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

Tenet

In writer/director Christopher Nolan’s excellent The Prestige, Nikola Tesla (memorably played by David Bowie) tell’s Hugh Jackman’s character “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” Thankfully for us, Nolan has quite a bit of nerve. For over 20 years, he’s been making some of the most narratively dense and visually ambitious films to come out of Hollywood. Perhaps the only big-budget auteur still around, Nolan is likely the only director working who could convince Warner Brothers to release his latest behemoth exclusively to theaters during a global pandemic. After all the false starts and delayed releases, Tenet is finally here and it’s another imaginative and immersive entertainment that will undoubtedly reward multiple viewings.

The quietly commanding John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, an unnamed CIA agent who is recruited by a secret organization known as “Tenet” after a test mission in Kiev. He meets with a fellow spy named Neil (Robert Pattinson) before pursuing his next, world-altering mission. Through a series of operatives, the Protagonist learns of “inverted material”, whose entropy has been reversed so that it can travel backwards through time. The distribution of said material leads him to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his distant wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who are involved in a plot that could unspool the fabric of time itself.

Following the releases of Memento in 2000 and Inception in 2010, Nolan has continued his rich tradition of opening each new decade with a top-tier, mind-bending thriller whose title titillates with just a single word. Like those previous films, the time in Tenet unfolds in a profoundly unconventional manner and half the fun of watching is in trying to keep up with all of the plates that Nolan is spinning. He seamlessly marries the intricate plot structure of heady time travel fare like Primer with the jaw-dropping action setpieces one would expect from an entry in the Bond or Mission Impossible franchises. The intensely convoluted storyline is bound to leave some viewers frustrated and confused but personally left me eager to unpack its secrets and twists as I reflect on the experience in hindsight.

As one would expect from a Nolan action film at this point, Tenet is impeccably crafted on multiple technical levels. The larger-than-life musical score from Ludwig Göransson throbs with wall-to-wall synths that appropriately sound like they’re being ripped through the time-space continuum. The sharp camerawork from Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema beautifully frames the action with mesmerizing clarity — one shot in particular recalls one of the most iconic moments from The Wizard of Oz. But the real MVP behind the camera is Jennifer Lame, who should be a hands-down frontrunner for the Best Editing Oscar whenever the Academy Awards end up happening next year.

I had a great time watching Tenet, the first film I’ve seen in a theater in almost 6 months, but Nolan’s movies continue to have a lingering issue with sound mixing that renders too much of the dialogue unintelligible. Dunkirk gets a bit of a pass since it’s a war picture and the screenplay was light on characters conversing but the script this time around is loaded with metaphysical concepts that are imperative in order to decode the story. I’m looking forward to rewatching Tenet from the comfort and safety of my home, with subtitles active and the rewind button close within my grasp. Whether you choose to brave the theaters or wait for Tenet to become available to rent, it’s a first-rate brainteaser that’s well worth unraveling.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Opening in theaters is The Broken Hearts Gallery, a romantic comedy starring Geraldine Viswanathan and Dacre Montgomery about a heartbroken young woman who starts a gallery where people can leave mementos from past relationships.
Available to stream on Netflix is The Social Dilemma, a documentary that investigates the dangerous impact that social media platforms have had on our society.
Also debuting on Netflix is The Babysitter: Killer Queen, a horror comedy sequel starring Judah Lewis and Hana Mae Lee about a high school teen who has another run in with a satanic cult after he escaped one years ago.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup