Harriet Review

Over the past year I have visited a few sites that played significant importance in Harriet Tubman’s life.  From this I have realized not only how much of an impact she had on American history but also how revolutionary of a figure she was for her time.  She absolutely deserves all of the attention she’s getting now ($20 bill on the way), and her story is so incredible that I couldn’t wait to see the movie in development about her.  Unfortunately, Harriet does not live up to the pedigree of its subject.  With so much material to get this easily right, this movie is ultimately just a basic series of face-offs between a hero and villain.  A strong central performance isn’t enough to save this movie from a lackluster plot and a religious fervor that makes this move off-putting.

Harriet follows Minty Ross (Cynthia Erivo), a slave in Maryland, as she escapes from captivity, joins the Underground Railroad and eventually joins the Union army and becomes known by her free name, Harriet Tubman.  The movie’s attempt at making this more than your typical biopic is a complete failure.  The movie establishes Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn) as a major character and the movie’s antagonist.  The movie constantly switches between being a cat and mouse adventure between these two and then ultimately a series of face-offs between the two.  For such a major subject matter, it’s really disappointing to see this movie cover the major relationship in Harriet Tubman’s life as being her relationship with her former owner.

Even worse is the movie’s over reliance on Christianity and religion.  Christianity was a major factor in Tubman’s life, but here it’s used as a deus ex machine that fixes every issue that Tubman and the other protagonists run into.  The movie is certainly preachy, and it’s to the point that it detracts from the movie rather than honoring Tubman’s religiousness.

It’s almost as if at every turn that this movie is trying to ruin Cynthia Erivo’s great work.  Erivo really broke out last year with her work in Bad Times at the El Royale, and just like that performance this is another wide-ranging one.  She gets to show off her incredible singing talents at multiple points in this movie but she is also asked to deliver a physically demanding performance that puts her through the ringer while also making you realize she could easily pull off an action star type of role.

Harriet features another strong performance from Cynthia Erivo, but she is too often asked to hold up a movie that falls apart in every other aspect.


Frozen II Review

It seems like 2019 was finally the year that Disney became ubiquitous.  The top 2019 box office hits list is littered with Disney movies (Endgame, The Lion King, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4 etc.) and Disney just released their streaming subscription service to truly begin the Streaming Wars.  This trend continues this weekend with the release of the sequel to one of its bigger hits in recent times: Frozen II.  The two things that made Frozen work so well were its incredible soundtrack (“Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” are still some of the best movie songs of the decade) and its story based around two sisters and their relationship with each other.  Frozen II is more than aware of its predecessor’s strengths, but it tries too hard to once again go down this path and it all ends in rather mixed results.

Frozen II picks up a few years after the first movie as Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) reign over an era of peace and prosperity.  That is until a mysterious voice that Elsa hears causes her to unleash a tornado on Arendelle and begins a journey to an enchanted forest to get control over the Elemental Spirits.  Frozen II is a classic case of a sequel going into the past to build more story for its characters as Anna and Elsa’s parents play major roles in the adventures and trials that the two come across in this movie.  Unfortunately, this strategy feels all too familiar in this movie and the the overall execution of this movie’s story is even worse (a very dramatic turn at the end of the second act is quickly resolved a few scenes later for instance).  That being said the relationship between Anna and Elsa still works well (even if it does lose its uniqueness here), and it’s enough to power the movie until the end.

The other strongpoint of the first movie, the soundtrack, also falters here.  While there are multiple attempts at capturing the magic of “Let It Go” (Idina Menzel gets two power balls in this one), I have a hard time seeing anyone remember any of these songs a couple of weeks from now.  The weakness of the soundtrack is made even more apparent when one of the characters makes a dig at how outdated “Let It Go” seems now in a meta joke that falls flat.

This movie does improve on its predecessor in one way though: its visuals.  “Elemental spirits” being such major characters gives the movie a lot to work with when creating these characters and the movie explores that in some interesting ways.  Additionally, the CGI has improved enough from the first movie where you can actually notice the detail that has gone into such things as the costumes that the characters wear.  Even if the story falters and the soundtrack falls flat this is still a beautiful movie to look at.

Ultimately, there was a sense of uniqueness to the original Frozen that is all but lost in this followup.  This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch, but when a character remarks that this is really the end this time during the climax of Frozen II I really hope that’s the case.


Doctor Sleep Review

I have never been a fan of Stephen King.  I’m not much of a horror fan but even with King’s books that have delved more into the realm of science fiction I have found his writing to be too self indulgent in its use of graphic descriptions.  There’s no problem with being graphic in your writing but at some point you have to stop describing one situation and just get on with the plot.  So obviously, the Stephen King movie adaptation that I have liked the most to date is The Shining.  Whereas King’s style is more matter of fact, Stanley Kubrick has always favored a more ambiguous style to his storytelling and that really helps with the adaptation of The Shining.  Almost 40 years on, we have now been gifted with a sequel to both the movie adaptation and King’s book in the form of Doctor Sleep.  While this movie clearly favors the King approach to the Kubrick approach, there is still a lot to admire in this movie including a first rate cast and some admirable if imperfect filmmaking choices.

