Tag Archives: Cynthia Erivo

HBO’s The Outsider: Season 1

I love stories that question the parameters of humanity’s collective ancestral belief, faith and reason, tales that dredge up ancient horrors and turn them loose on a modernized, very ill prepared and unsuspecting world. We’ve all turned the lights out to go to sleep at night and shuddered at the thought of something supernatural in the bedroom with us, pondered the presence of beings beyond trees and wildlife watching us when in the woods at night and entertained the ideas of the irrational, esoteric and unexplainable. HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Outsider has concluded its first season and my god what a stunner, a darkly gorgeous, oppressively uneasy and wholly human treatise on everything I opened this paragraph with and more.

This story starts routinely enough: in a small US community a young boy is found savagely murdered and sodomized in a rural area. All signs seemingly point towards local math teacher, little league coach and family man Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman displaying a startling level of gravitas I didn’t think him capable of), with multiple witnesses and various security cameras all over town implicating him pretty cut and dry. Lead detective on the case Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelssohn, fantastic as ever) makes his arrest, the DA viciously prosecutes and everything seems to be wrapping up pretty neatly… until it doesn’t. Bit by bit evidence starts to not add up, unease creeps into the procedural and something increasingly otherworldly hovers on the fringes of everyone’s awareness, some quick to believe and others skeptics until the last second. That’s about all I’ll say in regards to plot because every viewer deserves to have this tantalizing, shocking mystery furl out unspoiled for them.

This show is so effective because of how counterintuitive it feels compared to many other King adaptations. Because he’s predominantly a horror writer there’s a lot of gory effects, heavily dramatic performances and special effects employed when bringing his work to life in film and television, but not so much here. Yes, there is a supernatural element and yes there are gruesome aspects to it but there’s a lack of obvious FX and subtlety infused into each one of the human performances, all of which I genuinely cared about and felt each arc hit hard. Mendelssohn and Bateman are brilliant, the latter not getting as much screen time but using it for maximum impact in a soulful performance that goes against the grain of his largely comedic career. Others are wonderful including Paddy Considine, Bill Camp, Max Beesley, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Marc Menchaca, Yul Vasquez, Derek Cecil, Jeremy Bob, Hetienne Park, Michael Esper and more. My favourite performance and character is Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney, a slightly clairvoyant private investigator who sees the world just a bit differently and is the perfect person to have as head needle on the compass of this hunt for a heinous killer. Erivo got an Oscar nom this year, has been steadily producing brilliant work and I look forward to whatever she’s going to do next with great interest, her Holly is a sharply intuitive, subtly emotional, determined woman who is always just ahead of the curve and blends fierce pragmatism with empathy buried just below. Overall this season is a spellbinder, a dark story with touches of folk horror, well drawn characters, eerie music, haunting visuals and a real sense of place as is the case with King’s work. They have hinted at a second season and I’d be pumped if such is indeed the case but as it is this first instalment speaks for itself as a well crafted piece. Terrific stuff.

