Bad Hair

When writer/director Justin Simien broke into the indie film scene with his incendiary Sundance hit Dear White People in 2014, it seemed unlikely that it would take a follow-up film 6 years to be released. Instead of moving onto wholly new material, Simien wisely chose to adapt his overstuffed movie into a Netflix series, whose three seasons account for some of the best original content the streaming giant has ever produced. As great as the Dear White People series is, the film world was sorely missing a voice as audacious and brazen as Simien’s, which makes his sophomore effort Bad Hair that much more reason to celebrate. This is an idiosyncratic horror comedy so specific in its influences that it feels like it was made to be enjoyed by maybe a few dozen people total. Fortunately, I would count myself as one of the weirdos in that hypothetically select group.

It’s 1989 Los Angeles and a personal assistant named Anna (Elle Lorraine) is looking to move up the ranks at Culture, a music television network that serves as a stand-in for the real-life BET. Her opportunity comes when the head of the station is replaced by ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams), who sees potential in Anna provided she can look the part of other on-air talent like the impossibly cool Julius (Jay Pharoah). This directive leads her to stylist Virgie (Laverne Cox) and her boutique salon, which has a reputation of transforming frizzy hair into lavish locks like those of pop superstars like the inimitable Sandra (Kelly Rowland). However, Anna gets more than she bargained for when the expensive, sewed-on weave starts to take on a mind of its own and seek revenge on those who have wronged her along the way.

Simien takes this high-concept, campy premise to present all manner of cultural commentary, from the impossibility of interracial beauty standards to the pressures of assimilation and conformity, while never losing its sense of cheeky irreverence in the process. If Spike Lee had directed his own version of Little Shop Of Horrors in the early 1990s, it may have come out something like Bad Hair, though one imagines it wouldn’t have quite the deft satirical bite that Simien once again shows off here. In terms of more recent contemporaries, it’s easy to imagine Jordan Peele having an affinity for similar material and while Bad Hair isn’t quite the instant classic that Get Out was, I would personally classify it as a bigger success than last year’s Us. While Simien isn’t yet the household name that Lee or Peele is, I hope it isn’t long before that changes.

Along with composer Kris Bowers and cinematographer Topher Osborn, Simien crafts an homage to, among many other things, throwback thrillers from revered directors like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter. The look is pitch-perfect, marrying lingering crossfades and ominous Dutch angles with a saturated gritty aesthetic that truly makes the movie look like it was shot on film in the 70s or 80s. The introduction of the killer wig and the slow reveal of its nefarious nature melds both the body horror elements of a David Cronenberg picture with the Japanese horror frights of something along the lines of Ju-On: The Grudge. By the time the haywire third act comes into focus, the film most closely resembles socially-conscious sci-fi like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Besides the exceedingly clever script penned by Simien, this stylistic melting pot is held together best by a terrific lead performance from newcomer Elle Lorraine. No matter how outlandish the storyline gets or how many genres the movie invokes, she proves that she’s game to bob and weave as necessary to keep the audience invested. She sells the “beauty is pain” principle best during the salon scene where the hair extensions are being grafted to her scalp or, as a colleague puts it, “sewing someone’s dead energy into their head.” Naturally, Simien has a deeper metaphors and symbolism attached to the concept of stealing what is someone else’s and wearing it as your own, which are best for the viewer to discover for themselves. It just came out last week but Bad Hair already seems destined for cult classic status and rightfully so.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is The Craft: Legacy, a sequel to the 1996 supernatural horror film starring Cailee Spaeny and Gideon Adlon about a new group of high school students who form a coven of witches.
Streaming on Netflix is His House, a thriller starring Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu about a Sudanese refugee couple who struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.
Coming to theaters is Come Play, a horror thriller starring Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr. about a monster who haunts a non-verbal autistic young boy along with his family and friends through various technological devices.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

On The Rocks

For one reason or another, Sofia Coppola just seems to get Bill Murray. In her previous directorial efforts Lost in Translation and A Very Murray Christmas, Coppola tapped into both the world-weary wisdom and lounge lizard haminess that represent two distinct sides of the veteran comedian’s larger-than-life persona. Now the writer-director and her comic collaborator team up again for On The Rocks, an abundantly charming and breezy screwball dramedy about the potential pitfalls of marriage and the lengths that spouses will go through to get back on track. The marriage in question isn’t that of Murray’s character Felix and his wife but instead of his daughter Laura, played by Rashida Jones.

