Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review, London Film Festival 2019

Harriet (2019)

Image is property of Focus Features and Perfect World Pictures

Harriet – Film Review

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

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Synopsis: A look at the life of Harriet Tubman, who after escaping the cruelty of slavery, becomes a leading figure in the fight against its abolition…

Review: There’s no getting away from the fact that slavery in the 1800s represents one of the darkest points in human history. While this period was full of appalling atrocities committed against human beings, even in such troubling times, such powerful and uplifting stories can be brought to light. Stories of amazing courage and perseverance, stories that deserve and, arguably need to be brought to a wider audience, and one such example of this, is the amazing inspirational story of Harriet Tubman.

Having spent her entire life in slavery, Harriet strives to breath the free air. When an attempt to secure her freedom, via legal methods, is vehemently rejected, she senses that she might face severe punishment for trying to secure her freedom. Fearing for her safety, she decides to take matters into her own hands. She bravely runs away in a desperate bid to secure her freedom, which proves to be successful. Upon gaining her freedom, she makes it her mission to liberate slaves from their masters, and becomes a leader in the abolitionist movement to end this cruel and barbaric practice.

Having burst onto the scene in 2018 with Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, Cynthia Erivo demonstrated her considerable talents to audiences the world over. However with this role, she produces an astonishing, career best performance. She imbues Harriet with a strong willed fearlessness, and a resolute determination in her mission to win her freedom. This doesn’t waiver in her later exploits, as she uses this tenacity and bravery to go out and strive to position to free as many of the people that have fallen into slavery as she possibly can. It is her movie and she carries it magnificently. Outside of Erivo’s sublime performance, Leslie Odom Jr is solid as an abolitionist ally and Joe Alwyn as Harriet’s slave master, has the callous and nasty personality you’d expect from a slave master. On the other hand, though she’s also is on reliably good form, Janelle Monae’s character could definitely have done with more screen time.

The screenplay’s approach to its subject matter, written by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, doesn’t really break any new ground for the biopic genre. However, this doesn’t act as a hindrance to the film, simply because, the incredible circumstances that surround the story of this remarkable woman are more than enough to craft a compelling story on their own merit. With a story that consistently manages to be riveting throughout, the approach taken by Lemmons through the script and her direction, does Harriet Tubman’s remarkable story justice. When a story has this much power behind it, it doesn’t need to reinvent the biopic genre, but instead honours this remarkable woman whose exploits deserve to be well known across the world.

With films such as 12 Years A Slave and now Harriet, these powerful dramas serve to remind everyone about the painful nature of the horrors that this institution brought upon so many people. However, they also serve as a powerful reminder that through sheer perseverance, grit and determination, anyone, no matter who they are, can accomplish anything they set their mind to. Furthermore, truly remarkable feats that end up changing the course of human history will absolutely stand the test of time.

With a sublime lead performance from Cynthia Erivo at its core, Harriet is a compelling and rewarding drama that pays tribute to an influential figure in American history, and honours her extraordinary legacy.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Widows (2018)

Image is property of 20th Century Fox, Film4 Productions and Regency

Widows  – Film Review

Cast:  Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Liam Neeson

Director: Steve McQueen

Synopsis: After a bank heist goes horribly wrong leading to the deaths of all the crew, their widows step up to finish what their husbands started…

Review: When as a director, you make one of the most heart-wrenching but extremely impactful pieces of cinema to come out in this decade. A film that landed you the Best Picture Oscar no less, how do you follow that up? For Steve McQueen, following on from his success with the aforementioned 12 Years A Slave, the answer is simple. You team up with another recent Oscar winner and make another exhilarating, heart-pounding piece of cinema. Namely a heist film quite unlike anything the genre has concocted before.

After a team of criminals are caught up in a heist that gets all of them killed, their widows are left in a very desperate situation. Veronica Rawlings (Davis) is the widow of the leader of the crew, Harry (Neeson). Not long after her husband’s death, she receives a rather uncomfortable visit from crime boss Jamal Manning, (Brian Tyree Henry) the target of the botched heist. Demanding repayment of the stolen money, and given a rather tight window in order to do so, Veronica has the plans for what would have been her husband’s next job. Needing her own crew to pull it off, recruits the other widows who also lost their husbands in the same heist, for a new mission to score the money that their husbands stole. Conceptually, though this may sound like your average heist film, in execution, it is a very different beast.

The screenplay, co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn adds deep political subtext to this story that really gives the film a unique feel to it. Furthermore with such powerful women at the centre of this gripping story, in the era of the Me Too movement, it feels all the more powerful and relevant in modern times.  What McQueen and Flynn’s script does so excellently is give each woman involved in this daring heist a significant amount of development. Though they come from different backgrounds, each woman absolutely stands on her own two feet and all give excellent performances.

