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‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Review

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, and follows “Mother of the Blues” singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) amid a stressful recording session one summer afternoon in 1927 Chicago. Chadwick Boseman also stars (in his final film appearance), with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles; George C. Wolfe directs.

When Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer this past August, it came as a shock to many. He had been looking thinner in recent public appearances, but since he was such a larger-than-life character both on- and off-screen, plus we had just watched him in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in June, no one assumed the worst was coming. Maybe Boseman knew “Black Bottom” would be his final performance, maybe not, but his work has almost a spiritual sense to it, and could see him earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination.

Chadwick Boseman was only really a big player in movies for seven years, when he came onto the scene as Jackie Robinson in “42.” Since then he played several prominent African-American historical figures, as well as the superhero Black Panther in the MCU. Boseman always had a presence about him, and you feel it in “Black Bottom.” Boseman’s Levee, a trumpet player with high ambitions, is wise-cracking and full of swagger (when we first meet him, he is hitting on women and bragging about his new shoes), but underneath the surface there is pain and struggle. Boseman is able to flip the switch so quickly and with such nuance that you almost don’t even notice, and he says as much with his words as he does with his eyes. I still think Anthony Hopkins gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in “The Father” and he deserves the Best Actor awards, but Boseman is sure to earn some over the next five(!) months and I will be over-the-moon happy for him and his family.

The rest of the cast is solid, with Viola Davis obviously being the other big draw here. Playing Ma Rainey, Davis does her own singing in the film and wears a heavy amount of makeup, to the point she is almost unrecognizable. Davis is at the point in her career where it is hard to be surprised by her acting, and I didn’t think she did anything too great here, but she is able to carry the scenes where Boseman is absent.

The production and costume design are both top-notch as well. You get immersed in early-20th century Chicago, from the cars and the skyline, to the loose ties and fedoras. The score is also pretty good, with the low jazz horns and drum beats.

Where the film comes up short is arguably the most important aspect: the script, adapted from August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson has a career in theater, as well as acting in films, but this is his first screenplay. Much like “Fences” and other adaptations, the film definitely feels like a play, with only two main locations (both big square rooms) and some exaggerated Shakespearian dialogue and monologues. My issues aren’t with all that, it is that the narrative seems unsure how to lay all the plot points out. For most of the film the big issue is finally getting Rainey’s song recorded, and the hurdles they face from a stuttering singer to Boseman’s ego. However in the final 15 minutes we get a whole world of new conflicts, and it seemed like there wasn’t enough going on in the first two acts to suddenly way too much in the third.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an actor’s showcase, including a touching swansong performance from Chadwick Boseman, and has some fantastic below-the-line work as well. I can honestly see a world where this gets nominations in every category except Screenplay, that is how notably weaker it is compared to the top-tier work everywhere else. For sure check this film out when it drops on Netflix, and I will be rooting for it to win many awards all season; I just wish the overall experience as a whole left a greater impression on me.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Review

See, this is what happens when you don’t give people their Oscars when they deserve them; they put on a bunch of makeup and take on heavy-handed family dramas.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is based on the memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance about his upbringing in rural Ohio, and the struggles he faced with his drug addict mother (Amy Adams) and no-nonsense grandmother (Glenn Close). Gabriel Basso portrays Vance as a young man and Owen Asztalos plays him as a boy, while Ron Howard directs.

Glenn Close is a seven-time Oscar nominee and should have finally won for her work in “The Wife,” but was upset(ish) by Olivia Coleman in “The Favourite” (the real point of contention there being most argue Coleman was a supporting role, not a lead). Not to be outdone, Amy Adams is herself a six-time nominee, and most of the time simply goes up against better competition (on two occasions even facing off against her co-stars). Much like Leonardo DiCaprio and others before them in an all-out attempt to finally get that trophy, Close and Adams are seemingly throwing off the gloves and putting on the prosthetics, as they are both nearly unrecognizable in their roles as strict mother figures. Their performances are solid, especially Close, but that is about all “Hillbilly Elegy” has going for it.

From chewing scenery in “101 Dalmatians” to spewing nonsense words in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Glenn Close always seems to be enjoying her roles, even the more serious ones. She is also one of our more underrated actresses, possibly due in part to the fact she has never taken home that one elusive trophy. She may finally have her name called on Oscar night for “Hillbilly Elegy,” a role that she is almost unrecognizable in. At times sweet and caring, at others strict and sharp but never cruel, Close carries the film like her Mamaw carries the Vance clan. The scenes with Close are by far the film’s strong points, and you notice when she is not there.

