Movie reviews of “The Harder They Fall,” “Passing” and “Dune.”
I’ve been a fan of Westerns all my life, so if you tell me there’s a new Western out there, I’m bound to see it. “The Harder They Fall” is that rare Western driven by Black characters, in this case, characters who are based/inspired by real-life not-so-famous (and infamous) figures. And of course, like most American Westerns, any connection between historical fact and what you see on the screen is almost entirely coincidental. However, that doesn’t prevent them from being quite entertaining, all the same.
What you have at the heart of “The Harder They Fall” is your basic revenge plot—evil outlaw Rufus Buck (charismatically played by Idris Elba) and his henchmen kill a boy’s parents (leaving the boy to live), boy grows up to be desperado Nat Love (played by Jonathan Majors), desires to wreak vengeance on any and all connected with said evil outlaw. Naturally there are complications (the movie runs over two hours) lest the film end too quickly. In this case, evil outlaw Buck has been in prison for a spell, but that situation changes—and soon the paths of the avenger and tormentor converge.
It’s nice to see that “The Harder They Fall” maintains many of the trappings of the classic Western. It is beautifully photographed (by Mihai Malamaire Jr.), with a number of exciting gun battles, a few showdowns (where unfortunately certain characters talk too much for their own good…as Eli Wallach’s character said in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “If you’re gonna talk, talk, if you’re gonna shoot, shoot.”), and an array of interesting henchmen and sidekicks. Besides the energy of leads Idris Elba and Jonathan Major, the impressive supporting turns, include Delroy Lindo’s sheriff, Lakeith Stanfield’s ruthless Cherokee Bill, and Danielle Deadwyler as the loyal Cuffee.
There is some pointed commentary on race relations and a few visually inspired moments; and the use of contemporary music is sometimes inspired. However, where “The Harder They Fall” breaks some new ground is in the dominance and strength of the leading female characters. While there have been Westerns with strong female characters (“Johnny Guitar” starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge comes to mind), rarely has there been a Western where so much of the action is propelled by the female characters. Besides Deadwyler’s wise and wary Cuffee, there are dynamic turns by Regina King as Trudy Smith, Buck’s second-in-command and perhaps even deadlier than Buck. She is balanced (on the side of good) by Zazie Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary, Love’s girlfriend who is as resourceful and resilient as her erstwhile lover.
Yet the film, as written and directed by Jeymes Samuel, does have a few flaws, mainly in the last section. Let’s just say (without revealing too much) that the actions of certain characters don’t ring entirely true, the climax is far too protracted, and certain characters are left standing—mainly (in my cynical perception) to leave open the possibility of a sequel. However, “The Harder They Fall” is pretty entertaining as it is, an exciting Western with some excitement, grit and plenty of humor. And it’s available on Netflix.
Also on Netflix is Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” a classic (and long-neglected) novel with plenty to say regarding race and class, heritage, relationships, and even materialism—all of which resonate to this day. Exquisitely photographed in black and white by Edward Grau and set mainly in 1920s NYC, it’s the story of Irene (Tessa Thompson), a light-skinned Black woman who bumps into an old acquaintance Clare (Ruth Negga). Clare, who is also Black, has chosen to live her life by passing for white. (Irene will sometimes “pass” when it is convenient—as in the all-white hotel where they first meet.) This chance meeting leads to a desire (mainly on the part of Clare) to renew their friendship. Clare has married a very prosperous (and racist) white man who does not know of Clare’s actual racial identity—and she wants desperately to be back among “her own people.” Irene is comfortably married and to Brian, a handsome, successful (though restless) doctor, and she is immersed in Harlem’s busy social scene. Clare’s desire to be part of Irene’s life, to ingratiate herself with Irene’s friends and family, threatens to shatter Irene’s orderly and sheltered existence. And there’s always the lingering question, what if Clare’s husband John (whom Irene has met in an uncomfortable early scene) finds out Clare’s secret…?
“Passing,” the movie (as well as the novel) is told mainly from Irene’s perspective; in the novel, the limited point-of-view spells out the various modes of her interior life, while here, the very capable Tessa Thompson (and the camerawork) is left to visually portray Irene’s growing unease, jealousy and fear. And then there is the unspoken (and very possible) question of who or what Irene is really jealous of, given Clare’s re-entry into her life. The novel tantalizingly raises questions about Brian and Clare’s growing relationship; Clare’s possible attraction to Irene (and possible reciprocation, in spirit), that the movie leaves less in doubt. And while the movie attempts to preserve all the undercurrents, what remains on screen is mostly lifeless. Everything is played on the same subdued, restrained note. Clare, who on the page, was more lively and charming (and admittedly ruthless) comes off as restless and bored, and more one-note, at least in Ruth Negga’s portrayal. Everything in the film is presented as so solemn, even enervating, that it keeps the viewer from becoming involved in the proceedings—except for possibly wondering about the return of Jack. “Passing”is a haunting novel, but this well-intended adaptation lacks the vitality and emotional impact to do it justice.
“This is only the beginning.” Very rarely have I heard more frightening words onscreen and these come near the conclusion of the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal “Dune.” Not a remake of the 1984 film but an attempt to be more faithful to its source, the film is visually impressive, even striking at times, but for this intrepid viewer there was nothing of interest at the human level. There are power struggles, a struggle to preserve a planet, betrayals, a hope for a new leader, changing alliances. There are also some very good actors (among them Javier Bardem, Oscar Isaac), but alas, they are spouting plenty of portentous dialogue. By the end, I was pleased—that it was over, but we all know there is more to come. There are “Dune” admirers I respect who have found much to enjoy about the film, so there is no need to take my word for it. I will say though, that it is best seen (and “best” is a word I use loosely) on the big screen. Bring your popcorn.