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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 1, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 44
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Historically rich Harriet a haunting tale of an American legend
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HARRIET
Now playing


It is 1849 and Araminta 'Minty' Ross (Cynthia Erivo) has fled from slaveholder Gideon Brodess' (Joe Alwyn) Maryland plantation before he can sell her to unknown new owners down South. With only guts, God and the North Star to guide her way, facing a number of horrifying trials and tribulations, she somehow makes it to the Pennsylvania border and ends up in the hustling, bustling streets of Philadelphia. She is welcomed by William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and after a brief interview recounting her journey and documenting her past, he asks the young woman if she would like to give up her slave name and assume a new one of her own choosing. Minty rechristens herself 'Harriet Tubman,' and in that moment finds a new purpose for her life far beyond any she could have imagined while working alongside her sister, brothers and mother as a disposable piece of property for Gideon Brodess.

It's almost impossible to believe Harriet Tubman's stunning story hasn't been explored in the context of a major Hollywood biopic. A slave who made a break for freedom all on her own, who subsequently reinvented herself and then became the most famous conductor on the 'Underground Railroad,' so well known she was given the nickname of 'Moses' and assumed to be a man because she was so cunning, her history is as American as they come. Her saga of triumph, tragedy, heartbreak, salvation, courage and sacrifice is beyond imagining, and as dark as aspects of it might be that does not make it any less essential. If anything, it is precisely because Harriet Tubman's story touches on the worst, most inhuman aspects of the American experience that it must continue to be told, and as the old cliché axiom goes those unwilling to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it whether they want to or not.

Thanks to a powerhouse performance from Erivo and stellar direction from Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, biographical drama Harriet frequently lives up to the weight of expectation that comes tied at the ankles of anyone attempting to tell Harriet Tubman's story. It is a movie that feels as if it understands this facet of the American experience in ways few other, similarly-themed motion pictures ever have. It brings a distinctly feminine point-of-view to this ugly section of history which puts things in a type of perspective I can't say I've ever seen before, and for that I am beyond grateful.

Not that the director, for all her consummate skill behind the camera, can still avoid all of the pitfalls and traps of the historical biographical genre. There is something perfunctory and old fashioned about Lemmons' and Gregory Allen Howard's (Remember the Titans) screenplay that can dull the emotional impact of what is happening, and even if it's only just a small amount that doesn't make these missteps any less noticeable. There are also a few fantastical elements to how the pair approach Harriet's experiences conducting runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad which border on the supernatural, her constant conversations with God likely to rub some viewers the wrong way.

But not me. These spiritual elements were ones I found to be some of the most intimately powerful in the entire movie. There is a distinct celebration of Harriet's connection to her faith that feels pure and not in the slightest bit heavy-handed. It is an organic piece of her puzzle and one that adds so many additional layers of emotional complexity that I'm not sure I'd have responded as positively to the overall film if they were not present. No matter what one's faith or background, whether they believe in the spiritual nature of humanity's creation or not, religion here isn't used as a cudgel or a battering ram to bludgeon the viewer into blindly accepting what is happening. Instead, Harriet's faith is a core part of who she is and why she ends up believing so strongly she will succeed at whatever task it is she sets in front of herself to complete, all of which magnifies the importance religion played for slaves during this time period and how it blossomed into a crucial part of the African American communal experience going forward all the way to today.

I wish the movie could have spent more time with Omar J. Dorsey, the actor playing Bigger Long, a notorious slave catcher who is hired by Gideon to track Harriet down. I'd love to know more about his history and what led him to so callously hunt runaway slaves and return them to the White slaveholders to be beaten, brutalized and killed. It also would have been nice to get to know more about the workings of the Anti-Slavery Society and Still's importance in laying the tracks for the Underground Railroad. The script just sort of presents everything as-is with little in the way of explanation, making this vital historical figure a little less interesting than he potentially might have been had Lemmons and her team decided to do more with him.

But it's not his story. It's not the story of Harriet's family. It's not Bigger Long's story and it certainly isn't Gideon Brodess', either. No. This is Harriet Tubman's story and her story alone, so the fact Lemmons keeps the focus entirely on her is understandable. Because Erivo so effortlessly rises to the occasion, and in large part because the director's script digs into her character in so many nuanced and refreshingly multifaceted ways, that not a lot of time is spent with many of the secondary or side characters is hardly an issue worth getting all bent out of shape about.

