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Antebellum

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Opening quite effectively, we follow a little white girl in a colorful dress skipping along a “Gone with the Wind” inspired plantation in the antebellum South. The camera then begins to explore the grounds, exposing the hidden horrors.  

In this directorial debut from writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (and trailers give it away, so calm down) a black woman (Janelle Monae) living in modern times, finds herself a slave trapped on a plantation. I won’t give anymore away than that, since the movie brings little more to the table than a strong premise and final twist. 

Everything I found disappointing about “Antebellum”, I found in its direction.

It’s not for lack for trying. First, there are sequences here which engage on a suspenseful level. And the depiction of this radicalized “Make America Great” inspired group of bad guy characters throughout, seemed current and eccentrically familiar.

But…

Although this is an R-rated slavery film, Bush and Renz’s depiction is tame. While one or two people are stabbed or shot, the lack of violence is startling. While I never seek out a movie clamoring to hear the N-word, the lack of realistic language used in this was noticeable.  Again, the directors placed more importance on the premise than visceral authenticity. Story aside, this is an emotionless vision of slavery, which doesn’t stand up to movies such as “12 Years a Slave” or “Django Unchained”. This is only an issue because it feels as though the intent of the filmmakers was to visually get close to these modern genre masterpieces.      

The protagonist is painfully one-dimensional. She is given one speech in the middle of the movie, regarding progressing feminism and racial inclusion. From that speech we are to assume everything else about her personality, since for the rest of the film she doesn’t seem to have one.  Does Monae do a good job in this lead role? Sure. She’s good in everything she does. She does the most she can with this cookie-cutter depiction of a successful Black woman.

Final Thought: Seems as though the filmmakers were content with a strong premise and promise of a twist ending being the thing which carried audiences through the hour and forty-five minute runtime. It does not. It’s a slavery thriller, with little gravity. There are stakes, but it’s all surface. Bush and Renz come off as either scared or unable to push this film to its limits. A better director would have handled things with more nuance and creativity and not allowed “Antebellum” to fall so flat. It’s not a horrible movie, just mishandled. Although, this may contain the best use of yoga in a movie, ever.

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The Devil All the Time

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“The Devil All the Time” is the nihilistic movie we deserve right now. Just to be upfront, this form of woefully depressing, life is meaningless storytelling is right up my alley.  

Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s acclaimed debut novel of the same name (he also serves as the narrator in this movie, oddly enough) by writer/director Antonio Campos, and set between World War II and the onset of the Vietnam War, this “Hillbilly Gothic” tale follows the lives of three groups of people, a war vet and his son, a couple of evangelical preachers and a couple of serial killers, all seemingly trapped in a hyper-religious area within the Bible Belt, whose lives intersect in random and vicious biblical ways.

To some, the things in this movie may come off as violent and random, but every action and event that happens to these characters has divine meaning to them. This is the key thing to understanding how these characters interact with one another and the dichotomy at play. These are characters who live in a closed off world crawling with random acts of violence and predatory preachers. It’s our job to watch them squirm. So, if that sounds like a painful experience, then “The Devil All the Time” will be a tough watch.

That said, with tons of moving parts Campos does a superb job of methodically maintaining this ever changing two hours plus story of relentless despair and making it engaging while teasing us with hope and a plethora of fantastic characters. 

The movie also stars Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska and Jason Clarke. I just made the runtime seem so much more tolerable, didn’t it? And the performances do not disappoint; especially from Pattinson, who is only in this for all of twenty minutes, but really shows why his willingness to take chances will eventually lead to an Oscar. Also, Jason Clarke does the best southern accent of any non-American, or even American actor working today. Someone had to say it.

Final Thought: If “A Serious Man” and “The Place Beyond the Pines” had a child, “The Devil All the Time” would be it and have a similar score.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Based on Iain Reid’s acclaimed 2016 book (which I’ve heard is fantastic and filled with tension), “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” the movie, is unfortunately very (cough cough) Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is one of the best screenwriters working today, I’m not denying that. But his directorial endeavors are at times, treacherous.

Beginning on a relatively entertaining foot, we follow a woman (Jessie Buckley) who is “thinking of ending things”, as she takes a trip with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents. Right from the get-go we see that these are two people who don’t belong together. As their personalities begin to clash, a breakup seems imminent. And all the while, throughout this unusually long car ride, the woman continues to internally repeat the phrase “I’m thinking of ending things”.

And then they get to their destination and we meet his parents (the parents played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis). And then time begins to alter. And then characters begin to push the term “acting peculiar” to its very limits. And then visuals attempt to approach the levels of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Adaptation”, but just can’t quite get there because Kaufman is not a director who seems to care about making sense. It’s at this point that the movie seemed to slip through Kaufman’s fingers, like a small child losing a balloon his parents just purchased for him not fifteen minutes prior.

