Reel Opinions


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Antebellum


In Antebellum, the feature length debut of the writing and directing team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, I got the sense that the duo are skilled filmmakers and visual artists.  As the film went on, I also got the sense that they have a long way to go when it comes to storytelling.  This is a thriller that desperately wants to make a statement.  But, by the end, I found myself asking just what that statement really was.  And, was what I was watching really all that Bush and Renz had to say in the end?

But before all that happens, there is something to get excited about right from the start.  The movie opens with a gorgeous, long and intriguing tracking shot of the camera starting at the deceptively docile facade of a Southern Plantation mansion, where a little girl casually picks flowers for her mother.  As the camera continues to move past this scene, we see Confederate Civil War soldiers marching along and abusing some of the slaves who work on the Plantation.  The camera still continues to show the deplorable conditions of the slaves.  We have gone from false beauty and tranquility, to harsh reality in one unbroken shot.  You get the sense that Bush and Renz really wanted to make their mark with their first studio film.  They have swung for the fences here, and I applaud them.  

Much like how that opening shows us what's really going on behind the beautiful imagery, the movie itself soon reveals that there is very little that the duo are trying to say.  They have dressed their film up beautifully, and given us strong performances, but it's practically all cliches and half-baked notions underneath.  There is surprisingly little emotion or true anger here.  They are simply regurgitating imagery from every movie about slavery made in the past few decades.  We learn nothing about the people inhabiting this story.  They are simply filling the roles required.  Our lead character is Eden (Janelle MonĂ¡e), a frightened black woman who has tried to escape from the Plantation in the past, and has the hot iron brand upon her skin to show it.  She lives a pitiful existence where she picks cotton all day under the watchful eye of the cruel and usually drunken soldier (Jack Huston), and at night the equally despicable Confederate leader known only as "Him" (Eric Lange), beats her and then frequently forces himself upon her until he gets tired.

Then, in a twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, the movie switches gears on us, and shows us Eden in the present day, where she is now called Veronica, a respected lecturer on black women's rights, as well as a devoted wife and mother.  She lives in a sleek and beautiful upscale home with a husband (Marque Richardson) and daughter (London Boyce), makes frequent appearances on Cable News where she successfully argues her opinions against narrow-minded old bigots on TV, and has legions of fans through her books.  Of course, even in the present day, all the money and power that Veronica holds means little to certain people.  When she checks into a fancy hotel for her book tour, she still has to deal with a narrow minded concierge who books her the worst table at a trendy restaurant when she tries to have a night out with her two best girl friends.

So, what is really going on here?  Are Eden and Veronica the same person somehow?  Is there something paranormal, or some kind of time travel element at work here?  All intriguing options for a thriller that wants to explore the idea of race relations and issues, and all options that Bush and Renz have decided to completely ignore.  Instead, they go for a much more disappointing answer that becomes even more disappointing when you realize they're not really interested in answering or explaining anything that they introduce into their story.  Yes, we do get a basic explanation as to what is going on, but it raises more questions than answers.  I wish I could go into more detail, as I think many of the film's problems stem from just how undeveloped the revelation to all of this is.  I could just put a Spoiler Warning at the top of this review, and go to town, but I don't like doing that.

If a disappointing plot twist and undeveloped ideas were all that was wrong with Antebellum, it would just be a disappointment, but it goes deeper than that.  This is a movie that trots out ugly imagery with nothing to say about it.  In the opening moments, we witness a slave girl trying to make her escape before she is lassoed around her neck (in slow motion, so we get to see every detail) by a soldier, and then is shot by her pursuer.  There is no anger or statement.  The filmmakers are just showing us cruel images that we have seen in other movies about slavery.  Nothing here resonates, because we know nothing about these people.  Even when the truth as to what is going on is revealed, we're given little information about the people involved.  So, we're just watching random acts of cruelty.


This is the kind of movie where you see what the filmmakers are trying to do, but they don't quite have the vision to take their idea as far as it can go.  They're holding back here, and simply giving us the bare minimum.  So, while Bush and Renz show that they have a keen visual eye, they also show that they are less strong when it comes to the key issues of character, plot and coherency. 

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Monday, September 07, 2020

Mulan


The live action remake of Mulan is a strong example of what a remake should be.  It retains the basic skeleton of the earlier movie (in this case, the 1998 animated Disney film), recreates some iconic moments, and also adds some new ideas.  In this case, the movie also finds other ways to create its own identity, such as giving it the look and majesty of a Chinese war epic, and adding some thrilling and well choreographed fight scenes.  It's still not going to replace the animated film in the heart of any fan, but in all honesty, this is probably the best remake we could have hoped for, and easily the best one Disney has done since 2016's criminally underrated Pete's Dragon.

