Friday, July 24, 2015

A Reel Review: SOUTHPAW

All sports movies have an underdog. There is nothing better to root for or to hope for than a character that is going up against insurmountable odds and must fight their way out of the muck. Boxing movies over the years have had to battle hard to get out of the old template of the underdog story, and in the ring of SOUTHPAW, the fight has never been more difficult. 

Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhall) is on top of the world as a light-heavyweight champion with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). When an unfortunate incident causes Billy to lose everything, including custody of his daughter, he starts over from the ground-up with a new trainer, Titus (Forest Whitaker). 

SOUTHPAW is a gritty film, based in our own reality, which goes through great strides to separate itself from the standard sports/underdog fare by focusing a lot of time on the family element. The film is at its best when the screentime is dedicated to Billy and his daughter (they are truly tear-inducing), and the motivation that Billy has to overcome his issues in and out of the ring is genuine and works very well. 

Where SOUTHPAW begins to stumble around the ring is with the structure of the storytelling. With so little plot to work with (get your act together, win the fight, get your daughter back), director Antoine Fuqua, working from a script by Kurt Sutter, shifts the weight of the story onto the characters. Which isn’t a terrible idea on paper, but the film falls into a dreadful redundant pattern; every character, from Billy to his daughter to his new trainer, goes through an arc where they all exclaim to the camera that they are absolutely not going to do something, only for a scene or two to pass where they come to their senses and wind up doing it anyway. It’s predictable as the turn every character makes can be seen as easy as a windmill punch. On top of this, SOUTHPAW also borrows heavily from many boxing films of the past, and although the family element is strong, the other elements are little too familiar. 

Director Antoine Fuqua gets great performances out of his actors and his camera does a marvelous job in capturing the grimness of the story. The fight scenes are brutal and done without much artsy flair, but instead presented in all of their raw glory. Fuqua and the script doesn’t seem to show much restraint in many areas; with the biggest being all the bad things that happens to Billy within the first 45 minutes. For a film that tries to be saturated in reality, everything that happens to Billy is a little tough to buy. The score by the late great James Horner (the film is dedicated to his memory), sounds like its good but it often gets buried amongst the punching noise and the annoying rap music. 

Jake Gyllenhall packs on the pounds of muscle and certainly looks the part of a fighter, and his acting chops match his new physique. Gyllenhall goes through a wide range of emotions and certainly seems to have grown up as an actor. His scenes with young Oona Laurence are the highlights of the film, as the young actress keeps up with everyone else and becomes the moral center of the story. Forest Whitaker is his normal brilliant self, even though his character feels a little shortchanged as we get the feeling there is a lot more to him that we never see. Naomie Harris turns in an effective role as a social worker, and Rachel McAdams is memorable in her limited screen time. Rapper 50 Cent appears as a Don King-like fight promoter, and whoever thought that was a good idea needs to get punched in the face. 

The finale, which is set in a climactic fight in glitzy Las Vegas and presented through real-life HBO coverage with announcers, is unfortunately a bit of a snore and doesn’t get do much until the very end. Probably the biggest flaw the final fight has is that Billy doesn’t seem to draw on any of the lessons he should have learned through the course of the film, which makes us wonder why he had to go through all that shit in the first place. The eventual emotional payoff is fair, but like any split-decision, feels like it could have been more. SOUTHPAW swings hard but doesn’t connect enough. 


Monday, July 20, 2015

A Reel Review: MR. HOLMES

Joseph Campbell, the famous writer, lecturer, and mythologist, once wrote extensively about the relationships between the elderly and the young; specifically, how one person at the end of their life can connect so well with a person at the beginning of theirs. The young and the old finding inspiration from each other has been done to death in film, but in the case of Bill Condon’s MR. HOLMES, the approach has never been executed better. 

World famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), is now 93 years old and living in a countryside retirement with his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). With his memory failing him, Holmes seeks a homemade remedy to fill-in the forgotten details of an old case which he never solved. 

Based on the 2005 novel by Mitch Cullin, MR. HOLMES is a take on the classic character that we’ve never seen before. His old friend Dr. Watson, who in this version wrote the books based on his adventures, is long dead…and with his memory failing him, he is facing challenges without two of his most powerful weapons. The naturally developing relationship between Holmes and young Roger serves a grand purpose in the story as the young man is the only thing which can inspire him to remember the vital missing details of the case, which gives a fresh take on an old cinematic storyline of old men and kids learning from each other. 

The relationship between the two is only one storyline out of the three that MR. HOLMES evolves into, as the film explores Holmes’ efforts to restore his memory and solve the case. A series of long flashbacks unfolds as the great detective slowly begins to remember, and it often feels like three different movies are going on. But director Bill Condon allows the film to breath and the storylines complement each other very well. There is a grand mystery afoot in MR. HOLMES; not one that involves a super-villain with a dastardly plot, but one which holds great importance to Sherlock Holmes, and that makes the solving all the more important. Characters are developed naturally and nicely throughout the film, making the overall story not just a mystery-solver but a character study. 