The final hour is a hodgepodge of things nobody asked for. There are multiple sequences of characters referencing the musical “Oklahoma”, a diatribe concerning John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”, a talking pig, a random dance sequence which goes on so long it seems as though Kaufman is making fun of his audience for staying with this, and more!  

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” really bangs you over the head with its stream of consciousness narrative, while trapping us in a car with these two characters who seem more confused about where this story is going than I was.

The acting here, while overshadowed by the bonkers story, is led by two strong performances from Plemons and Buckley. Both are such enjoyable actors to watch, that your heart wants to stay with them long after your mind has checked out. Also, it’s a real shame that Jessie Buckley’s character is treated as an afterthought as the story progresses, since she is the most entertaining character of the film. Just saying.  

Final Thought: Sure, the visuals pop, Kaufman’s dry sense of humor works at times and the randomness is unsettling. It just simply all becomes so dreadfully unentertaining. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the equivalent of being forced into a conversation with a long-winded individual that you’ve been seated next to at a party. You might be able to tolerate the conversation for a while. You may even be entertained by a story or two along the way. But in the end, the entire exercise will become excruciating. I would rather watch any of Adam Sandler’s original Netflix movies, than sit through “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” again.

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She Dies Tomorrow

Rating: 2 out of 5.

An experimental movie with a great Twilight Zone synopsis, “She Dies Tomorrow” comes at us with the question: What if the mere mention of death was contagious, like a cold?

But does the movie itself work?

Advertised as a dark comedy about a woman (Kate Lyn Shel) who believes with all of her being that she is going to die tomorrow, it sounds like it should work. Sad to say, it doesn’t work as much more than a mood piece. Think “Melancholia”, just not as profound (and that’s saying a lot). 

Is it funny? Sure. There’s ONE section of awkward comedy which is done well. But again, as intriguing as the concept is, even with a short runtime of only an hour and twenty-five minutes, it’s simply too long. And due to some definitive visual choices made by writer/director, Amy Seimetz, it’s too incoherent.

These visual choices translate into large pockets of meandering, which seem only to exist in this film for the sake of having extended sequences ripe with multi-colored filters. This aspect, while technically sound (I guess) happen repeatedly, adds nothing to the story, while also giving audiences zero hope that in the end “She Dies Tomorrow” will be anything more than a concept in its first draft.

The performances from the likes of Jane Adams (Happiness), Chris Messina (Devil) and Katie Aselton (The League) are good. In fact, they are damn good considering the emotions asked of all characters throughout only range from dreary to sullen.  

Final Thought: Seeing “She Dies Tomorrow” as an allegory for anxiety, relating to the idea of one spiraling into an anxiety attack as a speck of dread grows into a monster, makes this film a bit more digestible. But watching the movie, it’s hard not to realize that there’s just too much added ponderous nonsense injected to be watchable.

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First Cow

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Truthfully, I spent much of this movie waiting for the cow to come back on-screen.

“First Cow” opens with a rather long sequence of digging, followed by another long sequence that just so happened to be the movie itself. In all actuality the opening shot of this film does something very important, it sets up the pace of this movie; a pace that is very much content with simply taking inventory of the scenery. Meaning, this movie may be too slow for some (renter beware). At times the movie stops just so we can listen to the sound of wood being chopped or so characters can survey their surroundings in real time. But if you are familiar with writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s work (Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women) she’s known for these types of beautifully blocked visual sequences that are deliberately “meditative”.

Synopsis: A cook (John Magaro) traveling through the forest with a group of fur traders in 1820’s Oregon, crosses paths with a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee). They become friends and together come up with a risky business venture involving the arrival of the first cow to be shipped into the area.

Reichardt and Jon Raymond adapt Raymond’s own novel (The Half-Life), developing a script where the dialogue is riddled with lines which on the surface seem quite simplistic, but in context speak bitingly to the themes of greed, colonialism and capitalism. It’s just a shame that Raymond’s work was paired up with Reichardt’s pacing.

So, the entire movie isn’t slow. Just the first hour…and the final thirty minutes. I have no problem with movies that take their time or “mood pieces” that are all about establishing the moment by forcing audiences to feel every second of time that ticks by. But if it’s so slow that I cease to care about characters or plot, then how much can you really expect me to endure?

There are movies where the less you know going in, the better the viewing experience will be. “First Cow” is not that movie. It’s a film I struggled to get through due to the initial hour, partially because I didn’t know the story would eventually pick-up.

Final Thought: I get it, “First Cow” is supposed to be “Midnight Cowboy” A24 style. And I am not at all surprised that this film has garnered such critical praise. It’s just my belief that “First Cow” gets this praise solely based on some beautiful cinematography, well written dialogue, the performances from the two leads and a folksy score. For the most part this is a boring movie, with a somewhat intriguing if not playful premise when it finally gets to it. “First Cow” could have been a short film. It should have been a short film.

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