Movie Review: “Southpaw”

The gritty trailers for this boxing drama were a pretty compelling selling point for me, promising ultra-kinetic fight scenes coupled with an appropriately brooding ambiance. What’s more, Jake Gyllenhaal is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, having displayed over time a commitment to method acting on par with Christian Bale (see, e.g., “The Machinist” —> “Batman Begins”). Gyllenhaal’s had a very strong run of films lately—“Prisoners” and “Nightcrawler” are particular standouts—and I was eager to see his transformation into a boxing star.

The plot of “Southpaw” is standard inspirational-drama fare. Boxing’s current light heavyweight champion, the unsubtly named Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), falls from glory after a tragic accident involving his wife (Rachel McAdams). A subsequent downward spiral results in his loss of custody of his daughter, catalyzing a personal transformation and Hope’s ultimate return to the ring. Et cetera, et cetera (“Southpaw” doesn’t break much new ground where plot depth is concerned).

I’m not always the biggest fan of sports films, but I certainly enjoyed “Southpaw.” Like many movies in the genre, it’s loaded with clichés—this is a fairly standard riches-rags-redemption narrative populated by stock characters—but it’s redeemed by Gyllenhaal’s all-in commitment to his role alongside a no-holds-barred approach to thematic content.

Just as in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal brings a white-knuckle energy to the screen: he’s as compelling as a hardscrabble-kid-turned-boxer as he was in portraying a glib-talking sociopath in last year’s thriller. The central role here demands a grueling physicality, and Gyllenhaal more than delivers, in a dramatic change from his usual gaunt sentinel-type roles. Further, the film’s R rating allows director Antoine Fuqua to pull no punches, in every sense of the term. These boxing matches are brutal, bloody confrontations shot with a breathless intensity. This ruthlessness actually works to the movie’s great advantage: despite the familiar plot beats, the film doesn’t feel focus-grouped to appeal to the largest possible demographic. (Additionally, there are new Eminem songs—one of which plays over a “Rocky”-style training montage—and they’re spectacular. I’m generally of the opinion that motivational Eminem songs improve any athletic drama).

It’s almost superfluous to say at this point, but there is nothing approaching subtlety or underlying commentary in “Southpaw” (although it’s potentially worth noting that the Child Protective Services bureaucracy comes off looking pretty awful). This movie works not on a cerebral level, but on a gut level: it’s the type of film that makes one want to go out and fight a bear single-handedly. I’m fully of the belief that in an era of CGI-drenched extravaganzas, that kind of raw human drama still has a place.

Is “Southpaw” destined to be iconic? Nope. But it’s decidedly more exciting than the Mayweather-Pacquiao brawl, and that has to count for something.

VERDICT: 7.5/10
Formulaic? Sure—but also compelling on a primal, testosterone-soaked level.

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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Contemporary


Movie Review: “Ant-Man”

Movie Review: “Ant-Man”

I often review films of wholly unknown quality, but I was perhaps most skeptical about this one: there’s just not that much “superheroic” about a character with a suit that lets him shrink to insect-size, even if he gains super strength (hence the “Ant” moniker) in the process. As often happens, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

Master thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is enlisted by the aging Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to help in their war against wicked industrialist Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, of “House of Cards”). The stakes? Dr. Pym’s stolen atomic-shrinking technology, on the cusp of militarization, with the potential to change the face of warfare forever. At some point, Dr. Pym has also ascertained how to mentally control insects (it’s never quite clear how this is happening) that a micro-soldier can call upon for assistance.

A priori, it bears note that this concept is ludicrous, even for the genre (we’re talking about an incredible shrinking protagonist who triggers an electrical surge by leading an army of EMP-equipped ants into a computer server room). The Chekhov’s-guns in this plot are exceedingly overt, particularly after the past ten years of superhero films. Moreover, at times “Ant-Man” struggles to maintain a consistent tone (a la the sly humor of last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”). The stakes here never feel quite massive enough to justify the onscreen hand-wringing, and the movie’s emotional moments feel out-of-place alongside the absolute bonkers-ness of the main plot arc.

But despite all that, “Ant-Man” is supremely charming. Rudd is an immensely likable lead, and Douglas, cast in a clear stroke of genius, is fantastic – it’s a shame it’s taken this long to bring him into the genre. Not only that, but the sheer absurdity of the premise leads to frequent laugh-out-loud moments (there’s a micro-sized battle on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train set, for instance). Perhaps most commendably, “Ant-Man” doesn’t rely on constant skull-splittingly-loud combat scenes to propel its plot forward. The film’s fisticuffs are few and far between, with much more attention being paid to the pure quirkiness of the man/insect dynamic (reminiscent of Michael Crichton’s final novel “Micro”). I’ve never seen any movie quite like this; if nothing else, it’s a supremely original concept executed with panache.

Finally, “Ant-Man” is solid precisely because it doesn’t try to establish dozens of tie-ins and callbacks to other Marvel Studios film properties. Rather than feeling like an extended teaser for the next slate of Avengers blockbusters, “Ant-Man” is enjoyable as a standalone flick and doesn’t get knotted up in its own mythology. While that does mean that there’s virtually nothing of philosophical substance on offer, this isn’t the sort of movie that asks its viewers for complex analysis.

In short, as a dose of midsummer exuberance, “Ant-Man” delivers. It isn’t transformative, but it’s very fun – and that’s decidedly enough.

Though not without a few misfires, “Ant-Man” is creative, entertaining, and lighthearted summer froth.

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Posted by on July 18, 2015 in Sci-Fi


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