Review: ‘Antebellum,’ starring Janelle Monáe

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Janelle Monáe in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

“Antebellum”

Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the American South, the horror film “Antebellum” has a cast of African American and white people representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: The world of a successful, modern-day African American woman is somehow linked to a Southern plantation where she and other African Americans are mistreated and abused as slaves.

Culture Audience: “Antebellum” will appeal primarily to people who might think that a horror movie about the brutality of slavery would have some insightful social commentary, but the horrific abuse in the film is mostly exploitation.

Gabourey Sidibe, Janelle Monáe and Lily Cowles in “Antebellum” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

You can almost hear the gimmick pitch that got “Antebellum” made into a movie: “Let’s make a horror film that’s like ’12 Years a Slave’ meets ‘Get Out.'” Unfortunately, “Antebellum” is nowhere near the quality or merit of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and “Get Out,” even though QC Entertainment (one of the production companies behind “Get Out”) is a production company for “Antebellum.”

The sad reality is that “Antebellum” just seems like an exploitative cash grab to attract Black Lives Matter supporters, but the movie is really a “bait and switch,” because there’s almost no social consciousness in the movie and nothing to be learned from the story. “Antebellum” is actually a very soulless and nonsensical horror flick that uses slavery as a way to just have repetitive scenes of African Americans being sadistically beaten, strangled and raped.

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, who have a background in directing commercials, co-wrote and co-directed “Antebellum,” which is their feature-film debut. Normally, it’s not necessary to mention the race of a filmmaker when reviewing a movie. But because “Antebellum” is about the triggering and controversial topics of racism, slavery and the exploitation of African Americans, it should be noted that Bush is African American and Renz is white.

Just because an African American co-wrote and co-directed this movie doesn’t excuse the problematic way that racist violence against African Americans is depicted in the movie. “Antebellum” has this racist violence for violence’s sake, with little regard to making any of the slaves, except for the movie’s main character, have any real substance. It’s the equivalent of a mindless slasher film that doesn’t care about having a good plot or well-rounded characters but just takes perverse pleasure in seeing how the victims get attacked, tortured and possibly killed.

The movie doesn’t waste any time showing this cruel violence, since the opening scene is of a male slave named Eli (played by Tongayi Chirisa) being separated from his love partner/wife named Amara (played by Achok Majak) by a group of plantation supervisors in Confederate military uniforms. The group is led by the evil racist Captain Jasper (played by Jack Huston), who takes pleasure in torturing Amara, who is lassoed with a rope around the neck when she tries to run away in the cotton field. You can easily guess what happens next.

People who’ve seen any “Antebellum” trailers or clips might wonder why the movie’s protagonist (played by Janelle Monáe) seems to be in two different worlds: In one world, she’s a slave on a plantation during the Civil War era. In another world, she’s a present-day, happily married mother of a young daughter.

To explain why she exists in these two worlds would be a major spoiler for the movie. But it’s enough to say that the explanation comes about halfway through the film, and it creates questions that are never really answered by the end of the movie. “Antebellum” is supposed to take place in different unnamed cities in the South. The movie was actually filmed in New Orleans.

In the plantation world, Monáe is a quietly defiant slave who is secretly planning to escape with some other slaves. She has been named Eden by the plantation’s sadistic owner who goes by the name “Him” (played by Eric Lange), who assaults her and burns her with a hot branding iron until she agrees that her name is Eden. Later, he rapes her. The real name of “Him” is revealed later in the movie.

We don’t see Eden do much plotting to escape in the movie, mainly because the slaves have been ordered not to talk to each other or else they will be punished. It’s implied that Eden is the self-appointed leader of this escape plan because another slave named Julia (played by Kiersey Clemons) arrives at the plantation and expects Eden to fill her in on the escape details.

Julia, who is pregnant, tells Eden that she heard that Eden is from Virginia. Julia says that she’s from North Carolina. Eden replies, “Wherever you came from before here, you need to forget North Carolina.” Julia says, “That’s not possible for me. What are we doing? What’s the plan?” Eden responds, “We must choose are own wisely. But until then, we must keep our heads down and our mouths shut.”

Later, when Julia becomes frustrated by what she thinks is Eden stalling or not doing anything to implement the escape plan, she angrily says to Eden: “You ain’t no leader. You’re just a talker.” And since Julia is pregnant, you can bet her pregnancy will be used as a reason to make any violence against her more heinous.

