Arrival

arrival-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

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

Kubo and the Two Strings

'Kubo and the Two Strings' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Marc Haimes; Chris Butler; Shannon Tindle

Directed by: Travis Knight

Kudos to Kubo for being a wee bit different. I mean, generally speaking his story isn’t one you haven’t seen before — unless of course you’ve had since your diaper days an elaborate scheme for avoiding all things Disney for the rest of your life, which just seems . . . excessive. The latest from Laika Entertainment does, however, carry with it an air of sophistication and maturity absent in many of its competitors’ products.

Travis Knight, in his directorial debut, paints an emotionally resonant portrait of a family plagued by wickedness in ancient Japan, a family represented by the young Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who we see at the beginning of the film barely escaping with their lives from an unseen confrontation with her evil Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who took one of Kubo’s eyes in an attempt to blind him to the world, a punishment that probably carries   with it some sort of metaphorical meaning that I just can’t be bothered to delve into here (either that, or it’s just . . . I guess, glaringly obvious).

Anyhoo, Kubo now lives in a cave atop a big mountain just outside a village, to which he travels daily to put on shows for the locals. He tells tales of a brave samurai who has to defend himself against monsters, stories based on what he has heard from his mother about his missing father Hanzo, a legendary warrior. Kubo attracts large crowds with his showmanship, his ability to manipulate colored pieces of paper into ornate origami figures with his shamisen (a three-string guitar) as impressive as it is perplexing. If only he could just come up with a conclusion to the tale. Each evening he returns to the cave where his mother, who has fallen into a trance-like state, awaits. Most of the time she remains frozen in place like a statue. When she does speak she reminds her son to never stay out after dark as that is when her wicked Sisters and other evil spirits cast by the Moon King prowl, awaiting the chance to take Kubo’s other eye.

One evening Kubo attends an Obon ceremony, a Buddhist ritual in which the living are able to communicate with and celebrate the spirits of their deceased loved ones. Observed for over 500 years, it has evolved into a kind of family reunion tradition. In a display of visual grandeur that rivals anything Pixar has created in its 17-film history, we watch the screen burst into plumes of orange, red and yellow, the spirits rising from glowing lanterns to greet a sky filled with stars. It’s got my vote as one of the most spectacular scenes in any movie this year. A moment of pure wonderment swiftly transitions into one of terror as day turns to night and, sure enough, Kubo is confronted by those vicious aunts of his, determined to permanently blind him. Again, both literally and metaphorically. Mother intervenes, imbuing her son with some of her own magical power before making the film’s obvious Big Sacrifice.

The narrative promptly shifts gears and finds us deep into a blizzard, waking up next to a living version of his monkey trinket, also voiced by Theron. The two form an awkward, tough-love kind of bond and soon they set out across the desolate landscape, Kubo in search of three pieces of armor that will protect him against the evil spirits. They’re led by “Little Hanzo,” an origami man modeled after his father. Little Hanzo leads them to Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior who was cursed into taking the form of an insect and who has no memory of his past. He learns quickly Kubo is actually the son of his master which obliges him to help Kubo in his quest to defeat evil.

Only after this shift does it become obvious how deliberately Knight has been setting up the story proper. We’re halfway into the movie before what we’ve actually come for gets underway. (The argument could be made the incredible blend of stop-motion animation with creative applications of magic, like Kubo’s origami ship and origami birds, justifies the price of admission.) At the heart of the film lies the familial conflict, a fairly standard clash of good and evil that forces a frightened but resourceful youngster into making big decisions and taking on forces much greater than himself. Guiding him along the way are his newfound friends, friends that ultimately prove they have much more to offer Kubo than moral support.

It takes time for all the pieces to fall into place. Significant world-building must happen before we get into the nitty gritty. It’s not just the elaborate staging of the saga that almost feels obsessive. If the thematic elements Kubo trades in are steeped in the beauty and mythology of Japanese tradition, artistic expression is driven by the pursuit of perfection. The level of detail in the visual aesthetic evokes the pride and passion of creators over at the prestigious Studio Ghibli. Such comparisons might seem extreme, but they’re not without caveats. Kubo is so intensely visual it’s as though nothing else matters.

Some things certainly do seem to matter more to the filmmakers than others as we work our way through this dark and dangerous journey. Not all aspects are created equal; the villains feel like a significant comedown from the stratospheric heights reached by Laika’s graphic artists. Reputable thespians like Mara and Fiennes don’t quite sell the evil convincingly. Even still, and despite a climactic showdown between Kubo and the Moon King ending the film on a whimper rather than a bang, this is still a story well worth investing time in, especially with your little ones. In the end though, you’ll probably leave the theater just like them: all googoo-gaga over some of the most sumptuous visuals you have ever seen.

