When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Shallow

It feels like only yesterday the world fell in love with Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, the third and most recent remake of the classic ill-fated romance between two lovers in showbiz whose career trajectories are trending in opposite directions. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the two years it has actually been considering how thirsty the internet still is for that Cooper-Gaga hook-up IRL. Their rendition of their hit single “Shallow” at the Oscars that year helped calm exactly no one down. In Cooper’s modern update, one that changes the discipline from acting to singing/songwriting, Gaga takes on the role originally portrayed by Janet Gaynor in 1937 while the writer/director mimics Fredric March.

While it is always going to be remembered more for the doomed romance (as it perhaps should, for Cooper and Gaga give us an on-screen couple for the ages), you just can’t sleep on A Star is Born‘s soundtrack. There is so much quality music in here — actual musicianship, not catchy ear-worms (even though those are good too!) — that you basically get two forms of entertainment for the price of one. I could probably have chosen other songs to highlight here. Cooper’s opening rock anthem “Black Eyes” is a real barn-burner that kicks the movie off with some good energy. And Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way,” with its really beautiful vocal inflections layered on top of a haunting melody, is maybe the next strongest candidate.

However no song blew up quite like the sentimental ballad “Shallow,” which you could hear playing on any given radio station throughout the rest of the year and well into 2019. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando, the lyrical content of “Shallow” is rooted at the very heart of the movie, with each character asking each other whether they feel comfortable being the person they are. The intimate duet received widespread acclaim from critics, landing at the top of many music charts across the globe and providing Gaga her first Oscar win when it took home Best Original Song at the 91st Academy Awards. It also snagged a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media and a Golden Globe Award. Of all the things the movie does well, it is the fact that a song ultimately secured A Star is Born‘s lone Oscar win (out of a total of eight nominations) that proves what a massive success “Shallow” turned out to be.


Shallow (lyrics by Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson)

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for a change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoah

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now


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When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Stay Alive

This one is for all the daydreamers and travelers out there who want to be anywhere but stuck at home right now.

The song ‘Stay Alive’ is one of several the Argentinian-Swedish indie folk singer/songwriter José González contributed to the soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a 2013 adventure drama/fantasy starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott. The movie is an amazing journey, taking audiences on a globetrotting adventure when Life magazine photographer Walter (Stiller) embarks on a search for a famous photographer whose work is to be included in the final print edition of the mag, which is about to transition into digital form. While a lot of critics were divided on Stiller’s direction and the whimsical, disjointed narrative, few took issue with the visual composition.

What’s more amazing than the cinematography and scenery is that, even after all these years, it’s the music that stays with me. Few soundtracks move me in the way The Secret Life of Walter Mitty did. Put together by Theodore Shapiro, it features, among others, Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson and David Bowie, so there is no shortage of inspiring songs I could have used here.

But ‘Stay Alive’ — and I do stress the fact this is the one without the gerund, because f**k The Bee Gees — is just one of those songs that marks a moment in time for me. From the opening piano keys and the ticking clock, through to the drum-fed crescendo, the poetic lyrics written by Ryan Adams and Shapiro and vocalized by González, it’s a quietly profound song that swells with great hope. It’s a meditation on life and love; a journey toward fulfillment that both compliments the physical journey Stiller goes on and transcends it. Indeed, this song captures the spirit of the movie best.

Then again, I have a propensity for being dramatic and often suffer delusions of grandeur so, I don’t hold it against anyone for not being moved in the same way.


Stay Alive (lyrics by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro)

There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

Sometimes there’s things a man cannot know
Gears won’t turn and the leaves won’t grow
There’s no place to run and no gasoline
Engine won’t turn
And the train won’t leave

Engines won’t turn and the train won’t leave

I will stay with you tonight
Hold you close ’til the morning light
In the morning watch a new day rise
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Well the way I feel is the way I write
It isn’t like the thoughts of the man who lies
There is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Look into the sun as the new days rise

And I will wait for you tonight
You’re here forever and you’re by my side
I’ve been waiting all my life
To feel your heart as it’s keeping time
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes

Look into the sun as the new days rise
There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

But there is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming open your eyes
Look into the sun as a new days rise

Mock and Roll

Release: Friday, November 30, 2018 (watch now on Amazon Prime) 

→Vimeo 

Written by: Ben Bacharach-White; Mark Stewart

Directed by: Ben Bacharach-White

You don’t need to be a groupie to join in on the fun in Mock and Roll, a low-budget yet high-spirited independent film representing the Columbus, Ohio underground filmmaking scene and styled as a mockumentary that follows a broke, inexperienced but always optimistic parody cover band and their wacky attempts to secure the necessary funding and fanbase to earn a coveted spot at the South by Southwest Music Festival. At 84 minutes Mock and Roll is a breezy romp and features a creative use of limited locations and visual effects to give character to its small-town, big-dream ideas.

