More stories

  • in

    ‘The Harder They Fall’ Review: A New Look for the Old West

    Jeymes Samuel’s film is a bloody horse opera with a charismatic cast.A note at the beginning of “The Harder They Fall” asserts that while the story is fictional, “These. People. Existed.” This isn’t about historical accuracy, or even realism; it’s about genre. The movie, directed by Jeymes Samuel (from a screenplay he wrote with Boaz Yakin), is a high-style pop Western, with geysers of blood, winks of nasty, knowing humor and an eclectic, joyfully anachronistic soundtrack featuring cuts from Jay-Z, Fela Kuti and Nina Simone alongside Samuel’s original score.The point is that the vivid assortment of gunslingers, chanteuses, saloonkeepers and train-robbers — all of them Black — who ride through picturesque mountain ranges and frontier towns have as authentic a claim on the mythology of the West as their white counterparts. They exist, in other words, as true archetypes in a primal story of revenge, greed, treachery and courage.Especially revenge. The story begins with a family’s Sunday dinner interrupted by slaughter. Some years later, the young boy whose parents were gunned down in front of him has grown up into an outlaw named Nat Love, played with abundant charm by Jonathan Majors. Nat’s gang — whose most valuable players are a sharpshooter (Edi Gathegi) and a quick-draw specialist (RJ Cyler) — specializes in stealing from other outlaw bands. But that’s just business. The personal concerns that propel Nate and the plot are his love for Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and his vendetta against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba).Mary is a singer and entrepreneur with impressive fighting skills. Rufus resembles a villain out of fantasy or science fiction — a nearly superhuman avatar of evil with grandiose ambitions and a grudge against the universe. And also the charisma of Elba, unmatched at playing bad guys with a touch of sadness to them. Rufus’s crew is a mirror-image of Nate’s, though his empire is more extensive. His sharpshooter, Cherokee Bill (Lakieth Stanfield), is a philosophical sociopath, and his main lieutenant is a ruthless killer named Trudy Smith.Speaking of charisma: Regina King! From her first appearance — on horseback, in a blazing blue coat with gold buttons to match her stirrups — Trudy spikes the magnetometer, but King is in good company. Just look at the names in the preceding paragraphs. Add Delroy Lindo as a dour U.S. Marshall with complicated allegiances and Danielle Deadwyler as Mary’s pint-size bouncer, who joins up with Nate’s gang and steals a dozen scenes as well as $35,000 from a white-owned bank.Samuel makes the most of his formidable cast. If anything, he may be overgenerous. The narrative sometimes flags so that everyone can get in a few volleys of the salty, pungent dialogue on the way to the next round of gunplay or fisticuffs. There are imaginative and suspenseful set pieces — Trudy peeling an apple while she tells the captive Mary a story; a bank robbery in a town so white that even the dust on Main Street looks bleached — and plenty of more conventional episodes of shooting and punching.“The Harder They Fall,” nodding to the traditions of blaxploitation and spaghetti Westerns in the Netflix era, opts for sprawl and impact — the eye-popping cinematography is by Mihai Malaimare Jr. — over restraint and coherence. That’s not such a bad thing, though the story sometimes feels glib as well as messy. A late-breaking revelation that is meant to raise the dramatic and emotional stakes has the opposite effect, and the violence walks the line between stylization and sadism. The bodies pile up at the end, but there are enough people still existing to tease a sequel. No complaints here. That’s part of how the West was won.The Harder They FallRated R. Killing and cursing. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More