Amy Adams is solid (when is she bad?) but I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t even land an Oscar nomination here. This is the kind of role that actors do when they want awards, and at times you just get the “this is my Oscar scene” vibes from Adams. Her character is a free spirit but also controlling of her children, and I found it hard to root for her; but I feel that comes down to Vanessa Taylor’s script.

The film jumps back and forth between 1997 and 2011, following J.D.’s struggles as a youth then his attempt to get a summer law job at Yale. Young J.D. at times comes off like a complete idiot, and not just because he is at risk of flunking math. Some of the things he says and does, like running into a table while chasing a dog or dancing into a display in store (or saying “Native Americans know they’re going to die”) just make him seem unbelievably stupid, and it is hard to believe that this kid would grow up to attend Yale law school.

In fact, everyone in this film does not act like any person based in reality, and the script never establishes any flow. People have sudden mood swings (J.D. and his mom go from buddy-buddy to him yelling how he hates her in a matter of five seconds), and things just don’t make sense from a character standpoint (teenage J.D. turns down smoking weed but just a few scenes later is tossing back a beer like it’s nothing).

“Hillbilly Elegy” may be remembered as a Trivial Pursuit answer for “what film did Glenn Close finally win her Academy Award for?” but otherwise it is a pretty bland and at times contrived family drama. Ron Howard has made some great films, and we know he can manage family dramas, but this was just a swing and a miss on almost every level. I didn’t see myself or my family in any character, and none of them are interesting enough in their own right to root for. Just a bunch of missed opportunities given all the talent involved…

Critics Rating: 4/10

‘The Climb’ Review

“The Climb” stars Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin as two lifelong friends, and glimpses into their lives over several year. Covino and Marvin also wrote the script, as Covino directs and Gayle Rankin, Talia Balsam, George Wendt, and Judith Godrèche also star.

I hadn’t heard much about this film until recently (it premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, and May 2019 seems like a lifetime ago), but my friend described it as “’Sideways’ with bikes.” A decent endorsement (“Sideways” is one of the better films of the 2000s), and upon seeing “The Climb” I can attest that this blend of exaggerated farce and intimate human interactions, while not as good as “Sideways,” is part of the Two Best Friends Argue Over Women & Wine Cinematic Universe.

Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin are real-life best friends, and that connection is felt on-screen. Both of their characters go through waves of being the rock in the relationship, and even when one should hate the other their mutual admiration shines through. Covino is a bit better and more believable with his comedic timing than Marvin, but thanks to the script the two penned together there are a lot of deadpan chuckles to go around.

More impressive than the performances is the cinematography by Zach Kuperstein. The film is told in vignettes, each lasting about 10 minutes or so, and they are almost exclusively done in one long take. Sometimes the scenes feature characters moving through a house or riding bikes along twisting roads, which makes it all the more impressive from a technical perspective, but it also makes you appreciate the work being done by the actors, too. Much like in “Birdman” the pressure is on them to get their lines right, or risk having to start a 10-minute-long scene over from scratch. It helps create a sense of authenticity to the story and each scene, and as a fan of oners I never felt like it reached the levels of simply being a gimmick.

There are a few abstract and fourth wall-breaking moments that may be awkward for some viewers, and the simple storytelling may not gel for everyone. But just like “Nomadland” I think sometimes simple direction is the best way to handle a film, and “The Climb” gets enough laughs and heart out of its two characters to be worth the trip.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Rebecca’ Review

Someone needs to get to the suits in Hollywood and tell them that not every classic film needs to be reimagined.

“Rebecca” is based on the 1938 book of the same name, which was famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 (his only Best Picture winner). The plot follows a newlywed couple (Armie Hammer and Lily James) that is haunted by the memory of the husband’s deceased wife. Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Keeley Hawes, Sam Riley, and Ann Dowd also star, while Ben Wheatley directs.

Remaking classic films is nothing new, Hollywood has been doing it for years (such as “True Grit,” “Ben-Hur,” and “A Star Is Born,” which gets dusted off every 20 years), and it’s very rare they are actually worth revisiting (“A Star Is Born” is ironically probably one of the few films that perfectly balances paying homage to the source material while also adding its own style). While “Rebecca” is not a straight-up remake of Hitchcock’s film, it is based on the same book and thus follows the same beats, and while I have not seen the 1940 original, this 2020 version simply never justifies its own existence.

