Posts Tagged ‘Idris Elba’

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz

“THE HARDER THEY FALL” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If “The Harder They Fall” is a thematic and narrative mess, at least it’s a moderately entertaining mess.

Jaymes Samuel’s film aspires to Leone-level mythology while delivering an all-black (or mostly black) Western adventure.

Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin have come up with a wholly fictional (and wholly implausible) plot, but they’ve populated it with historic figures…or at least characters who bear the names of real African American noteworthies like Bill Pickett, Stagecoach Mary Fields, Cherokee Bill and Jim Beckworth.

Those names are the most realistic thing about the film. The characters are paper thin (they sometimes accrue a simulacrum of substance through the sheer charisma of the performers) and nothing like psychological realism rears its head.

Similarly, the physical production is impressive without ever really being convincing.  This is an oddly spic-and-span version of the West…the horses bleed when shot but apparently they don’t defecate, given the pristine state of the streets.  The wardrobe choices — especially for the women characters — are quite wonderful in their eccentricity, but at the cost of constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.

Indeed, the model for “The Harder They Fall” is less the traditional Western than a Marvel movie.  Instead of a crew of specially-gifted superheroes we get two competing crews of specially-gifted and peculiarly-costumed gunfighters.

In a prologue we see outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) invade a remote farmhouse, shoot the husband and wife and terrorize their young son.

Years later that child has grown to be Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw gang leader whose specialty is preying on other outlaws.  You see, Nat thirsts for revenge on Rufus, but that killer is serving a life sentence in prison. So he occupies himself with bothering the still-active remnants of Rufus’ gang.

But wouldn’t you know it…Rufus pulls strings and gets himself freed from stir to run amok once again.  You know it’s all going to end with a big shootout that will reduce a frontier town to rubble and a mano-a-mano confrontation between Nate and his nemesis.

The film is packed with terrific actors on both sides of the feud:  Ed Gathegi, Damon Wayans Jr., Lakeith Stanfield. Regina King is too good an actress to be stuck with a cardboard villainess like Trudy Smith, but by God she looks great in her all-black outfit topped by a bowler hat.

Regina King, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield

Zazie Beetz is an alluring explosion of hair as saloon owner Mary Fields, who is also hero Nate’s love interest.

And two members of the Love Gang just about steal the show:  Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a cross-dressing diminutive saloon bouncer and R.J. Cyler as Beckworth, one of those mouthy, pistol-spinning wannabe gunfighters who exude more bravado than common sense.

Oh, and let’s not forget Delroy Lindo as grizzled lawman Bass Reeves, who teams up with one band of outlaws to defeat an even worse bunch.

This is an Old West where white faces are peripheral at best. Most of the action unfolds in all-black burgs, and while one assumes this milieu would have been rife with racism, the film really isn’t interested in making a social statemtent. 

(Although there’s one elaborate visual joke: the black outlaws decide to rob a bank in a white town…and when I say “white” I mean really white.  The whole place — houses, storefronts, hitching posts, boardwalks — have been painted bright white. You’d have to shade your eyes on a cloudy day.)

Samuel gets playful with the soundtrack, employing bits of Morricone mischief but relying mostly on reggae.  

On the downside there are several moments of pure sadism that leave a bad taste. And the screenplay features a couple of long monologues that really only prove how much better Tarantino is at this sort of thing.

But, hey, the film looks great. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography lovingly dwells on both the Western landscape and the faces of the players.

If it all never really comes together coherently, at least there’s plenty to look at.

| Robert W. Butler

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Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin

“CONCRETE COWBOY” My rating: B (Netflix)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Inner city kid facing an uncertain future is saved by a program that mixes tough love with animal husbandry.

Uh…haven’t we seen this movie about a hundred times already?

Well, yes and no.

The basic plot of “Concrete Cowboy” offers little in the way of surprises. It’s very familiar territory.

The presentational style, though, is fresh and gritty and hugely effective. It’s more Chloe Zhao art film than movie-of-the-week melodrama.

Troubled Detroit teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is sullen and angry. He’s being expelled from school for fighting.

So his desperate mother throws his shit into a black plastic trash bag, drags the kid into her car, and overnight drives him the 600 miles to Philadelphia, where she unceremoniously dumps the boy on his father’s doorstep. She’s going to let her ex deal with the young punk over the summer.

“Dad” is Harp (Idris Elba), who lives in a mostly-black neighborhood on the city’s northern edge.  At first glance there’s nothing special about the block of decaying row houses on which Harp lives…until you realize that one old commercial buiilding has been converted into a stable.

Harp and his neighbors are horse junkies. It’s not like they’re an official club or anything…the so-called Fletcher Street Riders (they’re a real thing) just love horses and spend whatever spare money they’ve got to feed, groom and outfit the big animals.  Any cash left over is devoted to communal bonfires replete with weed and whisky. (They’re kind of like benign black bikers with horsies instead of Harleys.)

The screenplay by Dan Walser and director Ricky Staub follows Cole’s gradual assimilation into this clan of urban equestrians…not that it’s an easy transition.

For one thing, he and the old man do not get along. The kid ends up sleeping in the stables, sharing a stall with a horse so mean it seems destined for the glue factory.  And, yes, the angry animal bonds with the angry teen.

Meanwhile there’s his dangerous friendship with Smush (Jharrel Jerone), who sucks Cole into an ill-advised plan to sell drugs.