Along with her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), Laura raises two little girls in the heart of New York City. Quickly approaching 40, she doesn’t have a career as a writer as much as she has a career in blanking staring at her MacBook Pro with research papers strewn across her desk. Conversely, Dean’s tech-based career is going much better, so much so that he’s been traveling more frequently and surrounding himself with attractive colleagues like his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Having fleeting doubts about Dean’s fidelity, Laura calls her gregarious father Felix for reassurance but instead gets further confirmation from him that Dean’s actions are suspicious. Together, Laura and Felix go to extreme lengths to confirm Dean’s loyalty and potentially save the marriage from going cold.

It’s a straightforward comedic premise that could aim for sitcom-level yucks in the wrong hands but thankfully, the chemistry between Jones and Murray more than makes up for the somewhat flimsy story. This is a terrific starring role for Jones, who is best known for her role on NBC’s Parks and Recreation but deserves loads of lead film roles in the future. She’s a completely winning screen presence, imbuing Laura with such grace and passion that it’s almost impossible not to root for her. Whether or not Dean is having some kind of affair, we can empathize with Laura’s concerns and insecurities not only because of his questionable behavior but because of how she has subconsciously expected men to act based on the model of her duplicitous father.

In what may be his most fully-realized role since Lost In Translation, Murray turns in an outstanding performance that plays perfectly to both his comedic and dramatic strengths. We first meet the well-off Felix as his chauffeur pulls up to the curb and a roll-down of the car’s rear window reveals Murray’s droll face, with a perfectly deadpan “get in” to punctuate the moment. Within the first minute of their car ride, Felix blithely whistles a tune and encourages Laura to do the same. Murray renders Felix’s childish and even chauvinistic antics, like his non-stop flirtations with women half (or even a third) his age, with wickedly winsome confidence. When Laura observes Felix get out of yet another jam, she dryly remarks “it must be very nice to be you,” to which he wittily chirps “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

While this is mainly a two-hander between Jones and Murray, Jenny Slate steals a few scenes as a single woman who blathers on so much about her dating issues that Laura eventually doesn’t even bother feigning interest. Wayans is typically known for his work in poorly-received spoofs like A Haunted House and Fifty Shades of Black but he’s a nice fit here, riding the line between preoccupied go-getter and potential scoundrel. But ultimately, Jones and Murray are the reason to see this movie and Coppola’s thoughtful and warm writing allows the two performers to get the most out of their endearing characters. Though it doesn’t reach the depths of Coppola’s strongest work, On The Rocks is a good-natured and welcome diversion when we could all use it the most.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his smash 2006 mockumentary Borat about a hapless Kazakhstani reporter who travels American to learn about its culture.
Streaming on HBO Max is The Witches, a remake of the 1990 fantasy comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer about an orphaned young boy who stumbles across a conference of witches while staying with his grandmother at a hotel.
Streaming on Netflix is Rebecca, an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel starring Armie Hammer and Lily James about a newly married young woman who finds herself battling the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Trial Of The Chicago 7

Originally planned for a theatrical release at the beginning of awards season, the well-intentioned but overbearing courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 arrives on Netflix this weekend with an Oscar checklist in hand. With its 1960s-set true story that has ties to current events and an Academy Award-winner screenwriter at the helm, it’s the kind of movie that’s seemingly designed in a Hollywood lab with the intention of hitting as many conventional voter criteria as possible. While writer/director Aaron Sorkin has writing credits like A Few Good Men and HBO’s The Newsroom that make him a good mark for this material, the film marks only his second time as a feature director after 2017’s Molly’s Game and he carries over some of the corny and sanctimonious tendencies from his worst writing into his new career of directing.

