The Harder They Fall (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Here’s the set-up: a cavalry officer, who has looted a town and slaughtered its population, apparently, is given the task of transporting notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) by train from one jail to another for no particular reason, but a higher-up soldier has hired the remainder of Buck’s gang, led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), to attack the train and kill this officer and in return Buck is granted is freedom. The train driver is so dumb that seeing a horseperson astride the track he simply stops the train, obviously not realising what time period he is in, and that in the lawless West, this person is not taking up this position because they missed their stop. When Buck returns to Redwood, a town no bigger than a postage stamp, he discovers it is actually extremely rich, source of wealth not explained either, except the money has been stolen by his associate Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), leaving Buck to somehow recover the $50,000 that has been lost.

Buck has been on a losing streak, his own gang having been robbed of $25,000 by another gang led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), whose family, incidentally, has been slaughtered by Buck who carved a cross in the young Nat’s forehead, making him of course far too instantly recognisable for such a chosen profession, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.  

And that’s before it gets complicated with Love trying to get the drop on Buck, Buck trying to regain his stolen cash, rival gunslingers wanting to demonstrate their quick-draw skills, and rival saloon keepers Trudy and Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). Fields is another contender for the dumb-and-dumber award after thinking the best way to scout the postage-sized town of Redwood is not just to sneak up in darkness and have a looksee but instead to pretend she’s moseyed into town with the intention of buying up the saloon and not having the sense to work out that Buck is just going to capture her and use her as bait. Oh, and just in case in case you do get lost, geographically, the titles of the various locations are splashed over the screen in ginormous letters.

Not only is the story a mess but it’s awash with songs, some of which appear thematically or historically relevant, but most are not and one of which written by director Jeymes Samuel (making his feature debut) was chosen as the ideal accompaniment for the climax. You might as well have called this picture Anachronism City, which is a shame because all the leading characters were real people. It was maybe a stretch to find a historically-accurate story in which to feature real people, but surely it could not have been so difficult as this.

And don’t get me started on the money – $25,000 / $50,000. Really? Don’t remember Butch Cassidy or Jesse James earning that amount. Where’s all this meant to come from? Did nobody on this picture have any idea how much people earned – and therefore could save – or how much might be in a bank vault? This is pluck-an-idea-out-of-the-air screenwriting.

There’s definitely a good deal of energy on show but mostly of the music video kind. There’s explosive violence of course. And occasionally there is a decent piece of composition. And you can’t fault the acting despite the failings of the script and the tendency towards Tarantino philosophizing. But it’s pretty much a complete misfire, especially if you like your westerns.

Current Cinema Catch-Up 1 – Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong

Before the pandemic and before I started writing this Blog I used to go to the cinema once a week on a Monday, normally catching a double-bill of my own choosing, and occasionally lucky enough to watch three movies in a day. Since cinemas re-opened in my neck of the woods in mid-May I’ve found it impossible not to return to my old habits. So here’s my first triple-bill.

Nomadland  (2020) ****

Easy Rider meets The Grapes of Wrath except in both these cases the travellers had a distinct destination in mind. Like the title implies, the characters in Nomadland are going nowhere, and often just round, though somewhat contentedly, in circles. Deservedly winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Director Chloe Zhao, this not so much invests in diversity but in a world we never knew existed, of people who live out their lives in the backs of vans and trailers. In a previous generation, they might be deemed trailer trash, but that’s not the case here. They may be humbled but they are not unprincipled.

Recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road after unemployment closes down her small town and temporary work at the local Amazon depot dries up  after Xmas. Considering herself “houseless” rather than “homeless” Fern finds herself involved in a peripatetic community of like-minded individuals, some drifting due to circumstance, others wanting to live out their last years as sight-seers. It’s not a drama and it hardly even qualifies as a docu-drama because virtually nothing happens but it is an eye-opener, not just for the visuals but for the way it explores the inherent loneliness in society. Once she has a taste for the road, Fern spurns every opportunity to settle down. The characters encountered are definitely originals and have the feel of genuine nomads – Swankie and Linda May certainly are –  the camera just happened to catch as it tracked by.

A true original with McDormand – her third acting Oscar after Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2107) plus another one as producer here – giving a tremendous performance as a passive individual surrendering, despite occasional indignity and hardship, to the joys of roaming.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) ****

Rather than face a jail sentence. car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) turns FBI informant and infiltrates a Black Panther group led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Spurred on by FBI controller Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s work has disastrous consequences.

As a devastating expose of the criminal activities undertaken by the world’s highest- profile criminal-catching operation, the FBI,  this is a first-class procedural type of picture, where, courtesy of the suspense created by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds, 2013), you find yourself rooting for O’Neal as he comes close to being discovered. But it is also grounded by an impeccable performance by Kaluuya (Queen and Slim, 2019) who portrays Hampton as a gentle soul, shy with women, but with a gift for public speaking that rouses a put-upon generation.

The Black Panthers are shown as instigators of genuine social reform, setting up medical programs etc, rather than just gun-toting rebels. Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but in truth he steals the show from the lead Stanfield.  

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) ***

If you can make out what is going on in among all the noise and implausibilities then there is a halfway decent summer blockbuster to be enjoyed. The sci-fi gobbledegook spouted by scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) leads Kong-whisperer Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Ilene (Rebecca Hall) into harm’s way, so far beneath the earth you are likely to poke up in Australia. Naturally, the two ancient behemoths go head-to-head while destroying everything in sight.

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