30-for-30: No Más

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Release: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Eric Drath

Spectators historically aren’t accustomed to seeing a professional boxer not finish what they started — at least, not voluntarily. When Roberto Durán, the man with two of the most devastating fists in all of boxing, waved his gloves at his opponent in the 8th round of a 15-round bout signifying that he didn’t want to fight anymore, no one believed what they were seeing. On November 25, 1980, the man with “hands of stone” turned his back on more than just a fighter he did not respect.

The bout in the Louisiana Superdome became infamously known as the ‘No Más fight.’ Despite the fact he lost, Durán’s actions were so bizarre the story that emerged was all about him losing, rather than his opponent winning. That’s a reality Sugar Ray Leonard has had difficulty reconciling all his life, and as we are introduced to him in the opening frames there’s a bitterness barely hidden behind his otherwise calm demeanor, a bitterness about the way history has been written. Somewhat counterintuitively, No Más is (mostly) told from his point of view.

Eric Drath, associated with a number of sports documentaries and short films, wants to know, perhaps as desperately as Leonard himself, what it was that caused Durán to throw in the towel that night in New Orleans. Divorced from the event by several decades, the film offers a unique perspective as it captures the once-bitter rivals in much more casual settings — except for the part where it throws them back together in the ring for a casual chat in a climactic show-down (of words), set under bright lights but sans the bloodthirsty audience. It’s a little cheesy but I found the trick nonetheless effective. And despite being 60 years old Durán’s eyes can still pierce a hole straight through you.

Durán and Leonard famously hated one another. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the three fights they committed to was the fact that there actually were three fights — neither one managed to end the other outside of the ring, despite temptation. The Panamanian in particular was hostile, openly mocking Leonard by calling him “a clown.” (And remember that one time he saved a middle finger salute for Leonard’s then-wife?) Durán had several reasons to consider the American his enemy. For one, his childhood was spent enduring the political turmoil that made his hometown of El Chorrillo an often unpredictable environment, as the United States and Panama fought for control over the Canal. Durán’s father was an American-born man who bailed on the family early. Durán also perceived Leonard’s popularity as grossly overblown and that he wasn’t as good a fighter as he proclaimed himself to be. (For those keeping score, Durán only won one of these three fights.)

For a film dealing with such marquee names, No Más plays out in quite the understated manner. The story develops quietly and methodically, bobbing and weaving in between present-day footage of Leonard preparing for his visit to Panama and archived footage of the events themselves. If anything the final reveal is underwhelming in its brevity. I would have liked to have heard more about what these two talked about in the ring. Drath pulls interviews from family, friends, former trainers and fighters — notably Mike Tyson — to help contextualize events. Supermodel and photographer Christie Brinkley also weighs in. These soundbites are far from the most insightful clips the 30 for 30 series has featured, and Tyson in particular isn’t a very good talker, but his recollections of how he felt when he witnessed ‘no más’ delivers a surprising gut-punch.

Perhaps what we gain from the experience isn’t so much revelatory as it is a reminder of the fragile emotional state boxers are so often in while in the ring. Durán almost certainly quit out of pride, but you’ll never hear him say those words, nor give any indication this is how he really feels inside. If he says anything about it today he’ll still tell you it was stomach cramps, not Leonard’s attacks that caused him to quit. He also actively denies ever uttering those infamous words. Some may dismiss this as merely the hubris of the defeated. But “no más” was at such odds with the boxer’s comportment, the way he carried himself both publicly and privately, that it makes this documentary quite the fascinating mystery. We, like Leonard, may not get the closure we’re looking for, but at the same time we learn quite a lot along the way.

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no-mas

3-5Recommendation: Fascinating, if occasionally frustrating recounting of what may or may not have happened during Durán-Leonard II in New Orleans gives fans of boxing some food for thought. The interviews beyond the boxers themselves aren’t the greatest things ever but there’s certainly enough here to recommend for followers of the sport or those itching for some more in-depth coverage after seeing Hands of Stone, the semi-autobiographical account that was released in theaters earlier this year.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.latinosports.com 

Bleed for This

bleed-for-this-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ben Younger; Angelo Pizzo; Pippa Bianco

Directed by: Ben Younger

Bleed for This is an intense title for an underwhelming boxing movie. Its hyperbolic nature suggests a scream-o/punk-rock band’s new single when really it’s meant to describe the mentality of one Vinny Pazienza, a boxer from Providence, Rhode Island who returned to the ring after being involved in a car crash that brought him within inches of total paralysis.