The titular trial is that of a band of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters, who allegedly conspired to incite violence among crowds outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Among the defendants is the altruistic Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and smirking Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who possess wildly conflicting personalities but are unified by a common goal of disrupting the status quo. Tasked with trying the group of activists is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a fresh-faced prosecutor facing off against the soft-spoken but determined defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Presiding over the months-long trial is the strict Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who hurls contempt of court charges liberally in his attempts to maintain dominance over the often rambunctious courtroom.

Sorkin and his composer Daniel Pemberton get off to a questionable start, scoring an introductory montage of the 7 with oddly upbeat music that comes across as blithe and borderline flippant given the highbrow tone it’s presumably trying to set. The cues during the dramatic courtroom scenes are appropriately exuberant but rarely rousing, pumping up the orchestral horns and strings as they cloy with self-importance. Working with editor Alan Baumgarten, Sorkin employs a snappy zig-zag narrative strategy that frames the trial sequences with flashback cuts that pertain to witness testimonies. The editing is competent and never confusing as it zips back and forth chronologically but is too spastic when it come to dialogue-heavy scenes, whipping between routine shot/reverse shot compositions at an unnecessarily hurried rate.

The remarkably qualified cast, which also includes reliable character actors like John Carroll Lynch and John Doman, seems to generally be on the same page when it comes to the characters that they are rendering. If I had to pick a standout, I’d look to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, portraying Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale with proper conviction and compelling resilience. The simmer in his voice when he says, “they tried something peaceful; we’re going to try something else” is the stuff that Best Supporting Actor nods are made of. Another immensely talented actor, whose name I won’t mention for fear of spoiling the surprise, shows up in the third act for his own “you can’t handle the truth!” moment, even if it doesn’t land with quite the same kind of impact as its predecessor.

For all its self-righteousness posturing and dubious bits of supposedly true interactions, the movie left me with one chief qualm: what is Sorkin really trying to say here? Civil unrest and street riots are obviously hot topics this year but Sorkin remains frustratingly inert when it comes to having a novel perspective on the subjects. Outside of some witty exchanges and occasional bits of cheeky humor, Sorkin simply doesn’t inject enough of his voice into his surprisingly shallow screenplay. Even though the whole world is streaming, there isn’t enough of an edge to The Trial of the Chicago 7 to make it worth adding to one’s ever-expanding queue.

Score – 2.5/5

Other new movies this weekend:
Streaming on HBO Max is American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed concert film capturing a musical Broadway performance from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is What the Constitution Means to Me, another live recording of a Broadway performance; in this case, it’s Heidi Schreck’s play presenting multiple facets, historical perspectives and personal experiences with the U.S. Constitution
Available to rent on demand is Greenland, a disaster film starring Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin about a family struggles for survival in the face of a cataclysmic meteor event.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Typically, people only die once but the titular character in the stellar new Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead dies quite a few times. The octogenarian psychiatrist is the father of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, who came up with the concept for this film around the time of her dad’s retirement from his practice due to his worsening dementia. As a way of battling the anxiety of inevitably losing her only remaining parent with pitch-black humor, she conceived of shooting staged versions of her dad dying in cartoonish and irregular ways. Whether he’s getting knocked out with a falling AC unit or fatally slapped with a 2×4 from a clueless construction worker, Dick and the stuntmen that stand in for him play out these macabre, Harold and Maude-esque fantasies both with good cheer and technical precision.

However, not all of these fantastical scenes are quite so morbid. Kirsten Johnson also stages an elaborate sequence in heaven, in which confetti appears to constantly fall in slow motion as Dick gleefully plays clarinet for jitterbugging historical figures. One transcendental shot depicts Dick slowly floating in the air along with his favorite chair and ottoman as he seems to either rest or meditate in his high-rise New York office. Jesus even makes an appearance, washing Dick’s malformed feet until they are miraculously made whole once again. Outside of these cinematic reveries, Kirsten spends the rest of her documentary sharing candid conversations between herself and her father with topics ranging from religion to chocolate cake.

