Antebellum: Janelle Monáe proves more than capable of opening a picture with this timely film.
It would be impossible to discuss Antebellum without giving away the film’s startling secret. If you have yet to see the movie, please bookmark the page for future reference.
It takes five minutes for the unbroken shot that opens the picture to streamline us from the meticulously manicured entranceway of the sprawling plantation through its grounds, past the tree-limb confederate flagpole and clotheslines bearing breeze-dried sheets to the hind-quarters of the estate, the part that houses the slaves responsible for keeping the grounds both cleaner and more efficiently run than Disneyland.
The setting is what’s known as a “reformer plantation.” (To give you a hint, the enclosure comes equipped with a state-of-the-art crematorium.) Compliance is mandatory. Those who disobey are roped and branded like cattle, which is exactly what slaves were: the property of their owners, sold to the highest bidder much the same way one might purchase a prize bull or an impounded car at a government auction. New to these parts, Eden (Janelle Monáe) is still foolish enough to believe in the possibility of escape. Monáe has a smolder and confidence that draws the viewer’s eyes quicker than a bar magnet draws metal filings. She communicates in whispers with her fellow enslaved souls, her facial expressions frequently called upon to carry a scene. Eden’s plan is to keep her head down and her mouth shut until the time for rebellion is upon her. Add to that the “practice steps” she rehearses every night, a bit of mysterious character nuance that pays off in abundance.
The trailer and butterfly-bound poster art (borrowed from The Silence of the Lambs) may convince audiences there’s horror ahead. And there is, just not the kind inspired by the empty-headed, atrocity-inducing monsters to which audiences have grown accustomed. On their best days, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers are no match for the inhumane massuhs of the deep South or Hitler’s jackbooted SS officers. The trailer, featuring characters in present day dress, also cautions audiences that at some point, a chronological leap is in order. If ever there was a case of the end justifying the means, it’s this.
The time warp hit around the 50-minute mark. I was beside myself. The performances were across-the-board superb and the transition from present to past smartly effective. But talk about mounting a black-and-white defense. How about wrangling up some character shading? All of the whip-cracking rednecks are evil incarnate, the slaves their defenseless casualties. Even Drum presented a more unprejudiced view of slavery than this. It’s been some time since a film suckered me in this way. Don’t you love it when art retains the ability to piss one off? The exact same reasons that fanned initial dislike soon became the film’s biggest selling point. And I defy anyone to tell me that they knew in what direction this was all going before the second cell phone rang.
Get Out didn’t work for me. With his back painted into a corner, Jordan Peele violated the reels of tense psychological horror he spent cultivating with an easy out. Instead of thinking things through to a logical conclusion (or better still, offering no explanation at all), Peele ordered up a cup of hocus-pocus-dominocus that sent our hero sinking into the comfort of an easy chair and the director falling headfirst into a vat of formulaic fantasy. Antebellum is no stranger to formula: think Westworld with slaves. But it’s like I always say: if one must remake a movie, make sure it’s a bad one. Other than its solid premise and Yul Brynner’s quixotic cyborg gunslinger, Westworld misfires on all cylinders. Kudos to first time writing/directing duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz for stealing an idea and making it their own. The second act, with Monáe playing a best-selling sociologist, shows signs of wear, but not enough to dampen the ultimate impact. Not since Planet of the Apes has a remake brought such pleasure. And the film couldn’t have hit at a better time. If he loses, there’s a great future for Trump in Civil War Reenactment casinos and resorts.★★★
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The Devil All the Time — Just because you’ve never heard of someplace doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Take unincorporated Knockemstiff, Ohio, the setting for several of the acts of venality and vile affections that litter the film’s 138-minute running time. With its depiction of soldiers bringing the violence of war back home with them, The Devil All the Time continues what The Irishman started. There were also moments that couldn’t help but call to mind pulp novelist Jim Thompson’s vivid slime. (A character is described as smelling “worse than a truck stop shitter.”) From post-WWII through the early ’60s, we follow a remarkably unsavory group of characters; cancer claims the only decent one in the bunch at the 30-minute mark. Fed up with the questionable veracity nostalgia lends to period pictures? Longing for films that depict the past in the same unflatteringly perverse light that they often do the present? Curious about a time where it was heretofore unthinkable for a killer thumbing a ride to be picked up by a pair of serial killers? Fans of grubby crime thrillers who don’t mind a lack of character development and who are willing to overlook some of the film’s campier flights of lunacy are in for a good time. Antonio Campos directs a capable cast led by a finely nuanced performance from Bill Skarsgård. 2020 — S.M. ★★★
The Garden Left Behind — Tina (Carlie Guevara), a streetwise Mexican trans woman, supports her equally undocumented grandmother as an Uber driver in New York. She adores her granny, but Tina is not one to take advice from old people. Is there an actor out there more trusting than Ed Asner? He plays Tina’s shrink, gently trying to chip away at her tendency to clam up when the topic turns to gender dysphoria. She’s dating a guy, but his refusal to bring her home to meet the folks is bringing things down. And there’s another man in her life, Chris (Anthony Abdo), the glazed-out pariah who works the register of Tina’s local convenience store. All that’s known about Chris is what we’re able to read into his facial expressions, which appear to indicate a self-loathing homophobe at the wheel. Guevara is so good you wish the film had offered her character a better fate. Skip this and track down a copy of Breakfast on Pluto. 2019 — S.M. ★