Friday, September 18

Antebellum Review


Dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Starring: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Arabella Landrum


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. – William Faulkner


Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz begin their hybrid horror film “Antebellum” with this quote from William Faulkner’s story “Requiem for a Nun”. The line, specific about the history of the American South, describes how the past still haunts the present. When Barack Obama used a variation of that line during a speech in 2008, it framed William Faulkner’s environment of the South and how the legacy of racial atrocities found in history still linger so prevalent today. 


It doesn’t take much to find horror in the world these days. Amid a global pandemic, the makings of a horror film already, the injustices happening across the world continue to pile on one right after the other. And cinema, consistently one of the best mirrors of present times in the world, has taken to genre film to discuss and dissect the issues. Films like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” show how genre movies can offer an important lens of insight, understanding the balance between social commentary and exploitation. 


“Antebellum” is a film about slavery and the continuing prejudice and racism towards Black people. The film utilizes a horror narrative frame to enclose and examine these elements. The result is an unbalanced endeavor.


The film begins on a plantation, a long tracking shot pulls the viewer into a moment of utter terror where an enslaved couple is being punished. The camera movements and framing of faces make the moment all the more devasting as the viewer is stuck, forced to watch the devastating viciousness. 


We are introduced to Eden (Janelle Monáe), an enslaved woman who is not allowed to talk and is brutalized in every way possible by a man only known as Him (Eric Lange).  The abuse she endures, rape and torture with a hot iron brand, is appalling. There are more terrible people at this plantation; a woman (Jena Malone) with a Southern accent hides her evil intentions behind an innocent grin and a Confederate captain named Jasper (Jack Huston) who rides his horse while threatening death to anyone who dares try to talk. 


It’s never clear how long Eden has been suffering, though she is well-respected by others and often asked when another escape will be attempted. But something is off about this past world. History, often hinted at by the soldiers on the plantation, seems rewritten to fit a new narrative, while the people enslaved seem to be hiding information about their identities. However, right before the mystery becomes unraveled, a phone rings and the viewer is brought from the past into the present, where Dr. Veronica Henley (also Janelle Monáe) is living a dream life with her husband and child. Veronica is a sociologist, author, and National advocate for the disenfranchised lives of Black Americans. But something is strange about this present world. How are Eden and Veronica connected becomes the mystery that will ultimately be revealed. 


“Antebellum” is aiming for something insightful amidst some pretty unsettling imagery involving slavery and set within a cotton plantation somewhere in the South. The connections between social and historical commentary are often blurred by strong and cruel cinematic qualities. Instead of finding a balance between the two characteristics, the film often wanders in and out of these elements. When the mystery finally gets revealed the revelation feels shallow instead of profound, the wrong emotion considering the use of violence displayed at the beginning of the film.


At the core of “Antebellum” is a wonderful performance from Janelle Monáe, enveloped within photography that is equally beautiful and brutal, sometimes confusingly at the same time. Still, Ms. Monáe is so emotionally raw at times, while also composing a strong and confident female character in both the past and present realms within the story. It’s her portrayal of Eden/Veronica that keeps the mystery interesting.


While the film searches for meaning, at times connecting elements of how the world perceives and analyzes people simply by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character, it also struggles to focus its concepts within a muddled, unbalanced script. While the film does work as a true-to-life horror film, bringing the atrocities of the past into full detail on screen, the balance of tone and imagery is consistently at odds with one another. This keeps “Antebellum” stuck in a place where the past it examines and explores never connects a meaning for the future it hopes to change.


Monte’s Rating

2.25 out of 5.00


Thursday, September 3

I'm Thinking of Ending Things Review

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Dir: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis, and Toni Collette


The backdrop of director Charlie Kaufman’s new film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, is an oncoming storm, one that signals its foreboding nature with dark gray skies only to transition into a beautiful disaster of howling wind with pure white snow concealing every object in its path. It’s cold, lonely, and scary.  Mr. Kaufman continuously tackles the human condition with profound insights into the delicate nature of relationships, connecting emotions that are both overtly fantastical yet overwhelmingly authentic.


Based on the novel by Iain Reid, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” follows the budding relationship between Lucy (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons). They are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), who live in a country farmhouse. In the car, Lucy and Jake discuss, debate, and dissect philosophy, art, history, and even their own understanding of how their relationship came to fruition. Lucy, who narrates throughout as if we are sitting in her brain while she wanders from thought to thought, displays a keen intuition of numerous subject areas even though her thoughts are often obscured by random distractions. She examines Jake and his quirks while musing “I’m thinking of ending things” when it comes to their ongoing relationship. She will explain to Jake that she doesn’t care for poetry and then recite a beautiful verse she claims to have written herself. She consistently contradicts herself. 


Kaufman has never studied relationships, especially romantic ones, through an ordinary lens. He has a way of making the analysis of humans and their connection to romance and love so brutally simplistic while at the same time making it feel so uniquely intricate. It’s almost otherworldly as if we have been sent to an alternate universe where everything we know and understand, that is predictable and reliable, is somehow jeopardized by an off-kilter object, word, or characteristic.


