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.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Silence of the Lambs

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young F.B.I. cadet must receive the help of an incarcerated and manipulative cannibal killer to help catch another serial killer, a madman who skins his victims.

Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Lawrence A. Bonney, Kasi Lemmons, Lawrence T. Wrentz

Director: Jonathan Demme

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we began to near the end of 31 Days to Scare 2017 I started thinking about what could be the grand finale selection. So many films from the golden age of Hollywood or the new wave of auteur filmmakers could have taken the final spot and there are certainly classics and classics in the making I’ve neglected to feature this year…but at the end of the day it call comes down to this: The Silence of the Lambs.

Though many would classify this as more suspense thriller than outright horror, I’d argue it’s a hybrid of numerous genres. Encapsulating everything from the cold sweat of a Western face-off to the investigative moxie of a political conspiracy flick, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t just one thing at any one time. That’s why it’s an enduring classic, a movie that swept the Academy Awards though the Academy had long had a clear aversion to rewarding any kind of horror effort. Director Jonathan Demme (Ricki and the Flash) brought his assured A-game to the screen and working with Ted Tally’s brilliant adaptation of Thomas Harris’s chilling novel they created something mighty special…and very very VERY scary.

Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, Carnage) is plucked from a morning run on the orders of her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn, The Bourne Legacy). He wants her to take a swipe at interviewing the notorious serial killer Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, Noah)and see if he’ll open up to her. She sees it as a chance to impress her boss, Crawford hopies it’s something more than that. Knowingly sending her into the hungry lions den as bait, he hopes to entice the brilliant madman into helping with the investigation into an active killer (Ted Levine) that has been abducting, shooting, and skinning his victims.

The initial meeting between Starling and Lecter is the stuff of movie clip show heaven. A master class of restrained acting from both actors (who would win Oscars for their work), these scenes are so intricately designed because often the two aren’t even in the same shot as the other…yet it’s directed in a way that you feel they are. It’s a thrilling and dangerous relationship and though there are other supporting characters in the movie (Kasi Lemmons, Candyman, as Clarice’s academy friend and Brooke Smith, Interstellar, as a new target for the murderer) the movie is at its absolute best when Foster and Hopkins are quid pro quo-ing.

The clues that Lecter gives Starling sends the young trainee on her own hunt to find the madman while working through painful memories of her past. Lector preys on her vulnerability that’s hidden far beneath her steely exterior. He knows she has a lot to prove and manipulates every situation to make her demonstrate her worth…down to catching a killer almost entirely on her own. Whether she’s crawling into an abandoned storage unit (creepy!) or being pursued in an underground labyrinth (seriously…creepy!) Foster plays Clarice as intelligent but not a soothsayer in knowing the best way around each situation. With limited screen time, Hopkins is really a supporting player but his impact is so great and his presence so missed when he’s not around he easily nabbed his Best Actor statue away from other nominees.

The late Demme’s personal preference for having actors speak directly into the camera makes the movie feel very intimate, secretive, real…he does this in most every one of his films but never to the success rate he achieves here. It’s a movie that works every time in every single way. There’s no fat anywhere to be found, it’s 118 minutes of perfectly constructed shots and revealing dialogue. Winning Oscars not only for its lead actors but for Demme, Tally, and Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs is tough viewing and not for the squeamish but to see it is to appreciate the stylish storytelling on display. Perfect.

31 Days to Scare ~ Candyman

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, Bernard Rose, Michael Culkin

Director: Bernard Rose

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Growing up, I watched many horror movies and usually found them more funny than actually scary. Most of the films I saw had a heightened sense of reality so you could always tell they were operating in the confines of a fantasy world and not based in reality. It was easy to disassociate with the blood and gore because you would see the edges of the make-up applied or would jokingly feel that the characters got what was coming to them for going camping in the woods where a madman was rumored to be lurking.

Then there are movies like Candyman.

As a teen, I remember seeing this some weeknight with my dad at the Mall of America (RIP General Cinema!) and not really knowing what to expect. Yikes, I was in for a shocking treat. Based on Clive Barker’s short story (which I read a few years ago and found quite spellbinding) and adapted by director Bernard Rose who changes the action from the UK’s rundown council house neighborhood to Chicago’s inner city slum, Candyman has had a lasting impression on me throughout the years. How can a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times still make me keep a light on at night, still send a chill up my spine, still make me dread certain passages?

Grad student Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen, Joy, an inspring choice) is doing a study on modern urban legends with her colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, The Silence of the Lambs). While interviewing subjects they hear the tale of an invisible killer with a grotesque hook for a hand now said to haunt Chicago’s famed Cabrini Green housing project. Dubbed Candyman over time by the superstitious locals, Helen and Bernadette investigate the claims in an effort to support their thesis. The deeper into the mythology of Candyman (Tony Todd) Helen goes, the greater the danger as her cavalier skepticism rouses the fabled slayer to show up and make an example out of her.

From the very first shot in the title sequence set to a creepy as hell music box score from Phillip Glass, your spidey senses should be tingling. Rose isn’t interested in bringing forth a supernatural creature that can’t be identified but in presenting the myth of a dangerous figure than manifests itself in reality. On more than one occasion it’s suggested the residents of Cabrini Green are harboring this creature or attributing other crimes to him as a way to ward off urban sprawl and keep people away.

The film takes its time to get to the madness and when it does it unleashes some fairly grotesque imagery and copious amount of blood. It all seems just a hair above slasher film territory but it’s interested in being more classy than truly exploitative. When bodies start to turn up and a baby goes missing, Helen herself is implicated as a possible killer and must track down the heart of the legend to clear her name and save an innocent life. The finale is a bold move by the filmmakers, even if they pander to the audience with a gruesome (if satisfying) epilogue.

You have a lot of options for scary movies around Halloween and Candyman might already be on your watchlist. If it isn’t, consider replacing one of the more obvious choices (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and check out this modern horror classic. It’s followed by two sequels, with only the first (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) of possible interest if you liked this one.