In an example of life imitating art, director Ben Bacharach-White has successfully steered his production into several film festivals nationwide, beginning with the Austin Revolution Film Festival where Mock and Roll was nominated in six categories including Best Comedy, Actor, Actress and Director. Along the circuit, which took the crew from Oklahoma to Florida to Michigan and back to their stomping grounds in Ohio, the film collected wins in Best Feature and Best Original Score.

Certainly, the more well-versed you are in the world of rock music the more primed you’re going to be for a geek out at the cameos made by British drummer Roger Earl (of Foghat), American singer/songwriter Michael Stanley, and the members of the Black Owls, a Cincinnati-based band once described as “David Byrne channeling Edgar Allen Poe fronting Steppenwolf,” and whose tunes these four friends are parodying.

The tricky part about the concept of a parody band is that their effectiveness tends to be predicated on having a working knowledge of lyrical content. If you know Cheap Trick, you’ll recognize their 1978 hit single ‘Surrender’ becoming ‘Bartender,’ but then it’s possible you might miss the references within those jokes — take for example ‘Tonight It’s You’ evolving into ‘Tonight It’s Who,’ a riff on a classic Abbott and Costello skit called ‘Who’s On First?’ And the comical rewrites of Black Owls lyrics are likely to go over the heads of anyone who doesn’t call Ohio home.

The band call themselves Liberty Mean, a pair of words lifted from a lyric from one of their idol’s songs that ends up taking on an amusing mystique when taken out of context. Liberty Mean are: Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), vocals/rhythm guitar; Rick (Chris Wolfe), lead guitar/backing vocals; Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), bass guitar and Bun (Andrew Yackel) on drums. The band’s antics and misadventures are captured by a documentarian, Sully (William Scarborough), while Comedy Central’s Alex Ortiz briefly appears as a whack-a-doodle doctor whose medical credentials may or may not be entirely legit. Additional supporting parts go to home-grown talent: KateLynn E. Newberry as Jan, Rick’s girlfriend/the band’s promoter; Melissa O’Brien as Bun’s scheming aunt Duckie and Michael Compton and Brian Bowman as two potential roadblocks to the band’s success, as “art collectors” Ray and Dante respectively.

The main cast form a lively bunch of well-meaning but utterly unprepared dreamers who first bomb out on a Kickstarter-like campaign when they ask for too much money. They visit a “friendly doctor” who promises cash rewards for their participation and things just get weird. Then it gets dangerous as they dip their toes into the world of shady art dealings at the behest of Bun and his aunt — a role originally drawn up to be played by a male but that which O’Brien successfully lobbied to have changed for a female, thus Aunt Duckie. Their lives and careers now in jeopardy, they must decide what they are willing and not willing to do to make the dream work.

Each of the performers brings a distinct personality to their parts, but I found two in particular really stood out. Between Yackel’s philosophizing and Wolfe’s brash confidence (culminating in a really awkward meet-and-greet with their heroes), these two are a lot of fun to watch. But Bhanja is also very likable as the unifying force and lead singer, while Jarernpone brings a cooler, more level-headed bass line to proceedings. The screenplay, a collaboration between Bacharach-White and Mark Stewart, isn’t without its own surprises, either. They find a clever way of reconciling the dream with reality, providing a denouement that is not only fitting of the circumstances but entertaining in its own right.

Mock and Roll is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: Fans of rock music and independent filmmaking need to add to their playlist Mock and Roll, an inventive production that wears its passions on its sleeve. While I often found myself out of the loop in terms of the lyrics that were being parodied, there is plenty here to latch on to narratively and character-wise. But if you have indeed heard of the Black Owls, then surely this film will be a special treat. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Privilege is EARNED!!!”

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; Mark Stewart 

Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

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 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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 12.17.55 AM

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!”

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

Some Kind of Hate

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Adam Egypt Mortimer; Brian DeLeeuw

Directed by: Adam Egypt Mortimer


This review is my fifth contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A big thanks to James for hooking this one up!


Adam Egypt Mortimer takes a stand against bullying in his feature film debut. The irony is he bullies viewers into sharing in his frustration using a relentlessly clichéd, propagandistic approach to make anyone watching feel really, really bad.