You can see Mr. Kaufman’s particularly unorthodox methods for constructing the cynical and fanciful flights of naïve and unbridled passion for life, love, and self in the emotionally complicated stop-motion-animated story “Anomolisa” and the reality-challenging nature of a theater directors’ self-indulgent quest for control in “Synecdoche, New York”. The emotional elements explored in these films are further searched in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”: the struggle for control in a relationship, specifically from an insecure man who challenges and becomes moody in the face of uncontrol; the obsessive nature of romance, challenged by a woman who is unsure about the man she has chosen and whether the feelings she is experiencing are real or part of another construct she hasn’t figured out yet; and the thin line that exists between the identity of reality and fiction, displayed by Jake’s parents who age older and younger every time they leave the room.


Kaufman spends his time with Lucy and Jake, allowing the viewer to find connections with their personalities and emotions before adding strange events into the mix, like the family dog who endlessly shakes or a picture on the wall that is all too familiar to Lucy. Still, dinner with the parents is just half the story. There is an adjoining story woven through Lucy and Jake’s experiences, a story of a lonely janitor at a high school who wanders the halls cleaning and encountering young people throughout the school. The character arrives into the story during interesting spells of conversation at the contentious family dinner. It’s never completely identified but the janitor’s role seems connected to Jake and his family. The couple eventually leave the house and venture back into the wilderness of white snow in an effort to get home before things get worst. 


Kaufman layers the film with references, including callouts to David Foster Wallace, Mussolini, Tolstoy, and John Cassavetes. The dialog is dense, deliberate, and distracting; Kaufman roams Lucy’s spiraling thoughts, switching from conversations with Jake to internal monologues with herself. Lucy is a character composed of doubts about everything around her. Are her insights trustworthy? Is she faking something to pretend to be something else? There is no simple answer, and that’s part of the intriguing nature of the film, making everything feel uneasy, lonely, and desperate. 


Some have called this film Charlie Kaufman’s horror film. While it does not meet the standards that typically define the genre, this film still finds a realm to explore that has all the feelings associated with the genre of horror, but in an unconventional way. The unease of the unknown, the creepiness of coincidences too familiar, the fear of discovering hidden intentions within others and, specifically within this film, yourself. It’s all there, shaped and molded in a way that is distinctly Charlie Kaufman.  


“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is confusing yet fascinating. At times I figured it out, other times I was completely lost. The subtle, superb performances from Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons completely consume the viewer to indulge the 2-hour-plus story. All the feelings produced throughout the film challenge one another: it’s interesting and infuriating, sometimes at the same time. But altogether it is simply pure cinema, another highlight in the career of Charlie Kaufman.


Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00

Friday, August 28

Bill and Ted Face the Music Review

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Dir: Dean Parisot

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Kristen Schaal, Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays, and William Sadler


“Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes.”


If these parting words from two teenage best friends don’t ring truthful in our present state of world events, I don’t know what will. The memorable pairing of the time jumping Bill and Ted, call them “Wyld Stallyns”, have solidified the duo in the pop culture hall of fame with the cult classic films “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and the sequel “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”. In 1989, somewhat unknown actors Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves would play Bill and Ted and air guitar their way on a journey across time, meeting some famous historical figures along the way.


It’s been 30 years! What more could two goofy 80s kids have to say that will strike relevance in 2020? Surprisingly, much more than you might expect from a silly genre film. “Bill and Ted Face the Music” dabbles in time travel confusion, sidetracking trips to literally hell, and some sloppy narrative dynamics, but it doesn’t seem to matter much because this film is made with such passion, with so much commitment from the actors, and with enough themes of friendship, finding unity, loving music, and being excellent to one another. It’s impossible not to smile, laugh, and just enjoy the escape for 90 minutes. 


Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) gave the high school history presentation of a lifetime and played the concert to define all concerts. Now, after a few failed albums and the breakup of their once epic band, Bill and Ted are still searching for the song that will bring the universe together while also living the family life with their wives (Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes) and daughters Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billy (Brigette Lundy-Paine). 


But things aren’t good within the universe and the song that Bill and Ted promised Rufus (George Carlin, who has a nice visual tribute) they would make still hasn’t come to fruition. Now the universe is falling apart and it is up to Bill and Ted to journey into the future, while their daughters’ journey into the past, to find the song and musicians to save the future. 


It’s been a long time since Bill and Ted have influenced the movie screens. The days of rock n’ roll air guitar solos and flannel shirts tied around waists are memories, almost forgotten for some younger people. While it may seem difficult to bring pop culture characters back from the past, “Bill and Ted Face the Music” pulls off the return in a sweet, silly fashion. Sure, the narrative is overly convoluted, rambling in parts, and has some dialog lines that don’t quite work as well as they might have looked on paper. Still, the heart of this film is so pure and passionate, it’s impossible not to smile at the ridiculousness happening on screen. 


Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are completely committed to roles; they embrace their old characters with ease from the first second of screen time. The surprise comes from new cast members Samara Weaving, playing Ted’s daughter Thea, and Brigette Lundy-Paine, playing Bill’s daughter Billy. The two ladies together have great chemistry and embody the mannerisms and speech patterns of their fathers. Also, William Sadler returning as Death brings all the nostalgia back with a funny portrayal of a jaded ex-bandmember just when it feels like the film is stumbling.


“Bill and Ted Face the Music” leads to a place that seems somewhat impossible to ever meet expectations, yet somehow it lands with heart, humor, and a few heroics. Its satisfying message of friendship, finding purpose, and that even something as simple as a song could unite the universe. In this cinematic vessel from the past, with two familiar friends to some 80s and 90s kids, it’s a journey worth the wait. 


Monte’s Rating

3.25 out of 5.00