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Recommendation: Fairly heavy for a children’s movie as death lurks around every corner and reincarnation manifests as a prominent theme, but undeniably a quality experience for the whole family to share in, Kubo and the Two Strings rises above a few notable flaws thanks to an incredible animated style that gives rich texture to its culturally significant roots. The story falters towards the end but apparently never enough to divert attention to the fact this movie really should have featured Japanese dialogue if it was going for the whole ‘authenticity’ thing. Names like McConaughey, Theron, Fiennes and Mara actually become both enticing and distracting. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I encourage you not to die.”

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

The Nice Guys

'The Nice Guys' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 20, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Shane Black; Anthony Bagarozzi

Directed by: Shane Black

Well, they’re not quite Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but The Nice Guys squeak in at a close second, offering up liberal doses of hilarity and action that’s more fun than perhaps it ought to be. Which just leaves Iron Man 3, screenwriter Shane Black’s only other directorial credit, coming in at a relatively distant third.

To Black’s debut crime comedy The Nice Guys owes a great deal, not least of which being the awkward disposal of a corpse, a neon-lit film noir tilt, and the constant banter and infectious chemistry between its starring duo — in this case, Ryan Gosling and hey, what’s this, Russell Crowe? That’s right. Crowe does indeed have a funny bone in his body, and it’s a big one.

Los Angeles in the 1970s. Porn stars and private eyes. Privatized businesses colluding. Birds choking on polluted air. Two private investigators stumble into a possible murder/suicide plot involving a once-prominent female porn star (Murielle Telio), who may or may not be one in a string of victims associated with the shady production and distribution of a new skin flick. When surly, prone-to-violence Jackson Healy (Crowe) discovers there’s another detective trying to get his beak wet on the action, he requests that Holland March (Ryan Gosling) cease and desist . . . by snapping his arm. (As any self-respecting P.I. must.)

It’s a classic case of the odd couple and, despite the familiar blueprint, what follows proves to be among the crème de la crème of the buddy-cop genre. Holland, a single father whose precocious teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) consistently calls him out on his bullshit, has the slick suit and a nice house — one he claims they’re just renting while he rebuilds the old one that burned down — and a solid(-ish) reputation around town to lose if this investigation goes south. Jack Healy, on the other hand, is considerably less mannered (and less licensed), towing a fine line between bad guy and misunderstood loner. In short, they make for two equally compelling characters, both destined for a redemption of sorts, that make the occasionally tedious two-hour runtime all worthwhile.

The Nice Guys is moulded by classic buddy cop comedies of old — the likes of detectives Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t very deeply buried inside this nostalgic throwback to the ’70s.  But it also functions effectively as a period piece. The milieu is undeniably retro, though seeing is only part of the believing here. Catch yourself grooving to a pop/funk-infused soundtrack featuring the likes of The Bee Gees, The Temptations and a wonderfully timed Earth, Wind & Fire classic while the sporadic placement of movie titles that would go on to define the decade entrench us further in times that will never be again.

It’s only around the hour-and-forty-minute mark we experience a lull in between major action/comedic set pieces, the best of them all arguably lying in wait at the very end. But even during the slower moments the young Rice provides a welcomed respite from all the foolish antics that pervade. Here’s a character well worth embracing if not for her intelligence then for her morality: “If you kill that man, Jack, I will never speak to you again.” She’s talking, of course, about the primary antagonist of the film, Matt Bomer’s suitably psycho John Boy, a man who has a vested interest in retrieving the film reel her father and Healy are after (but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). Rice’s character is something of a role model for young girls, offering up a performance that is all too rare in these kinds of movies. She is absolutely fantastic.

The farce occasionally borders on cartoonish, but then again Black always seems to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Playing it fast and loose works so well for him, and it certainly works well for the two leads. Using this as a barometer, the summer slate has a lot to live up to in terms of delivering pure escapist entertainment.

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Recommendation: Gleefully farcical and profane in equal measure, The Nice Guys will best serve fans of Shane Black’s brand of comedy. It recalls the spirit of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang while managing to separate itself just enough. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I think I’m invincible . . . I don’t think I can die!”

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

Everybody Wants Some!!