This is obviously tricky and extremely personal material and half the fun of watching Dick Johnson Is Dead is marveling at director Kirsten Johnson’s ability to gracefully maneuver the tightrope of tonal management. We always get the sense that Dick is in on the “joke”, as it were; “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies!”, he assures his grandkids in the film’s opening moments. Though we never see Kirsten explicitly explain the nature of her unconventional documentary to her dad, he seems game for these silly stunts and opines, “you see a lot of weird stuff in movies that never happens.” As production assistants explain the mechanics of a device that shoots out fake blood for one of his stunts, he clarifies that he doesn’t want to use his actual blood for the pump, reminding the young assistants “I like my blood, I’ve become accustomed to it!”

Those quotes should give one an idea just how good-natured, convivial and, frankly, adorable Dick Johnson comes across throughout this wild experiment of a movie. There’s something so rewarding about watching a film so fixated with mortality and disintegration of the human body also center itself around a protagonist who has the best possible attitude and perspective on the subjects. In a country where discussions about death are still often regarded as taboo, audiences may initially blanch at this cinematic equivalent of “whistling past the graveyard” but it’s easy to be drawn in once the poignant and playful rhythm of Kirsten Johnson’s film is established.

Much like last year’s outstanding The Farewell, which also tenderly dealt with the prospect of losing our loved ones, the film furthers this cultural conversation in a similarly amiable manner. To give her movie another layer of unconventionality, Kirsten Johnson implements metatextual touches that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, as when she uses a skywriter plane to outline a passage of time in the “narrative”. Despite its unique approach to its themes, the film is far from inaccessible and those who stumble upon it while aimlessly browsing Netflix’s seemingly infinite catalog may be pleasantly surprised by it. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a powerful reminder that nobody lives forever but thankfully, movies do.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Hubie Halloween, a horror comedy starring Adam Sandler and Julie Bowen about a Salem resident who’s out to save his hometown’s Halloween from monsters.
Opening in theaters is The War with Grandpa, a family comedy starring Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman about a prank war that starts between a boy and his grandfather when they’re forced to share the same living space.
Available to watch on Hulu is Books of Blood, an anthology movie based on the Clive Barker horror book series starring Britt Robertson and Anna Friel which interweaves three terrifying stories.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Sleep October: The Blair Witch Project

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember spending more time than I’d care to admit getting lost in the woods. As someone who wasn’t especially outdoorsy, I still couldn’t resist the urge to go over to friends’ houses during summer break and waste hours and hours going through whatever nearby forests we could find. There was something about exploring “uncharted” territory away from adults and the endless possibilities of discovery that never seemed to get old. But no matter how deep in we went, we always found our way out. It never even occurred to me that one day, maybe we wouldn’t.

This simple but haunting notion is just one of many that permeates the brilliantly effective and rightfully iconic The Blair Witch Project. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1999 and later scaring up almost $250 million that following summer, the film remains one of the most profitable horror movies of all time. The concept of a fictitious Blair Witch was first developed by co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez back in 1993 but as we all know now, the movie’s most salacious marketing hook was that audiences didn’t know the legend was entirely made-up. Shot on a combination of 16mm and VHS in October of 1997 (their last day of shooting was, appropriately, on Halloween), the largely improvised project featured three unknown actors — Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard — going into the woods to document the seemingly real Blair Witch legend.

While The Blair Witch Project didn’t create the found-footage technique, it gave it terrifying renewed potential. If you go into the film ignoring the indelible cultural impact that it’s had over the past 20 years and try to approach it as a factual account of these three student filmmakers getting in way over their heads, it remains one of the sub-genre’s crowning achievements. Its credibility starts early, with Heather haphazardly holding her ever-present camcorder as she meets Mike and recruits Josh for their new project. “I really want to avoid any cheese; I want this to be as straightforward as possible,” she forewarns her male cohorts as they pack the video gear into their car. Myrick and Sánchez wisely apply this thesis statement to their approach for the film’s simple and subtle scares.

After setting the table with some terrific naturalistic acting of Maryland locals recounting stories of the Blair Witch legend, the movie follows Heather, Mike and Josh as they begin their hike through the leaf-covered Black Hills forest. The first few days go about as well as planned, as they capture footage of a creepy graveyard and the equally creepy Coffin Rock while Heather narrates in a perfectly overwrought film student manner. What Myrick and Sánchez do so shrewdly over the remaining runtime is show how little it takes to psychologically break these people down and erode their very sense of being. It’s as if the filmmakers studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and thought “what if we slowly chip away at all of these from the bottom up until there’s nearly nothing left?”

