What’s On: September 18, 2020
Janelle Monae wakes up in unwoke South, Tom Holland practices his drawl in the holler and Jessica Chastain gets shaken and stirred as a super-assassin in Ava.
Starring: Janelle Monae, Gabourey Sidibe,
Directed by: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
New On Demand
The Devil all the Time
Starring: Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, Robert Pattinson and Jason Clark
Directed by: Antonio Campos
New to Netflix
Starring: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Geena Davis, Jess Weixler
Directed by: Tate Taylor
New on Demand
Antebellum unites horror tropes with a timely social message for a messy movie seeking to send a big message to modern viewers.
By Katherine Monk
ANTEBELLUM (NEW on VOD) – I can watch Janelle Monáe in just about anything. And sadly, if you’re a Monáe fan, that’s sort of how you have to approach it because for all her talents as an actor, singer, dancer, songwriter, and producer, Monáe still doesn’t get the biggest parts. Though she’s co-starred in films such as Hidden Figures and Harriet, Monáe’s name has yet to penetrate the pop psyche because — well, this sounds awful, but I think it’s true — she’s pretty. Monae has model good looks. She’s not a “character actor,” which reduces her options as a black performer — because she’s a natural-born lead. Hollywood is still recalibrating the industry’s white balance when it comes to above-the-line billing, so B-movie thrillers like Antebellum are where talents like Monáe’s can showcase their chops.
Horror thrillers are ready-mades for the heroic archetype: Good vs. Unfathomable Evil, generally personified by a beautiful innocent female and a sadistic male tormenter. Antebellum holds true to the formula, and features Monae as a beautiful slave named Eden living in the Antebellum South.
At least that’s what it seems like for the first half hour. Eden toils away under the ever watchful eye of her owner and torturer, hoping to stay alive by submitting to her master’s will. Director-writers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz don’t earn any marks for revising or updating the images of plantation misery, plucking every string on a familiar instrument of evil. We watch Eden whipped, beaten, raped and demeaned by foul-mouthed white men.
Then a cell phone rings. We wake up in modern-day USA, and Eden’s name is now Veronica. She’s a famous writer with a beautiful house, a handsome husband and a super-cute little girl named Kennedi. Veronica is haunted by these recurring nightmares about being a slave — but she has no insight as to why.
She’s moving back and forth between two worlds in her sleep, and the time travel is taking its toll on her mental health. It’s also taking a toll on the viewer, because the larger premise starts to fracture — and it grows harder and harder to suspend disbelief.
On the upside, as the period piece seems to veer into science-fiction, things start to feel a little bit lighter as the noose of a tragic past slackens, and Eden starts to find some agency in the sea of cotton fields. Eden and Veronica begin to fuse, and the movie tries to rejoin the world we recognize as our own.
It has a hard time on re-entry, bouncing around on its own overcooked atmosphere, forcing its cardboard characters to exchange stale dialogue and one too many punches, but it does puncture its own silly conceits with a blunt bayonet of truth: The Civil War rages on in the subconscious of our southern neighbours.
The film actually opens with a quote from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I think the directors weren’t satisfied to tell a period story about pain and suffering. They wanted a modern mind to imagine the inhumane, day to day reality of forced labour through the eyes of a fully realized, emancipated woman.
Monae makes the perfect would-be victim as well as modern hero, but if Antebellum really wanted to rewrite a familiar tale of socially tolerated hate, they should have dug deeper still — right down to the roots of systemic racism — instead of taking a great big axe to the trunk.
Janelle Monae stars as a woman trapped in a time-warp nightmare in Antebellum.
A Hillbilly eulogy starring Tim Holland as a scarred orphan takes its time setting up a twisted intergenerational tale, making us feel the burn of The Devil All the Time.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (New to Netflix) – Well, it’s a Southern Gothic kind of weekend because Netflix has a brand new drama guaranteed to make you feel all muddy, and like all things set in the American South, it has a heaviness — a sticky weight that feels like humidity dripping off your insides. It also has a narrator, which I didn’t realize was also part of the Southern gothic experience, until I realized I had the theme for the Dukes of Hazzard stuck in my head after watching this Antonio Campos (Christine) adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel. It was truly stuck there, in bad 1970s TV-land, because for the previous two-some hours, I was listening to an avuncular, omniscient narrator tell me the story of Arvin.
It all starts in the rosy glow of Post-War America. A handsome soldier falls for a waitress at a diner and they have a son. They make a home in a small town called Knockemstiff, where folks tend to stick to their own holler, and keep secrets to themselves. But it’s not long before the whole town hears of a tragedy.
