Half-cocked 'epicness' and unfulfilled ambition in Free State Of Jones


At one-hundred and thirty-nine minutes there is no danger of Free State Of Jones being called 'slight'. Gary Ross' film is on the 'long and weighty' side of things, conceived, perhaps, for Oscar contention.

It wasn't to be. The civil war Drama took just $20 million at the US box office ($25 million worldwide), against a production budget of $50 million. It joined a legion of films which, despite a popular historical subject and major star (Matthew McConaughey), failed to capture the imagination of cinemagoers.

The length of the film speaks to one of the reasons why, one of the many internal conflicts at the film's heart, which mean that it almost defies standard review logic. Good luck attempting to give Free State Of Jones a star rating. Some elements are superb. Others are borderline amateur. One-hundred and thirty-nine minutes, for example, speaks to a underlying commitment anxiety. This is an epic. The film's narrative spreads several years of the civil war and jumps forwards to the 1940s (by implication, the themes the film explicitly deal with go further than that). One-hundred and thirty-nine minutes isn't long enough to do that. Characters get completely lost. Many points of the narrative receive insubstantial examination.

There's no greater representation of the film's problems than Keri Russell's Serena, wife to McConaughey's Newton Knight. Russell is a recognisable face and, early on, a focus, personifying the problems faced by many of the film's female characters as their men are rounded up by the Confederates. There's what seems to be a key sequence for Newton and Serena, where their child falls ill, and then that's it; Serena disappears from the narrative and, in time, it becomes clear that the whole affair was a setup for Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who heals the child.

Until... Serena returns, completely out of the blue late on, with limited explanation of why she left to begin with, what she has been doing for, apparently, several years and why she is now back. If the film had committed to its own scope then perhaps we could have spent time with Serena's narrative as well and seen the period from her point of view. As it is, she is lost.

The film also occupies the uncomfortable sub-genre of liberal narratives which display their liberality by having a white protagonist recount to us what is largely African-American history. Whilst Newton Knight is undoubtedly an important character in his own time, he is important because he is documented and covered in the annals. Many others are not. Ross attempts to address this with a smattering of supporting characters who are again ill-served by the editing of the script (whether in pre or post production). In another world Mahershala Ali wins his Oscar for this film and not Moonlight. In fact, in another world Ali is the lead character, the story told from his perspective. Again, it wasn't to be and the balance is off.

The 1940s scenes will bear the brunt of most people's ire towards the film. They are odd. The syntax of how they are interwoven into the narrative is jarring, the lead in this section is not Matthew McConaughey and their real reason for existence isn't offered until the mid-way point, at best, and that's only for viewers who 'spot' where the court case on show is going.

Again though, you can see why they are there. Free State Of Jones, representative of its time though it is, is also out of time. It is our time and its own and the 1940s; representing and representative of civil liberties which still do not exist in anywhere near an adequate enough form. Unfortunately that straddling of time zones, that universal message, is too much for this film to bear. Frustratingly however, it does come close to taking the weight.



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

The role of doubt in My Cousin Rachel


The central question in My Cousin Rachel, which is less gothically intense than its promotional material would have you believe, is whether the titular character (Rachel Weisz) has killed her husband Ambrose and is in the process of murdering Philip (Sam Claflin), or whether happenstance is at play.

In recent episodes of Kermode and Mayo's film review podcast, the hosts have detailed how Weisz made a decision early in the creative process on whether or not Rachel was guilty and stuck with that assumption throughout filming. The actor did not tell the director, Roger Michell, which side she had come down on.

This suggests a fascinating dichotomy. Michell, unaware of whether his star thought her character evil or not, must have made his own decisions. Claflin his own also. And the rest of the cast. All the way back to Daphne Du Maurier, whose work this adaptation is based upon.

Where does that leave us, the audience, left to interpret a maelstrom of competing agendas, some of which were likely conceived at odds with others?

At first, it is tempting to conclude that the mixed messages of Michell's narrative have gotten the better of him. There seems very little actual doubt in My Cousin Rachel. A plant that may be poisonous and which Rachel may have had access to in both Ambrose and Philip's cases. The scribbled letters of Ambrose, clearly wracked by some illness. It's hardly a weight of evidence and you wonder whether there's really enough there to drive the doubt on offer, which in turn drives the narrative.

But maybe that's the point. We're offered scant little during the film and yet, at points, we must find ourselves siding with Philip and his suspicions. After all, we see things from his perspective. Rachel does not even get the right of reply until perhaps a third of the way into the film.