Ben Younger’s third directorial feature takes a rather subdued, psychological approach in retracing “The Pazmanian Devil”‘s remarkable return to the championship ring, a transformation that has been widely regarded as one of the most remarkable in all of sports history. It offers viewers the chance to share the headspace of a boxer who managed to hold world titles in three separate weight classes — one of an elite few who have ever managed to do so — all while making them acutely aware how heavily the odds were stacked against him in his mission to “come back from the dead.”

Going into a film with these sorts of things in mind, it’s difficult not to set expectations high. Plus, star Miles Teller has proven that his scintillating performance in 2014’s Whiplash wasn’t a fluke. He may not have been captivating us quite as intensely since but he continues to give the impression he’s turning a corner in his career, taking on characters more complex than your hard-partying teenage waster. Frustratingly, Younger sets about presenting Vinny’s miraculous story in a very workmanlike fashion, and while it is true many boxing films are genetically similar, the best of them know how to work within the confines and use tropes to their advantage. Bleed for This is unable to rise to that challenge by featuring a narrative that, rather than being complemented by a few clichés, ends up drowning in too many of them.

We first get an impression of the kind of theatrical, charismatic performer Vinny was in his prime in the opening scene, set in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Teller, who underwent extensive physical training and dieting to look the part — he dropped from 19% to 6% body fat — swaggers his way on to the scene, late for the weigh-in and nearly becoming disqualified for the next day’s match. He’s fun to watch from the get-go and one of the few aspects of the film that actually feels inspired. Throughout much of the picture Vinny’s flanked by his (many) fleeting girlfriends, a revolving door of Italian stunners — and his father Angelo (a very good Ciarán Hinds), whose level of emotional support is matched only by his blue-collar boorishness.

In the aftermath of another embarrassing ass-kicking and in spite of the consensus opinion that Vinny is washed-up, he begs to be put into another fight. He seeks the support of Kevin Rooney (thank goodness for Aaron Eckhart, who looks like he’s having some fun playing a really, really out-of-shape trainer), whose first appearance tells us everything we need to know about how his career has been trending. Kevin believes Vinny can succeed in a different group and the two set out to prepare for an upcoming light middleweight match, which turns out to be a victory. Things are now looking up for both parties. And then, of course, the accident — by all accounts a fairly tough thing to watch given that this really happened.

I don’t need to tell you what happens from circa the halfway mark onward because if you have seen just one boxing movie you already know. And even if you haven’t, you still already know. Bleed for This, like its star, wears its heart on its sleeve and in so doing advertises the Big Payoff in bright, flashing casino-style lights that are impossible to ignore. What we’re provided en route to Fight #3 (a.k.a. The Moment of Redemption, which always comes last and typically off the back of the fighter’s lowest moments) manifests as little more than tiresome filler material aimed at exposing that which made this athlete unique; that which drove him to the edge of potential destruction — had Vinny actually paralyzed himself in the process of training I hate to think of what would have happened to him then — and how his attitude more than anything helped him overcome.

On that note of positivity, Bleed for This isn’t totally without merit. Dramatically speaking it may be underachieving and formulaic, but the story’s not without heart and some compelling ‘twists.’ For one, it is refreshing to watch a boxer (read: any athlete protagonist) who doesn’t come completely undone at the seams when things do not go their way. When the darkness comes, there’s very little wallowing in self-pity, and that much can be appreciated even by non-sports fans. I mean, the guy returns to his work-out bench in his basement a mere five days after leaving the hospital having broken his neck, for crying out loud. And the screenplay, while far from original, impresses when it deals in specifics, such as the inherent difficulties of a boxer transitioning from a lighter weight class to a heavier one. (Fair warning: there’s also some pretty squirm-inducing stuff if you don’t like medical procedures, particularly when Vinny decides to forego anesthesia for the removal of the Halo, the apparatus that has been keeping his spine from breaking.)

In a nutshell, Bleed for This would be more appropriately titled Determination: The Movie. That’s certainly more generic — laughable, even — but after my experience, that would be more faithful to the style and tone of this would-be heavy-hitter.