Doctor Sleep picks up with a now adult Danny Torrance (played for most of the movie by Ewan McGregor) as he tries to live a normal life while battling alcoholism and his Shining powers.  Yet he is brought back into another supernatural battle when he becomes aware of a group of supernatural people feeding on children through a telepathic conversion with a girl (Kyliegh Curran proving she definitely has a career in the acting business) with Shining powers more powerful than his.  

The plot is ultimately as ridiculous as it sounds, and the movie becomes even more ridiculous when its third act just becomes really blatant fan service.  However, the cast of the movie does wonders in grounding it all.  Ewan McGregor does wonders in roles like these where he is playing the straight man role in a world of craziness (think of his role in The Ghost Writer or even the Star Wars prequels).  There isn’t anything flashy with his performance, but that allows his subtle portrayal of weariness and vulnerability to really sink in.  This is in distinct contrast to Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat, the leader of a group of Shining individuals who feed on others to live longer than normal lives, who is clearly having a lot of fun with her role.  Ferguson plays a pretty basic villain but she brings so much charisma to the role that I really hope she gets more roles like this in the future.

Additionally, the movie relies heavily on flashbacks and hallucinations so characters from the original movie and book come back into play.  Director Mike Flanagan decides to handle this in a fashion that feels both outdated and unique in today’s age of cinema.  All the returning characters are played by similar looking actors to their original counterparts.  Most other movies today would have used complete CGI renders or de-aging effects.  While this works for the return of some characters, this movie does rely on some of the original movie’s most iconic characters coming back in important fashion and the half baked attempt at recreating this comes off as something that Kubrick would never get caught doing.

That being said there’s a lot of really admirable choices on the part of Mike Flanagan.  For one, there are no jump scares in this movie.  That really stands out in today’s horror genre and it also allows the more psychological aspects of this movie to stick out.  Also Flanagan makes sure that the final edit of this movie is a really good one.  The movie is long as it approaches two and a half hours in total, but it rarely feels as such.  Almost everything seems vital.

Ultimately, there is a lot to like from a filmmaking aspect in Doctor Sleep.  The story is a bit derivative and the third act gets to be really silly in its use of fan service, but the cast and visuals stand out enough for it to be a fun night at the movies.


Shenandoah National Park

Being from the Northeastern state of Connecticut, my mind naturally thinks that the closest national park is Acadia National Park.  However, Shenandoah National Park is about an hour shorter of a drive for me.  While I haven’t had as much time to spend in Shenandoah as I’ve had in Acadia, i just got back from my second trip to the beautiful park.  What makes Shenandoah so great is that it gives you mountain hiking with a feel of southern rural life without being too far from city life (Washington D.C. is only a ninety minute drive away).  

Most people will begin their journey into Shenandoah through the gateway town of Front Royal (a small town that doesn’t really seem to have been impacted much by the amount of tourism in the area although you will want to check out the Front Royal Brewing Company if you are into beer tasting), which leads right to the park’s main feature, Skyline Drive.  Skyline Drive is a scenic road in the vein of the Blue Ridge Parkway (in fact the two connect at the southern end of the park) as it takes a ridge line path through the mountains of the area.  The views are gorgeous all over and the park has numerous overlooks that you can pull your car into to admire the views.  Don’t get too crazy with the overlooks upon first entering the park because the views get even better as you head towards the center of the park.

There are numerous opportunities for hiking along the Skyline Drive, but there isn’t a single hike that really stands out.  The Stony Man trail offers some of the best views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Skyline Drive in the park, but it’s way too short of a hike and its easy accessibility from the road means it will be a crowded journey.  The Rapidan Camp area offers some longer and more secluded hikes and a lot of opportunities to see wildlife, but the waterfall that many seem to think is the centerpiece of the area is rather small.

The aspect that really stands out on the Skyline Drive, though, are the facilities.  A few miles into the drive is the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, which provides a lot of information about the park in a very scenic area of the park.  Fifty miles down the Drive in the Big Meadows region is the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, which features a couple of top notch exhibits about the history of the park, as well as a viewing area for the Big Meadows.  The park also features two restaurants and bars (one each at the Skyland Resort area and Big Meadows area).  These honestly feature the best food I’ve had in the national park system.  The alcoholic mixed drinks are unique, the use of local foods like blackberries is well done, and the southern fried chicken I had on my most recent visit to the Skyland Resort Restaurant is one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  It seems weird to say, but you might want to go to Shenandoah just for the food.

Oddly enough, the park’s best feature, Old Rag Mountain, is nowhere near the Skyline Drive.  If you travel a little bit off the beaten path, though, you will get to experience one of the best hiking opportunities on the Atlantic Coast.  Once again wildlife viewing opportunities are numerous (we saw a black bear when we went) on this 8+ mile hike, and the rock scrambling in the upper portions of the hike make this fun but not overly exerting.  Once again the views at the top of the mountain are hard to forget.

If you’re looking for some peaceful driving, numerous hiking opportunities, and some of the best food around please take the shorter than expected trip to Shenandoah National Park.

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