Armie Hammer has had an odd but quietly successful career thus far, coming onto the scene in 2010 with his dual performance in “The Social Network.” After being the titular role in the notorious box office bomb “Lone Ranger,” he has done small supporting roles in things like “Sorry to Bother You” and earned award talks for “Call Me by Your Name.” An American, Hammer makes attempts to carry a British accent here (the film is set in Europe and the rest of the cast is naturally British) and about halfway through the runtime decides to just drop it (seriously, there are lines of dialogue that are flat-out Californian dialect). He tries to have a sense of mystery about his character, but it never really comes off much better than what “Fifty Shades of Grey” tried to do with Christian Grey.

Lily James is always dorky and charming, and here she is fine. She is supposed to go through this gradual change as the film progresses, with one character saying she has lost her innocence, but that is never organically portrayed on-screen. She also suddenly becomes an expert in law and medical science and anything else the plot needs from her, and it’s just lazy writing.

From a production standpoint, the film looks great. Seriously, the cinematography by Laurie Rose, especially in the early scenes set in the French Riviera, are gorgeous and lit perfectly. The attention to detail by the production design crew is to be commended, and it at least keeps you mildly intrigued when the plot consistently does not.

“Rebecca” is luscious on the outside but hallow on the inside, and despite being an easily-accessible Netflix movie is not worth a watch. There is no true conflict until the final 20 minutes, and there is simply nothing here that we have not seen done before, and done better. In the film, Hammer never wants to talk about his wife Rebecca, and I don’t want to ever think about her again, either.

Critics Rating: 4/10

‘Honest Thief’ Review

Even in a year as weird as 2020, there’s something comforting about still having a “Liam Neeson with a gun” movie.

“Honest Thief” stars Liam Neeson in the titular role as a former bank robber who wants to trade the $9 million he stole over the years for a reduced sentence after meeting a woman (Kate Walsh). Robert Patrick, Anthony Ramos, Jeffrey Donovan, and Jai Courtney also star, while Mark Williams (who co-created the show “Ozark”) directs.

In 2017, Liam Neeson announced he was done with the action genre, claiming he was “sixty-[bleeping]-five” and the genre had worn out its welcome with him. Since then, he has starred in “The Commuter,” “Widows,” “Cold Pursuit,” and now “Honest Thief,” all of which feature our favorite Irishman running around with a gun. It is what it is, can’t fault Neeson for wanting to pocket as much money as he can, and sometimes these films have a decent enjoyment factor (“Run All Night” is one of the better cop thrillers in recent memory). “Honest Thief” has all the ingredients of a successful romp, from corrupt FBI agents to a wrongfully accused Neeson on the run, but it lacks the energy or true intrigue to set itself apart from any other thriller you can find in the Walmart bin.

I usually like these Liam Neeson movies well-enough, most of the time they get a 5 or 6 from me. So I didn’t go into this expecting anything special or new. Neeson is doing his half-hearted attempt to downplay his Irish accent (he’s a former Marine, implying he has been an American for at least several decades), and he gives a dedicated-enough performance. There isn’t much nuance or character development for anyone here (the film is 93 minutes without credits so there isn’t much extra room to flesh characters out), but he gets the job done.

The set-up of the film is probably the most entertaining part, with Neeson wanting to turn himself in and two corrupt FBI agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) deciding to take the money for themselves and frame Neeson. That part is cool, but once Neeson goes on the run with his girlfriend (a serviceable Kate Walsh) things become pretty boilerplate. The climax slightly redeems itself, but not in any sort of revolutionary way.

I liked the way the film was shot, it’s pretty simple and clean, and there are a few good shots of around the Boston area. But whenever there are special effects (including one explosion) things look *very* direct-to-DVD quality, and some of the logic of characters is non-existent.

“Honest Thief” is a very harmless PG-13 thriller, and if you come across it on TV one day then sure, check it out. It is slated to play in theaters, and like “The War with Grandpa” I wouldn’t praise this as the savior of cinema or worth you venturing out into the real world to see, but if these Neeson shooters are your cup of guilty pleasure tea, then you should get your fix.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘The Father’ Review

It’s a shame the Academy Awards aren’t being held until April 25 next year, because that’s just longer it is until Anthony Hopkins can start polishing his second Oscar.