  • in

    Zazie Beetz Grew Up With Shel Silverstein and Nina Simone

    The “Atlanta” actress talks about her latest film, “Nine Days,” her desire to become a doula, her love affair with all things French, and how Debussy and Lianne La Havas got her through some difficult times.In “Nine Days,” Zazie Beetz plays Emma, an unborn soul in an otherworldly limbo interviewing to inhabit a human body on Earth, or else vanish into oblivion. But unlike the other candidates in Edson Oda’s supernatural drama, Emma is seemingly unconcerned — she shows up late for her first appointment — with winning over Will (Winston Duke), who will decide her fate. Instead, she approaches the exercises to test her fitness with a guilelessness that at first confounds him — but that ultimately impels him to confront his own tumultuous existence.“I think that Emma is in some way what we all would hope to be in our purest sense of childhood wonder,” Beetz, who is German American, said. “She’s also somebody who’s very present. She might not have the opportunity to live, but there is something that is a semblance of life right there with her right now.”Conversing with Beetz, who speaks with an almost wide-eyed enthusiasm, you get the feeling that her onscreen outlook may not be too far from her real one.Still, the woman has range. An Emmy nominee for the role of Van, who shares a daughter with Earn (Donald Glover), in FX’s “Atlanta,” she will soon star alongside Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba in Jeymes Samuel’s western “The Harder They Fall,” and Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock in David Leitch’s assassin thriller “Bullet Train.”Beetz was taking a break from shooting the new seasons of “Atlanta” — she revealed no plot details, other than mentioning a foray to Paris, a city that made her list of cultural essentials — when she called from the Minnesota family home of her fiancé, the actor David Rysdahl (who also appears in “Nine Days”). These are edited excerpts from the conversation.1. “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy For a very long time after school, I would come home and listen to that every day as my wind-down. It was one of the pieces of music that guided me through my first experiences with anxiety and mood issues. And to this day I think of it as this meditation that guided me through one of my first emotionally very difficult times.2. Shel Silverstein As a child, I adored Shel Silverstein. I had many of his poetry books that I read over and over and over again. He had a very child-friendly playfulness in his work that also reflected very seriously on how we should engage with the world, a body of work that was philosophical and thoughtful and not condescending. It’s important to not condescend to children.3. “Fruits” by Shoichi Aoki My dad, when I was 11 or so, he gave me this book, just randomly came home with it one day. It’s photographs, one after another, of Japanese people of all ages dressed in Harajuku street fashion. It changed my point of view on how I could dress myself. My parents tell me from when I was very young, I was very clear that I wanted to clothe myself. And I’m still this way. I’ve always been like, “How do I create my own thing?” And “Fruits” — the colors and the combinations, and no rules around how you can express yourself — was positive and joyful and so unique. The next day, I came to school in this rainbow outfit. And then for years I was known as the Rainbow Girl.4. Doodling My entire life, all of my notebooks in school, constantly, constantly doodling, just an endless doodle of doodles. I couldn’t sit still without having a piece of paper and a pen with me. Even in note-taking, I was always very interested in making my notes look aesthetically pleasing. I think this is also partially a reason I’m still very analog. I can’t have an electronic planner.5. Nina Simone One of the first songs I consciously realized was hers that had a very profound impact on me was “Four Women.” I remember hearing that for the first time and I was dancing to it. It’s not just about music and it’s not just about sound. It is about truth. You feel her pain and her human self. That is also femininity and strength in womanhood and her unapologetic approach to her blackness and what she represented during her time. Of course, there are other artists that do a similar thing. But I don’t think Nina Simone makes it pretty, and that draws me in.6. “Zazie dans le Métro” My namesake is “Zazie dans le Métro,” which is a French book by Raymond Queneau, and [Louis Malle] made a movie of that. I grew up watching this movie. This film is about Paris relatively soon after World War II. The story is about a 10-year-old girl named Zazie who visits her uncle and her aunt in Paris for the weekend, and shenanigans ensue. Even though I would watch the German version, I always felt like I was her and this was me. I felt driven to be able to read my namesake and watch the film in its original language. So I was a French major in college and then I lived in Paris for a year.7. “Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth” I am obsessed with midwifery, to the point where I looked into school. I wanted to be a doula. A few years ago, David gifted me for Christmas this book because I am so interested in this transition and in this complete surrender of power in a way. I think women are looking death squarely in the eye as you give birth to a little being who is still, in my point of view, attached to the universe. I’ve never given birth, so maybe I’m romanticizing it all, and it’s terrible. But I want to help women feel empowered on their journey.8. Knitting When I was 8, my mom taught me very basic stitches. For a long time I could knit in one style: rectangle. Then four years ago, I picked it up in a serious way. I devoured videos on YouTube and bought all these books and taught myself a craft and a trade. And now I’m like: “I’ve learned a skill. I can make things that are useful to people.” I’ve found great pride in that.9. Period Clothing One of my most transformative moments in acting is when I put the costume on. It informs the character so much. It changes how they move, it changes how they engage with the world and who they are. I am enamored with the Jane Austen world. One of my favorite movies is “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola. And a huge part of that is the costuming and the aesthetic of it all. On red carpets, my inspiration for hair is honestly Marie Antoinette, and in my head that’s what my hair looks like — though obviously not what it looks like in real life.10. Lianne La Havas I discovered her when I was in college, and I felt this immediate kinship. She’s around the same age as me. She is also mixed race and her hair was similar to mine. At the time, the natural hair movement in the U.S. was just getting its wings, and I identified so much with how she looked. Each album she comes out with, she’s grown up more, and I’ve grown up in this same way. I feel this quiet friend who I’m like, “I know you.” More

  • in

    ‘Nine Days’ Review: Belief in the Beforelife

    In this drama featuring Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, unborn souls are given a chance at life on Earth.“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov. We have been imagining and describing one of those ostensible eternities — the afterlife — for millenniums. “Nine Days,” the ambitious and often impressive debut feature from the writer-director Edson Oda, surprises by positing a prelife world, and a vetting process determining which souls are awarded a term on earth.In a small house in the middle of a desert, a stocky, quiet man named Will (Winston Duke) watches a bank of tube TVs, recording their feeds on VHS cassettes. These POVs show the lives of the people he’s “passed.”Just as he’s meeting, one by one, a new group of individuals to assess, one of his people in the world ends their life, which shakes Will to the core. He gets obsessed over why. Will this affect his ability to look at his new charges with fairness?“Nine Days” is more about questions than answers. It’s not an overtly political film, in any sense. Will’s screens don’t seem to depict any human beings who aren’t at least in the vicinity of the middle class. When Will is pitching his candidates on his process, he tells them of “the amazing opportunity of life,” and that if they pass they will be “born in a fruitful environment.” But later Will blurts out some thoughts to his friend and neighbor Kyo (Benedict Wong) suggesting Will believes himself something of a con man.The candidates are, arguably, stock characters with some sensitively added value. Alexander (Tony Hale) just wants to have beers and hang out. When he learns that Will himself once lived on earth — the film’s realm encompasses souls both “passed” and those never born — he can’t figure out why Will is reluctant. We know that Emma (Zazie Beetz) is going to be a special kind of free spirit by the insouciance she displays when showing up late for her first appointment.Oda is a very assured and sometimes inspired filmmaker, and he handles his actors beautifully. Duke and Beetz in particular deliver performances for the ages. And the movie’s inquiries, about ethics, morality, consciousness and the ability to hang on in this brief crack of light we’re sharing at the moment, are pertinent. But the narrative conceits of “Nine Days,” while exquisitely constructed, are intricate to the point of laborious. At times the movie almost sinks under their weight.Nine DaysRated R for language and themes. Running time 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters. More