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Posts Tagged ‘Cynthia Erivo’

Time was, when the films that were made in expectation of their being possible awards contenders started to appear round about New Year. That hasn’t been the case for a while now (though there is still usually a glut of serious and improving films starting in January), but it still feels a bit odd to come across a film quite as staunchly… what’s the word? …worthy as Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet.

I know, I know, it’s one of those odd things, isn’t it? Call a film worthy and instantly you start thinking about making your excuses and finding something else to watch. It implies a sort of self-conscious seriousness, the cinematic equivalent of the kind of book you were forced to read at school, all the while having its importance and quality drummed into your head. Call something worthy and you’re basically implying it’s not going to be any fun.

It may be the case that I have just shot my bolt as far as this particular movie is concerned, for Harriet contains all the irreverent, high-spirited fun and subversiveness you would expect from a studio costume drama depicting the life of a revered black female folk hero of the Civil War period. I must confess that until the trailers for this film started rolling, I was vaguely aware of the name of Harriet Tubman (she’s the sort of person Lisa used to name-check back when I still watched The Simpsons) but I could not have told you anything specific about her life. So I suppose the film is educational as well. Worthy and educational – that’s not the kind of quote that ends up on a movie poster, more like the sort of thing that drives film producers to hire hitmen. Hey ho.

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, who doesn’t actually acquire that name until well into the movie. It opens in Maryland in 1849, where she – under her original name of Araminta Ross – is a slave owned by the Brodess family. It soon becomes apparent that she and her family should have been manumitted some years earlier, but her owner refuses to recognise the will stipulating this, and it seems she is unlikely to ever be granted her freedom. With the threat of being sold to a buyer somewhere in the Deep South looming – something no-one ever returns from – she decides to make a run for it, and with the assistance of a few sympathetic allies makes her way to the border with Pennsylvania, over a hundred miles away. The people she encounters there are, perhaps understandably, sceptical when they hear the tale of an illiterate woman making this journey without any supplies and very little guidance.

Nevertheless, she takes a new name to mark her freedom and initially settles down there, but finds she is unable to entirely put aside thoughts of friends and family who are still enslaved in Maryland. And so she embarks on a series of hazardous journeys back into the slave states, made all the more hazardous by the fact that her former owner’s son (Joe Alwyn) has refused to relinquish his legal hold on her and is still looking to reclaim his property…

The last high-profile film to deal with this sort of material and milieu was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave five or six years ago. I was quite lukewarm about that one, not least because its relentless, unmodulated bleakness and horror eventually became desensitising and alienating rather than genuinely affecting. You need a bit of light and shade, or you just end up grinding an axe – even if that does happen to be a worthwhile axe that deserves to be ground. One of the achievements of Harriet, in the first act at least, is that it doesn’t go pedal-to-the-metal on the grimness, while still managing to evoke the reality of life in slavery.  As a result the film does produce a genuine sense of anger and outrage, at least as great as in the McQueen film (your mileage may differ, of course). The film’s other strong point is its depiction of life in the slave states, which is slightly more nuanced and complex than you might expect from a studio movie: for instance, Tubman was born into slavery, but her first husband was a free man; while later in the film, one of the main antagonists is a black slave-catcher played by Omar Dorsey.

So far, so good, but the problem is that once Tubman completes her initial journey to freedom and re-invents herself as a staunch and fearless abolitionist, the film kind of loses the plot a bit. I mean this in a literal sense: the story becomes disjointed and rather repetitive as Tubman rattles up and down the Underground Railroad, eventually bringing dozens of others to freedom as well. You kind of start looking at your watch, waiting for the Civil War to start, but it really makes up only a small part of the film.

In the end it’s not so much a story as much as a selection of scenes from the life of someone effectively regarded as a secular saint of American history – and indeed, Tubman is explicitly likened to Joan of Arc at one point (albeit by one of her enemies). As a result, the tone of the thing is about as dry and reverential as you might expect – Harriet Tubman emerges as an icon rather than anything approaching an actual human being, and the rest of the characters are equally sketchily drawn. I expect this won’t trouble some viewers, for whom the mere existence of the film will be an unqualified positive, and things could possibly have been much worse (there was a possibly-apocryphal story floating around last week alleging that at one point in the early 90s a studio executive wanted to cast Julia Roberts as Tubman). The Progressive Agenda Committee should find little to gripe about here, and neither should viewers of a strongly religious disposition, either: the film takes the stories that Tubman was prone to receiving prophetic visions from God at face value (the closest it gets to scepticism on this topic is the suggestion these are the result of abuse by her master leaving her with possible brain damage).

Erivo’s performance is good, though, even if it eventually just boils down to her making inspirational speeches while the music swells around her, and for those of us not especially well-versed in American history the film has some points of interest. However, the life of a great and important person doesn’t automatically result in a great and important film – regardless of the subject matter, you don’t get a pass when it comes to things like structure and script. This starts well but by the final act it has turned into a clumsy historical melodrama. Not unwatchable, by any means, and not without some successful moments and sequences, but it’s often rather hard work.

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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