Not that other actors don't make their presence felt. Alwyn is chilling as Brodess. Even better is Jennifer Nettles as his psychologically disintegrating mother, Eliza. Odom Jr. has a small handful of affecting moments, especially during that key scene where Still is first interviewing Harriet. Vondie Curtis-Hall gives one of the finest performances of his long career as Reverend Green, a man of the church whose fealty to the likes of Gideon and other slaveholders isn't what it initially appears to be. Best of all is Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon, a born-free young woman who owns the boarding house Harriet takes up residence in. Her performance really snuck up on me as the plot progressed, her emotional permutations a thing of heartrending beauty.

There's more of Harriet Tubman's story just waiting to be told, many aspects of it Lemmons' latest effort just doesn't have the time to explore in the type of detail I was somewhat longing for (most notably the Civil War period which is only briefly touched on). But none of that changes just how good this motion picture is. It feels lived-in, Erivo disappearing so completely underneath her character's skin I almost forgot it was the Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale actress I was sitting there looking at in awe.

Harriet is more than a dramatic history lesson. It is a piece of filmmaking excellence I am almost certain to revisit, and a film I'm fairly positive I'll appreciate even more once I have done so.


Skarsgård's terrifying charisma dominates otherwise uneven Kill Team
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE KILL TEAM
Now playing


Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) is ready to serve. It is 2009 and he has come to Afghanistan's Kandahar Valley to do his part in the war against terror. His unit, led by Staff Sgt. Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), is an elite group that is seemingly always ready to get right in the middle of the action. But it soon becomes clear that, under the direction and tutelage of their commanding officer, Briggman's team is secretly killing innocent Afghan civilians under the guise of rooting out insurgents and uncovering stores of hidden explosives.

The young soldier isn't sure what he should do. The men in his unit have become like brothers to him. Deeks has a calmingly charismatic appeal that's almost parental in its magnetism, and it's not hard to see how fighting men like the guys under his command could so quickly fall under his spell. At the same time, what is happening is undeniably wrong. Briggman knows he needs to report it, but unsure who to trust he keeps this secret, the corrosive power of Deeks' influence seemingly more far-reaching than anything he believes he on his own is capable of dealing with.

The Kill Team is a narrative variation on writer/director Dan Krauss' award-winning 2013 documentary of the same name. The events depicted happened, and overall the film plays like some sort of dramatic procedural prequel to its nonfiction predecessor. But while Skarsgård is electrically terrifying, delivering an extraordinary performance that's full of numerous little quirks and subtle nuances that all help make Deeks a magnificent villainous presence, the remainder of the movie is oddly emotionally inert. Wolf never quite rises to the same level as his co-star, and because of that I had trouble becoming intimately involved with Briggman's moral crisis of conscience. While Krauss does a solid job constructing a tale full of complex questions with plenty of uncomforting and unpleasant answers, there's still something about this feature that kept me at arm's length, and as such even at only a scant 87 minutes I had trouble maintaining interest in all that was happening all the way through to the end.

Not that this isn't a handsomely mounted and technically precise motion picture. It's obvious Krauss has a feel for this story that is second to none, not that this is much of a surprise considering he helmed the documentary chronicling much of the same material. At the same time, he still does a good job of setting the mood and making the viewer feel almost as if their boots are on the Afghan ground right alongside Briggman and his team. There is a you-are-there element to this drama that's engagingly disconcerting, and at least initially I was truly intrigued to see how the dynamics of this military unit would end up shaping the larger narrative and just how Deeks' influence could transform a ragtag group of hungry, idealistically patriotic soldiers into cold-blooded killers willing to turn on one another if doing so meant saving their own hides.

But as inherently fascinating as all of this might be there is still a coldly inert taciturnity that I had a great deal of trouble getting beyond. Wolff has trouble personifying Briggman's increasing unease and paranoia as he slowly comes to realize what Deeks is capable of and what would likely happen to him if he decided to try and bring his heinous actions into the light of day for their military superiors to see. While I appreciated how hard the actor was trying to internalize this avalanche of psychological turmoil his character was dealing with, I never felt intimately connected with his trials and tribulations. His rocky desert journey headed towards horrifying tragedy came across as more of a clinical exercise than it did anything else, his performance creating an emotive hole that the actor never found a way to fill.