Meanwhile, Captain Jasper has an equally racist wife named Elizabeth (played by Jena Malone), who is as ice-cold as her husband is quick-tempered. It’s implied, but not said outright, that she knows he rapes the female slaves. In an early scene in the movie, Elizabeth recoils when Jasper leans in to kiss her. She sniffs, as if to smell him, and says with a slightly disgusted tone, “Hmm. You started early.”

Meanwhile, the modern-day character played by Monáe is a sociologist and best-selling author named Veronica Henley, whose specialty is in social justice issues related to race. And in this story, she’s promoting her book “Shedding the Coping Persona,” which is about marginalized people learning to be their authentic selves instead of pretending to be something they’re not to please their oppressors. Veronica is well-educated (she has a Ph. D. and is a graduate of Spelman College and Columbia University) and she’s happily married. She’s prominent enough to have debates on national TV about topics such as racism and African American empowerment.

Veronica and her husband Nick (played by Marque Richardson) have an adorable daughter who’s about 5 or 6 years old named Kennedi (played by London Boyce), who’s very inquisitive and perceptive. After the family watches a debate-styled interview that Veronica did on TV with a conservative white male pundit (whose profession is listed “eugenics expert/professor”), Kennedi asks Veronica why the man was so angry. Veronica replies, “Sometimes what looks like anger is really just fear.”

Nick is the type of doting husband and father who will make breakfast for Veronica and Kennedi. Meanwhile, Veronica confides in her sassy single friend Dawn (played by Gabourey Sidibe) that she often feels guilty about being away from home when she has to work. Dawn reassures Veronica that she’s a great wife and mother and tells Veronica not to be too hard on herself. (Dawn, who is assertive and outspoken, has some of the best and funniest lines in the movie.)

Veronica has to go out of town to attend an African American-oriented conference called VETA, where she is a guest speaker. Dawn lives in the area, so they make plans to have dinner with Dawn’s friend Sarah (played by Lily Cowles), who is also single and available. Before Veronica meets up with them, she gets a bouquet of flowers delivered to her at her hotel. The flowers have a note that says, “Look forward to your homecoming.”

Veronica assumes that the gift is from Nick. But since this is a horror movie, viewers can easily figure out that Nick did not send those flowers. Some other strange things happen in the hotel room when Veronica isn’t there. And then, something happens after that dinner that explains how the plantation world and the modern world are connected.

Monáe does an adequate job in the role that she’s been given. And the movie’s cinematography, production design and costume design are actually very good. The actors who play the racists predictably portray them as caricatures of evil. The insidiousness of a lot of racists is that they hide their hate with fake smiles and polite mannerisms to the people they hate, but there’s no such subtlety in this story, since all of the villains are revealed early on in the story.

The biggest problem with “Antebellum” is the screenplay. The ending of the movie is absolutely ludicrous and it actually makes the African Americans in the story look dumb for not taking certain actions that could have been taken earlier. Therefore, “Antebellum” isn’t as uplifting to African Americans as it likes to think it is.

The tone of the movie is also uneven, because the slavery scenes are absolutely dark and brutal. But then the scenes with Sidibe and her sitcom-ish character are very out of place and dilute the intended horror of the movie. Sidibe is very good in the role, but the Dawn character was written as too comedic for this type of movie. And huge stretches of “Antebellum” are just plain boring, with no real suspense.

However, the main ridiculousness of “Antebellum” goes back to that plantation and the secret that’s revealed at the end of the movie. If people want to see the horrors of slavery depicted in an Oscar-worthy narrative film, then watch “12 Years a Slave.” Don’t watch “Antebellum,” which uses slavery as an exploitative gimmick as the basis for this moronic and not-very-scary horror movie.

Lionsgate released “Antebellum” on VOD on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Palm Springs,’ starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons

July 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in “Palm Springs” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Palm Springs”

Directed by Max Barbakow

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Palm Springs, California, and briefly in other parts of the U.S., the comedy film “Palm Springs” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A single man and a single woman find themselves in a repetitive time loop where they keep waking up to the wedding day of the woman’s younger sister in Palm Springs, California.

Culture Audience: “Palm Springs” will appeal to primarily people who like offbeat “time warp” comedies, but much of the vulgar humor lacks wit or originality.

