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 ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

The Silver Bullet ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Synopsis: A lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into the thrilling mystery of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Thoughts: Oh boy does this one look fun.  Based on Agatha Christie’s twist-filled 1934 novel, audiences have traveled on the Orient Express already in a BBC adaptation and the 1974 star-studded spectacle which remains one of my all time favorite films.  I admit I grimaced a bit when I heard a new version was in the works but as the cast came together for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s remake I began to soften a little.  This first trailer hints at the high level of class the filmmakers are employing for this murder mystery and though I’m guessing movie-goers may chuckle a bit at Branagh’s grandiose Poirot mustache I’d be willing to bet they’ll be intrigued enough to hop on board when it’s released in November. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows), Penelope Cruz (Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and, regrettably, Josh Gad (Frozen)