Arts + Scene » Screens

The Bad Old Days

Ava and Antebellum



AVA. There is certain cold, maybe sick comfort in watching a new, distinctly middle-of-the-road American action movie with an incidental plot and almost interchangeable heroes and villains. It helps to have a couple of knock-down, drag-out fight scenes and at least one sympathetic character in some sort of existential crisis. Throw in some actors I like and I've got 90 minutes to return to objectively better times and almost forget the state of things. The fact that I'm in my living room, while a reminder of the reality of the moment, is also soothing, like those Thundershirts nervous dogs wear.

In its defense, Ava does indeed offer at least a modicum of enjoyment: a throwback to the heyday of action movies, of lowered expectations, of slipping into a warm bath of middling cinematic violence and shutting out the world. Beyond that, though, it's a mess — surprising it made it to the screen at all. It boasts some pedigree with Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and John Malkovich in lead roles, and Geena Davis and Common supporting. And director Tate Taylor, who has an uncanny ability to render interesting or prickly subjects almost completely antiseptic, nevertheless has made a lot of money for a lot of people over the years, even helping drum up Academy Award nominations. That's fairly heavy backing for a story that we've seen most, if not all of repeated countless times.

Ava (Chastain) is a top-tier assassin in the service of a shadowy, deep-pocketed organization. Is it a private company or a government agency? Never revealed, in what I imagine is supposed to be a stroke of subtle messaging but feels more like untidy plotting. Anyway, she wears wigs and kills prominent international players in business, military and governmental affairs. We learn, in one of many expository speeches that comprise the script, that she has in fact been paid to kill 41 people. We also learn, in the montage over which the opening credits play, that Ava left a troubled, alcoholic life in Boston to join the Army, where she found both a calling and her teacher/handler Duke (Malkovich). We'll learn later that she also left a fiancé, who has since become engaged to her sister. At this presumably late stage of her career, Ava has developed pangs of conscience and has taken to asking her "subjects" (read: victims) what they have done to deserve her ministrations. Seems rather innocent, if unlikely, but it's enough to get her on an intra-agency kill list. All during a fateful trip back to hometown Boston to reconcile with her sister (who also seems to have booze issues), former fiancé (gambling addict) and hospitalized mother (passive aggressive control freak, also a drinker) in the wake of her father's sudden death. In case you missed it, the screenplay would like to remind us lives are complicated.

Chastain has always struck me as cool and mannered, knowing just how much to hold back in a performance. Not so much here but I can't really parse whether she is ill-suited to the role or the role is ill-constructed, or the direction misguided. I suspect it's a little (or a lot) of each. There are a few mildly exciting action sequences but the scale seems off. Even Farrell, slashing away with knives, drawing a guy in a lake and using his own accent, doesn't come off nearly as maniacal as the movie seems to attempt to make him. There's too much and not enough, the plot loaded with unnecessary details and light on propulsive elements, so that the whole thing feels stiff-legged and unnatural, its curses sounding foreign in its mouth. R. 96M. STREAMING.

ANTEBELLUM. The creators of this, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz — they wrote, directed and produced — come from the world of advertising and have cited Stanley Kubrick as their primary cinematic influence. Both attributes become evident within the first frames of Antebellum. It opens with a painstakingly composed Steadicam shot through a cotton plantation, past columns of Confederate soldiers to an officer on horseback chasing down a woman, presumably a runaway slave. It's all very filmic and intentional and set against a conventional, full-throated orchestral score. It's effective but it also feels very much like part of an elevator pitch.

As a first effort, Antebellum is undeniably impressive. It is provocative and engaging and sometimes almost exhilarating. But the makers of the thing haven't learned to kill their darlings, or that less is more in longer-form storytelling. There's so much going on that it undermines both the plot (which is clever and original) and the impact of the movie as a whole.

Note: I'm ommiting a plot summary because there isn't really a way to describe it without destroying the effect. Janelle Monae stars, with Gabourey Sidibe doing great comedic work in a perhaps misconceived supporting role.

To be fair, I like what Bush and Renz — Renz+Bush, professionally — are working toward. They want to use popular cinema as a platform both for genre storytelling and social justice, for which I can't support them enough. And for the wider audience, the influences might not show through as clearly as they do to this particular armchair cynic. R. 105M. STREAMING.

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