Meredith Hagner and Andy Samberg in “Palm Springs” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

A blatant and vastly inferior ripoff of the 1993 Bill Murray classic comedy “Groundhog Day,” the time-loop comedy film “Palm Springs” might be interesting to fans of star Andy Samberg, but everyone else will feel like they’re stuck watching a repetitive time-loop skit get less funny as time goes on. A sardonic supporting performance by the always-great J.K. Simmons isn’t enough to save this smug film, which isn’t as clever as the filmmakers like to think it is.

People who follow news in the entertainment industry might be aware that the Hulu comedy film “Palm Springs” broke a Sundance Film Festival record for the highest amount paid ($17.5 million and 69 cents) to acquire a film that premiered at Sundance. The previous record holder was Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million purchase of the 2016 drama “Birth of a Nation,” actor Nate Parker’s feature-film directorial debut.

The record-breaking sum that Hulu paid for “Palm Springs” would lead people to believe that this movie, which clearly won’t be an Oscar contender, is at least on par with a crowd-pleasing classic, such as director Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” a movie about a weatherman who’s stuck in a Groundhog Day time loop. Unfortunately, “Palm Springs” (directed by Max Barbakow and written by Andy Siara) doesn’t come close to the charm and memorable humor of “Groundhog Day.”

It’s pretty obvious that the overrated “Palm Springs” was sold for an overpriced amount because movie executives got caught up in a bidding war for a mediocre film. When has Samberg ever starred in a quality movie that was a big hit with audiences? Never. “Palm Springs” certainly won’t be his first “blockbuster” hit.

In “Palm Springs,” Sandberg plays an obnoxious ne’er do well named Nyles, who is stuck in a time loop where he keeps waking up to November 9, the day of a wedding that he is supposed to attend with his girlfriend Misty (played by Meredith Hagner), a stereotypical ditsy blonde who is one of the bridesmaids. Viewers won’t find out about this time loop until after the first time that the movie shows Nyles at the wedding.

The wedding is taking place in the upscale desert vacation city of Palm Springs, California. The bride is Tala (played by Camila Mendes), the groom is Abe (played by Tyler Hoechlin) and the maid of honor is Tala’s divorced older sister Sarah (played by Cristin Milioti), who looks and acts like she’d rather be anywhere else but the wedding. The proud parents of the bride are Howard (played by Peter Gallagher) and Pia (played by Jacqueline Obradors), who don’t do much except look horrified at some of the silly antics that later ensue in the story. And then there’s Nana Schlieffen (played by June Squibb), the token matronly grandmother at the wedding.

Nyles, Misty and Sarah are all staying at the same hotel. When Nyles wakes up in the hotel on the day of the wedding, Misty has just come out of the shower and is putting lotion on her legs. Nyles wants to have sex, and Misty agrees, but only if they make it quick because she says she doesn’t want to get too sweaty. A predictable erection joke is part of this scene, which sets the tone for the rest of this movie. “Palm Springs” makes a lot of crude jokes about sex, but most of the jokes aren’t very funny.

At the wedding, Nyles stands out (and not in a good way) because he’s wearing clothes that are too casual: a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. At the reception, Misty makes an awkward wedding speech, and then it’s Sarah turn to give her speech. Even though she’s the maid of honor, a miserable-looking Sarah seems shocked that she’s expected to make a toast to the bride and groom.

But before she gets a chance to make the speech, Nyles butts in and makes a speech that’s even more cringeworthy than Misty’s speech. What Nyles has to say is both overly sappy and nonsensical. He ends it by stating to the newly married couple: “We may be born lost, but now you are found.”

After that, Nyles (who is constantly chugging beer from beer cans) and Sarah strike up a conversation. Nyles flirts heavily with Sarah and asks her if she wants to go somewhere private with him for a quickie tryst. Sarah tells him that he’s being very forward, but she’s intrigued by his boldness.

While Nyles and Sarah are outside, they pass by a bathroom where the reception is being held. The bathroom is on the ground level, and they can clearly see into the bathroom’s window (this place clearly doesn’t care about guests’ privacy), where they witness Misty cheating with a wedding guest named Trevor (played by Chris Pang). Trevor, who’s dressed in a glittery cowboy suit at the wedding, is one of those quirky characters that was written in this movie in its failed attempt to be like a Wes Anderson comedy.