The local preacher believes he’s heard the word of god and kills his wife (Mia Wasikowska) in order to resurrect her. The only problem is she won’t rise again. He’s a murderer, and anywhere else, there would be an investigation and he would go to jail. But the south has its own karma machine, and from that point on, things just get darker.
Years pass. Arvin grows up and ends up sharing a childhood home with another orphan named Lenora. They form an outsider’s bond, and swear to protect each other. But we know things are doomed, because the narrator has essentially told us so — saving us the shock, but overspending on the violence of each transitional moment.
Just about everyone in the frame is tainted and a little bit rotten. Even our de facto hero, Arvin — played by Tom Holland as an adult — has an unreliable quality. Something doesn’t really sit right, and we know he’s capable of terrible, terrible things.
Then again, so is everyone else. This is a world where everything festers and rots — and lies grow tendrils that finally pull down grand facades of propriety. Everyone and everything is so slimy, the only thing we can hang on to is the calm voice of the narrator, gliding through the mud with the ease of an alligator — even and unchanged.
Because the film is over two hours, it often feels a little slow — a little too self-conscious, and all too often, far too thin. Yet, thanks to the talented ensemble (Holland, Sebastian Stan, Robert Pattinson and Jason Clark) Devil all the Time is always watchable, and when it comes to pulling the sprawling canvas together, Campos’s uses a big needle and some raw gut to give us an ending, even if he can’t give us closure.
Tom Holland as Arvin in Antonio Campos’s The Devil all the Time.
Jessica Chastain showcases her physical skills as an assassin in Ava, but the actor lands her biggest punches with her emotional range, not her fists.
AVA (New to VOD) – Hey! It’s a big action splash! And it’s got Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, John Malkovich and Geena Davis! From director Tate Taylor (The Girl on the Train) and actor-turned writer Matthew Newton, Ava was destined for theatres but is hitting VOD — which is good news for people who like throwaway action movies that meet a standard of quality. By that I mean no L.A. warehouse finale, no pitch black shootouts and a limited amount of off-the-rack banter between the earmarked enforcers. Ava has a high-end look, and that goes a long way for a genre that will always be compared to the exploits of James Bond.
Or, in this case, we may want to say Joan Bond — because the super assassin in this story is Chastain. A straight-A student who was destined for great things before a DUI changed her life forever, Ava learned how to kill in the Army, where she was the favourite student of Duke (John Malkovich) a tough commander in charge of special ops. Duke taught her how to kill, and more importantly, how to kill without getting caught. Now considered a top asset for a clandestine organization that carries out hits on world leaders, Ava seems to enjoy her job as an eraser.
Her only liability is her curiosity. She starts asking her marks what they did. She wants to know why they deserve to die before she slits their throats. But that’s not a good policy to have when you’re a killer. The less you know the better — which makes Ava a little too knowledgeable for her own good.
Duke always has her back, but Simon (Farrell) thinks Ava should be excised from the operation and that’s kind of how this kill or be killed movie plays out: A protracted cat and mouse game as Ava is forced to stay one step ahead of her cohorts looking to kill her, and her family.
The family element is where the movie finds some novelty and Chastain gets a chance to show her real skills — not that she’s not convincing as a kick-ass assassin — but I like looking at her face, and her expressions, more than her physical ballet.
She produced this film, so she was clearly looking to shake up her screen persona. And after watching movies like Molly’s Game and Miss Sloane, where Chastain flirted with her Wonder Woman side, it was nice to see her go all in as an enforcer with Krav Maga moves. But what makes Chastain so special is her palpable humanity. She oozes compassion through her sky blue eyes, allowing her salve of a screen presence to seep through slowly, and surely… like sitting on a wet sponge.
When she’s palling around with Davis and Jess Weixler, who plays her sister Jude, we feel a friendly nudge into comedy. Yet, when she’s holding Common — who plays her ex — there’s a soapy film on every scene. So much of the emotional side doesn’t work because it stretches the characters in too many different directions.
Action movies have to work in a tight corners, and in order to do that, characters have to be compact — and to a degree — dismembered. Think of John Wick — or even James Bond — they don’t have a huge range of emotional response. Their arcs are short, tight and clean so they can go anywhere without dragging baggage.
Ava’s arc is long, messy and largely unbelievable. But it’s still a wholly competent action movie with a compelling hero and some exotic locales — including “Dawson’s Landing, B.C.” – which makes it a happy escape to a familiar, fight-laden hell.
Jessica Chastain stars as a top-shelf assassin in Tate Taylor’s Ava.
THE EX-PRESS, September 18, 2020