'Everybody Wants Some' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Linklater

Directed by: Richard Linklater

All right, all right, all right — so it’s been over twenty years since Matthew McConaughey brilliantly repurposed those famous Doors lyrics, and it might seem a little suspect that director Richard Linklater would take another trip like this down memory lane, in 2016. Has he run out of ideas? How will he find a way to crowbar some long-lost cousin of David Wooderson in to the story? How close was he to leaving the project titled Dazed and Confused 2? Naturally, a project like this raises more than a few questions.

Those concerns all but disappear without notice like a Saturday morning hangover when, after only a few opening scenes, we find ourselves jettisoned back to the days of disco, coke (well, here it’s replaced by a wealth of weed) and, of course, the Walkman. Part of the deal here is remaining open-minded about developing another love affair with a different decade but the same director, and if you’re able to do that you’ll find there was indeed room for one more of these in his catalog. Everybody Wants Some!! may have to wait some time before it gains cult status, but then, so did all those hazy high school hijinks.

Rather than focusing on the culmination of another semester wherein the best and the worst of seniors and their underclassmen alike are brought out, Linklater inverts the time table and builds toward the first day. The story follows a collegiate baseball team through the final weekend of summer, centering on a new pitcher named Jake (Blake Jenner), one of the most talented players at his high school, who finds himself navigating this unfamiliar, deeper pool of talent and competitiveness. Meanwhile he and his teammates negotiate, and largely embrace, the various social stigmas attached to being a college athlete.

Once again Linklater gathers together a cast of relative unknowns to help keep the distraction of celebrity status to a minimum. There’s the mustachioed and most-likely-to-go-pro McReynolds (Taylor Hoechlin); Roper the ladykiller (Ryan Guzman); stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell); faux-philosopher Finnegan (Glen Powell); Plummer (Temple Baker) . . . who’s just kinda there; Jay (Justin Street), who’s a total psycho and the team’s current pitcher; the gregarious Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), who also kindly takes on the task of orienting freshmen to the team; Beuter (Will Brittain), a good-old boy with the southern-fried accent; and Nesbit (Austin Amelio), an upper-classman burnout with a passion for the game. There are others as well but this is the core.

They’re wholly believable as an actual college baseball team, and if not that then their perpetual involvement in shenanigans establishes them as the next best frat house behind Delta Tau Chi. It helps that the performances are uniformly fantastic — energetic and naturalistic. There’s genuine camaraderie between them, especially once the movie shifts into its second third, where the boys start figuring out what everyone is all about. On the female side, there are far fewer stand-outs — Everybody Wants Some!! is likely to struggle to pass the Bechdel Test — but Zoey Deutch as Beverly, a theater major Jake finds cute, anchors the film in slightly more romantic territory with her warmth and optimistic outlook on life.

The love child of Animal House and Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s baseball-themed bacchanalia feels like a long lost relic, a film made years ago that’s only now being rescued from the clutches of development hell and resuscitated for audiences too young to appreciate how far out Linklater’s paean to the ’70s really was. It’s a fleeting watch, and it’s not for the narrative-minded. The story boils down to a team learning to gel before the grind of spring training locks them back into regiments and routines. From start to finish this is a raucous party atmosphere and it might be harder to identify with a group of extroverted athletes than say, a cross-section of high school broken down into its many cliques.

Nevertheless, Linklater has once again managed to tease out intensely strong feelings of nostalgia and bittersweetness by stuffing so much into these precious last days of summer. The film, despite itself, is a study of maturity and accepting responsibility. Kids turning into adults is as inevitable as waking up one morning in these houses to find crude drawings all over your face.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about finding your place in a larger group, about figuring out what you can contribute. Find out what matters most to you. That’s true of college but it’s most poignant when you consider the vaster pool of possibilities outside of school.

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Recommendation: A gentle nudge in the direction of some of our glory days, Everybody Wants Some!! functions as a highly amusing diversion (even if it’s not outright hilarious). A game cast combines with a mise en scène that brilliantly pays tribute to the fashion and social etiquette of a decade long since passed. Perhaps it’s best not to make comparisons, but this one’s kinda hard not to recommend to those who fell in love with the director’s previous efforts. Baseball fans might be disappointed to learn how little ball is actually played, however. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m too philosophical for this shit!”

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

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

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

Tangerine

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Release: Friday, July 10, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Sean Baker; Chris Bergoch

Directed by: Sean Baker

How I felt when I first tucked into indie dramedy Tangerine — yes, that film, the one shot entirely on the iPhone 5s — and how I felt when the last scene faded to black couldn’t have been more radically different feelings. Talk about a film that earns your empathy.