Elba is top billed here, and he brings a smoldering intensity and quiet dignity to Harp. Especially fine is a monologue in which he explains to his estranged son why he named him Cole (he’s a John Coltrane fan).


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Taylor Swift

“CATS” My rating:  C+

110  minutes | MPAA rating: PG

It’s taken the musical “Cats” nearly 40 years to make its way from the stage to the big screen. Now we know why.

Just as there are some novels that defy dramatization, so there are stage productions that derive their power from the interaction of audience and performer, that work precisely because the viewer realizes that all the magic unfolding in front of him/her is being created by real people in real time.

Tom Hooper’s movie version, on the other hand, has been so digitally diddled with that we can’t be sure that anything we’re seeing — from the settings to the performers’ faces — is even remotely real. Characters do impossible flips in the air,  cockroaches march in formation…it’s all so artificial that the film might as well have been done as pure animation (actually that was the plan, back in the ’90s).

That said, the movie “Cats” isn’t a total wipeout. The score (the tunes are by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the lyrics derived from T.S. Eliot’s book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) remains humworthy and at least a couple of the performers manage to transcend their hairy makeup (all too often they look like werewolves from a ’60s Hammer film) and establish an emotional connection with the audience.

A big problem is that “Cats” lacks a real story.  On stage this wasn’t a deal breaker…the show was a musical revue with different “cats” taking center stage to sing and dance their signature numbers.  What plot there was dealt with the approaching Jellicle Ball where one lucky feline will be chosen by the ancient Deuteronomy to be reincarnated into a new life (cats get nine of them, after all).

The screenplay by Lee Hall and Hooper  centers on Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward, who seems capable of expressing only a quizzical attitude), abandoned by her owner in a dirty alley and adopted into the Jellicle tribe.  Her guide and guardian is Munkstrap (Robbie Fairchild), who introduces her to various other characters and the rundown corner of London they call home.


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Kate Winslet, Idris Elba


103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

He’s a neurosurgeon desperate to get back to Baltimore for a big operation.

She’s a photojournalist desperate to get back east for her wedding.

With an incoming blizzard grounding commercial air traffic, they rent a charter plane to take them home.


“The Mountain Between Us” is a survival tale/love story set in the Colorado Rockies and starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet as Ben and Alex, total strangers who must work together to survive when their plane crashes on a remote mountain top.

As an outdoor adventure crammed with drop-dead scenery and a plethora of adversity (hungry mountain lion, freezing temperatures, starvation, a fall through cracking lake ice) this film from director Hany Abu-Assad (an Israeli making his Hollywood debut) works well enough.

As a romance, though, it’s iffy.  J. Mills Goodie’s screenplay (from Charles Martin’s novel) doesn’t really give us that much to work with, character-wise.  Elba and Winslet are charismatic performers capable of suggesting depth where there is relatively little, but the script is skimpy with details, and what there is is a bit hokey. For way too long the state of Ben’s marriage is dangled before us like a mystery carrot.

Speaking of way too long…the movie continues a good 15 minutes after it should have ended; many viewers will develop a case of ants in their pants.


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Abraham Attah

Abraham Attah


137 minutes | No MPAA rating

To the small handful of brilliant movies about the madness of war — among them “Apocalypse Now” and the Soviet “Come and See” — we must now add Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a ghastly but hugely moving story about child soldiers in an African civil war.

In this sobering feature — a Netflix original that is also being booked into theaters — we never do learn the nationality of Agu (Abraham Attah), our young protagonist.  Only that he lives with his family in a demilitarized zone where civilians are safe from the violence that swirls around them.

But their sanctuary doesn’t last long. Soldiers — apparently they represent the central government — show up to do a bit of cleansing.  Agu’s mother and younger siblings have already fled to the big city, but now he watches as his unarmed father and older brother are gunned down.

The boy races into the bush, living like an animal. Then’s he’s captured by a band of rebels led by Commandant (a hypnotic Idris Elba) and slowly indoctrinated into their martial ranks.

Commandant is the only adult in sight. His next-in-command is a teenager and most of the troops under him are mere children playing soldier. It’s like “Lord of the Flies”
with machine guns.

But Commandant is a charismatic leader for whom his “men” would do anything. So when newbie Agu is ordered to execute a captive with a machete, he obeys. Reluctantly at first, and then in a frenzy as the lust to kill takes over.


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Idris Elba as the imprisoned Nelson Mandela

Idris Elba as the imprisoned Nelson Mandela

“MANDELLA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM”  My rating: B- (Opens wide Dec. 25)

139 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is an honorable stab at a screen biography of a much-revered individual. On one level it’s inspiring, sure…how could a movie about the late Nelson Mandela not be inspiring?

But it’s also pedestrian…not in terms of production value but in its low-keyed sensibilities. Director Justin Chadwick, a veteran of British television with only two other features to his credit (“The Other Boleyn Girl,” “The First Grader”), is aiming for an intimate epic but comes up short. As a huge admirer of Mandela, I wanted to be deeply moved by this film. I wasn’t.

For starters, there’s the casting of Idris Elba in the title role. I know, I know…Elba is a terrific actor and extraordinarily studly, which is part of the problem. Look at the brooding look he gives in the poster for the movie…it’s more “The Wire” than peace, love and brotherhood.


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