Harriet: Kasi Lemmons makes Harriet Tubman the little engine that could.

“He’s called R Kelly. When he comes out of the closet, just pull the trigger.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Just in time for the 23rd and four month Anniversary of the children’s educational film Animated Hero Classics: Harriet Tubman comes Harriet, a big, glossy version with live actors, from Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons.

I kid you not. Pull up the animated piece on YouTube and you’ll find Harriet follows segments of the animation almost shot-for-shot, like a storyboard. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. The story of Harriet Tubman is too little known considering how essential it is to American history, and this film seeks to make up for that depressing fact. It’s just a little odd to see famous actors and beautiful cinematography in a film written like a schoolbook.

I have to start by reminding the makers of period movies that Crest Whitestrips® did not exist in the 19thcentury! Enough with all the perfect, blazing white choppers on people, rich or poor, whose oral hygiene regimen consisted of mashing mint leaves around their teeth with sticks.

Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman, with her brow permanently furrowed between worried and determined. It’s not much of a range, but we don’t have time for any fleeting pleasures that may have put joy on Harriet’s face, or for any defeat that may have left her sad. She is an Underground Railroad locomotive, pulling her charges swiftly and strongly, with no stops along the way from slavery to freedom.

After walking 100 miles to escape her Maryland plantation for the free north, Harriet joins the Underground Railroad in Philly. The first group she wants to help escape is her family back in Maryland, but the handsome railroad agent says it’s too dangerous. So Janelle Monae teaches Harriet how to use a gun, a scene that drew cheers from the two 8-year-old girls in front of me. (I guess that generation will be better prepared for #metoo…) Note, btw, that everyone in this movie is as social-media-post-worthy as Erivo and Monae. Even the evil slave-owner’s son looks like a swoony guy from a teen vampire movie, and if he wasn’t such a dick we might imagine him and Harriet hooking up.

But pretty actors and simplistic writing (“Fear is your enemy, Harriet”, etc.) won’t quite get you over the YA finish line, so Harriet is also given superpowers. She constantly escapes capture by using her Spidey sense, where she receives God-sent visions of the near future.

Her clandestine raids are also aided by the fact that plantation owners never seem to look out of their windows, or wonder why the slaves are gathering for mass at the slave church at 2am. These details are not important to the history, nor is the fact that the spy for the white people looks exactly like pre-surgery Michael Jackson or that when Harriet gets famous she nicks Erykah Badu’s look.

I get that movies like to polish true stories to attract us shiny-object addicts. But when we get titles at the end detailing Tubman’s further heroics during the Civil War (she led a regiment into battle for god’s sake!) it makes the film’s presentation of her all the more lacking. 

Even if Tubman had spoken or written of visions, the filmmakers could have used their artistic license to leave the audience with more relatable inspiration, to show Harriet Tubman not as a woman being led around by divine intervention, but as the straight-up badass who powered her railroad with extraordinary – yet still human – cunning and muscle. 

Harriet opens nationally tomorrow, November 1.

#movies #moviereview #ratedfritz #harriet #oscarfail

The Goldfinch: Hollywood burns another book

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Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Amazon began as a bookseller, so maybe no one ever told them that film has its own storytelling advantages, and you should use those advantages if you’re making a movie. 

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller The Goldfinch is dense and precious, with the kind of prose that finds 50 pages of ways to say a desert is hot, but there is a sweeping narrative that would have made an engrossing film. Instead, Amazon and director John Crowley decided to reverently copy the book. The 800-page book.

I guess to save time, Crowley dispenses with showing the maternal relationship that is the basis for protagonist Theo’s entire emotional arc. Thus he’s just a kid who wakes up after an (unexplained) explosion, and fishes a painting from the rubble. Mom, we’re told by actors from CSI, has blowed up in the blast, and the dramatically-limited actor who plays adolescent Theo is left to telecast his crushing Survivor Guilt® by repeating “It’s my fault” to anyone who will listen, and there’s no Robin Williams to talk him down. 

There is only Nicole Kidman, to whom motherless Theo gets sent. Mrs Barbour is yet another role that doesn’t require Kidman to modulate her voice or look imperfect. Nicole’s entire career has had one goal: to create the perfect half-Jackie, half-Marilyn doll.

Grifting lessons are dispensed to young Theo by the almost friendlier Hobie (Jeffery Wright), who has serious double-standard issues. In Hobie’s view, it’s OK to sell people fake early American furniture, but it’s criminal for Theo to keep the painting he found in the rubble, that was his dead mother’s favorite, and that everyone thinks was destroyed, because “Art is meant to be seen”. Please. This was the BS-iest reasoning in the novel, and Crowley feels he has to respect this BS for the movie.

Theo is about to be adopted by chilly but rich Nicole (jackpot!) when he’s claimed by his deadbeat dad and taken to an unusually boring Ryan Murphy production, AHS: Las Vegas. This go-round, Sarah Paulson is a floozy waitress and Finn Wittr- oops, no, it’s the other Finn, Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, who should have stayed in the Upside Down while this movie was being made. He plays a Russian delinquent with an cringe-worthy accent he picked up from YouTube, because this $30-million-dollar production couldn’t afford a dialect coach (?).

In the novel, Theo drifts through the narrative, letting each new ‘mentor’ character push him in whatever direction they want. Fine for a book, but for a movie this can read as listless and unengaging without the right actor. A performer like Shia LeBeouf or Ezra Miller could have made this film move. But Ansel Elgort, who has shown some edge in other films, doesn’t bring it here, which again, points to the director’s choices. Theo’s experiences don’t seem to have made him any more interesting, and by the time we get to the finale, it’s no wonder the truly enigmatic little bird – the one in the stolen painting – is back center stage, albeit in a hacky Russian mob shoot-out version of Tartt’s ending.

The crafting of the film is the one aspect that resonates, so well that wandering around Hobie’s antique shop and the Barbour’s Upper East Side apartment, or trapped in the stifle of the Vegas tract house, bring the movie to life in ways the storytelling and acting rarely do.

For every well-realized film adaptation like The Hours, there is Love In the Time of Cholera and The Shipping News and The Lovely Bones and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and A Million Little Pieces and now The Goldfinch, all popular and acclaimed novels that were DOA as movies, despite being packed with big-name talent and well-financed. 

If the perspective doesn’t change on how films of ‘respected’ literary fiction are approached, studios will no longer risk making them. Maybe that’s a good thing. 

#movies #moviereview #thegoldfinch #ratedfritz #oscarfail