‘Antebellum’ is Truly Confounding

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Antebellum (CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

Starring: Janelle Monáe, Jack Huston, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Lily Cowles

Directors: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Tortuous Torture

Release Date: September 18, 2020 (On Demand)

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about certain movies in depth without completely spoiling them, and Antebellum is one of those movies. So just so we’re on the same page right at the top, I’m going to get pretty in depth. But I don’t feel like I’m giving away spoilers, because the main twist of Antebellum (or what could be construed as the twist) feels more like the premise. If the writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are trying to surprise us, they don’t do a very good job of it. But the way they tip their hand so early, I don’t think they’re trying to play coy. But if that’s indeed the case and they want things to be loud and clear, it raises some questions about why they chose to reveal their information the way that they do.

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Antebellum, I assumed that Janelle Monáe was playing a 21st century woman who finds herself enslaved after becoming inexplicably transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. I didn’t know else to interpret it! The only question was, how did she get there? Was it time travel? An alternate dimension? An illusion? A series of dreams that feel all too real? Whatever the explanation, I thought it made for a potent setup. But alas, Bush and Renz aren’t really interested in reckoning with the terror of this situation. Instead, they just present it as is.

Antebellum opens on the plantation, and it takes about 40 minutes before we see Veronica Henley (Monáe) in her element in the present day with her husband and daughter, doing her thing as a successful author and scholar of vaguely elucidated intersectionality. That’s quite a long time for a prologue that tells us all we need to know in five minutes. There are people on the plantation being held against their will, and we don’t need to see them getting tortured, because we’ve already seen it in plenty of other onscreen slavery narratives. Let’s just get around to finding out how they ended up there and how they’re going to attempt to escape.

And now I’m just to get into all the nitty-gritty, so even bigger SPOILER ALERT if you want it, but this piece of information felt like the only possible explanation as soon as I started watching: Veronica and all the other enslaved people are kidnapping victims, and the plantation is a reenactment of an Antebellum South plantation, complete with slave masters and all kinds of abuse. Somehow the people behind this criminal enterprise have been able to pull it off without ever arousing suspicion from the authorities or the general public. Or maybe suspicions have been aroused! It’s hard to tell, because we never get a significant sense of the context in which this place has been erected. I can buy that there’s still enough racism in the world for there to be an interest in a place this awful, but I can’t buy that it’s practically invisible unless it exists in a fantastical world. Bush and Renz have a kernel of an effective idea here, and they’ve got a bunch of game actors ready to deliver, but they need to pay attention to all those pesky details.

Antebellum is Recommended If You Like: Trying to make sense of the inexplicable

Grade: 2 out of 5 Plantations

This Is a Movie Review: Wonder Woman

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Has Wonder Woman always been noted for her blunt honesty? Obviously the truth has been a big part of her mythos from the beginning, what with the Lasso of that particular quality. Anyway, I am glad her debut film leans into that. Gal Gadot is strikingly perfect at playing Diana’s frustration that those in the world of man are often not straightforward or honorable. What really sells it are the moments when the truest explanations are beyond the scope of the Lasso. So good on Chris Pine as Steve Trevor for zeroing in on the motivation she needs to become the superhero this world needs right now. Diana’s not giving up on us, so I won’t give up on DC.

I give Wonder Woman 95 Ricochets out of 100 Bullets.

This Is a Movie Review: Their Finest

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston

Director: Lone Scherfig

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R Because the Ratings Board is Prudish About a Little B(r)it of Sex

Release Date: April 7, 2017 (Limited)

A primary national trait of Great Britain is a solidly backwards chronological orientation. I do not mean that as a criticism, at least not completely. Sure, an obsession with the glory of the past can be problematic, but the comfort that Britons have with bygone eras has its uses. For example, the roster of reliable British actors populating the cast of the World War II-era film Their Finest makes for a cinematic effort rousingly (instead of hopelessly) old-fashioned. Gemma Arterton has deserved a breakthrough role, and while Their Finest does not break any molds (by design), it does confirm that she is a star.

Arterton is Catrin Cole, hired by the British ministry as a scriptwriter to lend that essential feminine voice to their propaganda films. This could be a formula for taking down sexism, and there are some efforts in that direction, but Their Finest’s ultimate attitude is that women will always suffer indignities, so they might as well hope that they at least like the people end up working with. Because if that works out, we can get a nice love story out of it. And indeed, there is a heartwarming one here: Catrin’s husband (Jack Huston) is classically disapproving, while her partner and lead scriptwriter (Sam Claflin) is such an obvious match. The only conflict between them is just being a little too blunt with their feelings.

As Catrin sorts out her feelings, she works alongside a bunch of irrepressible characters as they put together a masterpiece about the Dunkirk rescue. They all have a spot of fun, and a spot of tea (metaphorically). There is Bill Nighy as the former big star whose ego is still huge, but not so huge that he cannot also be a fine mentor. Jeremy Irons is the Secretary of War, because the governmental figure is meant to convey confidence and gravitas. And Jake Lacy is the token awkward goofball, because only the American is allowed to make old-fashioned look silly. Their Finest is not the greatest of most of its creators, but it might just be their finest.

Their Finest is Recommended If You LikeAlliedCasablancaValkyrie

Grade: 3 out of 5 Old-Timey Typewriters