First, it rains and the chilly autumn breeze turns into a stiffer and more unforgiving wind. After the fourth day, food and water become scarce and random noises throughout the woods make certain that a good night’s sleep is nigh impossible. Their bags are raided in the night and cairns are insidiously placed right outside their tents, indicating that they won’t be safe wherever they choose to camp out. Trust and whatever notion of “friendship” these three have slowly erode as they become more lost in their treacherous surroundings. Josh is seemingly kidnapped and tortured as Heather and Mike fruitlessly attempt to locate him amongst the array of identical-looking trees. After all of these awful events, we finally get to the top of Maslow’s pyramid when Heather tearfully admits to Mike “this is all I have!”, realizing that her dreams of becoming a revered filmmaker will never come true.

All of this leads to a spellbinding finale set in the abandoned house of a hermit who allegedly kidnapped and killed children under orders of the Blair Witch. The production design is terrific as Heather and Mike investigate the bloody handprinted walls and decrepit condition of the building. Myrick and Sánchez deftly juggle between Heather’s 16mm camera and Mike’s camcorder, ratcheting up the tension as Mike hastily makes his way to the cobblestone basement ahead of Heather. My favorite detail of the film’s chilling final minute is how we’re seeing the footage from Heather’s camera but hearing the audio from Mike’s camcorder, even though it hits the ground once he finally gets to the basement. That way, Heather’s shrieks become louder and louder until she finally gets to the room and sees Mike standing horrifyingly still in a corner of the basement.

It should go without saying but the mystique of The Blair Witch Project will likely never again be replicated in film history. Thanks to the ever-watchful entertainment industry, spoiler-ridden trailers and constant chatter on social media, we practically know everything about a given movie before it’s even released. This film’s marketing campaign went viral before “viral” was even a concept, utilizing the internet in ways that Hollywood hadn’t even begun to think about. Sure, Space Jam had a website (that, for some reason, still exists today) but it didn’t have nearly the depth of content of Blair Witch’s link-heavy web index. The convincing narrative that the site put forth even had message boards buzzing, long before the days of Reddit and 4Chan when internet conspiracy culture wasn’t an embarrassing hellscape of alt-right propaganda.

Indeed, there may never be another horror movie quite like The Blair Witch Project but that’s all the more reason to get lost in its wilderness when fall rolls around each year.

The Devil All The Time

Based on the debut novel of Donald Ray Pollock, the new Netflix film The Devil All the Time is the kind of grim crime epic that Hollywood is too timid to make now and will likely be even more hesitant to make moving forward. As has been the case for the past few years but especially during the year when the pandemic brought movie theaters to their knees, Netflix is more than willing to take on the challenge of making the mid-budget thrillers that people statistically haven’t been leaving the house to see. Wisely, they’ve taken a cue from a key box office principle: people are drawn to familiar faces and names when they consider what to watch and this film is packed to the brim with both.

Taking place over multiple decades in the south central Ohio town of Knockemstiff (yes, it’s a real place), the sprawling story begins as Marine vet Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) meets a pretty waitress (Haley Bennett) at a diner. They soon have their son Arvin (Tom Holland) but after a number of years pass, he loses both of his parents in a pair of terrible tragedies. Arvin is taken in by his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and adopted step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who is ruthlessly bullied by classmates on a daily basis. A violent streak begins to develop in Arvin as he seeks revenge on those who threaten Lenora and his family, setting into motion events that eventually involve the local reverend (Robert Pattinson) and the town’s sheriff (Sebastian Stan).

The film’s stunning cast, which also includes Riley Keough, Jason Clarke and Harry Potter alum Harry Melling, is practically a who’s who of rising stars within mainstream and independent cinema. But this isn’t just a good looking call sheet of recognizable stars, as most of the actors are doing some of the best work of their careers here. At the center of this expansive “Southern” Gothic is Holland, who effortlessly sheds the Spidey suit and gives a fierce performance that is leagues away from the jokey tone of his MCU output. Skarsgård absolutely dominates the film’s first act, conveying the lasting impact of wartime trauma which reverberates throughout the rest of the grueling story. Even the more daring performances, especially the one turned in by Pattinson, aren’t without their off-kilter rewards.