The doubt on offer, really, is towards Philip's muddled and ill-evidenced interpretation of events. The perspective though confuses this. We're invited to believe Philip, drawn into his assertions and growing abuse of Rachel. A scene of love-making in the wood near to Philip's house is a tough watch.

And so it should be. Philip is not, in any discernible way, a character to be liked or trusted, believed or followed. But Michell shows us what perspective can do. The discomfort come the conclusion of My Cousin Rachel is not because sufficient doubt has not been offered. It's internal doubt. Doubt around how we ever could have sympathised with Philip in the first place.


By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

The Autopsy Of Jane Doe - Blu-ray Review

'All the proof anyone might need that it's still possible to make a successful horror film using the tried and tested tropes of the genre'.

For a considerable chunk of its running time, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is all the proof anyone might need that it's still possible to make a successful horror film using the tried and tested tropes of the genre. Apart from a brief opening scene, the entirety of André Øvredal's film takes place in a single location: the morgue run by Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austin (Emile Hirsch). The director patiently unfolds the mystery surrounding the titular cadaver through Tommy and Austin's post-mortem examination, gradually building up both the tension and the suggestion that supernatural forces may or may not be at play.

As such, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe essentially offers a fresh and intriguing twist on the haunted house set-up for much of its first half. It's a genuine shame then that Øvredal can't keep that momentum going as his film heads towards the closing act. It's possible to pinpoint the moment at which the director moves away from the palpable levels of suspense and intrigue he's created and shifts towards far more schlocky and unsubtle means of unnerving the audience. The chilling understatement and restraint used so well during the first forty five minutes or so are replaced by jump scares and occasional CGI elements which, whilst never terrible, lack the highly effective simplicity, precision and emotional care taken over what's come before.

Whilst he does manage to regain some of the earlier intrigue during the coda, what Øvredal delivers is ultimately a film of two halves, the second section being markedly less interesting and well executed than the first. What the director does have on his side throughout, however, is the central pairing of Cox and Hirsch, both of whom commit fully to the tone of both halves and who share a satisfying and believable subtly fractured relationship. Credit also deserves to go to Olwen Catherine Kelly who plays the Jane Doe of the title, making the task of being both genuinely menacing and a convincing corpse look remarkably easy all the way through. 




The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is available on UK Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

"I understood that reference": Passengers, Kong: Skull Island, and the pitfalls of paying homage to cinema's past


On the surface, recent Hollywood offerings Passengers and Kong: Skull Island appear to have little in common other than being mainstream blockbusters; the former being a sci-fi vehicle for current hot properties Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, whilst the latter offers the latest reboot for the titular giant ape. But they share a curious trait, one which you might not expect to see in such standard Hollywood fare: both contain a number of prominent allusions to past cinema, ranging from the unmistakeably iconic to uncompromisingly cult.

Passengers' most obvious reference point is The Shining - the bar on the starship Avalon may as well have been taken straight out of the Overlook Hotel, complete with Michael Sheen's android barman Arthur replicating Joe Turkel's Lloyd in appearance if never in creepiness. Perhaps less surprising for a film set in space are references to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running; but there are also definite links to a less immediately obvious bedfellow in Cast Away at points throughout Morten Tyldum's film.

Whilst Kong: Skull Island by definition draws on past Kong films - John Guillermin's 1976 remake feels like the strongest influence - it arguably more often evokes Apocalypse Now both visually and narratively, a connection reflected just as strongly in the film's promotional materials. Other Vietnam war movies of the '70s and '80s are inherently referenced, partly thanks to the fact that Kong: Skull Island is set in the period immediately following America's involvement in the conflict. But Jordan Vogt-Roberts also includes some more obscure and surprising references: Mark Kermode was particularly delighted to find that a reference to notorious Italian horror flick Cannibal Holocaust was entirely intentional, and the director himself has confirmed that Kong chowing down on a giant octopus is a deliberate nod to Park Chan-wook's Oldboy.


With their film geek credentials established, however, both Tyldum and Vogt-Roberts do precisely nothing with them. After an intriguing opening half, Passengers opts for 'Fishburne ex machina' at the end of its second act, followed by a race against time to avert disaster as derivative as it's possible to create. Kong: Skull Island meanwhile proceeds to both figuratively and literally waste a talented cast in favour of railroading the establishment of the MonsterVerse, the latest attempt at a cinematic universe which will eventually lead to Kong squaring off against the newly rebooted version of Godzilla.