“The Father” stars Sir Anthony Hopkins as an aging man with dementia, and Olivia Coleman as his daughter. Florian Zeller directs and co-writes a script based off his play of the same name.

Usually I will give the background of a film in my third paragraph, but I just have to start talking about Anthony Hopkins’ performance right away, because wow. A true tour-de-force, Hopkins manages to perfectly portray an individual suffering from memory loss, putting us in the shoes of one as well. His emotions jump from giddy one second to enraged the next, and at times it is not clear if he is faking his memory loss in the moment or actually forgotten how he simply arrived to the middle of a sentence. It is a masterful performance from one of our finest actors, who (outside “The Two Popes” last year) has not done much “serious” acting in recent years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and bet the house before the end of the year, but it would take an all-time performance to steal Best Actor away from Anthony Hopkins.

Olivia Coleman (who won Best Actress for “The Favouite”) plays Hopkins’ adult daughter, who acts as his main caretaker. Stricken with grief, and seemingly some guilt, for not being able to fully manage her aging father alone, Coleman has us relate to her character in the most brutal of ways.

Florian Zeller’s subtle direction and particular square framing of scenes keep some of the dramatics and intimacies of a stage play, but the apartment that most of the film takes place in feels wide and lived in. Zeller holds the camera on an actor for almost an entire conversation, leaving no room for them to breathe, resulting in raw emotion. In an early scene, Coleman tells Hopkins that she is moving from London to Paris and we see his eyes get progressively saddened as he realizes what that means for him (“and what of me?!”).

The film is told in such a way that it simultaneously makes you feel the frustration of a child trying to cope with or understand a parent with dementia, as well as what it is like to be the one who is suddenly living in a new world seemingly every day. It almost plays out like a horror film at times, because just like Hopkins we are unsure what is real and if the events are happening right now or five years ago.

“The Father” may be simple in its title but it is extremely meticulous in its execution. Gentle but devastating performances across the board make this something special. I have to warn you, as someone with a grandmother who has dealing with dementia for a while now, I have to say this one will hit home for anyone in a situation like this. But that is part of its brilliance and sheer, unfiltered reality. I truly am haunted and blown away right now.

Critics Rating: 9/10

‘Nomandland’ Review

Sometimes the best way is the simplest way.

“Nomadland” stars Frances McDormand as a woman who lives out of her van, traveling the Midwest. Chloé Zhao writes, directs, and edits.

Subtle and minimalistic filmmaking has always been hit or miss for me. I love Tom McCarthy’s nearly non-presence in “Spotlight,” but Jeff Nichols’ removed touch with “Loving” didn’t work in a film with such high stakes. With “Nomadlamd,” Chloé Zhao has delicately created what feels at times almost too real, like a documentary, and an everyday slice of rural Americana.

Zhao captures life in small towns and camaraderie among nodmads in such an honest way, and knows when to hold a close-up or cut to a wide shot. Her direction is barely noticeable, instead letting her actors (most of which are real people, not professionals) fill the world. The film is also cut wonderfully by Zhao, with the first hour especially flying by.

McDormand is so sympathetic, witty, and innocent here, from making honking sounds while pretending to drive an RV to not getting angry at someone who accidentally hurts her. Her character has had some personal struggles in the past (this is set in 2012, right after a lot of mining towns were hit hard), but seems to go on without much care; just keep livin’, baby. There are moments of brief pain or frustration, but McDormand displays them at the proper restraint as only our weird queen can. 

The score by Ludovico Einaudi is mostly piano, and it’s so wonderfully melancholic. Partnered with some of cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ beautiful shots of crashing waves or purple mountains, and it’s almost enough to put you in a trance.

“Nomadland” is one of those “not really much is happening” movies, so if for whatever reason you heard the plot summary, “Frances McDormand travels the country in a van” and were hoping this would turn into “The Revenant,” you’ll be disappointed. But for those who want a humanistic character study that feels genuine and takes place in a world you’ve seen before (or maybe even live in now), seek this one out.

Critics Rating: 9/10

‘Mulan’ Review

Eventually Disney is going to run out of animated films to remake and be forced to come up with an original idea, but that day is not today.

