamish. From the early battle scenes onwards there are many scenes of violence and death that must have kept the fake blood suppliers very happy.

An antidote to the blood and gore comes from the gentle romance between Knight and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the former “house slave” who becomes his common law wife. This relationship is portrayed sensitively and believably. McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali lead a large cast, all of whom give excellent performances throughout.

Gary Ross would, however, surely have done better to make two films — one about Newton Knight and the other about his descendant. Both stories are enthralling but simply too much for one film.

Snowden ★★★★ M

Edward Snowden came to worldwide attention in 2013 when The Guardian, The Washington Post and subsequently, Der Spiegel and The New York Times published articles based on classified information that he disclosed about global surveillance programs run by United States intelligence agencies with the cooperation of governments and telecommunication companies around the globe.

What compelled Snowden to become a whistle-blower was that this information included masses of digital personal information about ordinary, unsuspecting citizens.

Although many Americans, from the President down, regard Snowden as a traitor, film-maker Oliver Stone clearly regards him otherwise — hence this fascinating bio-pic co-written with Kieran Fitzgerald. The screenplay is based on books by Guardian correspondent Luke Harding and Moscow lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, and conversations with Snowden himself.

The film begins with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in military training, his heart set on following his family’s tradition of patriotic service. Two broken legs force him to reappraise his career choice. His superior IT skills quickly gain him employment, first with the CIA, then eventually as a contractor for the National Security Agency, where his skills as an analyst and programmer are highly regarded.

The various characters that Snowden encounters as he progresses through the high security environs of this “underworld” provide splendid opportunities for actors such as Nicolas Cage and Rhys Ifans to play around with the classic oxymoron of military intelligence, and Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto give more grounded performances as the team of journalists to whom Snowden entrusts the classified information in Hong Kong.

Another crucial character in Snowden’s life and in the film is his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who supports him throughout his transition from conservative government employee to whistle-blower of international significance.

Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and Mark Tildesley’s production design are exemplary. Some scenes were shot in a few of the locations where the actual events took place, and this lends an authentic feeling to this film.

Snowden is a hybrid of documentary and thriller. Its subject matter is both enthralling and provocative. Unfortunately, the final section of the film is underscored by inappropriately welling orchestral music that is, frankly, jarring.

Edward Snowden is currently living in Moscow.

Cafe Society ★★★ PG

Paul Schneider and Parker Posey in Cafe Society

This latest film from writer-director Woody Allen looks amazing from the first frame to the last. Set in the 1930s, the story takes us from the dazzling excesses of Hollywood to the New York Bronx, home of the Jewish family around whose fortunes and misfortunes this wistful little comedy revolves.

Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a successful Hollywood studio chief. When his sister, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), rings from New York to tell him that her son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), has quit the family jewellery business and is heading west, Phil promises to look after him, which he certainly does despite his professed distaste for nepotism.

Soon Bobby is on the studio payroll and enjoying the California lifestyle to which Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) has been assigned to introduce him. The two young people inevitably fall in love.

Meanwhile, back east, Bobby’s brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), has taken it upon himself to look after their parents, their sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her existential academic husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken). Unfortunately, Ben rarely considers the consequences of his actions, which do frequently seem somewhat excessive.

Just as life does not run smoothly for all of the characters all of the time, the film also has its problems. It contains many very funny lines, especially when religion and ethics are being discussed, but the narrative is rather disjointed.

Characters are randomly introduced, then shelved. Although the voice-over is intrusive, it is actually helpful in telling us what certain actors appear unable to show us. The glaring lack of chemistry between Vonnie and her older paramour renders their romance unbelievable. In fact, the casting of several couples does not ring true.

Despite these gripes this film is well worth seeing, especially for Vittorio Storaro’s exquisite cinematography, Santo Loquasto’s impeccable production design and Suzy Benzinger’s gorgeous costumes.

The opening scene, shot around the poolside of the Santa Monica mansion built for Dolores Del Rio, with glamorous women in gracious gowns, sets a visual precedent that is ably sustained throughout the film. Not one detail seems out of place in any frame of the film, whether it is the immaculately be-suited Phil Stern, dwarfed by the dark wood panelling and cubist paintings in his excessively large office, or his sister, Rose, in her apricot-coloured chenille dressing gown (an op-shopper’s delight!), phoning him from her dingy, yet homely. New York apartment.

As usual, the jazz score is cool. It may not be one of Woody’s finest films but Cafe Society is more entertaining and infinitely better made than any other recent comedy from America.

Captain Fantastic ★★ MA

Although writer-director Matt Ross clearly intends to present us with a deep and meaningful exploration of the vexed issue of parenting, Captain Fantastic is like an overly long episode of The Brady Bunch albeit a feral version thereof.

Having uprooted his family to live in the wilderness 10 years previously, Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is now sole parenting his six children because his wife, Leslie, is in a psychiatric institution. Little wonder! She has had six kids in 11 years, then had to feed, clothe and home school them in the wilderness. Her father and husband both behave like alpha males. When she commits suicide, Ben and offspring all pile into the family bus to gatecrash her funeral.

Although the children have the physical fitness and survival skills of elite commandos, and are rote-versed in philosophy, history and science they are ill equipped to deal with the real world, so Leslie’s grieving parents (Frank Langella and Anne Dowd) announce their intention to sue for custody of their grandchildren.

Earnest though Ross’s intentions may have been, Captain Fantastic fails to satisfy on many levels. The film is too long and the narrative is confused and simplistic. Kids spouting such lines as “I’m not a Trotskyist any longer, I’m a Maoist” become tedious. The final scenes are ludicrous.

Like Mortensen, the children are all very attractive, but Leslie’s corpse looks far too youthful and wrinkle-free to have been their troubled mother — and surely she would have been more than a bit on the nose by the time the children whimsically weave flowers through her glossy locks?

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School