Leading the pack and fresh from her Oscar success, Viola Davis is once again superb in the role of Veronica. She is a woman who has been to hell and back again, both with events in her past and in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s demise. Yet her fiery spirit keeps her going through this turbulent time. Likewise for Alice (Debicki) and (Rodriguez), both of whom are also dealt with a torrid set of consequences in the wake of the heist that robbed them of their spouses. But with the resolute Veronica at the helm, there is no time to mope, they have some work to do.

Though the women have the spotlight absolutely deservedly on them, Daniel Kaluyya’s portrayal of Jamal’s brother, Jatamme is magnificent and absolutely terrifying in equal measure. A VERY different kind of role especially in comparison to his Oscar nominated performance in Get Out, but with every moment he has on screen, his cold demeanour and brutality is enough to send shivers down the spines of the audience. This is a man whose path you do not want to cross under any circumstances.

With the theme of powerful women front and centre, McQueen also brilliantly weaves political drama into the story. There is one moment in particular that really stands out in terms of how the scene is filmed. And by doing it this way, it really sends a startling message about modern day America and in particular modern American politics. It is another film released this year that feels very timely in terms of its themes, whilst also being not afraid to pull any punches, or to let the bullets fly.

A heist/thriller with a lot to say for itself, boosted an impeccable stellar ensemble cast and bold direction, another exhilarating addition to the filmography of Steve McQueen.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Image is property of 20th Century Fox

Bad Times at the El Royale – Film Review

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

Director: Drew Goddard

Synopsis: The once famous El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe has become a shadow of its former self. However, when a bunch of mysterious individuals all check into the hotel on the same day, it promises to be an eventful evening…

Review: If a film pitches itself as a mystery/thriller, there has got to be an almost immediate moment in the first few minutes that grabs the audience’s attention and ensure they become subsequently absorbed into the ensuing suspense of the unfolding drama. Within the opening moments of writer/director Drew Goddard’s second directorial effort, you get just a taste of the drama and intrigue of what’s to come, with more than a few dashes of neo-noir thrown in for good measure.

It is 1960s America, and the titular El Royale hotel has, shall we say, seen better days. However things begin to take a turn for the interesting when an unusual collection of folks all rock up looking for some lodgings. It doesn’t however take long before things begin to unravel and our guests may not be who they appear to be. These guests consist of a Priest (Bridges) , a singer trying to catch her break (Erivo) , a smarmy salesman (Hamm) and a woman (Johnson), whose identity is initially withheld. There’s something immediately suspicious about each member of this cast, as to who they really are, and what secrets they’re hiding.

Every member of this cast is on their best form, and there is not one performance that feels out of place. However somewhat unsurprisingly, Jeff Bridges is leading the way, being his usual charismatic self in a role that (probably) was exclusively written with him in mind. A relative newcomer, Cynthia Erivo shines very brightly as a singer who really hits those notes both in terms of her incredible singing ability and her performance. Yet the scene stealer in all of this is Chris Hemsworth, once again not shy in showing the world his muscles. He gives an astonishing performance, the likes of which we haven’t really seen from him before, certainly a world away from his work in the realm of Norse mythology.

Welcome to the El Royale ab show….

A quick glance at Goddard’s resume shows some impressive projects, such as the scribe of The Martian, the show-runner of season 1 of Netflix’s Daredevil, and his directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods. It is a resume not to be sneezed at. For the remarkable array of acting talent he has assembled here, his screenplay is ambitious to say the least in the way it chooses to present itself to the audience. It seems apparent that Goddard was inspired by Quentin Tarantino, and the ways that the latter has used to tell some of his stories, to great effect.

It is smart and ambitious story-telling on Goddard’s part, but there are instances where the momentum that is being built in a certain scene is lost, as the perspective of the story changes. This can, and does have an extremely negative impact on the film’s pacing, which is just a tad problematic for a film that centres on a mystery. Nevertheless, despite that problematic pacing, the film really starts to click once we reach that all important third act and everything that these interwoven stories have been building towards comes to an exciting, and nerve-shredding climax.

When such original pieces of work like this come along, something that is increasingly rare these days, they must not be overlooked. However, for all of its originality with its premise, its eclectic array of characters and very colourful and stylish production design, that potential is never fully realised. Hence, those who check-in to the El Royale, may just check out with not as much satisfaction as they almost certainly would want to.

Goddard turns on the style with some lavish production design and a unique bunch of characters, but the screenplay just feels too ambitious for its own good, and is at certain points a case of style over substance.