“Mulan” is the live-action remake of the 1998 animated film of the same name, based on “The Ballad of Mulan” legend. The film stars Liu Yifei in the title role, as a young woman in rural China who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the Imperial Army. Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, and Jet Li appear in supporting roles as Niki Caro directs.

The “Mulan” remake had its share of bumps and blockades before finally reaching audiences, including several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lead actress Liu Yifei (a Chinese-born American citizen) supporting the police and Chinese government in the Hong Kong protests. Those on top of the announcement that this remake would be more in-line with the Mulan legend and not the original film (which meant no songs or talking dragons), angered and confused Disney fans. The cherry on top is this is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman (clocking in at $200 million) and won’t even get a theatrical release in the United States (it is a premium $30 rental on Disney+), so this is just a production full of question marks. And is it worth all the trouble and hype? I mean, no.

As Fa Mulan, Yifei is fine. She keeps the quiet demeanor that would be required of a woman impersonating a male soldier, however there is nothing really captivating or special about her screen presence. I really couldn’t give very many adjectives to describe her character, or any characters here for that matter, and that is just one of the many areas where this film falls flat both on its own and compared to the original. The rest of the cast is solid, even though some lines (and seemingly all of Jet Li’s dialogue?) have awkward post-dubbing.

With $200 million to play with, Niki Caro has constructed a film that mostly looks great, with huge sets and sprawling battle sequences. From what I read about the production and what it looks like on-screen, much of the shoot was practical effects, so when we see dozens upon dozens of soldiers sprinting into armed conflict, that is all happening and you feel the adrenaline. Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker play with the camera, spinning it as bodies fall or weaving it between sparring men, and it certainly makes this one of the better-looking of the Disney live-action remakes.

The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is probably the standout here, having some nice epic moments but mostly nuanced (taking many beats from the original’s “Reflection” song). The original “Mulan” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score (back when they separated comedy and dramatic music) and this could very well follow suit.

The film’s biggest issues come from both what it left out from the original and what it replaced those things with. The original film featured great songs (who doesn’t love “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” or “True to Your Heart?”) and a scene-stealing Eddie Murphy voicing Mulan’s loyal dragon Mushu. This film opted to stay closer to the original story, so it makes sense that talking mythical creatures and soldiers breaking out into song wouldn’t fit the tone; ok fine. However they added a magical witch assisting the bad guys army (which aren’t even Huns led by Shan Yu, another seemingly needless change) and Mulan is followed by a phoenix, a sign of her ancestors watching over her. Neither of those are based in reality either, so it begs the question: who were these changes made for? Also now Mulan’s specialness and skills come from her relationship with Qi (ch’i), which is literally this film’s version of The Force from “Star Wars;” it’s just lazy.

The 2020 “Mulan” remake is solid enough on its own merit. It has fine acting and impressive set pieces, but I just don’t know who this film is really for. Fans of the original won’t like the creative liberties Caro and the screenwriters have taken, modern children likely won’t get too immersed in a PG-13 battle epic, and history buffs like me can’t even watch it from that lens. It is just another film-by-committee blockbuster that seems to be plaguing the industry, and since it is so instantly forgettable (I saw it under an hour ago and only remember highlights), it is certainly not worth the $30 Disney is charging on-top of the Disney+ monthly rate. In December the film will be made available “for free” to all subscribers, and maybe then this is worth checking out just to cross it off you Disney remake bingo board; but until then, Mulan can pack it up, go home, she’s through.

Critics Rating: 5/10

‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’ Review

A most excellent sequel, indeed!

“Bill & Ted Face the Music” is the longtime coming threequel to the original “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” from 1989. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves reprise their titular roles, as the duo must write a song to save the universe and reality as we know it. Kristen Schaal, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, and Holland Taylor join the cast, while Dean Parisot directs.

Long-delayed sequels rarely work out, and even less with comedies. You have to look no further than “Zoolander,” “Anchorman,” or “Finding Dory;” at worst these are abysmal follow-ups with no justification for their existence, at best they’re amusing sequels to an IP from 10+ years earlier in hopes of grabbing some nostalgia dollars. However sometimes delayed reunions can play out in a film’s favor, like “Die Hard 4,” “Scream 4” or this year’s “Bad Boys for Life” (I wasn’t a huge fan but many were). And as someone who really enjoyed my recent watch of the original 1989 film (I haven’t seen 1991’s “Bogus Journey”), I’m pleased to say “Face the Music” brings the same dumb jokes and lovable positivity to the table.

