Hands of Stone

'Hands of Stone' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 26, 2016


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.


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 

Decades Blogathon – Taxi Driver (1976)


Mark closes out the 2016 Decades Blogathon with a fantastically written piece on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 crime drama Taxi Driver. Be sure you don’t miss it by visiting the link below! Thank you.

three rows back

Decades Blogathon Banner 20161976So this is the end; the final day of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition. Thank you once again to everyone who made this such a great blogathon. My biggest thanks goes to my partner in crime on this enterprise – Tom from Digital Shortbread. We had a blast with this in 2015 and this year’s event has been just as much fun. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade and it’s my turn to focus on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

Looking to the Academy Awards as a critical barometer for the best films of a given year is, for the most part, as redundant an exercise as swimming through treacle.

The list of Oscar clunkers is long and ignominious and among the most glaring is the dearth of statuettes awarded to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A…

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Joy movie poster

Release: Christmas Day 2015


Written by: David O. Russell; Annie Mumolo

Directed by: David O. Russell

Does a movie have an obligation to become the very thing its title advertises? Should we feel duped if that title says one thing and then the story goes off and does something else?

No, Joy is not a movie about the emotion. It’s about the person who came up with the Miracle Mop. It’s a vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence post-Hunger Games. It’s depressing and frustrating and strange and cold and a lot of other things that don’t necessarily sell movie tickets. It’s about women’s empowerment, a tip of the hat to entrepreneurship and a Cliffs Notes guide on how to get a product patented. And right now it’s my favorite David O. Russell movie.

Lawrence’s rising starlet may not be the most convincing canvas upon which to base a portrait of struggling 1950s housewife Joy Mangano — there was a crowd of giggling teenaged girls in my screening, three of whom left about halfway in after realizing this wasn’t quite the movie they were expecting. But Lawrence did manage to turn a completely fictitious girl who could shoot arrows more accurately than William Tell and wore dresses that caught on fire into a living, breathing sensation that the world fell in love with. Why couldn’t America’s favorite twenty-something thespian take this role and own it too?

The story of Joy isn’t so unlike the story of anyone who has had to sacrifice most of themselves, including their own happiness, in order to support and care for others. In a time where gender inequality dictated employment opportunities for women, Joy shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as heroically selfless so much as being remarkably resilient, doing what she must to try to make ends almost meet . . . although there is something sort of heroic about having to endure these specific conditions.

She lives at home with her highly dysfunctional family: mother (Virginia Madsen), who never leaves her bedroom or turns off the TV; father, (Robert DeNiro) who has recently moved back in because it once again hasn’t worked out with his significant other; and Mimi (Diane Ladd), who at least provides some moral support. Joy also has two kids. Of course the house isn’t big enough for everyone and dad must share the basement with Anthony (Édgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, someone whom he doesn’t much care for. The family dynamic is hectic and its important we feel it. Although a rather unconvincing final scene overcompensates for the quagmire that has been Joy’s life up until that point — it’s 10 years on, she’s wealthy and her problems have all but disappeared — the movie proper really takes place in the first half.

Out of these humble, somewhat oppressive environs a billionaire inventor and businesswoman would emerge. Unfortunately she would be totally unprepared for the fiercely competitive nature of commerce. She enlists the help of her father and his new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who has a very strong business sense about her, to give her some financial backing and perhaps even some confidence that she could finally legitimately pursue her ambition of bringing an idea she had to the attention of the masses.

So, I guess I take it back. This movie really is about joy, but not in the way you might expect. This is a much subtler, less palpable sense of satisfaction, the kind that one might experience after selling their home but for a much, much lower price than they originally had asked. In what has been for sometime a difficult market to sell in, they should be pleased they sold at all. Lawrence proves once again she is wise beyond her years, shading a character that’s meant to be much older than the actress actually is with layers of humility, dignity, courage and a crumbling, though still existent, sense of humor. This kind of tough skinned exterior is tailor made for Lawrence, and it is a joy to behold once more.