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Recommendation: Sensational true story isn’t done proper justice by a mediocre screenplay and a dearth of predictable elements. Good performances keep it just above totally forgettable. Fans of Miles Teller, boxing and sports movies in general will probably come to appreciate something about this film while others are probably going to need to keep on browsing for something else. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I know exactly how to give up. You know what scares me, Kev? It’s that it’s so easy.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Hands of Stone

'Hands of Stone' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Confession time: coming into this I had no idea who Roberto Durán was — ya know, other than the fact he would be the center of attention in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s boxing drama. Do I feel silly now.

Long story short, the Panamanian has been frequently listed as one of the greatest lightweight boxers of all time, a brutal and arrogant fighter who became world champion in four different weight classes — lightweight (1972 – ’79), welterweight (1980), light middleweight (1983 – ’84) and middleweight (1989) — and who fought both for the pride of his country as well as the opportunity to lead a life free from poverty and hunger.

Hands of Stone is standard fare. Rags-to-riches tale traces Durán (Edgar Ramírez)’s rise from troublemaking youngster with a penchant for bareknuckle brawling in the slums of his hometown El Chorrillo to a magnetizing presence inside Madison Square Garden. It also suggests he may not have gone that route sans the physical training and psychological conditioning he received from legendary trainer Ray Arcel (a really good Robert DeNiro).

There’s a lot to become invested with here, not least of which being the backdrop of political tension against which the film is set, one that paints Panama and the United States in a bitter feud over who should have control of the land surrounding the Panama Canal in the years leading up to the Trojillos-Carter Treaty in 1977. The turmoil populates the film nearly as much as the in-ring sequences, though the only time it really feels impactful is in an early flashback in which an 8(ish)-year-old Durán witnesses one of his own getting shot down amidst a mass riot in front of a municipal building.

That scene feels inspired. It’s both intense and visceral, and gives us plenty of reason to get behind el hombre con ‘Manos de Piedra’ early on. That same mechanism for empathy grows more interesting as Ramírez’s notably excellent performance steadily reveals there are many aspects to his character that you just can’t support. It’s a performance that treats the boxer like a human, deeply flawed and at times quite unlikable, sculpted very much by his harsh upbringing and, later, further scorned by the business of boxing at large.

DeNiro inhabits the trainer with the confidence and emotional heft you come to expect from the veteran — veteran, in this case, being applicable both to his experience in film as well as around the ring. A raging bull he is obviously not here, and don’t expect him to jump into the ring and throw any cheap shots on his fighter’s behalf. Finding him on the other side of the ropes, however, is by no means an indication of a career trend. Time and again DeNiro reminds his fighter (and us cheering in the peanut gallery) that boxing is as much about the head as it is about the fists. He brings a strong “kid, just think for a second!” psychology to the narrative, a kind of paternal figure that Durán often seems to enjoy ignoring in favor of reverting to his more natural, street tendencies.

The characters are quite strong in Hands of Stone. Maybe not as strong as stone, but they’re memorable. And if not memorable, attractive: Ana de Armas as wife Felicidad Iglesias begins life in the movie as a hard-to-get type in a schoolgirl get-up, but she’s not as vulnerable as she looks. She’s smart and has plenty reason to shun a man coming from a much less fortunate background. Unfortunately she does get reduced to precisely the kind of trophy wife archetype you would expect. When she’s not being shoved into the background, Cuba’s very own Scarlett Johansson has great presence.

Regrettably Jakubowicz adopts a very workmanlike approach to both the study of a life less ordinary, and he doesn’t handle the significance of Durán’s fights very confidently. A few major moments are worth mentioning, like the infamous November 1980 rematch between Durán and former lightweight world champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV), during which Durán abruptly stopped fighting, refusing to “fight a clown.” Despite moments of intrigue inside it, the saga out of the ring plays out like one long run-on sentence. There’s a great deal of contrivance in the construction, not to mention more than a few sequences feel haphazardly sown together. There are other similarly nagging issues but I’ll just get over those.

Because, let’s get real: boxing movies are, more often than not, only as good as the fights themselves, and though Hands of Stone doesn’t offer any true hard-hitting moments, they’re staged well enough thanks to a sound effects team that knows how to deliver the devastating power behind Durán’s fists. I felt I got to know this guy fairly well; I only wish Jakubowicz could have been able to deliver the same kind of power with all aspects of his film.

