‘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: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons Make Fine Father-Daughter Music in ‘Hearts Beat Loud’

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CREDIT: Gunpowder & Sky

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner

Director: Brett Haley

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Drinking Here, a Little Smooching There, and a Few Outbursts

Release Date: June 8, 2018 (Limited)

There is a certain strain of indie film of the past decade that has turned to stars of recent NBC comedies for its talent pool. I’m talking about flicks like The To Do List with Aubrey Plaza, or Sleeping With Other People with Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, or The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, or Friends With Kids with Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott, or Girl Most Likely with Kristen Wiig (a mini Kristen Wiig subgenre has kind of emerged, in case you hadn’t noticed). These tend to be more low-key than the zippy antics on the likes of Parks & Rec, Community, and SNL, but the stars are talented actors who definitely have it in themselves to stretch and show off. But there is still often a sitcom-y hangout vibe at play that makes these parts not that big of a departure. The latest example, Hearts Beat Loud, certainly has that low-key style as well, but it transcends it a bit by starring Nick Offerman, one of the more idiosyncratic of the NBC comedy vets.

Offerman plays Frank Fisher, a sometime musician and owner of the struggling Red Hook Records. The resolutely hirsute Offerman has established himself as the man’s man of comedy, both in his work and personal life. He is known for his woodworking, and his most famous character, Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson, is a staunch libertarian who has codified his rules for proper living. But his gruffness is usually tempered by a mischievous silliness. In Hearts Beat Loud, that takes the form of Frank not being the most diligent with his responsibilities and holding onto a dream of being a rock star. He tries to convince his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) to spend more time making music with him and less time obsessing over preparing for her pre-med college regimen, while she wants him to do a better job of keeping the family’s finances in order.

After a few blowouts, Frank and Sam eventually come to a compromise in which they are able to live and revel in the moment of what is a major transitional time for both of them. They get a little taste of success that might lead to something further, but there is also a sense of accepting and holding onto what is definitely real. The biggest charm of Hearts Beat Loud is perhaps its lived-in quality in Red Hook, an old shipping neighborhood in Brooklyn that is not so easily accessible available by public transport. As such, it has an out-in-the-boondocks feel even though it is not too far from away from more bustling areas. That there-but-not-there geographical situation is fitting for Frank and Sam’s life situation, and accordingly, Hearts Beat Loud, is a comfortingly empathetic viewing experience for anyone reckoning with major scholarly or professional transitions themselves.

Hearts Beat Loud is Recommended If You Like: Parks and Recreation, Record Stores

Grade: 3 out of 5 SoundClouds