Harriet (2019)

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe, Joe Alwyn

Screenplay: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons

125 mins. Rated PG-13.

 

It’s crazy to think that it’s 2019 and we still don’t have a major memorable release about the life of Harriet Tubman. Maybe I’m just not thinking about one or can’t bring one to mind, but I don’t think one exists. In fact, the film we’re talking about today almost didn’t get made at all, sitting on a shelf at Disney for years until they relinquished rights to the script. So with all that, how did it turn out?

When a young slave woman named Minty (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale, TV’s Genius) escapes and heads for the border, she takes on the new name of Harriet Tubman and joins up with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express, TV’s Smash) and the Underground Railroad to become one of the most celebrated slave-rescuers in history. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) shows Harriet’s religious views when she has visions giving her direction in saving slaves, and it shows her fearless nature in the pursuit of freedom for her fellow slaves.

Let’s talk Cynthia Erivo here. I really liked what she did with the role, and I think she almost-flawlessly plays the role of Harriet Tubman. Almost-flawlessly. My big problem with the way Harriet is portrayed is that I don’t think the visions of God that she has works very well onscreen. I think there’s a better way to put this on film. It just didn’t work for me. I really think there’s a way to get this element put to screen better, and I keep thinking how, if it were put to film better, then it could be considered a strong film about religion. I kick on religious films a lot because I don’t think they successfully convey religious tones in a strong enough manner, and I think with the strong production of a film like Harriet, this could be something really cool if it were pulled off better. Back to Erivo, though, this film proves without a doubt that Erivo is capable of carrying a lead performance.

Director Kasi Lemmons does some good work in the film, but her presentation is a little formulaic and straight-forward, and what she needed to remember while making the film is that there’s a lot of the same thing happening in the film. That’s not to knock the incredible thing that Harriet Tubman accomplished, don’t think I’m saying that. All I mean is that the notion of her moving slaves to safety could’ve been given something more visual to represent the journey. Outside of her initial escape, I don’t the length of the journey is presented extremely well. It’s serviceable, but not truly accomplished in the movie.

From the supporting cast, I really enjoyed Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, UglyDolls) as Marie Buchanon, a friend to Harriet who gets her on her feet when she makes it to the north. They are both exemplary performers who elevate the material. Joe Alwyn (The Favourite, Boy Erased) also stars as Gideon Brodess, the son of the man who owned Harriet in the south. I didn’t like the way his character was portrayed in the film didn’t make him a fleshed-out character. I think the way to make a powerful villain is more than just being menacing and violent. There are moments early on in the film where he interacts with Harriet about their past and then it is barely mentioned after her escape. I would have liked their childhood past delved further into in the film through flashback to help fuel his character arc. Again, Gideon isn’t a bad villain. He does villainous things in the film, but I don’t think he’s a realistic villain and I think the finale of the film would have been more powerful if he was given more to do than be menacing.

Harriet is a strong enough biopic on Harriet Tubman that is worth your time. It’s far from perfect, but it’s pretty damn powerful nonetheless. Harriet won’t be accepting any Oscars come 2020, but this is still a solid history lesson about an incredible human being and an incredible triumph of the human spirit. This is still one worth checking out.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Life Itself (2018)

Director: Dan Fogelman

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

Screenplay: Dan Fogelman

118 mins. Rated R for language including sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.

 

Life Itself is poised to capture that couples date night money this weekend, but is it any good?

The film follows a couple, Will (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina, Annihilation) and Abby (Olivia Wilde, Tron: Legacy, TV’s Vinyl) from college to marriage and onward as the twisting, winding road of their story echoes throughout future generations. After their marriage ends, Will is forced by to tread through his past by Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Bening, American Beauty, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) in order to put his life back on track. But is he remembering things right? Is he a reliable narrator? Is anyone? Life Itself attempts to answer these questions as several different people from vast walks of life intertwine.

Life Itself is poorly-conceived schmaltz and depression disguised to look like a romantic drama. Director Dan Fogelman (Danny Collins) attempts to pull at heartstrings with some of the most awkwardly crafted sequences trying their best to swim in a sinking plot. I could tell Oscar Isaac was really trying, but some of the dialogue he is forced to utter is so cringe-worthy that I almost can’t believe he was able to get it out. The scenes in which he and Dr. Morris are looking back at his relationship with Abby feel like a soap opera mixed with an afterschool special in some sort of attempt at being A Christmas Carol. They stand there and awkwardly toss words at each other while the more important stuff, the actual flashback lies before them.

Life Itself’s plot construction also left a lot to be desired. This film felt like it was laid out with a connect-the-dots in which someone already completed for me. I was sitting in my seat, actively betting myself on how certain sequences would play out and, more often than not, I was right.

I think what’s most shocking is how Life Itself both does and does not take its emotional core seriously. The film jokes about death and pain in some of the strangest ways while actually asking you to feel sad at the right times. It’s tone stays consistent for large stretches and then drastically veers into uncharted territory.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some value in the film. I actually found many of the performances to be fine, particularly from Isaac as Will, Bening as Morris, Mandy Patinkin (Smurfs: The Lost Village, TV’s Homeland) as Will’s father Irwin, and Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, TV’s Genius) as Mr. Saccione, an owner of a olive farm featured in the latter part of the movie. Banderas delivers a monologue excellently when he is first featured.

Life Itself is a bigger-budgeted version of a high schooler’s experimental short film. It’s really trying to be something here, but it waxes philosophy in such a hammy fashion that it devolves into little more than drivel by the end of its lengthy runtime. I actually really wanted to like this movie, but alas, this is one that is definitely not worth your time.

 

1.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

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