Someone has to do the job of course, because the acting department can’t. The comic book writer and short film director blends elements of real-life horror with a sprinkling of supernaturalism to produce Some Kind of Hate, a brutal and bloody take on the physical and psychological effects on targets of aggressive bullying. The cause is noble, but unfortunately the end product is so in-your-face it has an adverse effect. I found myself, especially circa the blood-soaked climax, cheering on neither said supernatural element nor the good guys, but rather the time marker on the film’s total runtime as it neared the end. Go! Go! Go!

The film starts off on the wrong foot and has to fight an uphill battle over the course of 80 minutes, sending its quietly angry protagonist Lincoln (Ronen Rubinstein) down a gauntlet of seemingly endless taunting and physical confrontation. We first see him getting intimidated by his loser father (Andrew Bryniarski) before leaving for school, where he’ll immediately get bullied by some dude with a tucked-in shirt. A crowd quickly gathers around the scene to make the incident as humiliating as possible. When Lincoln can no longer take it he reacts, rather brutally, which sets up the events of the rest of the movie in a fairly compelling fashion. He’s sent to a reform school in the middle of the desert where the counselors hope to unpack many of their campers’ issues and help them move forward with their lives.

Surprise surprise, Lincoln doesn’t find any sanctuary from his problems here either, as one of the campers takes it upon himself to make the new guy feel ‘welcome.’ It’s not until Lincoln retreats into the basement of one of the facilities that he finds some kind of solace from the hell that has become his life. But there’s something else down there waiting for him, watching him.

Chief among the issues facing this would-be-thriller is the frustrating lack of exposition regarding this reform facility, weirdly named Mind’s Eye Academy. The remote, arid location is certainly foreboding but there’s no lore, no exposition, no explanation. The camp leaders, themselves victimized by various forms of abusive upbringings — Michael Polish’s Jack and Noah Segan’s Krauss — are so vaguely defined that their creepiness comes across as a byproduct of nonexistent character development. Jack appears to enjoy meditating and speaking in hushed tones, while his underling isn’t sure what good the Mind’s Eye Academy is doing for anyone. Quite incidentally, neither are we. All we know is that this place serves one purpose and one purpose only: to stage some bloody scenes of supposedly justifiable revenge.

Some Kind of Hate rams its social commentary down your throat. Not only that, but there comes a point where the message becomes obscured by something more alarming: bullies may be bad but worse are the victims who don’t stand up for themselves. Grace Phipps’ troubled former cheerleader Kaitlin tries to convince Lincoln of this, and though he’s the closest person within earshot it’s evident she’s preaching to us. All of a sudden fellow campers start disappearing. That’s right folks, ‘innocent’ people are getting killed to death. Is it Lincoln? Lincoln seems to be the only one around here with a big enough chip on his shoulder to warrant suspicion.

Look, I’m all for a vicious revenge plot, if it’s executed well. (I admit that may have been a poor choice of words.) Few things are more gratifying than watching the baddies receiving their comeuppance, particularly when it’s been coming to them the entire time. Annoyingly, the film’s latter stages justify little more than the film’s quota of supplying the red gooey stuff. Some Kind of Hate had a message to send, but unfortunately it all gets lost in a production that is some kind of awful.

Recommendation: This B-horror film is certainly aimed at a niched audience. It features gore, unlikable characters and self-harm in almost equal measure. Count me out of that audience. Apart from a few creative and fun kills, there’s really not much to like about Some Kind of Hate as it carries all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

Photo credits: 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 

TBT: Titanic (1997)

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Welcome boys, girls. . . . and all others, to another sappy, tear-filled romantic edition of Throwback Thursday. (I know, gross, right?) The whole idea behind today’s post is about being subtle. . . . . . as subtle as a 40-foot-tall iceberg protruding from the chilly North Atlantic water. As subtle as that scene where Jack paints a picture of Rose. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I know all of you are just chomping at the bit to read something mushy and heartrending. (I know I am!) Well, you certainly get it here in James Cameron’s preposterously successful, epically-imagined, prodigious smash-hit, a.k.a.

Today’s food for thought: Titanic.

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Getting that sinking feeling since: December 19, 1997

[VHS]

Like an aftershock ripping through L.A. the power of James Cameron’s great water-bound tragedy strikes me today with a force seemingly laying dormant since my first viewing. When I was a wee lad and watching this gigantic mess unfold for the first time (‘mess,’ in this case being a huge compliment) I am pretty sure I hated Titanic for its prioritizing of love over visual spectacle. I wasn’t into critiquing movies of course but I already resented Cameron for turning what I saw as a simple disaster film into a needlessly saccharine romantic epic.