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Recommendation: Ramírez brings the intensity and passion, DeNiro gets in touch with Arcer’s Jewish heritage and gets to spout some Yiddish (which is just . . . amazing, by the way, if you’ve ever wanted to hear DeNiro calling people schmendricks), and Ana de Armas sizzles. The characters are strong, but the story leaves a lot to be desired.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “No más.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com 

Paul G — #6

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Last time we were here, Paul was being held hostage by Samuel L. Jackson in a tense dramatic thriller F. Gary Gray made back in the late ’90s. Let’s negotiate our way past that and look at a more substantial supporting role he’s had as part of one of Ron Howard’s many prestige pictures. Here is a character that somewhat flies in the face of a career built upon playing untrustworthy, shady types and you know what? The nice guy act really suits him.

Paul G in Cinderella Man

Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man.

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/sport/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The story of James Braddock, a supposedly washed-up boxer who came back to become a champion and an inspiration in the 1930s.

Character Profile: Boxing manager Joe Gould met a then-20-year-old James “Cinderella Man” Braddock at a crumbling gym in Hoboken, New Jersey. Gould immediately liked what he saw: a tough, durable competitor, a well-spoken, decent man with one hell of a right hand. The two struck up a friendship that very soon developed into a mutually beneficial professional relationship, and under Gould’s management Braddock turned pro in 1926 as a light-heavyweight contender. Ron Howard’s 2005 biographical drama, set against the backdrop of The Great Depression, focuses on a tumultuous but ultimately miraculous period in both men’s careers, capped off by Braddock’s historic upset of current World Heavyweight Champion Max Baer in 1935. This was the unlikely result of a series of victories Braddock claimed after Gould begged for him to be re-instated as a boxer following the infamously embarrassing, one-sided loss to light-heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran six years earlier. It was Gould’s pitch that became instrumental in setting the “Pride of New Jersey” back on a course to stardom, necessarily establishing Braddock as one of the few rays of light amidst one of the darkest periods in American history.

Why he’s the man: In an Oscar-nominated supporting turn, Giamatti embraces a much less shifty character than he has in the past, though Joe Gould wasn’t exactly a man without foibles. (In 1942 he enlisted in the Army and earned the rank of First Lieutenant, but was later sentenced to three years’ hard labor for conspiring to accept bribes; and Cinderella Man tends to cast a less favorable light on his decision to pitch Braddock’s comeback as a major profiteering venture for fight promotor James Johnston.) Giamatti, despite a sense of two-facedness, remains a thoroughly likable guy throughout, his closeness to Braddock and the respect he has for Braddock’s love for his family readily apparent. He plays such an excitable, emotional fella, the kind that’s easy to root for, so it was a shame Giamatti lost that year to Morgan Freeman for his work in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. A shame, but also understandable.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 


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Creed

Creed movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Ryan Coogler; Aaron Covington

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Perhaps it’s the fact that Creed feels more akin to a warm family reunion than a cold cash grab that unnecessarily extends a beloved boxing franchise that has allowed it to curry favor with both critics and audiences alike. The end product certainly doesn’t stand on shaky legs, with early responses seeming to indicate this could be a Dark Horse for Best Picture next February.

Underdog story manifests as a reunion in more ways than one, throwing on-the-rise actor Michael B. Jordan back into Ryan Coogler’s ring for the second time following their collaboration on 2013’s emotional gut punch Fruitvale Station. Meanwhile, an aging Sly returns to Mighty Mick’s Gym for the first time since he abandoned his responsibility to maintain it; it also re-teams Jordan with his The Wire co-star Woody Harris, who plays Tony “Little Duke” Evers, one of the young boxer’s many assistant trainers. Needless to say, Creed benefits greatly from the coziness of familiarity.

This is the tale of the rise of Adonis Johnson, illegitimate son of the legendary Apollo Creed. He adopts his mother Mary Anne Johnson’s last name early in the film even after (or perhaps due to) learning that his father lost his life in the ring at the hands of Soviet brute Ivan Drago. Donnie’s introduced as a rather angry child with a knack for getting into fist fights.

We flash forward to the present where a muscular Jordan is preparing for a brawl in a hole-in-the-wall Mexican arena. He holds down a job at a securities firm in Los Angeles before up and quitting it to pursue boxing full-time, much to the dismay of Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). It’s a matter of time before Donnie tracks Rocky down at his Italian restaurant in Philadelphia.