Taking on a much more complex and unwieldy narrative than that of his previous film Christine, director Antonio Campos does an admirable job of tying together these disparate characters as they ebb and flow through the tides of fate. He introduces more themes than he properly resolves but the chief musings on cycles of violence and the dangers of organized religion come through with resounding clarity. Aiding Campos in his storytelling is a voiceover narration by none other than the book’s author, who obviously knows this story and its characters better than anybody. Despite a handful of clumsy incidents of over-explaining, Pollock’s weathered timbre and measured cadence gives the film an appropriately cold-blooded quality.

Implementing 35mm film, cinematographer Lol Crawley (an ironic first name, given the movie’s utterly humorless tone) tinges the frame with a subdued naturalism that compliments the rural setting swimmingly. The film’s agreeable color palette and stacked cast will likely be enough to keep even those who find the story too bleak around for most, if not all, of the 138 minute runtime. I certainly wouldn’t blame audiences for wanting to seek out more uplifting material in these distressing times but the steadfast effort put forth by Campos and company is inspiring in its own right. The Devil All the Time is a powerful parable about the inescapable tethers of fate and familial bonds.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies this weekend:
Playing at drive-ins and limited theaters is Possessor, a sci-fi horror film starring Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott about a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is The Glorias, a biopic starring Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander which covers the life and career of feminist activist Gloria Steinem.
Available to stream on Netflix is The Boys in the Band, an LGBT drama starring Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto about a group of close friends whose party is interrupted by an unexpected guest.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Antebellum

From first-time writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz comes Antebellum, an intermittently inspired but ultimately misguided psychological thriller that grapples with the horrors of racism and slavery. The marketing wisely touts the film as having a producer in common with Get Out and Us, two high-concept, race-centric horror films whose critical plaudits Antebellum would understandably seek to replicate. While Jordan Peele used the initial hooks of his movies to further investigate deeper cultural themes and implement various sub-genres, Bush and Renz don’t seem to have much on their minds past the film’s grabby conceit. As we learned with CBS’ latest iteration of The Twilight Zone (incidentally, hosted by Peele), a story’s central idea or message is only as good as its execution.

We meet Eden (Janelle Monáe) as she is carried horseback into a Confederate-run Louisiana plantation along with a new batch of slaves. She is treated cruelly by her master (Eric Lange) and despite being forbidden to communicate with others on the plantation, Eden creates a friendship of sorts with fellow slave Julia (Kiersey Clemons). In a parallel storyline set in modern day, we meet Veronica Henley (also Monáe), a PhD and successful author of a book called “Shedding the Coping Persona” about the struggles that women of color face in modern society. She pals around with her brash but supportive friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) until an unexpected incident separates them. The connection between Eden and Veronica is one that is best left for viewers (ones who haven’t already seen the movie’s trailer, that is) to discover for themselves.

Antebellum opens with an ostentatious but nonetheless impressive faux one-take shot establishing the grounds of the perfidiously picturesque plantation as a young girl skips through a sun-drenched field with fresh flowers in hand. Over the course of a few minutes, the imagery gets more disturbing and violent until we see a runaway slave’s brutal death right before the film’s title card fills the screen. Responsibly depicting the atrocities of slavery on screen has always been a tricky proposition, as filmmakers have to balance the unflinching honesty of the violence without crossing into exploitation. Unfortunately, Bush and Renz do cross that line early and often, slowing down the action and pumping up the overbearing musical score in a way that made me feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the crass and tasteless nature of the first act, I started to come around a bit during the film’s next section that takes place in present times. Monáe’s portrayal of Veronica is, understandably, much more open and relatable in comparison to the perpetually stifled Eden. Watching an intelligent and dynamic woman like Veronica navigate the nuances of modern racism was much more interesting than watching Eden scream in agony as one evil act after another was visited upon her. Sidibe is also a welcome presence in this middle section, striking up a believable chemistry with Monáe and giving the movie a much needed boost of energy and self-confidence.