Condon shows tremendous patience in unfolding MR. HOLMES. The film never feels rushed, evolves naturally, and takes its time in revealing mysteries and character motivations. The film is beautiful to look at from the streets of 1800’s London to the lush countryside, and Carter Burwell’s elegant score makes MR. HOLMES  a real charmer to take in. 

Ian McKellen turns in one of his finest performances as Sherlock Holmes.  He displays a wide range of emotions from stubbornness to confidence to the great fear and sorrow when the realizations set in that the end is near. McKellen is dazzling and gripping and heartbreaking with just one look, and it is a commanding performance without being grandiose. Laura Linney, as Roger’s mother, gets the unfortunate job of being a bit of a villain by frowning over all the time her son and Holmes are spending together, but her performance is perfect…as is young Milo Parker, who matches McKellen’s performance in stride. The real treat for movie-buffs is when McKellen’s character goes to the movies to see a film about himself, and the cinematic version is played by Nicholas Rowe…who in our reality played a schoolboy Sherlock in YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985); a clever touch which is sure to have cinema geeks smiling. 

Joseph Campbell also wrote extensively about the steps that every hero must take to complete their journey, and MR. HOLMES manages to put not one but two characters through it. But it’s less of a mystery film and more of a contemplative piece about an old man looking for a final resolution before clocking out, and although there is a sense of melancholy over the film concerning all things which must pass from the world…there is a great deal of cinematic enjoyment to be found in this caper. 


Friday, July 17, 2015

A Reel Review: ANT-MAN

Every movie based on a comic-book superhero asks us to buy into a lot; gods and monsters, masked vigilantes, men and women from space, supercomputers and outlandish technology…these films all need to do a bit of selling for the movie to be enjoyed. In the case of the adaptation of one of Marvel Comics’ oldest and classic and bizarre characters, ANT-MAN, the idea of a hero who shrinks to the size of an insect just may the hardest sell of them all. Or is it? 

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a professional thief who stumbles upon a suit which can shrink the wearer down to ant-size with super-strength. Rudd discovers that he has been under the close eye of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who invented the suit and wants Scott to become the ANT-MAN and keep the technology away from Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). 

The best superhero films are the ones which cross-pollinate their stories with another genre. Marvel Studios has spent nearly a decade mashing their properties up with genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, techno-thrillers, horror, war, and espionage…and this time around tries a new one: the heist film. ANT-MAN at its core is heavily inspired by the classic heist-films of old, as Pym recruits Scott to steal the technology away from Cross, who is eventually revealed to have sinister intentions. Beyond the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ish plot, ANT-MAN also introduces a family dynamic which grounds the ridiculousness of a shrinking hero; both Pym and Lang have daughters and lost loves which serve as their motivations for all of the high-concept wizardry. It is surprisingly emotional and clicks very well. 

The first act of the film is a bit of a slog as it finds its footing, but the compensation in the second-act and the finale is more than worth it. Director Peyton Reed has put together a very fun film with plenty of laughs and eye-popping action sequences. He smartly cuts away from the scenes taking place in miniature-land to normal-size land to give a sense of scale and it gives the film a very realistic feel. Visual effects are a treat from the scaled-down environments to the ants Lang eventually has to work with, but the real big-wow of the film happens in the prologue; a flashback sequence which de-ages Michael Douglas about 30 years back to his WALL STREET days. The effect is breathtaking and convincing, and is a giant leap forward for the de-aging technology movies have only been toying with so far. 

Douglas himself is great in the film as he adds a strong sense of fatherhood and maturity which again makes the silliness of a tiny guy more palatable. The screen veteran seems to be having fun and can still pack a punch in more ways than one. Paul Rudd in his first heroic turn is well-cast and handles his tasks as a man-out-of-place and as a father nicely. Evangeline Lilly, as Pym’s daughter, is also effective despite the stupid haircut, and gets the best line in the movie during the first post-credit stinger. Corey Stoll is a little one-note as a greedy capitalist just looking to make a buck more than he is being evil, but he handles the role brilliantly and may have a future as a Bond villain. The rest of the cast, including Michael Pena, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and a few other surprises…are all perfect. 

Perhaps the smartest approach Marvel has taken with ANT-MAN is that they don’t try to follow-up their previous few films by going bigger with more characters, higher stakes, and thicker plots…and instead goes more intimate with simpler plot and lower stakes. This is a small adventure taking place in a large world, which makes it one of the more unique Marvel films to date. It is fun, memorable, very much human, and most important of all…has a little storytelling to do. 


Sunday, July 12, 2015


“Great Scott!”

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Robert Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Based on an original story by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale in which a teen travels back in time and interrupts his parents’ meeting and romance, BACK TO THE FUTURE was a box office hit in 1985; spending 11 weeks at number one and ultimately the top grossing film of the year. It would be nominated for four Oscars, winning one, and would take home the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film of the year. Through the years it would become a pillar of pop culture; often parodied, quoted in Presidential speeches, selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and be designated as the 10th best sci-fi film by the American Film Institute. 

