Movie Review ~ Harriet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.

Stars: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles, Clarke Peters, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Zackary Momoh, Deborah Ayorinde, Vondie Curtis-Hall

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Rated: PG-13 minutes

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s been over 40 years since the last time there was a movie about the life of Harriet Tubman.  I had to check to make sure because I couldn’t quite believe her story hadn’t been told at length on film since the 1978 television movie A Woman Called Moses starring Cicely Tyson.  Yet, it’s true.   Though Tubman has had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years having been featured on the now-cancelled series Underground and was chosen to replace notorious slave-owner Andrew Jackson on the $20 in 202 (though those plans have now been put on hold because the current administration happens to like Jackson where he is), she’s been out of the verified mainstream for too long.

It’s been some time since I was in an American History class and I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know as much as I should about the key players in the Underground Railroad movement that helped so many slaves move toward freedom.  Tubman is one of the most well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad, that much I did know, but how she came to become a part of that network was an educational lesson I sorely needed a refresher course on.  While I know it plays a little fast and loose with the timeline, the new biographical drama Harriet, is a straight-forward depiction of Tubman’s life as she escaped from slavery in Maryland and made her way to safety in Philadelphia.

Beginning shortly before she flees the plantation she’s lived on with her parents and siblings since she was a child, we meet Harriet (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale) as she’s having one of her “spells”. Suffering a head injury when she was young, she often will fall into a trance like state where she’ll receive visions she interprets as guidance by a higher power of things to come.  Married to a free man, Harriet wishes to be free herself and have children born outside the burden of slavery but when she’s denied that right and is put up for sale by Gideeon (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) the smarmy son of her late master, she knows she has to take freedom into her own hands even if that means leaving everything she loves behind.  A well-staged escape is designed for audiences to lean forward in their seats, even though we know the outcome.  Her eventual first step to freedom is the first of many moving moments in the film.

Director Kasi Lemmons (who had supporting roles in Candyman and The Silence of the Lambs before turning to directing) wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) and the two manage to pack a lot of events into a trim 125 minutes.  Obviously, this can’t possibly cover everything of importance in Tubman’s life so audiences are given a surface skim of the next years as Tubman arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) the abolitionist that came to be known as the Father of the Underground Railroad.  She also takes a room in the boarding house of Marie (Janelle Monáe, Welcome to Marwen) a free-born black woman that hasn’t had the same struggles as Harriet but through her friendship comes to understand her pain.

While this film may get dinged a bit for it’s workmanlike way it moves through Tubman’s life events, I found the way Lemmons and Howard chose to focus on her accomplishments instead of her setbacks really refreshing.  So often with movies about the horror of slavery directors feel a need to wallow in the cruelty and ugliness of that abhorrent period in our American history.  Instead of having the obligatory vicious scene of a whipping or lynching, Lemmons and cinematographer John Toll (Cloud Atlas) catch us off guard when a character takes off their shirt and reveals their scars from a previous lashing.  Seeing these reminders that will never fully heal or when Harriet recounts a beating when she was young have more of an impact the way they are presented than if we were to bear witness to them play out in real time.  Same goes for the way Lemmons reserves the use of the “n” word to punctuate a character’s hate, not make it their defining manner of speech.

Lemmons and Howard also capitalize on Erivo’s talents as an award-winning singer and feature her gorgeous voice throughout the movie.  In addition to Erivo writing and performing a song over the closing credits there are carefully selected spirituals or call outs during the film that are moving in their sound but haunting in their purpose.  While I’m not sure how historically correct it is, I’d even say Lemmons and Howard seize some opportunities to turn Tubman into a bit of an action star, with Erivo slinging a gun and hauling off a few shots from the back of a horse.  I say more power to them because it only added to the audience’s appreciation to the film.  For each nuance they give Tubman (Erivo’s headstrong portrayal is a brilliant head-to-toe transformation you won’t be able to take your eyes off of) they seem to take two or three away from other actors like Alywn or country star Jennifer Nettles playing his deeply indoctrinated mother.  Though under no obligation to give depth to characters that offered little hope or free-thought to others, Lemmons and Howard have etched out little pieces of informed info about nearly everyone else that to have these two figures so blank is curious…or maybe it’s precisely the intent.

Since her feature directing debut in 1997 with the unforgettable Eve’s Bayou (rent it, trust me, just rent it), Lemmons has been a little hit or miss in her efforts but she’s scored another win with this engaging look into the life of one of the most important women, or person, in American history.  I’d likely have sat for another twenty minutes or so had Lemmons and Howard wanted to take a little more time in the middle or even at the end for a bit more of a measured wrap up of events.  It ended a little abruptly…or perhaps I just wasn’t quite ready to leave off in Tubman’s story.  Even if Harriet doesn’t quite dig as deep as it could have, it’s a captivating film made even more enthralling by a lead performance that truly soars.

Movie Review ~ Bad Times at the El Royale

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption – before everything goes to hell.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Cailee Spaeny, Nic Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After making a sizable splash with the super fun horror film The Cabin in the Woods and then netting a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his adaption of The Martian, Drew Goddard was clearly given a wide berth for his next project.  He was also evidently given final cut of the movie because Bad Times at the El Royale winds up clocking in at a staggering 141 minutes.  Now, I’m all for movies that take their time but they have to earn their running length and, while I enjoyed El Royale for the most part there are absolutely sequences that could be trimmed or removed all together to keep the film moving along.  This is, after all, a crime drama that sees a group of strangers converging on a motel that sits on the border of two states one rainy night.  Told from various points of view (it has a Pulp Fiction vibe to it) with each person adding a piece to a complex puzzle of deception, the movie worked far better for me than some of my critic colleagues and that’s totally fine.  It’s a movie that I think will play best in a home viewing instead of in a theatrical exhibition so you can stretch out and get comfortable.  Though it’s filled with A-listers like Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Dakota Johnson (Suspiria) and Jeff Bridges (Only the Brave), it’s actually newbies Cynthia Erivo (Widows), Lewis Pullman, and Cailee Spaeny (On the Basis of Sex) that manage to be the most memorable.  Worth a look.

Movie Review ~ Widows


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office.  The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today.  It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience.  Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming.  It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.

Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen.  Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have.  Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.

The Silver Bullet ~ Widows

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except debts left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Thoughts: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had a fondness for Widows, a UK television series created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).  In fact, McQueen liked it so much that he brought on Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn to modernize the story and signed on top notch talent to bring it stateside.  The result can be glimpsed in this trailer, an exciting first look at a hard-boiled crime drama that could be an award contender when all is said and done.  The cast is made up of Oscar winners Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) and Robert Duvall (The Paper), Oscar nominees Liam Neeson (The Commuter), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), and Jacki Weaver (Life of the Party), not to mention impressive names like Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (Furious 7), and Cynthia Erivo.  If the finished product is as impressively dynamite as this trailer, McQueen and company will have a very good fall.