Unfortunately, the film is being hidden behind a $30 "Premiere Access" fee on the Disney+ subscription streaming service.  What this means is that even if you are a current subscriber to the service, you cannot watch Mulan unless you pay up the extra fee.  Is it worth it?  Given that this movie is currently the only thing you get with the Premiere Access, I would say hardly.  Still, you do at least get unlimited access to it until the movie is set to leave Premiere Access on November 2nd.    After that, the movie is going to be free to all subscribers a month later on December 4th.  So, obviously, if you are a subscriber and can hold out until December 4th, that would be the smart thing to do.  Disney claims that the whole Premiere Access thing is an experiment they may implement in the future.  I say it's a way for the studio to make some extra money, given the current economic situation with the pandemic is bleeding them dry, and Mulan was a very expensive movie for them to make, so they want to make some kind of extra profit off of it.

That bit of corporate greed aside, let's look at the film itself, which is an often dazzling mix of traditional storytelling and some truly inspiring special effects, along with some amazing stunt work.  Throw in a cast of veteran actors, led by a star-making turn by Yifei Liu in the title role, and you have an absolute entertainment package that is kind of hard to resist.  Some fans of the animated film have complained that the heart of the story is missing, but I could not disagree more.  There is a very strong heart to be found here, and that is Mulan's journey from a young, playful prankster who likes to pick on her younger sister (a new addition to the story) and chase after runaway chickens, to a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, and is a steal-willed warrior who can lead a small band of soldiers.  This transformation is the center of director Niki Caro's (The Zookeeper's Wife) vision, and it is consistently strong throughout the film.

As Mulan, Yifei Liu is put through a wide range of emotions.  And while at certain points her emotions do seem just a little muted, or don't come across as strong as they should, she has just as many scenes of great emotional power, such as a scene late in the film when she finally collapses emotionally after everything she has had to endure to hide her identity.  She also handles the many scenes where she has to partake in elaborate martial arts and horse-riding stunts with enormous energy.  There are some thrilling images here, especially the recreation of the avalanche scene from the animated film.  However, just watching the film's elaborate sets, like Mulan's home village, and the gorgeous details of the costumes is more than enough to make just looking at this a joy.  This is easily the most beautiful of the live action Disney remakes, and Caro shows a remarkable eye for detail and color here.

As for the story, it's basically what you remember from the earlier effort, with some effective new elements added.  And while the film does have a slightly less fantasy and comedy angle than you might remember (there are no wise-cracking dragons here), there are still plenty of fantastical elements, such as a shape-shifting witch named Xianniang (a wonderful Gong Li) who serves as not only a thrilling antagonist for the heroine, but also adds an extra emotional current to the story.  Just like before, Mulan is a young girl who would rather race through the fields on her horse than settle down into the traditional role of a silent wife.  Her father (Tzi Ma) is very proud of his brave girl, but he also knows that his wife (Rosalind Chao) is right when she tells him "a daughter brings honor through marriage".  

Around this same time, a man by the name of Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) is gathering an army to overthrow the Emperor of China (Jet Li) in order to claim revenge on the death of his father, whom the Emperor killed years ago in an earlier uprising attempt.  The imperial forces must build an army to combat Khan's growing forces, and asks that every family contribute one son to serve as a soldier.  Since Mulan's family has no sons, her father (a wounded war veteran himself) decides to take up the call.  Knowing that her father will be killed in battle, Mulan makes the brash decision to disguise herself as a man, and take his place in the army.  The film explores her budding relationships with some of the soldiers, as long as her efforts not to bathe in front of the other men so that they won't find out the truth. (This leads to a running gag with the men frequently telling Mulan that she reeks.) 


All of this will be familiar to fans of the earlier film, but the most exciting element that the screenwriters add is the addition of the previously mentioned sorceress, Xianniang.  She is aiding Bori Khan in his mission, and uses her powers of magic to manipulate and control her enemies.  However, she is not your standard villain, as the movie gives her a deep emotional core, as well as a personal connection to Mulan that makes things much more complicated when they meet in battle.  Like the heroine, Xianniang is a woman who has largely been shunned because of her abilities.  But then, when she begins to see her enemy being accepted by her fellow soldiers, even after Mulan has revealed her true identity to them, Xianniang feels some envy, because she knows she will never be accepted by Khan, who mostly views her as a servant.  This not only adds an interesting layer to the story that previously was not there, but it makes the villains of the story much more interesting than before.  


If I have any complaints regarding Mulan, it is that I only wish I could have seen it the way it was intended, on the biggest screen possible.  Having to watch it on a laptop screen remains a beautiful experience, but it definitely loses something.  Niki Caro was going for a large epic here, and she definitely succeeded.  It's harrowing, emotional, exciting, and ultimately a grand achievement.  If you can hold out three months for when the movie will be released for all subscribers, I strongly recommend looking this up.

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