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Recommendation: David O. Russell reunites with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and DeNiro for the third consecutive film, though this one has much more modest ambitions than arguably either of his previous two projects. It’s particularly small compared to the likes of the hoopla surrounding American Hustle. The Lawrence faithful should warm to her character here while others are sure to gain some insight into how products are converted from pet projects into marketable items. Joy is fascinating on several levels.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Never speak on my behalf about my business again.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Decades Blogathon – Casino (1995)

three rows back

Decades Blogathon Banner


As hard as it may be to believe we are entering the home stretch of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the indubitable Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Fernando at Committed To Celluloid. Fernando’s site is one of my favourites out there in the blogosphere, so do yourself a favour and take a visit!

Casino Poster

It seems so strange that Casino came out only 20 years ago. Martin Scorsese’s 1995 offering seems much older, and yes, I mean it as a compliment.

Arguably one of ole Marty’s best (or my favorite, anyway), Casino, not just because it’s set in that era, truly feels, looks and carries itself like a film of the seventies.


Riveting, stylish and peppered with bursts…

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The Guest

Release: Wednesday, September 17, 2014 (limited)


Written by:  Simon Barrett 

Directed by: Adam Wingard

British actor Dan Stevens elevates Adam Wingard’s thought-provoking and emotional mystery thriller to bloody awesome levels.

Though The Guest isn’t exactly a title free from spoiler potential, you’d be hard-pressed to make accurate guesses as to what ultimately becomes of a family willing to let a stranger into their house when he claims to be a close friend of their son Caleb who was recently killed in the war in Afghanistan. Even if you are particularly adept at mentally tracing the rough outline of a conclusion still unwitnessed, good luck coloring it in as well as Wingard’s continued collaboration with screenwriter Simon Barrett does.

The Guest, simplistic in its structure but anything but in terms of how it bathes its own guests in psychological discomfort, is definitely better because of Stevens. Though, Barrett’s script admittedly takes us to some interesting places. I have a bone to pick with those last two words, though. Those interesting places are still spaces we’ve seen many an actor in years past inhabit but for a brief flash only to then fade again. Whatever happens to the generic — are their creations rendered redundant in the face of superior genre films? Does A no longer count if B comes along and does it better? More relevant to what we’re talking about here, should we be concerned The Guest roots itself in questionable — albeit in the context of this story, understandable — human behavior?

Wingard, young and eager to prove his burgeoning talent, takes some risks in depicting degrees of emotional and psychological vulnerability. His project begins on shaky legs. The opening scenes are rushed and feel (taste?) slightly undercooked. But his destination demands greater attention. No matter your thoughts on what transpires over 70-ish minutes, the final 20 or so will command exactly that. Perhaps its Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser as the rather wooden parental figures that allow skepticism to arise sooner than it should (i.e. right out of the starting gate).

Or maybe doubt is sprung from some sort of scale we internally create in realizing how everything just pales in comparison to Downton Abbey‘s dapper Matthew Crawley. Dan Stevens as the enigmatic stranger beholden to the unseen soldier, save for a photograph set atop the stone mantel above the Peterson’s fireplace, is in good company when considering the likes of Ryan Gosling’s strong but silent type in Drive; Jake Gyllenhaal’s talkier but arguably more deranged journalist Lou Bloom; Robert DeNiro’s delirious cabbie Travis Bickle. But when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear no one can really put David Collins into a corner. As a character, he may be cool but the thespian possesses so much power in his voice alone — never mind those washboard abs, heyyy-ohh!!! — he threatens to overtake the screen.

It’s the kind of breakout performance that will be his own challenge to outrun; Gosling only now seems a little more sociable since his days with Refn. May only God forgive Stevens for taking a second shot at becoming the unsettling, yet disconcertingly charming type.

Similarly disconcerting is The Guest‘s tendency to leave one questioning a few details along the way. Plot developments seem to turn conveniently but aren’t so obvious as to be off-putting. There is a notable divide in performance quality between the titular character and the several other main characters, but nothing comes across as too cheesy. Most importantly, such gut-wrenching adherence to real emotion and real settings, banal as a few of the latter are, overwhelms and leaves little to question in terms of the director’s intent. Wingard intended to provoke a startling mixture of empathy, dread and revulsion. We empathize with the Peterson’s plight, while dreading what their decisions may cost them.