Introducing itself to the world at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and creating substantial buzz in film festivals the world over before opening in an elite listing of American cinemas in July, Sean Baker’s fifth feature plays out with genuine emotion and manifests as an eye-opening day-in-the-life of two transgender sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles. Offering transgender actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor their break-out roles, Tangerine swells with emotion thanks in large part to the pair’s naturalistic, amusing and occasionally heartbreaking performances — performances that suggest these are much more seasoned actors than they really are.

The story tells of Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee Rella, who learns the pimp she’s in love with has had an affair during the time she had recently spent in prison. Her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) breaks the news to her in the opening scene, setting the wheels in motion for the rest of the film by triggering a reaction within Sin-Dee that suggests a history of confrontational, violent behavior. Tangerine has no interest in dwelling in the past however; it beats a path forward on the sun-scorched, unforgiving streets of Tinseltown where people do what they must to get by.

It might seem surprising, counterintuitive even, for someone to have such a reaction when hearing one’s pimp has been seeing other women. After all, this is the kind of movie that has no qualms with describing flesh as product, where “the only thing that matters is the hustle;” in this gorgeously rendered production the world can be so cruel and ugly. That painful reality is also what makes the film so good. It takes some adjusting to, there is no doubt about that. And that, too, is a painful reality in and of itself: this is a scene largely overlooked in the industry.

Baker’s smart not to keep the focus entirely on Sin-Dee’s vendetta. Factoring into the equation is a subplot involving Alexandra trying to get people to attend a show she’s putting on at a night club later in the evening — it’s Christmas Eve — and an Armenian cabbie (Karren Karagulian) who frequents transgender prostitutes when on the clock, with a wife and child waiting for him back at home. Indeed, the cast may not be extensive but it’s enough to suggest a world filled with all sorts of broken people in various states of — well, I would say ‘decay,’ but that seems . . . harsh.

Tangerine develops in such a way that you’re constantly questioning whether a script was involved, or if real people were grabbed off the street and asked to contribute bit parts. It’s a hybrid of reality TV and independent cinema, bearing traits of the former in the way characters talk, behave and treat one another. There can be a lot of drama, and if we’re talking strictly narratively, Tangerine boils down to little more than relationship issues. But focusing on the machinations of the plot ignores the soft tissue of humanity that lies underneath wigs and layers of make-up.

These aren’t people we start off easily identifying with or even liking all that much. It’s almost irrelevant that the characters we are dealing with happen to be transgender, though the distinction should still be made. This isn’t yet another indie featuring the pains of adolescence as a white cisgender male. The trio of key players all share in common a lack of self-control that, coupled with their uniquely challenging professions, make them worthy of pity. They may not ask for it, but they’re going to get it anyway. And it’s not the worst thing to feel sorry for people who are less innately vile as they are products of their environments, and possibly products of terrible upbringings.

That was the last thing I expected to feel for Sin-Dee when all was said and done. I didn’t expect to find myself finishing the film. That’s because I also didn’t anticipate the screenplay to become so involving that it obliterated any sense that Baker’s decision to capture everything on an iPhone was nothing more than a gimmick. In this film, we feel like we could have stumbled into the frame at any given point, not realizing what was actually going on. That’s a really cool feeling.

Tangerine

Recommendation: I don’t know if you can call it a classic, but Tangerine is an all-too-unique film even in an era where a growing percentage of up-and-coming filmmakers are electing to take vastly different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling. It’s an important film as it deals with a number of socially relevant issues and features impressive performances from stars who are also far too rare in an industry that claims to be representative of a larger population. Tangerine is as good as any independent release I’ve seen and with any luck it’s a matter of time before more films like it start making the rounds.

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You didn’t have to Chris Brown the bitch!”

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

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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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Release: Friday, November 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour

Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour 

In Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour’s first film only two things are certain: you will meet a girl, and you will see her walking home alone at night. Outside the realm of the obvious exists a strange and ominous atmosphere laden with unpredictability and breathtaking creativity, an environment that challenges viewers’ preconceived notions of what vampires can and cannot do or be.

In the film you’ll see a vampire skateboarding. You’ll also see her seeking out wayward men for their tasty blood supply. I think it’s clear which of the actions hew closer to traditional vampiric values; yet for all of its clever subversiveness this isn’t a movie aching with the pain of vampiric immortality, it’s the kind of love story mainstream Hollywood time and again harps on using beautiful looking people to sell the sensation of kissing born out of true love, but the catch is this one’s brilliantly disguised in layers of velvety texture and genre-blurring style. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t really much without its own chador, but my goodness, what a stylish cover it is.