The homages are therefore rendered empty, their apparent foreshadowing of some intertextuality with cinema gone by ultimately amounting to nothing. The iconography on display essentially becomes a meaningless checklist for those who appreciate it, reducing their viewing experience to something akin to Steve Rogers in the first Avengers film enthusiastically acknowledging his understanding Nick Fury's allusion to The Wizard Of Oz. Sure, you recognise the references, but what's the point if they're just there for you to let others know you spotted them?

In fact, including such bold references to iconic cinema with no thematic or narrative payoff actually damages these films more than if they hadn't included at all. If Tyldum hadn't taken so many visual cues directly from The Shining, it might not feel like such a disappointment when Passengers eventually pitches its tent so firmly in such woefully generic action sci-fi territory. If Vogt-Roberts (and the marketing team) hadn't pushed Apocalypse Now so blatantly in front of us, the blow of finding out that the film is ultimately yet another rushed franchise starter made with several sequels already in mind may have been a little easier to take.

Perhaps most disappointing, in Kong: Skull Island's case at least, is the thought of the film that we could have had. Are the brief flashes of such cult offerings as Oldboy and Cannibal Holocaust remnants of a far more interesting film that Vogt-Roberts really wanted to make? Unless the director chooses to confirm or deny this, we'll probably never know. Sometimes, however, it seems fair to say that the ignorance of not being able to say "I understood that reference" might indeed be bliss.


By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

Notes from Doc/Fest 2017: Whitney: Can I Be Me

Ben Booth writes from Sheffield Doc/Fest, the UK's premier Documentary festival, taking place this year from 9th-14th June.


Nick Broomfield's new Documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me had its first UK screening at Doc/Fest in Sheffield.

The film follows Whitney Houston's highs and lows over her 20-something year career as a pop artist and is one of Nick Broomfield's first steps away from the 'sound boom' style. The film follows her progress, downfalls and other problems as she begins to become famous, using mainly archive footage and archive recordings, along with much never-before-seen 1999 World Tour footage.

Broomfield's usual style of following people around with a camera is out and in comes interviews with Houston's close friends and mother. The narrative mainly centres around her relationship with Bobby Brown and the impact it had on her career and her personal life. As the film progresses, we learn more about her relationship with her close confident Robyn and how she influenced her tour and her life, to apparently try to keep her safe.

The film opens with an emotional drone shot of the Beverly Hilton, as the 911 call from security is played to the audience. After the opening we are led through Houston’s life with many of her close friends and family, but we also get to meet the people who moulded her career to how they apparently wanted her to be. We hear from her drummer and musical director as he explains how he had to sit on stage night after night and watch Houston’s back muscles move back and forth like a body builder as she quite literally had to strain herself to sing. The camera cuts to footage of her rolling her eyes as she winds up to sing the chorus from I Will Always Love You.

The film is a big step for Broomfield. It feels a lot more like a film that's made for the big screen, which is a move away from the handheld, DIY, feel of his early films such as Kurt And Courtney (1998) and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003). In these early films Broomfield uses just a cameraman and himself on the boom mic; one of many reasons people were inspired by him to make documentaries, including myself. If you are looking for that, or the controversial nature of films such as Fetishes (1996) or Sex: My British Job (2013) then this may feel like a step in a different direction. If you want an informative, intimate feel as to how Houston lived her life and how it ultimately led to her death, then this offers many positives.

As the film progresses you start to feel more connected to Houston as an artist. As her career begins to grow, the groups of hangers on start to grow. We hear from her bodyguard who stated he submitted a report on the 1999 World Tour stating that she was beginning to quite literally kill herself and the people who were providing her with drugs and other vices needed to be removed from her life.

The little facts are also there, as you would expect. One of the makers of the 1992 film The Bodyguard explained how the acapella beginning of I Will Always Love You came to be. Kevin Costner takes credit for that one. Apparently he approached the filmmaker and said that the song would be better if there was no music during the opening, a decision which has since become iconic.

Dogwoof are on board as distributors, and as I know from previous Doc/Fests they often bring out the heavy hitters here, which go on to big things at the winter's Oscars.


Prevenge - Blu-ray Review

'Takes a genuinely original high concept and turns it into a sub-90-minute feature that's really bloody good'.

