‘Harriet’ is at Its Best When Emphasizing How Good Harriet Tubman Was at Her Job

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CREDIT: Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Bevy of Insults and a Few Scenes of Brutal Violence

Release Date: November 1, 2019

As I began to watch Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, the thought “Shouldn’t I be watching this in school?” passed through my mind. That is by no means an insult, but rather, it is an illustration of how my own experience (and the experience of many American schoolchildren) has primed me to feel towards a movie like this one. Tubman is an important figure in American history, so a film about her is a useful tool for history teachers to keep their students’ attention. In that sense, Harriet does not need to be a masterpiece (though bonus points if it is), it just needs to be historically accurate, or at least true to the spirit of its subject. On that count, I recommend Harriet to any teacher whose curriculum covers the era of abolition.

For everyone else who is not watching this movie in a classroom setting, you might still be excited because it has taken more than a hundred years for Tubman’s story to finally get the full-blown feature film treatment (though Ruby Dee and Cicely Tyson played her in earlier TV versions). Although, that excitement might be tempered by the difficulty of having to endure yet another movie viscerally showing the brutal treatment of the enslaved (as well as free black Americans). But I think the best way to appreciate Harriet is as a story of a person who does her job very well, i.e., the sort of character that Tom Hanks often plays. Cynthia Erivo proves that a woman and a person of color is just as capable of this role (not that any proof was necessary, given the historical record).

Tubman escapes to freedom on her own, safely travelling about a hundred miles by foot despite her illiteracy and the relentlessness of her slave master. She then goes on to help secure the freedom of hundreds of more slaves while pretty much matter-of-factly never losing any of her cargo, stunning her fellow conductors on the Underground Railroad with her success rate. But as the steady, burrowingly intense eyes on Erivo’s face tell you, this is just what she does. Slavery had to end at some point, and Harriet Tubman was as up for the job as she needed to be.

Harriet is Recommended If You Like: Glory, Sully, Bridge of Spies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rescue Missions

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Ponders So Many Questions About Who Belongs on the Throne

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CREDIT: CREDIT: Liam Daniel/Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R for A Surprisingly Horny Approach to the Material and the Violent Retribution That Results

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

If you’re an anglophile who loves tracking all historical matters of royal succession, then you ought to add Mary Queen of Scots to your to-watch list. But if you’re more ambivalent on the subject, this film is likely to instead get you frustrated and shout at the 16th century to move ahead hundreds of years when questions of leadership have less to do with the intricacies of bloodlines. Of course, 21st century politics has its own problems, but Mary Queen of Scots feels obsessed with the minutiae of what was specific to a bygone era. There is some intriguing conflict to be had, as Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) both apparently have legitimate claims to the English throne. The internal psychological drama and external tension of impatient courts and citizenry are present, but the same points keep getting pounded over and over.

Part of the problem is the film’s lopsided structure. It makes sense that the title is what it is and not “Mary & Elizabeth,” as this is at least two-thirds Mary’s story, if not more. Perhaps there is an element of correcting the historical record, or the cinematic historical world, as Elizabeth’s story has hitherto been told more often than Mary’s. But if that’s the case, then you might as well go whole hog into Mary’s realm and render Elizabeth more or less heard but not seen. As it stands, though, it makes me wonder, “Why can’t they both be queen?” Alas, for the sake of the narrative (and historical accuracy), that’s probably too pat and conflict-free. But it’s almost all worth it for the scene when Mary and Elizabeth finally meet in person. Ridiculous measures are taken to keep this meeting “secret,” thus fulfilling a promise to really examine the nonsense inherent to this state of affairs. It’s all silly, and should be treated as such, instead of resorting to beheadings.