Perhaps it’s too dismissive paralleling Amirpour’s art with Tinseltown’s preference for Happily Ever After. The denouement left me wanting, but I now find myself overcome with the striking visual imagery and subdued performances that, when coalescing in earnest, recall an era of Hollywood production well before my time — a shot of the nameless girl (hello, Sheila Vand) applying make-up in her humble abode evokes a Middle Eastern Audrey Hepburn in all her ethereal beauty. But the longer I sat there, ever more entranced by the contrasts in the film’s gorgeous grayscale the more I realized the sum total of the production mattered less than its more memorable passages.

Girl is just as much about grappling with loneliness and/or failed romance — Bad City is one strange place, its population of night-prowling prostitutes reminds one of the inescapable hopelessness of Basin City — as it is concerned with identity. The titular girl more often than not manifests as a specter of death as she stalks a brutish thug who she witnesses abusing a hooker in a vehicle he has just stolen from the film’s second lead, Arash (Arash Marandi). Our introduction to the girl is foreboding, but in the aftermath of a forthcoming scene in which the thug assumes he is successful in seducing her, we get a glimpse of the vigilantism that is to come. Her physical appearance — one that is borderline iconic already — causes prejudice as we’re never fully certain what she is capable of. We pick up a pattern though. She seems to prey upon men, and not just any man she comes across.

Ostensibly Bad City’s guardian . . . vampire, she’s more interested in ridding the town of its evildoers — if you do see other people in the frame there’s a good chance they belong to the mass grave of bodies in a shallow ravine. It’s not until she comes across Arash, cloaked in a Dracula cape and false fanged teeth (who also happens to be tripping balls on ecstasy having just stumbled out of a Halloween party), that we get a better handle on how Amirpour means to go about depicting a less civilized society, one plagued by moral turpitude and antiquated views on gender roles. The long, flowing headdress manifests as traditional garb worn by Muslim women and phantasms alike, even if the association with the latter is more approximation than traditional visual manifestation (capes typically do not fully engulf a vampire’s body head-to-toe, yet that’s what’s demanded of most Middle Eastern women).

When found in her apartment bathing in the throbbing pulses of some kind of new wave music (I’m not cool enough to be able to tell you exactly what or who it is), sans her enigmatic exterior, the girl becomes, in some ways, even more mysterious. She seems a perfectly ordinary teenaged girl, one with a fascination for pop culture and presumably a desire to be anywhere but where she currently is. Arash, the good boy, starts hanging out with her more often, intrigued by her aloofness. Though she barely speaks, even in the company of someone who actually seems to care about whether or not she’s freezing cold, mutual attraction is evident. Love, as it is portrayed in many a big-budget Hollywood production, is thick and syrupy yet it enables our principals to get over things they otherwise couldn’t. If there’s a flaw in Amirpour’s auspicious debut, it’s the realization that love apparently does conquer all. The conclusion is far less interesting than what has preceded it — minus Masuka the cat, that was great casting —  and feels too safe. Too routine for a production so firmly rooted in unorthodoxy.

Girl marks an exciting beginning for an up-and-coming director and effectively establishes yet another intriguing take on the vampire legend. Last year Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive struck a chord with audiences, providing an absorbing and amusing take on the curse of immortality. Highly atmospheric and memorably performed, that film invited audiences in to its obscure yet wholly believable world of hipster vampires. That audience clearly had Amirpour in attendance. Eerie, enigmatic and unforgettable, her painstakingly off-beat creation is superlative ‘style over substance’ filmmaking.

Recommendation: Unlike any film I’ve seen before, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is quite the experience, yet its methodical pace, limited dialogue (spoken in Farsi with English subtitles), and borderline erratic genre shifting could prove too much for some viewers. Girl is more an art form and less a story you can . . . uh, sink your teeth into; it’s eerie, haunting, mesmerizing and oh-so-slightly amusing all at once. I’d say it’s worth a look for those in search of something off the beaten path. And it’s right there for you on Netflix. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone.”

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

Actor Interview: Aussie Paul Eenhoorn talks ‘Land Ho!’

Experienced Aussie actor Paul Eenhoorn was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk about his most recent role as Colin in last summer’s delightful and breezy buddy-comedy adventure Land Ho! The film tells the story of two former brothers-in-law, Colin and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) who take a much-needed trip to Iceland to escape the humdrum of their daily lives back in the States. He also opens up about his experience in the industry, his move from Australia to Seattle and what it was like filming in Iceland.

