Movie Review ~ The Harder They Fall


The Facts:

Synopsis: Gunning for revenge, outlaw Nat Love saddles up with his gang to take down enemy Rufus Buck, a ruthless crime boss who just got sprung from prison.

Stars: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole, Julio Cedillo, Woody McClain

Director: Jeymes Samuel

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There’s truth to the spectacle you see on the screen in writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s new Netflix Western The Harder They Fall.  Using the real-life black cowboys that made up the good guys and gals in the Old West as well as a fair share of the bad ones, too, Samuel takes a decent share of liberty with history and actual names of those that lived to create a tale of revenge that doesn’t present an alternate vision of the wild wild West so much as a version that includes everyone that was there.  The result is a fiercely entertaining film with showcase roles for a number of established black actors while also introducing an exciting crew of new names that could be in the next wave of lauded performers.  It’s one of those nice rarities that’s far better than the promo materials make it look, surpassing any expectation you may have going in.

Samuel (a British singer/songwriter working under the stage name The Bullitts, also responsible for the haunting score) is willing to set the audience off kilter from the start, opening with a shocking prologue that gives you insight into why an older Nat Love (Jonathan Majors, Da 5 Bloods) has a crude cross carved into his forehead.  The man that gave it to him, the ruthless outlaw Rufus Buck (in a blistering turn by Idris Elba, Prometheus), has his reasons that we’ll learn about late in the film but…all good things to those who wait.  Until then, wade through Boaz Yakin (Now You See Me) and Samuel’s screenplay that takes Nat Love on a mission of vengeance when his past comes back in a major way.

Buck is being transported via train in a heavily guarded cell when his loyals come for him, including Trudy Smith (Regina King, an Oscar-winner for 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield, an Oscar-nominee for 2021’s Judas and the Black Messiah).  Their take no prisoners (and no BS attitude) keep the tension high with this thrilling train/traveling prison break and soon Buck is back in his self-made town of Redwood, TX where he has business to attend to with the man he left in charge.  While he’s been away, things have gone astray and just as he’s finding out his town is bankrupt is when he also learns that Nat Love has made off with a sizable amount of his money.  Nat’s already on his way to settle an old score with Buck, though, and when Buck manages to get a bargaining chip he can use as leverage on the younger man it sets the stage for a showdown in Redwood where old debts come due for all.

Not new to the Western genre, having directed the 51-minute short They Die by Dawn in 2013, Samuel instills in his second round at the rodeo a light touch that plays in stark contrast to the violence.  It shouldn’t come as a big surprise The Harder They Fall was produced by Lawrence Bender then, as Bender was a longtime collaborator with Quentin Tarantino, another filmmaker who found an enormous amount of success with his blending of styles within an established genre.  What’s better is that nothing about it seems forced or terribly out of place either.  There’s an easiness about the whole thing that gives the movie its cadence and free flowing feel – it may be nearly two and a half hours, but you’ll be surprised at how swiftly it flies by. Samuel also pays service to the history of black people in this time period by doing his research beforehand and, while creating a work that is entirely fictional, using many real names of famous black cowboys and female outlaws of that era. It’s refreshingly told from one perspective and the only truly white town featured is hilariously designed in such a way that the audience is instantly in on the nudge to the ribs Samuel is giving — but it does speak to some of the darker aspects of that period that are shied away from. That’s for a different style of movie, though. The Harder They Fall isn’t that movie.

The enormity of talent acquired for the film is deeply impressive.  Not only do we have Elba (in his second cowboy role of 2021 for Netflix after 2020’s Concrete Cowboy) in typical full force as the unflinchingly merciless Buck but Delroy Lindo (LX 2048) is here as a sheriff joining with Nat’s group to take down a longtime enemy.  There are times when I thought Stanfield was going to walk away with the movie with his soft-spoken sharpshooter, but then King would speak up and my opinion would change to her being the MVP.  Not known for playing the villain, King revels in the role as the ride or die second hand to Buck who might be crueler than her boss. Of the numerous scenes that she’s a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of great, watch for her apple-peeling scene.

On the other side of the fence, Majors continues to prove himself a rising star, as does Zazie Beetz (Joker) as a proprietress of several saloons who has caught Nat’s eye.  I was especially glad to see Danielle Deadwyler explode onto the scene in such a big way.  The character she’s playing is incredibly complex and I wouldn’t want to label it any particular way, but it has a big impact on multiple levels.  It’s a potentially star making role and after seeing what she can do in 2020’s excellent Appalachian thriller The Devil To Pay I made a point to keep tabs on what she’s up to next. 

