Sweet Hats, Plenty of Cattle

The Harder They Fall

by George Wolf

Who doesn’t love a good Western?

If you’re the one, I’ve got two reasons not to saddle up with The Harder They Fall.

  1. It’s a Western
  2. It’s good

Ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is getting out of jail, and that’s mighty interesting news to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who has no love for Rufus.

Nat has a serious score to settle, so he re-assembles his old gang, led by sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and sets out on horseback. Along the way, Nat rekindles a flame with saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and earns the trust of Mary’s silent-but-deadly bodyguard Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler).

And even though Nat is a wanted man, Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) decides he’d rather be on the team that finally takes Buck down.

But Rufus has some pretty solid support in his corner, too. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) speaks softly but shows no mercy, while quick draw legend Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) leads a posse of men helping Rufus kick Sherrif Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole) out of Redwood and take over the town.

And that town ain’t big enough for both Buck and Love.

Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) plants his flag early, with onscreen text telling us that he may not be telling a true story, but these people did exist. So while you may be reminded of Tarantino (or his many shared influences), this film’s history isn’t alternative. Samuel and his committed ensemble are here to remind us that it’s the whitewashed Hollywood version of the Old West that’s fiction.

Yes, these dusty roads are well traveled and the dialog can be a bit musty (“love is the only thing worth dying for…”), but there’s so much stylish bloodshed, gallows humor and terrific acting in every frame that the film wins you over on pure entertainment value alone.

Plus, it looks fantastic. Samuel frames the landscape with gorgeous panoramas, while wrapping some nimble camera movements and pulsing rhythms around those steely stare downs, frantic shoot ’em ups, freshly-pressed hats and dusters and plenty of other delicious period details.

The Harder They Fall is big, bold, visionary fun. It takes characters, races and lifestyles that have been hijacked by history and reclaims them all with the brashness of an early morning bank job.

This crew ain’t shootin’ blanks, and they rarely miss.

Primal Scream

Gully

by George Wolf

Well, that escalated quickly.

Ron Burgundy may have played that line for laughs, but when the boys in Gully give in to their rage, things couldn’t be more serious.

Or devastating.

Jesse (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Calvin (Jacob Lattimore) and Nicky (Charlie Plummer) are three teens in a rough L.A. neighborhood who don’t have much use for anything besides violent video games and partying, or anyone besides each other.

They skip school, do drugs, and only seem enthusiastic when they’re trashing a store or living vicariously through video violence.

In fact, through the film’s first act you’re tempted to label this as a hackneyed attempt by director Nabil Elderkin (a music video vet helming his first feature) and writer Marcus J. Guillory (a TV vet with his first screenplay credit) to blame video games for society’s ills.

But hang on and strap in, that’s far from what these filmmakers have in mind.

To say the three friends have had traumatic upbringings is being far too polite. Each has weathered a uniquely hellish situation, leaving them all on the precipice of manhood with little hope for the future.

As Nicky fights with both his mother (Amber Heard) and his pregnant girlfriend (Zoe Renee), Jesse dreams of life without his abusive father (John Corbett) and Calvin struggles with his mental health and the meds pushed on him by his mother (Robin Givens), the boys make a shattering discovery and the fuse is lit.

They begin a 48-hour rampage of wanton violence and calculated revenge, and it will not end well.

Elderkin makes sure the violence is in your face and packed with stylish grit, often blurring the line between reality and video game action. It’s an ambitious play that’s worthy even when it seems over the top, much like the contrasting tones brought by Greg (Jonathan Majors), an ex-con returning home determined to stay clean, and Mr. Christmas (Terence Howard), a homeless neighborhood philosopher.

This film is messy, angry, brutal and defiant, a primal scream that doesn’t much care if you think it’s nihilistic. Elderkin and Guillory have blazing guns of their own, and while they don’t hit every bullseye, there’s enough here to make you eager for their second act.

The world of Gully isn’t a pleasant place to be, and that’s no accident. But a confident vision and three terrific young actors leading a solid ensemble will make sure you’ll be thinking about what goes down here, even if you look away.

Wounded, Not Even Dead

Jungleland

by George Wolf

Jungleland is a film with a path that’s so well marked and worn, the biggest attraction becomes what a new group of actors can bring to such recognizable characters.

Director/co-writer Max Winkler has two fine ones in the lead. Jack O’Connell is “Lion” Kaminsky, a talented bare knuckle fighter in Boston who’s constantly at the mercy of bad decisions made by his brother Stanley. Yes, Stanley Kaminsky, which doesn’t make you think of Stanley Kowalski at all.