There's still plenty to like about the film, and as I've already stated Skarsgård is magnificent as Deeks. Stéphane Fontaine's cinematography (Jackie) is also excellent, as is Franklin Peterson's (It's a Disaster) dynamically controlled editing. I also found composer Zacarías M. de la Riva's (Evolution) score to be incredibly strong, his music helping augment the sense of mesmeric foreboding tragedy I believe Krauss was attempting to create.

As great as all of that might be, I still never found The Kill Team to be as cohesive or as compelling as I kept hoping it would be. Not only does the movie come to a sudden conclusion that feels as if it came out of nowhere, I never felt like the ramifications of what happened to both Briggman's unit and the U.S. military were being explored in meaningful detail. I admired a lot of what Krauss was attempting, and I certainly think his skills as a filmmaker are beyond reproach. But none of that means I also think his debut is essential, and even if this heinous historical event is worthy of exploration the director already did that back in 2013 with his stunning documentary. I can't help but think people should just watch that instead.


Hamilton's return and Reyes' assertiveness reboots the Terminator franchise
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE
Now playing


The Terminator franchise has seen plenty of iterations, reboots and attempts at reengineering after creator James Cameron left in box office glory and Oscar-winning triumph following the success of 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Direct sequel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the film Linda Hamilton famously declined to return for resulting in her character Sarah Connor being killed off, didn't make a lot of people happy. Neither did 2009's prequel/sequel hybrid Terminator Salvation with Christian Bale assuming the mantle of future hero John Connor with a grumpy assertiveness few found appealing. Fox's short-lived television series 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles' with Lena Heady taking over for Hamilton did meet with moderate critical and cult success, but the expense of the show and its meager ratings did not work in its favor and the network canceled it after two short seasons. As for 2015's full-on reboot Terminator Genisys, the less we say about that debacle the better, and after its failure this series looked as if it had finally run out of gas.

Not so fast. James Cameron returns to produce, oversee and co-write the story of Terminator: Dark Fate, the filmmaker taking more direct control in order reinject life into the franchise. Taking place some two-plus decades after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the film disregards the other sequels and reboots and instead posits a reason for Sarah Connor, once again portrayed by Hamilton in all her chiseled, magnetically ferocious glory, to still be hunting Terminators before they have the chance to end humanity. Weary and cynical, her curiosity is piqued when she heads to Mexico and ends up helping save the life of Danielle 'Dani' Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a spunky twenty-something being protected by the iron-willed and curiously strong Grace (Mackenzie Davis).

Turns out, Sarah and her son John didn't so much stop Judgment Day as they instead splintered the future into an entirely new direction where a different sort of artificial intelligence would also try to bring about humanity's demise. For reasons Grace doesn't want to divulge, these new machines want Dani dead, and like they've done before they've sent back in time a Terminator, this one known as a 'Rev-9' (Gabriel Luna), to do the job. But this robot is unlike any Sarah has ever encountered, and killing it will take all three women working in tandem to get the job done. Even then they'll likely need additional help of the futuristic robotic variety. But with all of the older Terminators, especially those pesky T-800s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that were programmed to initially kill Sarah and her son John out of action, the likelihood they'll find any assistance of that type is slim.

It's not difficult to put the pieces of this science fiction action spectacle together. With something like six credited writers working on either the initial story or the finished screenplay (or both), this latest iteration of the Terminator timeline follows in the footsteps of Cameron's first two films with lackadaisical conviction. While there are some creative touches, most notably in regards to Grace's connection to Dani and how Schwarzenegger's T-800 can return for another cybernetic smackdown, I still can't say there are a heck of a lot of surprises. I pretty much knew what was going to happen for the majority of the movie's two or so hours, the suspense I felt wondering who was going to live and who was going to end up terminated rather minimal.

