Posts Tagged ‘Zazie Beetz’

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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Joaquin Phoenix

“JOKER” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier teamed up to make a superhero movie, the result would be just like “Joker.”

Less conventional comic book material than existential scream, Todd Phillips’ take on the legendary D.C. villain gives us Joaquin Phoenix as a hapless loser transformed by isolation and grief into a clown-faced avenging angel.

This grim — as in NOT FUN — yarn unfolds not in some make-believe alternative universe (the traditional Tim Burton-ized abode of comic book sagas) but in a Gotham City that looks, sounds and seems even to smell like the dystopian NYC of the 1970s, replete with wall-to-wall graffiti and mounds of garbage thanks to a strike by city workers.

There’s nothing supernatural offered by Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay, no fantastic science fiction machines or surgeries, nobody gifted with special powers.

Just the eternally miserable Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a human wraith doomed by genetics and circumstance to live in brutal isolation.

Arthur  works as a professional clown (children’s parties, sidewalk huckstering) and aspires to do stand up — which is odd because he is stupendously unfunny.

Street punks beat him up. When nervous — pretty much all the time — he breaks into uncontrollable laughter.  It’s actually a medical condition for which he takes an array of prescriptions.  Except that the city agency that provides drugs and counseling (Arthur spent some of his young adulthood in a mental ward) has lost its funding. Now he’s on his own.

“The worst thing about having mental illness,” he observes, “is that people expect you to act like you don’t.”

At home in a peeling apartment he feeds and bathes his aged mother (Frances Conroy); their relationship is essentially loving, but it’s pretty clear that Mom is delusional.  She insists on sending pleading letters to her long-ago employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), an oligarchical fascist making a run for mayor. (Yes, that Thomas Wayne, father of young Bruce, who will one day become Joker’s arch nemesis Batman.)

But then Arthur has his own issues with reality. He fantasizes that he appears on the late-night talk show of his favorite TV personality, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Movie buffs will no doubt pick up some residual vibes from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which DeNiro played a pathologically inept standup comic.


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