But the road to get there wasn’t an easy one. Producer Bob Gale came up with the idea in the late 1970’s after looking through his father’s high school year book and wondering if he and his dad would have been friends in high school. Running the idea past his friend Robert Zemeckis, the two began working on a script which was completed in early 1981. For the next four years, every major studio would pass on the project. Then in 1984, Zemeckis delivered a box office smash with the action-adventure comedy ROMANCING THE STONE; an achievement which elevated his name in Hollywood. Now with the support of Steven Spielberg, and Universal Pictures finally gave it the green light. 

The lead role of the time-travelling teen Marty was a vital one, and the first choice was heartthrob Michael J. Fox. However, Fox was unable to sign on for BACK TO THE FUTURE due to his commitment to the TV show FAMILY TIES. The role would go to Eric Stoltz, who had impressed producers in his recent film MASK. Another casting issue was the role of Dr. Emmett Brown; the eccentric inventor and scientist who would create a time machine out of a DeLorean sports car. The role of Doc Brown would go to John Lithgow, but he would eventually become unavailable as the start of production for BACK TO THE FUTURE was delayed because of the casting difficulties. The role would eventually go to Christopher Lloyd. Rounding out the cast was Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, and Thomas F. Wilson. 

Four weeks into filming, Zemeckis decided that Eric Stoltz was not right for the role of Marty. Stoltz departed, and all eyes turned back to Michael J. Fox…whose schedule had now cleared up for filming, and the rest was history. Although Fox was now working double-shifts in having to film FAMILY TIES during the day and BACK TO THE FUTURE at night, he gave a very personal, funny, and believable performance as a time-displaced teen…and his chemistry with Christopher Lloyd was perfect. 

Filming wrapped after 100 days, and a release date was set for July 3rd. Composer Alan Silvestri contributed a memorable score, and rock group Huey Lewis and the news added the theme song. BACK TO THE FUTURE was met with big numbers at the box office and critical acclaim, and on the first home release on VHS, Universal added a “to be continued…” tagline before the credits to tease that there was more to come in the future. 


BACK TO THE FUTURE works so well for many reasons. The cast, from the mad scientist to the lovestruck teen to the big bully, is very believable and likeable, and for a science fiction film which makes the audience think to understand the time-travel logic, it always remains grounded and is never difficult to process. Complex sci-fi is always successful when it is bonded with familiar territory, and the mash-up between sci-fi and teen romance in BACK TO THE FUTURE is essential to its enjoyment. This Blogger has been a fan of the film from day one, and the film’s popularity can be seen at every comic-con with the presence of merchandise, cosplayers, and replicas of the now iconic DeLorean time-machine. The film has contributed to pop-culture just as much as JAWS, STAR WARS, or STAR TREK has, and will continue to do so for as long as adventure can be enjoyed. 

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Friday, July 10, 2015

Omar Sharif 1932-2015

Actor Omar Sharif has passed away at 83. 

Born in Alexandria, Egypt as Michel Demetri Chalhoub, Omar Sharif was schooled at the University of Cairo where he obtained a degree in mathematics and physics before working for his father in precious wood…and later studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. His early acting earned him roles and praise in Egyptian film productions, which included LA ANAM (1958), and the Anna Karenina adaptation NAHR EL HUB in 1961. 

Sharif would explode onto the worldwide stage in his first English-speaking role when he appeared as Sharif Ali in what is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in 1962. Sharif would hold his own against his co-stars; fellow future-legends Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, and Alec Guinness,…and would earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. He would also earn a lifelong friendship with O’Toole. After that breakthrough role, Sharif would expand his skills by playing a variety of ethnic characters; a Spanish priest in BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (1964), a Yugoslave wartime pilot in THE YELLOW ROLLS-ROYCE (1964), and the Mongolian warrior in GENGHIS KHAN (1965). He would reunite with David Lean to play the title role in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), and would win the Golden Globe for Best Actor.

His impressive list of credits through the years would include FUNNY LADY (1975), MACKENNA’S GOLD (1969), THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976), and the spy-spoof TOP SECRET! (1980). In his later years he worked less and less but still turned in memorable performances in THE 13TH WARRIOR (1999), MONSIEUR IBRAHIM (2003), and HIDALGO (2004). His final film role was in ROCK THE CASBAH in 2013. 

In 1999, Omar Sharif appeared in the critically slammed and box office bust THE 13TH WARRIOR alongside Antonio Banderas. The poor reception with critics and at the gate disappointed Sharif so much, that he temporarily retired from acting and would not return until 2003. At the time, his announced retirement was a disappointment for cinema, as his diverse acting skills and dark features made him a formidable and memorable character every time he appeared on screen. His return, as brief as it was, was a welcome one…and this final exit certainly leaves a void. His passing represents another departure of one of our final connections to the great LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and to the Golden Age of Hollywood, as there are not many actors left among us who can claim that they starred in one of the best films of all time. Omar Sharif will always have a legacy of riding with the best.