For a while, pre-pandemic high-profile Netflix movies were getting a decent amount of exposure in theaters but that has been reduced greatly.  That’s disappointing, especially for movies like The Harder They Fall which is particularly theatrical and feels like it was made for exhibition on a very large screen. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s (The Master) cinematography is grand in scale and the production design by Martin Whist (RoboCop) is surprisingly colorful.  So many Westerns feel like they have to be dull and covered in dust.  This is a vibrant and bold film to match the people and story being told, down to Antoinette Messam’s (Wish Upon) luxe costumes.  Though it has a clear three act structure, and everything introduced felt satisfied, there could be a potential for more adventures in this world Samuel has created and I would love to see that happen.  I’ve fallen hard for these characters and this filmmaker.

Movie Review ~ One Night in Miami


The Facts

Synopsis: In the aftermath of Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, the boxer meets with Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown to change the course of history in the segregated South.

Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Michael Imperioli, Beau Bridges, Hunter Burke, Nicolette Robinson

Director: Regina King

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s seems strange to say it, but movies like One Night in Miami make me miss live theater.  There are so many moments within this impressive feature film directorial debut of Oscar winning actress Regina King when I wished I was in the same room with the actors playing the roles of key figures in the history of Black America. The way they embodied these men with such alacrity seemed to give off a kind of electricity that I’m positive would have set off a charge strong enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  In the room where a play is performed, you take notice of these types of performers and what they are giving out to you and, in turn, you give back to them as audience members.  Without that opportunity to express that though, when it just halts at the barrier of the screen, something feels unfulfilled.

I suppose that’s why I’ve struggled with my thoughts on One Night in Miami these past weeks since seeing it and wondering why it hasn’t moved me in the way that I’ve heard it has for other people.  Not that I have to fall in step with the throngs because I’ve certainly defended my share of movies to those that didn’t respond like I did…but there’s something about this particular project that’s made me a little out of sorts.  The performances in the movie are stunning and just as awards worthy as you’ve heard (but maybe not in my mind the exact people being mentioned…more on that later) and the imagined dialogue that happens within the framework of the real-life set-up has a crackle to it.  However, there’s one element missing that there is no working around that keeps the movie from ever taking a sky’s the limit flight…and it’s that old electricity I mentioned before.

Adapting his 2013 play, screenwriter Kemp Powers (already having a jolly good year as co-director and screenwriter of Pixar’s Soul) opens the film with introductions to the four men that will feature in the night’s festivities.  Civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, The Commuter) struggles with maintaining his path forward in the face of threats of violence, a visit with a family friend of NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) in Georgia starts sweet but ends with a sour reminder of the time and place, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Godzilla) is established as the king of the ring and a true showman, and singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Murder on the Orient Express) makes a dreary first impression at the famed Copacabana nightclub where his crooner numbers sink like a stone to the all-white audience.  These scenes have all been added to the film and are several examples of ways that Powers and King have wisely expanded the world of the one-act, 90-minute play…and not just for an excuse to pad the run time of the feature.

It’s when we get to the bones of Kemp’s play, when the men gather at a motel room after Clay’s victory and discuss his intended conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcom X, that the film starts to back itself into a corner.  Gone are the easy ways to keep the action moving and here to stay are speeches crafted as monologues and dialogue that sounds more like back and forth talking points to cross off on a checklist.  It’s unavoidable, I suppose, that a play about a gathering of men in a motel room would turn into a movie that feels like a play.  Only in the moments when the men excuse themselves and King follows them out of the room or travels back in time do we find ourselves slipping back into the magic and mood that are attempting to be evoked.  Every time we got back into that room, I felt like it was a return to actors running their lines again, stymied by four walls that were holding them back…much in the same way their characters were lamenting the way they were being held back from doing greater things.

The good news is that the performances are so superlative that they mostly overcome this stage-y feeling that infiltrates these scenes.  All are dealt nearly impossible tasks of recreating personalities that are instantly recognizable, but King has cast her film impeccably from top to bottom.  By far the star of the film is Ben-Adir, unforgettable as Malcom X…which is saying a lot because the doomed civil rights leader has already been played brilliantly before onscreen by an Oscar-nominated Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 film.  Making the role his own, Ben-Adir channels Malcolm X from some otherworldly place, and it’s not a larger-than-life performance either.  Along with Hodge’s Brown, it’s likely the quietest one in the film but instead of just blending into the scenery, that solemn silence speaks volumes as he clashes with Sam Cooke over the popular singer’s refusal to be a more visible part of the movement.

I can understand why Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke is getting the advance notices for the film and an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Category wouldn’t be out of the question, but it would be folly not to speak of Ben-Adir in those same lines.  If anything, Cooke is pushed into more of a leading character with Odom Jr. performing several songs, including a thunderous take on ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.  Strangely, as over-the-top as Clay/Muhammad Ali was, Goree is the least memorable out of the four and it’s possibly because he’s the one that isn’t given as much to do when it comes to serious-minded debate compared to actors like Ben-Adir and Odom Jr.  Even Hodge gets to take a walk outside of the motel and have his opportunity in the spotlight, plus his early scene in Georgia with Beau Bridges leaves a lingering impression, a sting that is felt for the remainder of the film.