“Train me,” he insists. “No,” Rocky replies.

Then of course Rocky starts training him, scribbling down on a sheet of paper a series of training exercises that Donnie captures on his cell phone for later use. But you know Rocky will be drawn back to the ring, only in a different but no less effective capacity. Coogler builds the relationships in such a way that even all of these potential eye-roll-inducing developments pay great dividends. This is a massively enjoyable film, reminiscent of the pure entertainment value of Ridley Scott’s most recent effort. It remains to be seen how much pull it’s ultimately going to have down the stretch when it finds itself squaring off against the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming western thriller, critically acclaimed dramas such as Brooklyn and Spotlight or the various other stand-outs from earlier this year.

Its reverence for everything that has come before is both a blessing and a curse. It means newcomers get to share in the experience fans in 1976 reveled in without really having to do any homework. Creed is Rocky VII, that much is obvious, but it also throws so many similar jabs and hooks it’s a stretch to call this a truly original work. There are moments during which we get the sense we’re walking in the shadows of a legend, yet when other sequences beget the euphoric triumphs of Gavin O’Connor’s family feud Warrior, the negatives are somehow easier to shake off. When Rocky warns Donnie that he’s “seen this fight before,” we believe him yet we still have to see it for ourselves; that terrible sinking feeling be damned.

Creed‘s soundtrack thumps with original and familiar beats alike. Its hip hop-heavy focus helps set the feature apart; these songs are all attitude. They represent the spoken portion of Donnie’s near poetic, fully meteoric rise to fame as he soon finds himself taking on the light heavyweight world champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) in a Liverpool-based match-up for the ages. Tessa Thompson, who inserts herself into the narrative in the form of neighbor-turned-love interest Bianca, a musically-gifted young woman, contributes her voice to a few tracks. She also is a welcomed presence though her character’s career aspirations get lost in the shuffle all too quickly.

And of course this wouldn’t be a complete review without mentioning Stallone returning to these hallowed grounds. The film finds a galvanizing power in his physically broken, emotionally burdened Rocky Balboa. I suppose if Creed stands for anything other than the mesmerizing power of professional boxing it’s the vitality of family, even if that unit has been cobbled together from undesirable (and highly unlikely) circumstance. The most potent conversations take place between trainer and boxer when they have a disagreement over whether or not they’re actually a family at all. Watch Sly struggle to hold back tears as he rattles off the losses he’s experienced in the past.

I wasn’t prepared for the gravitas this unusual acting duo offers up, but that’s what I took home with me after witnessing the reinvigoration of a franchise that once looked to be hanging lifeless on the ropes.

Rocky and his protege atop the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Recommendation: Creed rests on tried-and-true formula but in the process it manages to focus on the emotional power of a legendary character being brought back to life by a possibly never-better Stallone. It finds new life in Jordan’s gung-ho Adonis Creed and I have to admit I wasn’t prepared to be carried so far away from the seat in which I sat over the course of this two-hour journey. The blueprint for future installments has seemingly been laid down. If you’ve been a fan of the Rocky franchise this is a must-see.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “This guy right here, that’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to face. I believe that’s true in the ring and I believe that’s true in life. Now show me something.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Southpaw

Release: Friday, July 24, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Kurt Sutter

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Like its punch-drunk protagonist Antoine Fuqua’s ode to blood sport sure can throw a powerful jab but its technique fails considerably when on defense. What does the film have to defend against, exactly? Only about three decades’ worth of boxing movie cliches. That’s if we’re using ole Marty Scorsese’s Raging Bull as the standard of comparison. We could probably go with Rocky as well, and we could also sit here all day debating which is a better model, but . . . yeah, let’s not.

The easier argument to settle for now is that Southpaw is not as good as either of them. Southpaw is the amateur in the ring, visibly nervous but psyched up to land the first punch. As a truly potent tale of redemption, Fuqua’s latest is about as effective as Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s oral communication following a match. In case you have yet to see this, that’s pretty poor. Indeed, Southpaw is far more convincing reinforcing what should already be a clear message: the sport is violent. A person enters the ring, an oft-unrecognizable mass of muscle typically leaves. That reality constitutes 75% of what’s required of Gyllenhaal here — much to the benefit of a narrative that drapes lazily around this venue like the excessive advertising no one really pays attention to. I feel a little weird championing the film’s violence, but I can’t deny Southpaw is at its best when it goes on the offensive.