But inevitably, the chasm between Eden and Veronica must be resolved and their correlation leads to a Shyamalan-esque final act twist that was foolishly spoiled in the film’s teaser trailer. It’s the kind of misdirection that makes certain plot holes larger in hindsight and leaves the audience with questions that quickly unravel the flimsy storyline. Despite some strong performances, Antebellum is an empty provocation of a thriller whose message could have resonated better with a stronger script and smarter direction.

Score – 2/5

New movies this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Enola Holmes, a mystery movie starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill about the younger sister of the famous Sherlock Holmes who embarks on a quest to find her missing mother.
Opening in theaters is Kajillionaire, a crime dramedy starring Evan Rachel Wood and Richard Jenkins about a woman whose life is turned upside down after her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.
Premiering on HBO is Agents of Chaos, a two part documentary from Going Clear director Alex Gibney that details Russia’s interference with the United States’ 2016 presidential election.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Keanu World Order: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

“Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!” It’s a simple sentiment, sure, but something about this thesis statement from the cult comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has resonated with audiences since its release and perhaps right now even more than ever. Strip away the surfer dude parlance and you basically have calls to empathy and self-care that may not have seemed profound back in 1989 but have proven to be especially illuminating in overwhelmingly distressing times. Aside from the use of a homophobic slur by the main characters, I was surprised while recently rewatching Bill & Ted just how little of it feels dated by today’s standards and fittingly, the experience of seeing it again made me feel as if I was traveling back to a simpler time.

I’ve probably seen Excellent Adventure in full about 5 or 6 times but I doubt more than half of those viewings were for the entire film in one sitting. Growing up as a teen in the early 2000s, I remember Comedy Central playing the movie seemingly every week. When I was flipping through channels, a practice I’m mildly nostalgic for as I’m typing this sentence, I would often stop to catch wherever it was in its runtime. It was like loading scenes of a movie onto an iPod Shuffle, another reference that instantly dates me, and seeing what comes up. If it was the shopping mall montage of historical figures running amok or Napoleon shouting “merde!” as he slides down the bowling lane, you can be sure that the channel would remain unflipped for at least several minutes.

For the uninitiated, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure involves two amiable California dudes who use a time-traveling phone booth to abduct important figures throughout history and pass their final school presentation. Though comedy is often a game of opposites, the characters of Bill and Ted are remarkably similar, to the point where they often make the same exclamations like “bogus!” and “gnarly!” in unison. Naturally, the key to making the relationship work is timing and chemistry, both of which leads Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have a most magnificent amount. Their performances are harmonious and complimentary in a way that really sells the kind of kindred spirits these two slackers have become to one another.

Although Winter has mainly stayed out of the limelight since his breakout role as Bill S. Preston, Esq., Reeves has since become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars with huge franchise hits like The Matrix and John Wick. Due to the once popular “Sad Keanu” meme and his introverted personality, Reeves’ persona has typically relied heavily on the actor’s seeming stoicism, so it’s especially fun going back and watching him essentially be a goof for 90 minutes. I especially love how Reeves imbues Ted with the most laid-back temperament imaginable, even when pressed with trying circumstances. After ribbing Bill about his new stepmom, Bill seems genuinely upset when he tells Ted to shut up, to which Ted pauses a moment and then lights up a dopey grin to diffuse the tension. In a relatively low stakes movie, that brief confrontation has a surprising amount of impact because we recognize how strong of a friendship these two have with each other.

Excellent Adventure also has a playful spirit about the nature of time travel and just like its central duo, really doesn’t bother to take things too seriously. If you ask the movie if it operates on a fixed timeline or alternate timeline, it would answer “yes.” My favorite comedic paradox in the film is when the pair need a set of keys belonging to Ted’s police chief father to get out of a predicament. Ted has a bright idea: why don’t they go back in time after the history report is over, steal the keys and plant them near the police station at that moment so they can find them? Before we even have time to figure out if that makes any sense at all, Bill pulls the keys out of the grass near a sign where their future selves presumably placed them.