Other notable performances of his include the titular lead in Chad Hartigan’s 2013 drama This Is Martin Bonner; as Hugh in the 2011 heist/adventure Rogue Saints; and as a Lead Detective in the controversial 2007 documentary Zoo. He’s known mostly for his affable, charming personas but he has had the opportunity to take a villainous part before and did so in the 2004 family comedy Max Rules.


Getting to visit different parts of the world to tell stories is part of the trade. You went all the way to Iceland to tell this one. I would imagine you enjoy traveling, would that be a fair assessment? Travel is the best but when you’re shooting all you get to see is locations and the road there and back. Most times that is at ungodly hours, but with Iceland we really hauled all over to get to locations. Some of which have untended roads after September so it was rough at time. Still you can’t visit Iceland and not love it.

What was it that caught your eye about this project? (If all it took was the fact you’d be getting to go to this exotic location, I wouldn’t blame you. . .) I wanted to work with Martha Stevens and Aaron Katz, they are the new wave of directors coming up. Plus the production company Gamechanger Films offered me a reasonable deal so how could I say no.

Beyond the distinct personalities, what struck me early on was the camaraderie you and Earl Lynn Nelson shared. It was as though you weren’t given a script and were instead improvising much of the dialogue. In fact, the exchanges were such that I was convinced you two had been life-long friends (despite the script having you play former brothers-in-law). Had you known Nelson before shooting the film or was it more of a ‘learn-on-the-go’ kind of experience? If you’re an actor in film you have to form that connection, with people you don’t know, otherwise it falls flat. I didn’t know Earl Lynn but we spent a weekend shooting the opening scenes and we did  Iceland a few months later . . .

One of the things that really made Land Ho! an enjoyable diversion was the unique and picturesque setting. With principal photography lasting a bit over two weeks and occurring in seven cities, including the capital port city of Reykjavík, I’d imagine the shoot introduced some challenges. What was the experience like? Were there any unique challenges of filming a movie there? It was a twenty day shoot with a couple of days off here and there. The main problem for me was that it was cold all the time. It was fall there. I pulled a muscle in my thigh and I couldn’t work it off. Basically the conditions were rugged and I wasn’t prepared for the cold at all . . .

Tell me a little bit about your character Mitch. Is he anything like you? Colin is introspective which I am at times but I’m more like Mitch in ways except I don’t do anatomy jokes . . . 

You hail from Australia but now are based out of Seattle. Has moving to the States opened up more opportunities for you? Do you have plans to return to Australia at any point? Seattle isn’t L.A. but then that’s good at times too. The quality of life in Seattle is more to my liking, And yes the U.S. offers far more opportunity than Australia I’m sorry to say. I will head back to Australia one day . . . it’s a great place to live.

Seattle is most definitely known for the iconic bands and musicians that call the city their home. I’ve visited a few times myself and have always been fascinated with how much of a cultural melting pot it really is, though I have never stopped to consider its influence on the film industry. Could you describe what it’s like living there as an actor? I’ve shot a lot in Seattle but I had to travel to L.A. to get my first break on Chad Hartigan’s film This Is Martin Bonner. L.A. is the center of the filmmaking universe though Seattle production values are fast catching up. I do other things to make money and I would rather do that close to home base than in L.A.

In the film Earl Lynn Nelson plays a rather outgoing man, a retired doctor looking to keep himself busy in retirement. I understand this role was his very first. What was it like working with him? He seems like a pretty easy guy to get along with. Earl Lynn is very consistent, you know what you’re going to get from him so that made my job easier, if you call shooting any film easy. He did do a few gigs with Martha Stevens before this one.

What was it that got you into acting? Any family influences? Nope. I started shooting television when I was younger, I was in a band too so I always knew I wanted to act. My mom was a ballerina so that may be an influence . . .

What does the future look like for you? Do you have any current projects in the works? We have shot the opening of my next film Pendulum and we will be playing that in L.A. in late October. We are looking for funding. It’s a totally different part from Martin Bonner and Land Ho! Which is a good thing I think. I have not seen the cut but we are doing a cast and crew screening the second week of October.

I would like to thank Mr. Eenhoorn for taking the time out of his schedule to talk to me. Be sure to keep an eye out for Land Ho!, which is now available to stream online or rent through several DVD vendors including RedBox. Meanwhile, I will be seeking out Pendulum in the coming months. 


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; Paul Eenhoorn 

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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