Gyllenhaal ought to be relieved that his grueling training regimen for this role is put to good use in three key fight sequences. The story of Billy “The Great” Hope is defined mostly by tragedy and suffering. Big picture: this is essentially the story of every cinematic boxer we’ve watched beat themselves up in an ironic effort to improve their lives out of the ring. Yet there are moments where Fuqua’s emotive direction feels unique, inspired. During a public altercation between the hot-headed Billy and a rival named Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) Billy’s wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is inadvertently shot and killed, leaving Billy devastated. He quickly spirals out of control, resorting to drugs and alcohol as he simultaneously tries to come to terms with the loss and rectify it by finding the man responsible.

Billy’s inability to cope and his aggressive boxing style don’t remain mutually exclusive for very long. His attacking of a referee results in perhaps the biggest gut-punches, and they come three at a time, in rapid succession: he’s first suspended for a year from boxing. Then goes the beautiful mansion via repossession thanks to the lack of a steady paycheck. Rock bottom is finally struck when he drives his car into a tree, landing him in the hospital and then in court where a judge strips Billy of his custody and sends Leila to a foster home (well, you know . . . for the time being). That third punch is more of a massive blow delivered in slow-mo, as the once-close relationship he shared with his daughter slowly unravels — Leila unable to understand what’s become of her family.

Starting over’s as simple as dropping in on a dilapidated training facility managed by a surly has-been, and asking for help in getting back to the top. Forest Whitaker brings gravitas to the part of ex-pro trainer Tick Wills, who is hesitant to give Billy some . . . you know, hope. Obligingly he offers him a night job cleaning up and maintaining the facility. While there was an opportunity for an upbeat clean-up montage here, unfortunately it was missed; however, we do get the critical training montage, a staple of the genre that dates back to Stallone, wherein Billy finally sees a glimmer of his own last name (does anyone else see the genius in naming the character the way they did?). Crowbarred in after he’s informed by his former fight promoter Jordan Mains (Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson) of an opportunity to make some good money in a title fight in Vegas, the scene at least makes good use of Eminem’s ‘Phenomenal.’

Southpaw‘s grueling fight sequences go a long way in covering up some of the narrative shortcomings. So does another excellent performance from Gyllenhaal. Unfortunately Kurt Sutter’s script suffers heavier bruising than Billy’s face. From poor character development to cliche-ridden dialogue — those representing the legal system perhaps bearing the brunt (Naomie Harris is simply wasted) — the film won’t do much, if anything at all, for those with concerns of it being ‘just another boxing movie.’ The film title is derived from a specific stance wherein a left-handed boxer leads with his right hand and foot. Opposite the southpaw stance is orthodox, one taken by right-handed fighters. I don’t know whether Fuqua is right or left-handed, but I do know his film prefers the orthodox, fighting (suffering?) through flurries of jabs and the occasional hard left-hook. If it weren’t for such enduring work from its cast the film’s all too conservative strategy probably wouldn’t last beyond the second round.

Recommendation: Emotionally resonant tale just manages to overcome its undeveloped and overly familiar story thanks to knock-out performances from Gyllenhaal, Laurence and Whitaker. As a fan of boxing movies, I have seen better but this is by no means, and despite the sheer amount of cliches, a bad movie. It’s just not exactly the title fight we’re expecting to see with a name as large as Gyllenhaal apparently replacing Eminem in the lead. If you’re not expecting much out of the film other than some good fighting scenes, then Southpaw will surely deliver. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t let him take this from you. Don’t let him get into your head. You got one shot. Go southpaw. Go southpaw on his ass. You got to go out there and you . . . beat his ass!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Only God Forgives

Only-God-Forgives-International-Poster

Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)

[Netflix]

Ah, but does He forgive a movie like this?

Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling again team up to put forth another noir-rich effort that skimps on dialogue — only this time it’s one that has left audiences scratching their heads rather than thoughtfully rubbing their chins.