Cameron and his hand-picked director Tim Miller (Deadpool) still reinject life back into this moribund franchise. They've crafted a wily, spiritedly energetic heroine in Dani and given the talented Reyes a fair amount of room to breathe life into her. Even if the reasons behind her being the latest target of a future technology's ire (instead of Skynet humanity is now under assault from an even more bloodthirsty A.I. nicknamed Legion) are easy to suss out long before the film's climax, I still found this young woman worthy of my emotional investment. Reyes gives her a three-dimensional edge I was drawn to, and I liked that compassion and understanding were key elements of Dani's personality, making her a dynamic presence the filmmakers rightly make the most out of.

Granted, issues of identity, empowerment and representation aside (this film touches on a lot of hot-button topics including gender inequality and immigration, but really only does so to move the plot forward and not to make any big statements or engage in social commentary), the draw for many viewers interested in seeing this sequel will be the return of Hamilton. The actress does not disappoint. She's as ferocious as ever as Sarah Connor, and to say the series has missed her is a massive understatement. But as good as she is it isn't like the film does anything ambitious with her. Still, it's nice to have Hamilton back, and I for one am not about to minimize just how much gravitas her presence adds to the material.

Davis is also excellent, and I liked a lot of the byplay that passes between Grace and Sarah as they wearily assess one another before coming to the mutual realization that they need to work together to defeat the Rev-9. Schwarzenegger also seems to be having a great deal of fun, and even though his reason for being around isn't all that different than the ploy utilized to have an older T-800 in Terminator Genisys, he still brings a touch of grizzled whimsy to the motion picture that's welcome. As for Luna, the actor does what he can as the unstoppable Rev-9, the film granting him a few eccentric character beats I found agreeably amusing. But he still can't elevate the robotic assassin to the same terrifying plateau Schwarzenegger did with such ease back in 1984 and which Robert Patrick virtually matched in the 1991sequel, all of which makes his Rev-9 a far less threatening opponent for Sarah, Grace and Dani to deal with than he probably should have been.

This is still a step in the right direction for the franchise. I say that with zero hesitation. Miller handles most of the action with confident skill, the best sequences (like the requisite thundering car chase that is a signature of this series or the climactic showdown between the group and the Rev-9 inside the electrical works of a massive dam) the ones that feature more practical effects than they do digital ones. I also appreciate that the filmmakers keep things simple, never trying to overcomplicate matters and work to keep the plot moving in a relatively straightforward, character-driven manner reminiscent of the first two films (and to a lesser extent Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines).

Is that all enough to make the Terminator series viable going forward? I honestly don't know the answer to that. Cameron's return has helped re-stabilize things somewhat, and having Hamilton back certainly doesn't hurt. Reyes is a strong actress and Dani is a terrific new character, and I'm undeniably intrigued to see what might happen to her next. But I also can't stop from feeling that there aren't a lot of variations to this scenario for writers to come up with at this point, and this film's Rev-9 is still just part three's T-X which was at that time part two's T-1000, and at this point I'm not sure a new robotic assassin sent from the future to rewrite the present is going to get me excited. Still, Terminator: Dark Fate is a well-made action film many are going to enjoy, which likely means Sarah Connor will be back busting cybernetic heads before any of us know it.


Visually dazzling Paradise Hills a suspenseless dystopian thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PARADISE HILLS
Now playing


Uma (Emma Roberts) is the 'Upper' daughter of a famed inventor and industrialist who died under mysterious circumstances. To ease their financial woes and to cement the takeover of their family's company, her materialistic mother is eager for her rebellious child to marry the wealthy Son (Arnaud Valois) so they may continue to live in the comfort and serenity she has grown accustomed to. To help facilitate this, she sends her headstrong child to a strange, isolated island resort run by the mysterious Duchess (Milla Jovovich). Here, Uma and the other young women currently at this facility will be transformed, almost as if by magic, into the elegant, dainty, poised and subservient wives and mothers their benefactors are paying top-dollar for them to become.