Mary Queen of Scots is Recommended If You Like: Any and all royal British period piece

Grade: 3 out of 5 Heirs

 

This Is a Movie Review: Loopy Royal Period Piece ‘The Favourite’ is a Career Highlight for Its Three Lead Actresses

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CREDIT: Yorgos Lanthimos/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for A Very Sexual Royal England

Release Date: November 23, 2018

The hype for The Favourite indicates that it is not your typical period royal court drama, which is to be expected, given that it is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek auteur behind such clinically chilling visions as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And while The Favourite is certainly an oddity within the genre, that does not mean it is totally anachronistic. Lanthimos’ version is probably not an exact reflection of how the people within the orbit of the British Queen Anne spoke and behaved some 300+ years ago, but it does not seem impossible that they could have acted that way. People use certain four-letter words that are seldom heard from movie characters with the poofiest wigs and dresses, but these are words that have been around for centuries and surely some people were using them back then. Besides, The Favourite is not especially concerned with historical accuracy; the story behind it all is just inspiration for Lanthimos to craft his own devilishly compelling tale.

The most reasonable way to think of The Favourite is as a showcase for its three lead actresses (who get a little bit of help along the way from a few dudes), who have rarely, if ever, been better. Olivia Colman is Anne, hobbled by gout and occasional indecisiveness, perhaps more than a little manipulative in how she courts favor, but breathtakingly formidable once she has made up her mind. Rachel Weisz is Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, close advisor (and much more) to the queen. She prides herself on being ten strategic steps ahead of everyone else, which is her greatest strength, even when it appears to be her downfall. Her wits allow her to get out of any sticky situation, up to and including kidnapping by a brothel. And Emma Stone is Abigail, Rachel’s cousin and new arrival to the court. She initially appears to be so unfailingly kind that it makes her a little stupid, but ultimately it is clear that she is a full-fledged ingratiator. Stone has never before immersed herself in such a dark persona. If Lanthimos has done his job right, and I think he has, your loyalties will constantly switch along with the characters to the point that you just want to applaud everyone.

The Favourite is Recommended If You Like: Amadeus, All About Eve, Persona

Grade: 4 out of 5 Powdered Wigs

 

This Is a Movie: Lucas Hedges Wades Through the Lies of Gay Conversion to Find Truth and Love in the Unsettling and Fulfilling ‘Boy Erased’

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Joe Alwyn, Flea

Director: Joel Edgerton

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Intense, Sexuality-Focused Material

Release Date: November 2, 2018 (Limited)

Boy Erased demonstrates the dangers of putting the unqualified in charge, or pretending that it is possible to be qualified for something that nobody can possibly have experience with. With the suspensefully assured hand of director Joel Edgerton, it plays like a horror film in which the villain is the storm of forces that try to convince you of something that you know in your core not to be true. The setting is a gay conversion therapy program, which is basically the epitome of trauma born out of the most distorted of good intentions. Every story I have ever heard about gay conversion suggests that those involved with running them are either gay themselves or relatives of gay people. Boy Erased very much underscores how terrifying a curriculum designed upon internalized homophobia is.

The film is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, with Lucas Hedges playing Jared Eamons, an adapted version of Conley. This isn’t the first gay conversion gay conversion-focused film this year, with The Miseducation of Cameron Post having arrived a few months earlier. Boy Erased manages to make a stronger impression thanks to heavier dramatic stakes. Whereas Cameron Post‘s protagonists were so strong-willed that they just ignored the program, Jared actually cares about satisfying the people who want him to go through with it. That especially includes his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his fiercely protective mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But at a certain point, he realizes that the so-called adult experts do not know what they are talking about if what they are asking him to do is ripping apart his soul. That means he must push back against head therapist Victor (Edgerton), a man who is frighteningly skilled at hiding internal conflict, and instead listen to the people who only offer him unconditional, recognizable love. It all leads to reconciliation scenes that you hope never have to be necessary for anybody but are all the more fulfilling for how genuine they are.

Boy Erased is Recommended If You Like: Heart-wrenching true stories, Familial reconciliation, Dramas that are secretly horror movies

Grade: 4 out of 5 White Dress Shirts