To be fair, it’s difficult for lightning to strike twice in the same spot. Wait, does it? It’s evident Refn was reaching back again for the same kinds of restrictions on your traditional film delivery that made his 2011 effort such a success. It’s also easy to see why he would try to do such a thing again. The lack of dialogue in his recent movies has been intentionally drawing the focus away from what’s being said and more towards what characters and situations are doing, representing. How they are moving, physically, through a story. Refn has hoped that the same approach would yield even greater results if his technique is utilized to an even more extreme degree. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Lightning does not hit the same tree twice, it seems.

Only God Forgives features good-looking Gosling as the mysterious Muay-Thai boxing club owner named Julian, an American ex-pat who’s even more inept at conversing than a nun. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is brutally murdered, Satan the pair’s mother arrives on the scene in Bangkok, flying in from London to identify whether it is indeed her firstborn’s body or not.

Kristin Scott Thomas is intended to be the film’s most complex character, simultaneously embodying evil as fully as a person can without sprouting horns, while ultimately remaining fiercely defensive of her baby boys. And as generously as I can possibly be in my — nay, any — defense of this film, Thomas delivers quite the performance. She uses her still-living son as bait to try and protect herself from what she knows will be certain, horrible death at the hands of a corrupt vigilante cop, named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

The rest of the characters are intended to be multi-layered as well; however, most of them end up being painted in the same neon blues and reds as the cinematography is bathed in. If you will, let the red represent motivation (revenge) and the blue the cold, hateful attitudes possessed by each character. Julian is virtually wordless, which proves to be nothing but frustrating and next-to-impossible to identify with, while his enemy, Chang is equally hostile, albeit for slightly different reasons. One might be able to understand his quietness more than Julian’s.

Refn renders some of humanity’s darkest moments of depravity using the most minimalist techniques. There’s barely a script because words mean nothing; actions and non-actions are meant to represent the difference between life and death. Long, unbroken shots of people staring are meant to generate tension. While the silence that permeates each and every neon-lit scene will undoubtedly be excruciating to most viewers, its a method Refn deliberately employs to emphasize a third-party presence to these most grim of proceedings.

Despite all of this sounding like its in defense of his new film, these are the best things that can be said about Only God Forgives. There are concepts Refn is reaching for here that he ultimately misses, sometimes just barely, other times by a mile. Instead of tension being built up throughout the movie’s slowgoing, silent periods a thick air of frustration descends, because we have no reference point to anything in the story. The characters are introduced in a confusing manner — despite the film’s scenes being filmed in chronological order — and a severe lack of anything being stated (in words) it’s oftentimes hard to understand what’s happening in a given scene.

In these instances it seems like it would be highly advantageous to be a Mind Reader.

It’s clear Refn is trying to give audiences a challenge here, not only in the fiercely defiant way he’s going against “traditional” storytelling, but in his usage of some seriously graphic violence. And to me, it’s not clear right now whether this film got booed at Cannes because of this factor or its sheer ambiguity. My guess its a combination of both that makes this film a particularly difficult work of art to ‘like,’ necessarily. If Drive was considered polarizing, Only God Forgives is what that film wanted to be when it grew up. Refn seemingly is one-upping himself in terms of what he thinks modern audiences are willing to accept before completely giving up entirely on the prospect. Unfortunately for him, this ends up occurring far earlier than the ending credits.

This film is plagued by several issues, but the one that I could not get over at all was it’s inability to explain anything. Black eyes, broken hearts and corrupted consciences are one thing (look to things like Taken, Saving Private Ryan, and There Will Be Blood for exemplary moments of all three), and then there’s just obnoxious. Only God Forgives and it’s complex story exists somewhere even outside of the latter, as it insists on being as detestable, abstract and anti-establishment as possible for as long as possible. Quite frankly I grew tired of the gimmick halfway through and I sat through the rest in an effort to be as respectful as I could to both director and actor.

The rest is as forgettable as the story is nonsensical, and moreover, uninspired.

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1-5Recommendation: Only God Forgives will not cater to any one’s needs — that’s not its purpose for existing. The actual, true purpose? That answer we never arrive at. This is a product best described as experimental. At its worst? Well, there are some choice words I could implement here, but I really would rather not, because. . . well, you already get the idea. A missed opportunity, for sure. The future will be interesting just for the sake of seeing if these two ever make a film together again.

Rated: R (for really, Ryan Gosling? Really?)

Running Time: 89 mins.

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