Hammerle on… ‘Free State of Jones,’ ‘The Legend of Tarzan’

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bob hammerle movie reviews“Free State of Jones”

Directed after a great deal of research by Gary Ross (“Pleasantville” (1998), “Seabiscuit” (2003) and “The Hunger Games” (2012)), “Free State of Jones” is an easy movie to criticize and a hard movie to overlook. It brings to life dark aspects of our country’s Civil War that many Southerners to this day try to excuse as a battle over state’s rights.

hammerle-rating-jones.gifAs he had previously demonstrated in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) and “Mud” (2012), Matthew McConaughey has emerged as an actor who must be followed. Here, he plays Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who deserts to bury his nephew on the family farm after the latter was killed in combat. In the process, Knight becomes a hunted man, fleeing through the swamps where he joins forces with other disgusted white soldiers and escaped slaves to try to hold the South accountable. The “Jones” in the title of the film refers to the name of the Mississippi county where Knight is from.

The value of this film is found in what it tells us about our country today. Slavery may have ended in 1865, but the subjugation of former slaves continued. Elections were manifestly fraudulent, as everything possible was done to keep black citizens from registering.

In that regard, the film reminds us of the efforts being conducted in many states today to impose voting restrictions that just happen to disenfranchise black Americans. While the excuse used is to eliminate fraud in the election process, the actual fraud flows from the intentional attempt to make it difficult for black Americans to vote. This serves as a reminder that Jim Crow, like a vampire, finds a way to arise from the grave to continue its reprehensible destruction.

While “Free State of Jones” spans a period of time stretching from 1862 to 1876, it ends with a depiction of a Knight descendent, a white man, who was being prosecuted by Mississippi authorities for marrying a white woman given that one of his deceased relatives was an ex-slave. This film is another reminder of the fact that a majority of states in our union continued to prosecute interracial marriage until the United States Supreme Court brought it to an end in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

“The Legend of Tarzan”

“The Legend of Tarzan,” directed by David Yates, is a surprisingly entertaining film. Dismissed by many critics, it draws its strength from a great cast and focuses on a dark moment in a history that we should all remember.

hammerle-rating-tarzan.gifAs European countries carved up most of Africa in the latter part of the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium took control of the Congo. This film takes place in the early 1880s when Leopold did his best to hide his attempt to enslave the Congolese people.

Here, you see Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) living in London with his wife (Margot Robbie) under his English name, John Clayton. Misled, he is lured back to the Congo so that Leopold’s agent (Christoph Waltz) can turn him over to an old tribal enemy and collect a fortune in diamonds.

While Tarzan is unaware of the secret plans to kill him, the Belgians are unaware that his fellow trade emissary, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), needs Tarzan’s help to expose Leopold’s pursuit of slavery. Accompanied against his wishes by his wife, Tarzan’s return to Africa involves confronting the apes who raised him, challenging his old adversary (Djimon Hounsou) and trying to save both the future of the Congo and his wife who has been kidnapped by Leopold’s agent, Leon Rom.

This film’s success is the result of some great performances by some great actors. Mr. Skarsgård is wonderful as both the European Mr. Clayton and Tarzan. Subtle and determined, you will be well advised to hunt down his great role as a domestic terrorist in the largely forgotten film “The East” (2013).

What further elevates this film flows from the performances of Jackson and Waltz. Jackson is superb as an envoy who is left mocking himself as he tries to keep up with Tarzan. He has evolved into one of the most pleasurable actors to watch on the big screen, and I encourage you to see him in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” (2015), Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” (2015) and the great villain he played in “Kingsmen: The Secret Service” (2015). Finally, he brought style and impact to “Django Unchained” (2012) where he played the rancid sidekick of plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

As for Mr. Waltz, no actor working today plays a better villain. He won Oscars for his roles in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Django Unchained,” and he was able to add grace to hateful characters in “Big Eyes” (2014) and the last Bond film, “Spectre” (2015).

Finally, this is not some powder puff adventure film like this year’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” or “Independence Day: Resurgence,” so do yourself a favor and take it in if you get the chance.•


Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis at Pence Hensel LLC as of counsel. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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