But the Duchess' island paradise isn't just a finishing school for defiant young ladies. Along with singing star Amarna (Eiza González), sent to the resort because she had the temerity to sing new, controversial material outside of the songs she's popular for, Uma begins to suspect something far more nefarious than a few classes in etiquette and a handful of probing psychological exams are going on. Making plans to escape, the pair are hesitant to tell their fellow classmates Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and Yu (Awkwafina) too much about what it is they are going to do. Yet the Duchess isn't easily tricked, and she's up to the challenge Uma, Amarna, Chloe and Yu present, certain that by the time all four leave the island they'll be the prim and proper young ladies she's been paid to turn them into.

Director Alice Waddington's Paradise Hills is nothing less than stunning to sit and look at. From a purely visual perspective, this strange, unsettlingly surreal and fantastical psychological thriller is extraordinary, Alberto Valcárcel's incredible costumes particularly noteworthy. But the sets are equally glorious, the look and feel of this disturbing island paradise one of a kind. This is the type of movie I almost wish I could turn the volume off on just so I can go live and luxuriate in the wondrous images that are being splashed across the screen, and considering the filmmakers crafted all of this on a budget that was likely a tenth of what something like Maleficent: Mistress of Evil or Godzilla: King of the Monsters cost that's honestly saying something.

As for the rest of Waddington's feature-length debut? That's more of a mixed bag. Borrowing heavily from the likes of The Handmaid's Tale, The Stepford Wives and even The Hunger Games and working from the director's original story, screenwriters Brian DeLeeuw (Some Kind of Hate) and Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) have delivered a scenario that plays more like Suzanne Collins meets Stephenie Meyer fan-fiction written by clueless adults with a dash of George Orwell sprinkled throughout than it does anything substantive. All of the unique elements feel as if they are pulled willy-nilly from other sources, and because of that the only aspects that wholly dazzle are the aforementioned visual aesthetics.

Not that this makes Paradise Hills a waste of time. Far from it. The young cast is appealing, Jovovich has a couple of memorably unsettling moments that caught me by surprise (especially near the end) and the subtly evolving relationship between Uma and Amarna is far more tragically affecting than I anticipated. In fact, that facet of the scenario radiates with invigorating subtext involving concepts of unrequited love, gender nonconformity and especially conversion therapy that are haunting in their eloquence. These pieces of the tale are heartbreaking, and it is during the brief moments where it is just the two of them grappling with the frenzy of emotions they are trying to overcome and understand more fully where Roberts and González mutually shine.

Awkwafina is wasted in a throwaway role but does get to deliver a powerful monologue right at the start of the climactic stretch that sums up the moral conflict at the center of the picture nicely. Macdonald fares a bit better as far as her character is concerned, but even she is something of a minor afterthought for the majority of the film's running time, all of which makes caring about what happens to Chloe somewhat difficult. There's also a subplot involving Uma's secret boyfriend Markus (Jeremy Irvine), a member of the wrong social class whom her mother highly disapproves of, that goes nowhere, the twists involving him so brazenly obvious there's zero suspense as far as his involvement is concerned.

Even if it isn't saying anything new, I still do like what Waddington is going for in regards to her debut. There is a not-so-subtle subtext analyzing the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots that is especially relevant right now, and Uma's budding realization that wealth and social status mean precious little as far as overall happiness and quality of life are concerned is reasonably well developed. There are also some nice statements as far as gender identity and equality are concerned, understated little beats that reflect how individuals of varied backgrounds and sexual orientations should be treated yet sadly so infrequently are.

These are lovely sentiments, and Waddington gives them the intelligently multifaceted discourse they deserve. But the actual thriller and mystery pieces, the primary components driving the story forward towards resolution, I didn't find those to be as compelling as the more introspectively emotional aspects proved to be. There's no tension as to where things are going to end up, the final images leaving me cold. While there's the high probability that Paradise Hills will grow on me on re-watch, as magnificent as the visual elements are and as strong as the social commentary might be, that's not nearly enough to overcome the places where this motion picture falls disappointingly flat.




Broadway tap legend Savion Glover to perform at Jazz Alley Nov. 4-6
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Spooky fun with The Brothers Paranormal
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Historically rich Harriet a haunting tale of an American legend
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Skarsgård's terrifying charisma dominates otherwise uneven Kill Team
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Hamilton's return and Reyes' assertiveness reboots the Terminator franchise
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Visually dazzling Paradise Hills a suspenseless dystopian thriller
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