24 July 2015

Review: Southpaw


All boxing films come down to three storylines, or all three wrapped in one—get beaten, get angry, get back to the top. Eighty years have passed since Wallace Beery made The Champ, and Southpaw doesn't try to rewrite the formula. It's not a surprise, Barton Fink broke himself that way. Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light heavyweight champion of the world, but it wasn't always the high life. Billy was raised dumped from one foster home to the next because of his mother's incarceration, but he eventually met his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage and turned it all around.

Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't look like your typical boxing star like say Robert DeNiro, Mark Wahlberg or Will Smith, but doubts about his ability to perform disappear immediately as the film opens. Madison Square Garden roars as Billy, bloodied and bruised, batters his opponent to the ground, winning the title. After the fight Maureen looks on as Billy's eye has to be saved by doctors. She reminds him of the always present risk of brain damage and he responds "Why you gotta lay the truth right now?" He's content to bask in the title he just won.

Acting as Billy's manager and wife, Maureen knows that without his career they wouldn't have their comfortable lifestyle, but at what cost does it come? Without Billy learning to defend himself better in the ring, the fear is that he will die there. For that reason Maureen keeps their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), at home for Billy's fights. She receives texts from her mother telling her if Daddy won or lost. Before Southpaw dives too far into the consequences of professional sports, the formula comes back into play in the form of arrogant challenger Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez). Escobar taunts Billy at a black-tie event and the proceeding violence results in tragedy.

In short time Billy loses everything as his rage turns self-destructive. Billy punishes himself in the ring taking blow after blow, playing the martyr for thousands of paying fans. Left with only his guilt, his pain-seeking ways become more exotic. Surprising no one, Billy is forcibly separated from Leila by the court. Billy's fall comes relatively early in the film, only about 30 minutes in, and while we all know that a title match between Billy and Escobar is imminent, Southpaw finds its soul in a gym headed by trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker).

Cinematographer Mauro Fiore shoots Southpaw from outside the canvas, avoiding the in-the-ring combat of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, but his work in Tick's gym is superb. Fiore bathes the film in shadow during Billy's training in the early hours of the morning, lending a contemplative lens to the rehabbing of Billy's life and career. The machismo can get overwhelming, especially considering that the script is from Kurt Sutter, but Antoine Fuqua's interest in the rage that consumes Billy is worth following.

To discuss Southpaw is to discuss the lengths that Jake Gyllenhaal goes to authentically depict a pugilist. Gyllenhaal went through several weeks of training to bulk up for the part, and when it comes down to the fighting, Gyllenhaal is taking real punches instead of a stunt double. His choice would be easy to write off as an affectation for Oscar Gold®, but it's a necessity. If audiences don't believe he's capable, then the film won't work.

Southpaw certainly doesn't buck any of the conventions that have filled boxing films for several decades, but the cast makes the predictable elements worth watching. Tick is the type of role Forest Whitaker could play in his sleep, but he infuses the part with a great deal of heart. Rachel McAdams also leaves a lasting impression as Maureen. (Hollywood, take note, keep casting her in projects.) This is Jake Gyllenhaal's show though, and his effort to elevate the picture will likely see him rewarded come February.

17 July 2015

Review: Trainwreck


trAmy Schumer already cemented her place on my year's favorite entertainment list when she managed to loosely remake 12 Angry Men for the fourth episode of Inside Amy Schumer, but not satisfied wth owning television, Schumer decides to revive the romantic comedy for 2015. Lazy writing has cursed the genre for much of the last few decades and studios have responded in kind by not pursuing that market with the gusto they used to. A film this funny and engaging might change minds at some studios, because Trainwreck is a very good romantic comedy.

As soon as the film opens it's clear that the story will not be hitting the same beats that audiences are used to. Schumer eschews tradtional romantic comedy dynamics by opening with Gordon (Colin Quinn) trying to instill a paralytic fear against monogamy in his young daughters. Years later, it appears he was only half successful. Youngest daughter Kim (Brie Larson) is happily married, mother to a step-son, and expecting another child. Amy (Amy Schumer), however, took her father's words to heart and wasted no time indulging in a good deal of alcohol, pot and casual sex.

Quite a few comedies have featured the sexual exploits of their male leads, but the reverse has not been true. After one encounter she wakes up to find a Scarface poster on the wall and quietly pleads that she isn't in a dorm room. The revolving door of men she spends her evenings with is supposed to be a remedy for boring committment, but Amy is weary of this routine as well. Rather than continuing to sleep with her stable of guys, she gives dating a shot and the resulting aftermath with Steven (a very entertaining John Cena) at the movies is one of the film's more hilarious scenes.

When Amy isn't living it up she writes for S’Nuff, a men's magazine, headed by ruthless editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton). Amy's latest assignment is to shadow Aaron (Bill Hader), a surgeon to the stars of the sports world including LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire. Originally just a subject piece, Aaron blindsides Amy when their flirtation turns into something more. Amy has trained herself to bail at the first sign of trouble, but with Aaron she might consider hanging around. Bill Hader excels when given the chance to lead a film (The Skeleton Twins), hopefully he will be get more chances to do so again. Hader and Amy Schumer have great chemistry together and when they are on screen together, it's a blast. They constantly try to out-do each other and nearly every minute is filled with laughs. Surprisingly, the scenes that truly mark Trainwreck as a success are with Brie Larson and Colin Quinn.

Fleshing out strained family relationships should prove a challenge for an actress in her first outing on the bigscreen, but Ms. Schumer proves that the slide from stand-up comedian to actress won't be difficult. Amy Schumer shows off a very different side of herself from her show on Comedy Central. She doesn't refrain from going into sad material, in particular Colin Quinn as her father, who is in poor health and looking at assisted living. These moments work really well, but the running time is a little too stuffed with other subplots for them to stand out.

Trainwreck marks the first time Judd Apatow is directing a script he has not written, and while it's very much Schumer's show, the movie still lacks tightness. Apatow excels at putting together large groups of actors and then finding the characters that work best for them, but when the film gets to the editing bay, he can't bear to cut anything. Fortunately, Trainwreck has the best ensemble of any film in 2015. Any moviegoer would be hard-pressed to find a better cast. John Cena and LeBron James, plucked from the sports world, both possess terrific comedic timing on top of their athletic prowess and professional success. Life doesn't seem fair that way. And it isn't just these two athletes, Tilda Swinton would run away with the show if she were in the film more often. There is nothing that she can't do.

For all of the risks that Schumer and Apatow take with Trainwreck, it is still a rom-com, even with the leads gender-switched. Accordingly the final 20 minutes are spent dotting the Is and crossing the Ts. I certainly don't expect Amy Schumer to reinvent the wheel because when something works, it works. Comedy lovers anxiously await her next effort. A new star is born.