Wingard’s generation of suspense is exquisite and if You’re Next was entertaining in that regard, his most recent effort certainly ups the ante.


4-0Recommendation: I haven’t even mentioned the Drive-esque soundtrack. So, there’s this to consider beyond The Guest‘s incredible lead performance, it’s mood and psychologically revealing depiction of a typical American family being stuck between a rock and a hard place. (I’m sorry for being so vague in this review; if I give away more info about it the shock of the experience will be greatly reduced.) If you want to know more about this film, be my guest and rent this as soon as possible. I refuse to say more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “You did the right thing. I don’t blame you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

Last Vegas


Release: Friday, November 1, 2013


In Vegas, high-priced hookers are a dime a dozen; senior citizens crashing parties, hooking up with girls half their age and going on a bender — eh, not so much. Those types are a little harder to find.

Fortunately, four such individuals may be found parading around the infamous Strip in Last Vegas, as Billy (Douglas), Paddy (DeNiro), Archie (Freeman) and Sam (Kline) head to Sin City for a weekend of debauchery (thanks, Geritol!) in order to pop the final corkscrew for this group of lifelong friends as Billy finds himself engaged to a 30-year-old woman whom he barely identities with.

Right from the opening shot it’s clear this is not a movie that is to be taken seriously. Or, well. . .at least not too seriously. While it has its moments of tenderness, the whole point of Last Vegas is about enjoying life as it comes to you, and saying sod it all, I’m here to have a good time and get on with the getting on. To that, I say cheers, and raise many a beer to this commendable, collaborative effort between a stellar cast and a director who know exactly what they are setting out to do — making visual jokes at the expense of an aging group of stars, while ruminating on the nature of relationships amongst friends as they age together.

Granted, the plot’s paper-thin, and there will be more than a few times throughout where someone is going to be wondering how many times déjà vu can hit them in a single movie — there’s no doubt there are similarities to the outrageous hit comedy, The Hangover (what with all the drunken banter, inexplicable behavior and general distrust of one another in a city that likes to bring out the worst in people). But this is no Vegas Vacation reincarnation or an attempt to repackage Todd Phillips’ vision of Vegas for a less-hip crowd. It’s much too formulaic for the former, and the presence of the four actors gives a script far more weight than what Helms, Cooper, Galifianakis and Bartha could ever bring to their own, insane lines.

Indeed, a story about four six-decade-long friends coming together to celebrate the last guy’s fleeting bachelorhood in this group of highly likable characters is its own brand of enjoyable. It’s not daring, nor really that adventurous. But it’s good, harmless fun, and that’s all that it needed to be. Nothing more, nothing less.

Last Vegas is a great last hoorah involving four top-notch actors who simply cruise their way to another nice paycheck, having a grand old time poking fun of one another’s (likely) real-life insecurities and charming some lovely ladies along the way. Look to DeNiro and Douglas to do some of the dramatic heavylifting, and Kline and Freeman for the best goofs. Jerry Ferrara makes an appearance as a casino punk who has a small run-in with the gang; Mary Steenburgen plays the charming Diana who they meet in a small club their first night in town. And of course, a film is never complete until you get Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson to make a cameo. For those desperate to continue to draw comparisons, consider him the Mike Tyson of this outing.


3-0Recommendation: Unless you somehow just severely dislike any of the actors or are opposed to sentimentality inspired by its highly likable cast, Last Vegas should prove to be a fun enough escape for a little while. Nothing particularly memorable, but this wasn’t the goal in the first place and it shouldn’t be taken for anything more than that.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 90 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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

The Family


Release: Thursday, September 12, 2013


One can only hope that Robert DeNiro does not go out with a whimper. I mean, it’s still a little early to say the man’s at that point but come on — he is now 70 years old and a few of his latest choices — New Year’s EveKilling SeasonThe Big Wedding (!!!) — have been a little more than questionable. As much as it pains me to report, The Family does not even come close to planing out this late-stage career nosedive.

