Following a Sundance Film Festival debut in January, Netflix unveiled Come Sunday, its true-life religious story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, over the weekend on its streaming service and in some theaters. I caught it Sunday (naturally), but the low-energy dramatics didnt grab me, with the exception of the lead performance from the always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson, a media-age preacher caught up in a crisis of conscience.
Based on This American Lifes segment entitled “Heretics” that focused on Pearson and the controversial decision to tell his flock that Hell doesnt exist, director Joshua Marston (who made an impressive first film in 2004 with Maria Full of Grace but has largely worked in television since) and screenwriter Marcus Hinchey struggle to give the compelling true story of Pearson some much-needed dramatic mojo. A little more life should have been poured into the biopic which, appropriately for Netflix if not Sundance, plays more like a TV movie. As I say though in my video review above, it is the dedicated work of Ejiofor that makes this worth watching.
Pearson is the charismatic preacher who presides over the Higher Dimensions ministry in Tulsa, OK. It is one of those massive churches, complete with TV cameras, a huge gospel choir, and mega congregation that latches on to every word of Pearsons towering sermons — until they dont. An unfortunate visit with a prisoner relative (Danny Glover) trying to get parole with Pearsons help doesnt go well, and the man ends up killing himself shortly afterwards. There is guilt about that but, also, after watching scenes of African children starving, he has an epiphany and battle with God, wondering what kind of God could allow this suffering, as well as even the possibility of a Hell. He tells the congregation that Hell doesnt exist, setting off a crisis for the business of the church as well as outrage from his followers who begin to ostracize him.
This leads to a rift with his friend and church manager (Jason Segel), and the aforementioned crisis of conscience. Scenes with his mentor and spiritual guidance counselor Oral Roberts (an excellent Martin Sheen, in for a few scenes) are well played and demonstrate how carefully — and politically — the cards have to be played in this game to succeed. All of this also causes great conflict and consternation with Pearsons wife (Condola Rashad) as his marriage starts to go to hell (figuratively speaking, of course). Then there is the subplot involving church organist Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), who is revealed to be HIV-positive. This section, including a moving scene later in the film between Pearson and Reggie, also reveals the existing hypocrisy involving gay members of the church.
Stanfield is also standout here, but the film is just too uneven in tone and message to be wholly effective despite offering an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of one of these huge religious enterprises; only the converted will be totally engaged. Others may struggle to keep their eyes open with Marstons uninspired direction, but Ejiofor does everything possible to keep us interested. Sometimes a little more Elmer Gantry can be a good thing. Producers are Ira Glass, Julie Goldstein, Alissa Shipp and James D. Stern.
One other note to Netflix: Please stop cutting off the end credits to promote some other movie on your service. You are not a broadcast network that has to keep us tuned in to whatever is next. Flipping to a trailer for some French comedy almost immediately as the credits rolled and Marstons name appeared is not cool — for either the filmmakers or the audience. Can you say annoying?
Do you plan to see Come Sunday? Let us know what you think.
‘Antebellum’ has a ‘Get Out’ vibe, but doesn’t live up to its twist
“Antebellum” is built around a provocative twist, and it’s a good one — as well as one that definite..
“Antebellum” is built around a provocative twist, and it’s a good one — as well as one that definitely shouldn’t be spoiled even a little. Once that revelation is absorbed, however, the movie becomes less distinctive and inspired, reflecting an attempt to tap into the zeitgeist that made “Get Out” a breakthrough, without the same ability to pay off the premise.
Originally destined for a theatrical run, the movie hits digital platforms trumpeting a “Get Out” pedigree in its marketing campaign, since there’s an overlap among the producing teams.
More directly, the film marks the directing debut of Gerard Bush + Christopher Renz, who have championed social-justice issues through their advertising work. The opening script features a quote from author William Faulkner, whose intent will eventually become clearer: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
If that sounds like a timely means of drawing a line from the horrors of slavery to the racism of today, you’ve come to the right place.
The story begins on a plantation, where the brutal overseers carry out grisly punishments against those tilling the fields. A few have just tried to escape, led by Veronica (Janelle Monae), and they pay a heavy price for their resistance, which does nothing to curb her defiance.
Also written by Bush + Renz, the script take too long before revealing what makes “Antebellum” different, but the middle portion — a “The Twilight Zone”-like phase when it’s hard to be sure exactly what’s going on — is actually the film’s strongest. (Even the trailer arguably gives away too much, so the less one knows, the better.)
The final stretch, by contrast, veers into more familiar thriller territory, and feels especially rushed toward the end, leaving behind a host of nagging, unanswered questions. That provides food for thought, but it’s also what separates the movie from something like “Get Out,” which deftly fleshed out its horror underpinnings.
Although the filmmakers (in a taped message) expressed disappointment that the movie wasn’t making its debut in theaters, in a strange way, the on-demand format somewhat works in its favor. In the press notes, Bush says the goal was “to force the audience to look at the real-life horror of racism through the lens of film horror. We’re landing in the middle of the very conversations that we hoped ‘Antebellum’ would spur.”
“Antebellum” should add to that discussion, so mission accomplished on that level. Monae is also quite good in her first leading film role (she did previously star in the series “Homecoming’s” second season), but otherwise, most of the characters remain underdeveloped.