There are all sorts of reasons to admire Alice Lowe's directorial debut Prevenge. There's the fact that Lowe is on both writing and leading lady duties alongside directing, doing at least two of these whilst also being heavily pregnant. There's also the fact that the vast majority of Prevenge was filmed in Cardiff in under two weeks on a relative shoestring. But, perhaps most importantly, it's a film which takes a genuinely original high concept and turns it into a sub-90-minute feature that's really bloody good. That high concept - expectant mother Ruth (Lowe) goes on a killing spree seemingly under the orders of her unborn child - is undoubtedly Prevenge's hook, something which Lowe never forgets and plays to her advantage throughout.

Her work with Ben Wheatley in particular has clearly influenced Lowe's approach to making her own film: both the tone and subject matter are somewhat similar to those of Wheatley's jet black comedy Sightseers, which Lowe both co-wrote and starred in. Whilst Prevenge regularly has a dark sense of humour, however, it feels first and foremost like a cult slasher flick. Lowe regularly infuses her film with the spirit of old school horror, with the unnerving soundtrack from electronic duo Toydrum adding to the sense of low-budget retro splatter even though the film's moments of bloody violence are in fact isolated and relatively understated. The relentless focus on Ruth's point of view and state of mind works well, with Lowe skilfully keeping the audience guessing just how much of what we're witnessing is all in Ruth's head until the very end through both her direction and performance.

Whilst the full story is unfolded with patience, where Prevenge perhaps falls down most often is in its narrative structure. Ruth's path from one murder to the next too often feels disconnectedly episodic, with some of her victims given little opportunity to become anything more than caricatures. Lowe seemingly does this to retain a sense of ambiguity as to how and why Ruth has chosen her victims, and indeed whether we should sympathise with them or not, but as more about Ruth's own circumstances is revealed throughout the film it's hard not to crave a more fleshed out target for her to hunt down. Tom (Kayvan Novak) is the closest Lowe gets to this, although the development he receives still feels only partially successful. 




Prevenge was released on UK Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 5th June 2017.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his MA by Research. He's also on and Twitter.

House Of Cards' big moments are now the same moments that are killing the show


Towards the end of House Of Cards Season 5, a key character from several seasons previous is killed off, on-screen, by another major character. It is undoubtedly the season's biggest moment.

It is not, however, the season's best moment and it finishes off a second half of this year's offering that pales in comparison to the first.

Having replaced showrunner Beau Willimon with writers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson, the season starts off strongly by finding new ways to excel at political drama in the context of a real-life America run by a fish-finger with hair.

Instead of a focus on the evils of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the show increasingly folds itself into constitutional minutiae. As Underwood continues to battle Conway (Joel Kinnaman), the type of millennial who thinks he's a millennial but isn't, Pugliese and Gibson successfully establish interest and investment in the smallest and most obscure of legislative pen spasms. It's thrilling, and tense, and with all of the skeletons in the cupboard continuing to wave occasionally, the first six episodes breeze by.

They are helped by the Conway character. Kinnaman still looks miscast, soporifically 'brah', as he Snapchats his way to obscurity. But that too is something Pugliese and Gibson turn to their advantage. Investigating masculinity through Frank and Claire is now dead, but in Conway the writers find life, questioning the American fascination with armed services heroism, and a lot more besides. Conway's wholesome exterior, shown as a sham from early on, crumbles in such a fratboy all-star way that he may as well be wearing polo and chinos. Perhaps it's obvious. It still works, and for a good while it works in a committed and sophisticated manner.

And then things change.

Already missing characters the show had dedicated multiple seasons to (Meechum, Danton - wow, Mahershala Ali is a big miss - Sharp, Dunbar - wow, Elizabeth Marvel is a big miss), Conway is suddenly marginalised. Hell, with apologies for a mild spoiler: he downright disappears from the halfway point. And House Of Cards goes back into distraction mode.

Because the big events in House Of Cards aren't what make the show matter. They drive narrative, but they are not, in themselves, strong story. What happens over the last two episodes of House Of Cards will thrill on initial face value. But it has no substance and those who have been with the series since the start are starting to learn that. The key character death is perhaps a little surprising in its presentation but many will reflect, with rolled eyes, that it was inevitable.

How long the show will take to play that death out is anyone's guess. Five seasons in, the show is still fixated on two deaths from the first season and a further from third, to the point where they now are the Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) character. His blandness passed for obsequiousness for a while. Now it is obvious that he is just the vehicle for those events. A walking skeleton in a closet. On current course Claire and Frank are headed in the same direction. The show will not be able to sustain that.



By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.