Charlie Hunnam plays Stanley, and he and O’Connell are able to craft an authentic brotherly bond that holds your attention as the film hits one familiar benchmark after another.

Stanley is in deep to a local crime boss (Jonathan Majors) who has a proposition. Go to San Francisco and enter the big Jungleland tournament. If Lion is king, it’s 100 large. And also, take this girl named Sky (Jessica Barden) with you.

Desperation breeds dreams of one big score and a better life. Sky has more secrets than just a fake name. Complications arise.

The storytelling is competent, the performances fine. But we have seen this so many times, contenders and pretenders begin to look pretty similar and you can’t help but wonder what point there is in another round.

Mercy, Mercy Me

Da 5 Bloods

by Hope Madden

Leave it to Spike Lee to follow up the socially searing masterwork in direction BlackKklansman with something bigger, badder and even more immediately relevant.

Da 5 Bloods follows four Vietnam Vets (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis) back to the jungle where they left so much. They left a lot more than most, actually, including a beloved brother and a lot of gold.

Chadwick Boseman haunts the frames and the buddies as Stormin’ Norm, the young platoon leader and inspiration that didn’t make it home. If he represents past tragedies, Jonathan Majors represents the way those pains echo into today.

A heist movie on the surface, Da 5 Bloods is clearly about a great deal more than making it rich. Lee has a lot to say about how those in power tell us what we want to hear so we will do what they want us to do.

As is always the case with Lee’s films, even the most overtly political, deeply felt performances give the message meaning. The entire cast is excellent, but Delroy Lindo is transcendent.

Lindo’s never given a bad performance in his 45 years on screen. As commanding a presence as ever at 68 playing Paul, Lindo again blends vulnerability into every action, whether funny, menacing or melancholy. His MAGA hat-wearing, self-loathing, dangerously conflicted character gives Lee’s themes a pulse. This may finally be the performance to get Lindo the Oscar he’s deserved for ages.

Staggeringly equal to the effort is Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) as Paul’s son David. His performance illustrates a resilience as well as a tenderness that is utterly heartbreaking.

Even so, here Lee avoids the sentimentality that undermined his 2008 war film Miracle at St. Anna. In its place is a clear-eyed look at the many, insidious effects of not just war but systemic oppression.

It should surprise no one that Lee’s latest happens to hit the exact nerve that throbs so loudly and painfully right now, given that he’s been telling this exact story in minor variations for 30+ years.

Resist

Captive State

by Hope Madden

Imagine, if you will, that someone bullied their way to a takeover of the government. Imagine that they exploited the poor for labor while gutting Earth’s natural resources for their own gain, leaving a husk of a planet behind.

Imagine that they enacted blunt order with no thought to human rights, as they built walls, separated families and cordoned off neighborhoods to keep the poor a safe distance from the wealthy.

Let’s say they also passed themselves off as some almost holy enterprise that rewarded compliance and adoration.

Right, not such a stretch.

Oh, it’s aliens? That would actually be a lot easier to accept.

Filmmaker Rupert Wyatt returns to the theme of his greatest success, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with his latest SciFi adventure, Captive State.

Wyatt drops us into the heart of Chicago some ten or so years after an alien invasion. Earth has long since accepted the aliens as their new legislature, and terrestrial natives are now either blindly following command with the hope of reward, or they are not.

Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight) can’t quite make up his mind. His brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) is the symbol of the revolution, but Gabriel just wants to get out of Dodge and try for a new life.

Lawman William Mulligan (John Goodman, wonderful as always) won’t let him. What emerges is an intricate and often clever thriller about submission and resistance.

Though Wyatt’s allegory is clear, it doesn’t drown the story itself. Even the most thinly drawn character has purpose and dimension, the ensemble talent assembled here delivering memorable but understated turns.

Vera Farmiga offers a particularly poignant performance, though her screen time can’t reach past 2 minutes. Likewise, James Ransone, Alan Ruck and Lawrence Grimm balance desperation, courage and hope in brief episodes that help Wyatt create the bleak but almost optimistic tone.

The look is a bit murky, the 1984-style occupations a tad convenient and the lack of one single point of view character limits audience investment in character, and therefore, in the outcome. But the aliens look pretty cool, John Goodman offers a twisty, melancholy performance that’s worth seeing, and there’s rarely a bad time to be reminded of the power of resistance.