Ah, behold this wonderful thing called hindsight. I would never have described the whirlwind courtship between Jack Dawson (Leo) and Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) then as genuine, truly tragic, or even ‘good;’ before puberty hit me like a ton of bricks I was frequently annoyed by sappy stuff on TV and in films and would just as quickly dismiss the love angle as stupid and pointless as I would the overall experience as a waste of my time as well as of its own potential. Looking back, that’s just too dismissive. I realize now that the only valid argument I do have against this iconic work has everything to do with the movie running over three freaking hours long. It was one of the first films I was aware of actually having its own intermission. (There’s a throwback for you.)

Silly little Tom — Titanic wasn’t a movie; it was an experience. Accidentally or not, it burgeoned into an industry unto itself. Back in the day you couldn’t hold a conversation without being obligated to eventually talk Titanic. Those who were opposed, either ideologically or merely put off by its overwhelming popularity, seemingly had more on their minds than those who went with the explicit purpose of getting their Romeo and Juliet fix. Simultaneously one of the highest-grossing films of all time (adjusting for inflation, it ranks fifth behind cinematic trivialities like Gone with the Wind and Star Wars), and doing battle with William Wyler’s Ben Hur as one of the most Oscar-friendly films ever made, taking home 11 of its 14 potential golden statues, Titanic granted its Captain passage into the theretofore uncharted waters of the billion-dollar club in terms of worldwide gross. Statistics sort of speak for themselves though, so what about the emotional state it left us all in? (Now I can say ‘us’ because I too am a believer.)

I’m only now coming around to accepting that what the young starlets accomplished was indeed a good thing for this world, and I can’t imagine what it was like for the ’90s teens swept up in their own fantasies of being with the then-Hollywood heartthrob in those frigid North Atlantic waters. How they would gladly take his place in the water. Or at the very least, help him climb on to the door (come on, that thing is not going to go under with two small people on it). I can time and again look to Titanic for a number of examples that support the cliché how it may indeed be unhealthy to take one’s entertainment so seriously.

When you have Celine Dion belting out a tune at a wine glass-shattering pitch I guess I shouldn’t be taken aback by the phenomenon of entire blogs being devoted to Jack and Rose. Is there any more damning evidence of me softening in my late 20’s than the fact that her voice, those lyrics, rather than annoying me actually haunt me? There’s (and yes, I’m going to say it) something epic about her song, some part of it that has never quite left my body since I first heard it as that wee lad. I can’t recite much beyond the chorus, but seriously — why does that matter? It’s impressive that after all of this time passed, there are elements and aspects to Titanic that I’m finding more and more intriguing, and more crucial to the general health of romance in contemporary film.

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There’s a reason the passionate romance outweighs the sinking of the ship. Jack and Rose living on in cinematic infamy, their reward for being so damn good-looking and inseparable. Superglue fails to provide the kind of bond that these two were able to form and in such a short amount of time. I suppose jealousy and envy could apply to me as a youngster when I watched these two steam up a car window and proceeded to fast-forward though this bullshit, though I think it’d be more accurate to say I just didn’t appreciate the gravity of this blossoming romance. Now, I can’t see another duo encapsulating, at the very least, the sheer joy of being young and carefree out on the open waters. No two performers would be Jack and Rose like Leo and Kate were Jack and Rose.

I’m not sure what you call it when a ship pulls a total 180 in the water and heads back in the opposite direction, but that’s exactly what has happened with my outlook on this voyage. There’s style and beautiful cinematography to ogle over, but these things I’ve never had an issue with. Titanic looks and feels classy in every way it possibly can. But today Cameron’s decision to place the star-crossed lovers front-and-center has finally struck me as not only appropriate, but creative. It’s the only way to bring millions of viewers on board the ship, as well as into the lives of many a doomed seafarer who had plans of arriving in the Big Apple.

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4-0Recommendation: A tragedy of R.M.S. Titanic-proportions, James Cameron’s vision just has to be applauded. As if I need to endorse this thing. Seriously? Why is this the second film in a row here where I pretty much don’t need to write anything in this section? Actually, it’s kind of nice. I don’t have to do this extra work now. Cool.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 194 mins.

TBTrivia: After finding out that she had to be naked in front of Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet decided to break the ice, and when they first met, she flashed him.