-Nate Hill

Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale

Although not quite the dense, delicious narrative feast I envisioned based on marketing, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale is an impressively mounted period thriller with gorgeous late 60’s production design, fantastic performances from a variety of players and a hard boiled, ultra violent storyline loaded with equal helpings of melodrama and pulp. Somewhere along the Nevada/California state-line lies the ornate El Royale, a retro pop funhouse with a giant chandelier, soda jerk sensibilities and and a jukebox that doesn’t quit. The rooms in California cost an extra dollar a night than those in Nevada because of course they do. A handful of strangers show up one fateful day in 1969, the motives, pasts and true temperaments of which are slowly revealed throughout the rainy night via an elliptical tale that weaves forward, backwards and flows past many perspectives and angles to show what is actually happening. Jeff Bridges is the salty preacher with memory issues, Jon Hamm the chatterbox salesman who moonlights as a clandestine federal agent, Lewis Pullman the dodgy hotel clerk, Dakota Johnson and a scary Cailee Spaeny two hippie sisters on the run and Cynthia Erivo in the film’s best and most human performance as a fledgeling singer just trying to survive the crazy night. Alliances shift, flashbacks sometime prove reliable and sometimes not, people are killed graphically, the rain pours down, intentions are laid bare and that jukebox keeps on keeping on. The soundtrack they’ve amassed is something else here, an old time collection of Mo town, sun n’ surf and heartfelt solos by Erivo that give the film a vibrant personality. And yes, Chris Hemsworth is in it too, playing a volatile, Manson-esque cult leader with a short temper, long hair and a button down shirt that conveniently never gets buttoned down (anything to fill those seats). The character is a bit much and sort of takes over the wheel in the third act, but Chris is too young to pull something that magnetic off as well as others could and I couldn’t help feeling like he was miscast. The film sort of suffers from what I call Hateful Eight syndrome a bit; when you have an Agatha Christie sort of tale to tell, the setup is always a tantalizing mystery that, once unravelled, has to feel worth the build and earn its revelations along the way. The payoff here is better than Hateful Eight and the film overall is stronger too, but I felt just a smidge underwhelmed once everything was laid bare and the wrap up rolled around. Nevertheless, this is a surefire piece of thriller entertainment with many elements that work terrifically, namely acting, dialogue and production design. Erivo seems to have come out of nowhere and also impressed me in Widows earlier this year, she grounds the film in reality and serves as the moral compass of sorts in this miasma of reprehensible human behaviour, I hope to see more of her and hear more of that singing voice in the future. Spaeny too was excellent, playing a pitch perfect acolyte with an unbalanced edge and a dead eyed stare that was truly chilling and definitely reminiscent of what I’d imagine a freaky ass flower power cult chick would have come across as back then. A fine piece of entertainment that wasn’t as deeply plotted as it could have been, but blasts by with admirable energy and streamlined ambition.

-Nate Hill

Steve McQueen’s Widows

Ever heard the expression ‘trip over your own ambitions’ ? That applies in full force to Steve McQueen’s Widows, a film that doesn’t have half the time needed to nurture, juggle or resolve the nebula of plots, twists, sub plots and sub-twists it tries to throw out there. That’s not to say that it isn’t a valiant effort; this is a film that tries a lot of things, is very innovative and engages often, but ultimately it’s just not enough and feels more like a running start without the follow through of flight. In the opener we see a heist that goes about as incredibly wrong as it could: cops hunt down a crew of high stakes robbers led by career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), gunning them all down. Viola Davis is his wife Veronica, left to pick up the pieces when thuggish wannabe politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree James) and his sociopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya is a beast) come looking for money he owed them before he died. That’s when she gets the idea to carry out the plans for his would-be next heist, joined by the other widowed women of his crew. There’s also an overarching subplot involving corrupt electoral candidate Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), his racist, old-money prick of a father (Robert Duvall with fire n’ brimstone mode activated) and others in both low income and Ivy League Chicago, which aren’t as far apart as you think, as McQueen shows us in an all too obvious extended shot of a car ride. There are aspects I loved; the opening heist, shot mostly POV from the back of the van, is a whiz banger, taut and packed with adrenaline. The performances are excellent all round, from Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki as other wives of the fallen robbers to memorable supporting turns from Jacki Weaver, Garrett Dillahunt, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon, Kevin J. O’Connor, a quietly scene stealing Lukas Haas, the most excellent Cynthia Erivo and many more. The narrative encapsulates the heists themselves with ongoing conflict including racism, urban politics, interracial romance, low income versus filthy rich, nepotism and everything in between, and this ambition to explore many avenues in one go is where the film fatally falters. The widow’s heist, when we finally come around to it, is brazen and impactful but blares by too quick for the payoff leading up to it. Hans Zimmer’s score echoes stuff like Heat but seems to only really show up now and again instead of being a prominent presence. At two hours and nine minutes, McQueen just didn’t leave himself enough time to properly cultivate relationships, build enough tension, explain his narrative fluidly or develop the characters that he clearly loves. It’s unfortunate because the guy is one hell of a director, both with his actors and his camera, he knows how to tell a story and make it feel fresh, unpredictable and just spontaneously offbeat enough to seem like real life as opposed to a story that obviously works within the parameters of script. He’s a thoroughbred, but he didn’t leave enough track to run on with this one, and I almost feel like he would have been better off going the episodic route here, as it would have had way more space to breathe and audiences far more time to ruminate on the events. Worth watching to see everything cascade by like a parade in fast forward, but don’t expect to be satisfied with wrap ups or conclusions.

-Nate Hill