Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references. Available for VOD rental.
The cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, and Gabourey Sidibe.
What it’s about: In a dual role of sorts, Monáe plays Eden, a slave enduring horrific treatment on an antebellum plantation, as well as Dr. Veronica Henley, a successful author and motivational speaker in the present day. How these two characters are connected is at the center of a mystery in which the past and present collide in ugly ways.
The good: Monáe is quite strong, doing her best to add depth and weight to a character who wasn’t written with any. Malone and Huston try to do the same with their smirking, scenery-chewing villains, but there’s only so much these actors can do when they exist more as ideas than actual people. Sidibe shows up for a few minutes to be funny and charming, but even that is diminished by the fact that it feels like she teleported in from a different, much better film.
One thing’s for sure — “Antebellum” is a beautiful movie about anguish and brutality. The lavish production design, stunning imagery, and stellar cinematography (the opening scene is a long take that draws attention to itself rather than contributes anything of narrative value) make it clear that Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (who co-directed and wrote the screenplay) got their start making commercials and music videos.
The not-so-good: I’m not sure “Antebellum” is the kind of movie that “needs” to be beautiful. It’s disconcerting to see yet another movie that depicts — in graphic, slasher flick detail — the torture of Black bodies against the backdrop of a golden, sun-kissed estate for no deeper message than “slavery is bad.”
Don’t get me wrong, the modern era still needs to hear that message. However, “Antebellum” doesn’t provide any real context or add anything new to add to the conversation. That’s especially true once you realize the entire narrative is built around a “shocking” plot twist that most viewers will probably guess long before it’s revealed.
Once that scene plays out, everything that was hanging by a thread comes totally undone. That’s when I got the sinking feeling that Bush and Renz had five or six images in mind and crafted a plot around them. But if the story doesn’t warrant the power of those images, it ends up feeling like a cheat. Basically, if “Get Out” wasn’t smart or nuanced, it would be “Antebellum.”
Rated PG-13 for some violence. Available on Netflix starting Sept. 23.
The cast: Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Sam Clafin, Louis Partridge and Helena Bonham Carter.
What it’s about: On the morning of her 16th birthday, Enola Holmes (Brown) discovers that her mother (Carter) has disappeared, leaving behind a few gifts but no apparent clue to her whereabouts. Now under the care of her brothers Sherlock (Cavill) and Mycroft (Claflin), she takes off for London when she learns they’re planning to send her to boarding school. Determined to find her mother, she ends up in the middle of another mystery: figuring out why someone is trying to murder her new friend, a young runaway Lord (Partridge).
The good: Brown, who landed on most pop culture fans’ radars with her breakout performance in “Stranger Things,” is a natural movie star. As the titular Enola Holmes (based on Nancy Springer’s YA novel series), Brown is witty, charismatic and forms a fast bond with the audience thanks to breaking the fourth wall in endearing fashion. That move is always a gamble, but it works perfectly here.
“Enola Holmes” would probably still be a delight even if Brown were the only selling point. But she’s backed by an equally fantastic cast, particularly Carter as the eccentric Holmes matriarch, who has raised three brilliant, fiercely independent children, all with distinct personalities.
Cavill is clearly having a blast as the most famous Holmes, putting his own stamp on a character who is still fresh in viewers’ minds thanks to recent adaptations starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Jonny Lee Miller, Ian McKellen, and (shudder) Will Ferrell. Cavill’s version of the detective isn’t as flashy as those, but it’s not designed to be. He’s here to support Enola, not upstage her.
The not-so-good: At just over two hours, “Enola Holmes” is a bit shaggy thanks to a drawn-out second act. I watched a screener with my daughter, and I could tell she was getting antsy about 50 minutes in. However, once the central mysteries were established and Enola began to solve them, the movie had her attention again.
“The Way I See It”
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Now playing in select theaters.
The cast: Pete Souza, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, and Doris Kearnes Goodwin.
What it’s about: Souza, who served as the official White House photographer for presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, was an eyewitness to the unique and immense responsibilities of being one of the most powerful people on Earth. As the film chronicles what it’s like to capture so much of modern U.S. history, it also offers an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at two of our nation’s most iconic leaders.
The good: Dawn Porter, who also directed the excellent “John Lewis: Good Trouble” earlier this year, crafts a compelling narrative of a man who put personal politics aside for what he felt was a higher calling: capturing a “first draft of history” and chronicling the joys and sorrows that come with the power of the American presidency. There is a nonstop cascade of stunning images, while Souza narrates the context of what was going on when the photos were snapped.
One moment, it’s endearing footage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan playfully bickering about how to pose in front of a tree. In another, it’s Souza choking back sobs as he explains that chronicling history isn’t always easy, particularly when he had to watch through his camera as Barack Obama grieved with parents who lost their children in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
For fans of history and politics, the film “The Way I See It” is a must-watch simply for the sheer number of incredible images.
The not-so-good: Some will take issue with the film’s shift in perspective toward the end. That’s when Souza explains how his career changed once Donald Trump became president. The once-reserved photographer says he could no longer remain silent when he believed the dignity of the office was threatened, so he began to use his substantial archive to critique the current president by comparing him to his predecessors.
Some viewers will consider this a sharp, creative way for Souza to exercise his First Amendment rights. Others will likely view it as a disrespectful low blow. Your feelings on “The Way I See It” will ultimately depend on how well you handle a documentary that affirms or rejects your personal politics.