Catching up with the film now, it’s still a bit too broad and cartoonish in certain respects but even the bits that don’t work still skate by on good-natured charm. The plotline essentially operates as a feature length version of the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen manifests the media theorist out of thin air to show up a chatty intellectual in a movie line. Here, Bill and Ted nab famous historical figures throughout time as if to say to their teacher “see, we do know something of their work!” While Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure isn’t quite up to Annie Hall caliber, it’s just the kind of sweet and affable comedy that we could all use right about now.

Mulan

Disney goes to the well once more with Mulan, another update on one of their beloved 90s animations that doesn’t supersede the original but at least gets points for trying to go about things in a relatively creative way. Unlike last year’s Aladdin and The Lion King, which were soulless cash grabs that lifelessly tried to recreate classic moments from their predecessors, this new version of Mulan feels more like a modern reimagining of the legend of Hua Mulan rather than a mindless remake of the 1998 Disney film. Gone are the Broadway-style music numbers and cutesy sidekicks, replaced instead by PG-13 wuxia (a term for martial arts stories set in ancient China) action and gorgeously lush set design inspired by genre classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Set in imperial China, the storyline follows the courageous and deft warrior Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), whose parents Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) and Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) foist matchmakers on her so she can find a husband who will tame her wild spirit. Those plans are put on hold when Rouran warriors, led by the fearsome Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his enslaved witch Xianniang (Gong Li), make their way towards the Hua’s village. An edict is put forth where a man from each family must join the fight against Khan’s army but the elderly Zhou is at risk for serious injury or even death should he offer his services to the military. To spare her father, Mulan poses as a young man and sets off to train as a soldier with the knowledge that her gender deception could be punishable by death.

Originally slated to grace screens nationwide back in March, Mulan is one of many victims of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and after months of delay, it now debuts on Disney+ with a $30 surcharge for “Premier Access”. While this is a responsible and sensible business decision on their part, it’s a bit of a shame that we likely won’t see this on the big screen any time soon since this is the best looking live-action remake that Disney has put forth yet. Transfixing images like the Emperor’s opulent, gold-plated throne or a collapsing avalanche with its ensuing fog of powder snow just don’t quite have the same power when watching at home, unless your TV is on par with the digital projection found in the cineplex.

While director Niki Caro makes some smart choices when it comes to action and imagery, the biggest missed opportunity here is in the depth of the storytelling and thematic material. Too often Caro and her quartet of screenwriters take the easy way out and settle for simple characterization on behalf of the protagonist and other supporting players. While the animated version of Mulan was also a fierce warrior, she doesn’t start out that way and has to steadily train her way up the ranks. Comparatively, Yifei’s Mulan is already a powerful fighter from the beginning with the aid of a magical level of chi that resembles The Force from Star Wars — one could easily make several parallels between this Mulan and Rey from the Disney-era Star Wars trilogy.

While most of the performances serve the film well, Yifei is not always as compelling as she needs to be in the title role. Her physicality and poise is often spot-on but she plays the character almost too stoically, offering little insight into Mulan’s inner world. Other actors, like the inimitable Donnie Yen as Commander Tung or Tzi Ma from last year’s excellent The Farewell, tend to fare better in their respective roles. While I appreciate Disney’s push for representation by casting all Asian or Asian-American performers, I wish they had gone a bit farther and just had the characters speaking Mandarin instead English. With Parasite winning Best Picture earlier this year, I would suspect that the subtitle barrier isn’t quite as imposing as it once was. Nevertheless, Mulan is a fine introduction to wuxia films that will hopefully inspire audiences to seek out better entries in the genre.

Score – 3/5

New movies this weekend:
Available for rental is Antebellum, a horror film starring Janelle Monáe and Jena Malone about an author who finds herself trapped in a nightmarish reality during the Underground Railroad period and must find a way to break free.
Streaming on Netflix is The Devil All the Time, a psychological thriller starring Tom Holland and Bill Skarsgård about a series of suspicious characters whose storylines converge on the backdrop of a small Ohio town.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is All In: The Fight for Democracy, a political documentary takes a look at the history of and current activism against voter suppression.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

My thoughts on the movies