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

Land Ho!

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Release: Friday, July 11, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As much a gorgeous postcard from the Icelandic coast, Land Ho! also serves as a warm, sentimental comedy about taking advantage of time we can almost measure out in handfuls. In a perpetual disappearing act, it is a hell of a precious thing.

Fittingly, this neat and trim 90-minute package is mindful of that fact. Land Ho!, the cumulative effort of co-writer/directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, neither taxes viewers’ patience nor does it overwhelm the senses unnecessarily. Conversely, you would also have to be knocked-out cold to not appreciate the pragmatism on display — there are no frills here. Growing old may be the natural way of things, but it sure ain’t easy, as this geriatric odd-couple will attest.

Meet loud and audacious Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and meek and mild-mannered Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), formerly brothers-in-law but recently removed after Mitch’s sister divorces Colin, an occurrence that happens before the film starts rolling. We first see the two convening at Mitch’s humble abode where the two catch up after whiling away many an hour on their lonesome. To get Colin’s mind off of things — not only has he recently been divorced, his wife prior to that passed away much too soon — Mitch has a trip to Iceland planned where they will get away from everything.

The goal is complete detachment from their former selves, to openly embrace whatever comes next. In a sense, this is a send-up of a desire to live fast, die young and worry about the boring stuff we missed later. The irony’s captured in all aspects of this adventure, especially with a 60-something-year-old Mitch whose number one priority seemingly is getting laid. But really though, shouldn’t it be these older gents who earn the right to openly embrace “YOLO” as an actual fact of being?

Earl Lynn Nelson, in his break-out performance is an infectious spirit that perpetuates Land Ho!‘s energy and boundless optimism. He is positively compelling as the geriatric go-getter, even if his commentary at times can fall on the side of sleazy when it comes to talking about women. On offer as well are breathtaking vistas and an absolutely sublime soundtrack, but the chemistry between the pair of “elderly” men reigns supreme. (Although, it’ll be difficult to exit the theater without humming some of the tunes that also happen to strengthen this picture via being laid over several richly visual interludes. Likewise you’ll be forgiven for immediately Googling Iceland when you return home from seeing this one.)

Beginning at the capital port city of Reykjavík our map sprawls outward, encapsulating some classic tourist destinations like the black sand beaches, towering geysers and of course, the hot springs as made famous (and slightly dramatized by) this particular movie poster. Our protagonists make friends with a few locals: a couple who are honeymooning in the quaint bed-and-breakfast Colin and Mitch are inhabiting inadvertently become the direct recipient of Mitch’s advice on successful long-term marriages. Meanwhile, Colin strikes the iron hot with a Canadian photographer while taking a dip in the hot spring-fed rivers nearby Landmannalaugar.

While conversation strictly adheres to matters of practicality and even fatalism — the duo’s rumination on loneliness and wondering where this path ultimately takes them very much mirrors our own — atmosphere and musical selection will distract just enough to never allow the moment to settle too heavily. At times Land Ho! possesses an air of fantasy, as its almost too difficult to believe the turns of fate these two share.

Yet the laughs spill forth freely and come at times at the expense of these good people. Sight gags are in abundance, as are those of an intellectual, buy-into-the-rapport variety. We experience a range of emotion in good old Colin who eventually learns to embrace his surroundings. Watching him cave and take a hit off a joint the size of something Bob Marley would roll isn’t exactly revelatory but it’s the kick in the pants this character needs. There’s also somewhat of a comfort in knowing this would happen sooner or later. Yes, extensive character development is something you will not find but the changes that occur are sufficient enough.

In the end, you must embrace this film in the same way Mitch is embracing a new life as a retired doctor; as Colin, a wounded soul still reaching out for something to make him strong. Dispense with the over-thinking and just go with the flow. I’m not exactly sure how that applies to your viewing habits or how you approach this film but the less you think about Land Ho! and its constant retread of the tracks laid down by road trip movies that have come before, the better you will be for it.

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3-5Recommendation: If searching for truly unspoiled territory, the quiet musings of Land Ho! will not be the trip you need to take. Avoiding it on that basis is a choice that will dismiss this film entirely too prematurely, however. You should see this film for a stellar first lead performance from Nelson and the absolutely killer scenery he treads across with his bestest buddy. Its thematic presentation is perhaps a tad overwhelmed by said gorgeous visuals, but I find that one of the most acceptable issues to have in a film.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “You know that a lighthouse looks just like a hard cock but with no balls. . . ?”

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