Now that Sarah knows that Nyles’ girlfriend/wedding date doesn’t really care about him, Sarah takes Nyles up on his offer to hook up with him out in the desert. Before that happens, Sarah tells Nyles that she’s the “black sheep” of her family, because her family thinks she’s a “liability” who thinks “I fuck around and drink too much.”

While Sarah and Nyles are having a steamy makeout session, Nyles suddenly gets wounded on his shoulder by an arrow. Out of the shadows, a man wearing dark camouflage paint on his face starts to chase Nyles with a bow and arrow, while Sarah freaks out and is confused at what’s going on. It turns out that the angry bow-and-arrow hunter is named Roy (played by J.K. Simmons), and Roy wants revenge on Nyles for a reason that’s revealed later in the story.

Meanwhile, during this chase scene, Nyles runs into a cave where there’s a strange glowing red light. Sarah follows Nyles into the cave. And it turns out this mysterious cave is the portal that causes a time-loop that keeps going back to November 9. Now that Sarah has gone into the cave, she’s stuck in the time loop with Nyles too. Just like Nyles, every time Sarah now wakes up, it’s in the Palm Springs hotel on the November 9 wedding day.

“Palm Springs” has a lot of slapstick humor to distract from the uninspired dialogue in the movie. After Sarah finds out that she’s stuck in the same time loop as Nyles, much of the film is about Sarah being angry with Nyles because she feels that she didn’t deserve to be unknowingly trapped in the loop.

Nyles has been in the loop long enough to warn Sarah that attempts to get out of the loop have failed. Committing suicide doesn’t work. (Although an idea presented later in the story contradicts that theory.) It also doesn’t work to take stimulant drugs that keep people up for days. Traveling to another city (which Sarah does when she drives all the way back to her messy house in Austin, Texas) also doesn’t get them out of loop either.

The movie never explains what Nyles did for a living before he got caught in the time loop, but he’s reached a point of feeling resigned about his fate in the loop. Therefore, he acts as recklessly and obnoxiously as possible (including breaking several laws), because he knows that when he wakes up, he’ll be back in that Palm Springs hotel room on the November 9 wedding day.

Nyles also tells Sarah that being stuck in the time loop has caused him to feel free to have sexual hookups with as many people as possible, including three people who keep showing up in this story: a bartender named Daisy (played by Jena Friedman), who works at the wedding reception; Darla (played by Dale Dickey) a crusty regular at a local bar; and fashionable Jerry (played by Tongayi Chirisa), one of the wedding guests.

At first, Sarah gets caught up in being as “bad” as possible, so a great deal of the movie shows Sarah and Nyles acting like drunken, irresponsible teenagers. But Sarah soon grows tired of these shenanigans and wants to get out of the loop and back to her normal life. It goes without saying that Sarah and Nyles start to have romantic feelings for each other, so Nyles is conflicted about Sarah wanting to leave the loop while he might remain stuck there.

Unfortunately for “Palm Springs,” the chemistry between Samberg and Milioti isn’t very believable when Nyles and Sarah start to become a romantic couple. Milioti seems to be doing her best to bring some laughs to the story, but Sarah is such a deeply unhappy, self-loathing person that it’s hard to believe that Sarah can fall in love when she doesn’t even love herself.

Parts of “Palm Springs” seem like a more adult-language version of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that’s worn out its welcome. Samberg, who’s a “Saturday Night Live” alum, has the same type of one-note “man child” persona that he had on the show. It’s the same persona that Pete Davidson has also taken as part of his comedic image.

A comedy with this “time loop” concept should be fun to watch, but “Palm Springs” is a chore to watch because the two main characters don’t have charismatic personalities. Huge stretches of “Palm Springs” drag on for too long. And even the movie’s visual effects look cheap and clunky.

The best thing about “Palm Springs” is how the “travelogue” type of cinematography (from Quyen Tran) makes a vacation in Palm Springs look very enticing. But people can watch attractive travel videos for free on the Internet, and this movie isn’t supposed to be a travel video.

People aren’t going to sign up for Hulu en masse to watch this movie, so “Palm Springs” certainly wasn’t worth the $17.5 million price tag. “Palm Springs” is not only a waste of Hulu’s money but it’s also a waste of viewers’ time, unless people have a high tolerance for Samberg’s recycled “man child” persona.

Hulu premiered “Palm Springs” on July 10, 2020