Ever since their last team-up in 1991, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters have taken different Hollywood paths. Reeves exploded into a star, leading blockbusters like “Speed” and “The Matrix,” while Winters slowly backed away from acting to pursue documentary filmmaking. You could never tell the pair had been apart for 29 years, much less that one of them hadn’t done any serious acting in years. The two still play their guitar-shredding “excellent!” surfer bro selves, and while they can say dumb things it is never overtly off-putting; it’s meant in good nature, and feels like something a human genuinely would say. At a few points Winters’ deliver seems off (he did take acting classes to fine-tune his craft before this), but Reeves often looks like a kid in a candy store returning to this role, and taking a break from killing men with pencils in the “John Wick” franchise.

The rest of the cast is a who’s who, mixing cameos from previous cast members (like Hal Landon Jr.) with new faces (like Kid Cudi). At points it feels like an actor’s directorial pet project that their friends decide to shoot a scene for, but the film uses everyone enough (mostly).

The plot is simple yet strangely convoluted, with Bill and Ted needing time find a reality-saving song from their future selves, their wives (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) looking at possible futures for themselves, and Bill and Ted’s daughters (Samara Weaving and a perfectly-cast-as-Keanu’s-daughter Brigette Lundy-Paine) have to collect famous musicians from throughout history to play the song.

For what it is, there’s not much wrong with “Bill & Ted Face the Music” if you know what you’re getting into. If you never liked of the originals then this won’t be the one to convert you, but fans (especially those who grew up on this series and are now essentially revisiting an old friend) will be pleased, and fans of silly and light humor should get a kick, too.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Antebellum’ Review

Sometimes there is just a world of difference between concept and execution.

“Antebellum” stars Janelle Monáe as a woman who must escape a slave plantation she is being held captive at. Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, and Gabourey Sidibe also star while Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz write and direct.

Like many other films, this was set to be theatrically released earlier this year but was later delayed and will now be a video-on-demand release. I was really looking forward to it after a short and moody trailer, which when partnered with producer Sean McKittrick, gave a “Get Out” vibe. And while “Antebellum” delivers on the creative premise the trailer set up, it leaves more to be developed when you peak behind the curtain.

Janelle Monáe is quietly one of the better actresses working today, delivering sensitive work in “Moonlight” and arguably the strongest performance of “Hidden Figures.” Here, Monáe gets to play both strong and confident, as well as subdued and terrified. There are a few moments of over-acting, but I would attribute that more to direction of the scene than Monáe’s acting abilities.

There are handful of other actors who show up for a few scenes, but none of them are really noteworthy outside Gabourey Sidibe. Sidibe plays Monáe’s loud-mouthed friend, and she is just such an annoying character (I have to imagine on purpose) that I really was put-off when she showed up.

Shot in Louisiana for about $15 million, the film looks pretty good, including a nice tracking shot around a Civil War-era plantation to open things up. The score by Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur is also solid, with a nice blend of anxious and haunting.

Where the film flounders most is the screenplay, written by Bush and Renz. This marks the duo’s feature directorial debut as well as their first script (they have made a career in music videos), and while it is far from the worst freshman effort, the film’s biggest weaknesses lie at the feet of these two. I can’t really say what my issues are here without getting into spoilers, but I will say the film has a twist that really isn’t all too twisty, and then they make almost no attempt to flesh out exactly *how* something like that could happen. They also break things up into three distinctive acts, and they just don’t really mesh well. Bush and Renz clearly had a vision they wanted to put on screen, but seem to have struggled on how exactly to make them all work.

The film also offers social commentary about modern race relations, but I think it doesn’t get much beneath surface-level, nor does it use genre blending like “Get Out” to start a discussion. Plus, this was shot in May 2019 and intended to come out this past April, both before the resurgence of the race dialect and issues that have boiled to the surface in our country in recent months. I don’t exactly think “Antebellum” will start a discussion or hold a mirror up to society as much as just have people go “yup, racism is bad and slavery was an atrocity, agreed.”

“Antebellum” features quality production value and a strong central performance from Janelle Monáe, but the inability to really flesh out its premise or fully deliver on either thrills, horror, or uncomfortable truths make this one a bit of a disappointment, but maybe still worth checking out if you check your expectations at the door.

Critics Rating: 5/10