A long-time veteran of the business that has won a truckload of awards through the years, after taking home an Oscar two years ago for If Beale Street Could Talk it’s clear that King is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the director category in years to come.  Based on One Night in Miami, there is a lot to be excited about for King’s future as well as its cast of emerging stars.  I wish Powers had been able to solve the issues that plague every play that transfers from the stage to the screen, but the additional material that’s been added at the beginning, end, and interspersed within show that there was an awareness that movement was needed in order to give the film life.  Recommended on the strength of the performances because they definitely help when the film finds itself on shaky stage bound legs.

Movie Review ~ If Beale Street Could Talk

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman in Harlem desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child.

Stars: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis

Director: Barry Jenkins

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  In 2016, writer/director Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story Moonlight, telling a unique story about a heretofore underrepresented population of the black community onscreen.  It was a bold, beautiful movie that challenged viewers and our own prejudices not only to skin color but to our perceptions of love and acceptance.  While Jenkins missed out on winning Best Director, Moonlight famously went on to win Best Picture is an Oscar snafu that first saw La La Land announced as the victor only to have Academy officials quickly rush the stage to say presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read the wrong winner and the small indie Moonlight actually took the prize.

Two years later, we were all waiting with baited breath wondering would the next Jenkins film, If Beale Street Could Talk, capitalize on his momentum and solidify that Moonlight wasn’t just a flash in the pan moment of greatness.  Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, Jenkins has again adapted a work of great beauty that juggles multiple timelines and emotions and creates an utterly transporting experience.  While it couldn’t be more different from Moonlight in subject matter, it captures a similar spirit and builds on that earlier work, bringing audiences deep into the lives of two young lovers and their families dealing with a terrible situation.

Tish (KiKi Layne, Captive State) and Fonny (Stephan James, Selma) have grown up together in Harlem, their childhood friendship blossoming into teenage affection and then into adult love.  When the film opens, Fonny is in prison awaiting trial for a raping a woman and Tish has to tell him that she’s going to have his baby.  Through flashbacks intercut with present day scenes of Tish and her family seeking assistance in clearing Fonny’s name, we see how these two young people got to this place and time and mourn the likely loss of the shared life they’ll never get to begin.  Is the woman accusing Fonny doing so because he’s black?  Or was she instructed to pick him out of a line-up by a cop (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) that had a previous run-in with him?  What about the darkest question of all?  Could Fonny have actually done it?

Even though this is only the second film I’ve seen from Jenkins, I can already see a calling card style to his work. Like director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Jenkins favors having his actors staring directly into the camera, which functions as a way of drawing audiences into the action and makes you feel like they are delivering their lines directly to you.  You suddenly become the character being addressed and the effect is unsettling, yet thrilling all the same.  Much of If Beale Street Could Talk are just conversations between ordinary people and the film isn’t afraid to keep things quiet and reflective, like in a scene with Brian Tyree Henry (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) recounting to his old friend Fonny what a black man’s psyche feels like after being in prison.

At the center of the film are the two impressive performances of Layne and James, navigating countless emotions throughout from the nervous excitement of a first coupling to elation in the face of fear at the news of their upcoming child to the desperation and eventual resolute acceptance of a broken legal system.  The work here, especially Layne as the film progresses, is outstanding.  The young actors are strongly supported by Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as Tish’s mother who is mighty and moving in several key scenes without ever resorting to the kind of showboating acting the role could have leaned toward.  For me, it’s not quite the Oscar-winning performance people are claiming it is but King is always such a solid presence I get why she’s at the top of the conversations this year.  I also enjoyed Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) as Tish’s no-nonsense sister, and Michael Beach (Aquaman) and Aunjanue Ellis (Get on Up) as Fonny’s parents who come calling for but one scene early on in the film and leave a sizable impression in their wake.  Familiar faces Diego Luna (Contraband), Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) show up in smaller supporting roles that thankfully don’t get in the way of our leads.

Nicholas Britell’s (The Big Short) brass heavy score is fantastic as is James Laxton’s (Tusk) golden-hued and period specific cinematography, all playing their role in picking you up and placing you exactly where Jenkins wants you to be.  Jenkins has a way with casting even the smallest of roles pitch-perfectly, with no one betraying this is a movie set in 1974 made in 2018.  While Moonlight was more of a film that led to further discussion, If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t quite have that same “Let’s talk about it” feel to it when the picture ends.  That’s not to say it isn’t highly effective or incredibly moving – it’s a movie made with emotion that you can’t help but be swept away with and that’s largely due to the performances and the way Jenkins brings many elements together to create a true movie-going experience.  One of the best of the year.