Luc Besson’s latest is an unrelentingly dark “comedy” about a mob family (like, an actual family…not the term used among mob bosses) that has been placed into witness protection. They’ve most recently been relocated to Normandy, France, where they blow their cover when everyone reverts back to their gangster-ass ways of dealing with their situations. CIA Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) does everything he can to keep the family safe but inevitably the antics of one Giovanni Manzoni (DeNiro), along with the rest of his demented clan, prove too unwieldy (and public) and eventually the mob dispatches a ruthless hitman (Jon Freda) to “clean up” the town in which they’re hiding out.

After snitching on the mob, Giovanni (a.k.a. “Fred Blake”) finds it difficult to live a more low-key life. He feels that by writing out his life’s story on a typewriter, his guilt and dark past may not haunt him any longer. Confined to a greenhouse-like extension of his new home, he engages in something of a psychopathic psychotherapy session. His wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not happy about his decision to describe their past activities and identities, and Agent Stansfield doesn’t exactly approve, either. This would eventually turn out to become his biggest downfall as wind picks up about the lies he’s been telling the locals: that he’s a writer and he’s doing some research in Normandy for a new book.

Despite the film’s admittedly playful tone, and barring one or two downright hilarious moments, it boasts a gut wrenchingly awful script that’s intended to subvert the gangster/crime film; all it really does is pervert the concept of tongue-in-cheek comedy. It stumbles, bumbles, mumbles and eventually crumbles into pieces that loosely resemble the good old days of DeNiro’s very moley-smile as a ruthless mobster. However, this was hardly a tribute to those days. . . it was more like a butchering of it. The humor ends up becoming overwhelmed by the violence, some of which would be acceptable to turn one’s head away from.

The same could be said about the jokes that were written.

Most of them do not land whatsoever. We see time and time again flashbacks of DeNiro’s character beating his targets senseless and then some. Where exactly is the funny in dunking a man into a bucket of corrosive acid? Oh yeah, right — his scream when his head plunges into it. Another scene reveals that after his mission has failed to bear any results as to why his water at home is brown and not crystal clear, he has dragged the mayor from the back of his car for some distance — enough to leave the man bloodied and quivering with cowardice. It’s pretty sick to think these could be made into jokes. It’s almost as if the surrounding context of the movie needed to be much more gruesome, more like the movie that’s actually referenced late in this one — more like Goodfellas. There may be gruesome moments to these types of earlier works as well, but at least they were put into perspective. Each time an act of violence jumps out on the screen, it’s jarring and far more shocking than the comedy is relieving. (There’s only so many times Robert DeNiro can say the word ‘F**k’ in a single line of dialogue to get some chuckles.)

If you saw someone stumble and trip down the aisle only to fall flat on their face as they exited the theater, that would be more funny than most of this film. Coincidentally, that’s the brand of humor you’ll find throughout. It’s simply not a successful experiment on Besson’s part, and there’s no denying the deepening of the blemish on DeNiro’s career as of late. That being said, reasons are in short supply as to why Tommy Lee Jones comes off as such a drag here, as well. His CIA Agent, though clearly not a vehicle for comedic relief, is a blunt, boring old fart that is more reminiscent of Agent Kay after getting his memory wiped by the neuralizer.

The film has some semblance of redemption in young actors John D’Leo, who plays the son, Warren, and the beautiful Dianna Agron who is Belle Manzoni (how this girl is meant to be from an Italian upbringing is beyond me, but I won’t complain). The two share some strong moments — arguably some of the best in the entire film — and their experiences as they spend their time trying to fit in at school serves as a mildly amusing subplot.

As for the rest, though, its an embarrassing mess for everyone involved. The film cannot decide what to do with itself in terms of the tone; often its simply too dark to even be considered an action-comedy. When it lightens up, the story gets rather boring and was enough to put one of the viewers to sleep, apparently. Maybe that guy just needed some rest, because he told me he tuned out about twenty minutes in. Or perhaps that’s all you need to know about The Family — it’s one you won’t want to really visit. Not even for the holidays.


1-5Recommendation: The DeNiro faithful may still find a few things to like about this, however this is a film these folks will likely be seeking out long after they’ve cycled through the rest of his catalogue, probably twice or three times at least. Also, anyone who is a believer in a movie having a strong conclusion should definitely stay away.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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