Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

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Sunset Park (2017)


You’ve got to be tough to make it in Sunset Park.

(2017) Sports Drama (108 Media) Michael Trevino, Robert Miano, Sam Douglas, Jamie Choi, Vladimir Versailles, John Bianco, Nolan Lyons, Matt Wood, Michael T. Weiss, Eric Arriola, Amyrh Harris, Christopher M. Elassad, Robert Morgan, Khalil Maasi, Rocco Rozzotti, Ras Enoch McCurdie, Kaitlin Mesh, Silvia Spross, Stephanie Thiel, Alanna Blair. Directed by Jason Sarrey

 

Life is hard enough; in some places, it’s even harder. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, there are more than the usual obstacles.

Duane (Weiss) is a degenerate gambler and an alcoholic who has been battered by life and is not strong enough to take ownership of his own mistakes. His wife died young leaving him with a son (Lyons) he barely knows. He lives with his dad, Gramps Joe (Miano) who was once a Golden Gloves champion. When Duane gets in deep (to the tune of six figures) to the mob, he does what you’d expect someone like him to do – he cuts and runs leaving Joe to raise his kid and the mobster, Sledge (Douglas) is only too happy to transfer the debt to Joe. After all, why chase someone when you can get the money right at home?

Gino (Trevino), the son, grows up to be a talented fighter in his own right. Gramps sends him to be trained by local legend Caelin Roche (Morgan) but times are tough. Rents are going up, Gramps had to go back to work to meet the payment schedule that Sledge set him with to pay Duane’s debt and the economic downturn has caused Gramps’ hours to be slashed. Gino’s good friend Rajon (Versailles) figures Gino can make bank in the underground boxing scene. In the meantime, Sledge has taken notice of Gino’s talents and means to own his career – which would on the plus side wipe out the crippling debt for Duane’s marker but of course would potentially warp Gino’s soul after all the effort Gramps put in to raise Gino to be a good man.

By this time Gino has struck up a romance with Jessica (Choi) but Sledge and his goon Carlo (Bianco) are not willing to take no for an answer – so when Gramps refuses to give them Gino’s career, they set out to make Gino an offer he can’t refuse. Gino will be forced to fight for those he loves in a battle he can’t afford to lose but will he be able to do what it takes to win a life or death fight?

If you’ve seen most boxing movies involving a promising fighter who the mob wants to own and corrupt, then you’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Trevino, best known for The Vampire Diaries, does a fair to middling job in the lead but I’m not sure he’s ready for big screen leads just yet.

The boxing sequences quite frankly are atrocious. The actors plainly look like they don’t know what to do and the punches look fake. The dialogue sounds a little clunky as well although the actors try gamely to make it sound natural.

Really, the main failing of the movie here is that there is a lack of energy. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actors, the director, the editor or the writer – most likely it’s a combination of all of the above. Still, there’s nothing really for the viewer to hang their hat on and get involved in the story. There are plenty of movies that have taken this story and made it compelling; Sunset Park fails to do that.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is properly gritty for the material.
REASONS TO STAY: The boxing sequences are unconvincing. The film could use an infusion of energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunset Park is the first full-length feature film for Sarrey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fighter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Brigsby Bear

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Six Rounds


Rob Peacock and Adam Bernard look like they might go a round of their own.

(2017) Drama (TMP) Adam J. Bernard, Phoebe Torrance, Santino Zicchi, Rob Peacock, Daniel Johns, Joseph Warner, Chris Rochester, Marcus Adjmul, Lesley Molony, Carolyn English, Thomasin Lockwood, Karishma Bhandari. Directed by Marcus Flemmings

 

Sometimes you run into a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp. You can tell that the filmmakers have ambitions to make something special, something unique and you root for them to do so but it doesn’t quite succeed as much as either filmmaker or viewer would like.

Set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots (or as they are known in the myopic U.S.A. “Oh, were there riots in London in 2011?”) the prime mover here is a young black man. Stally (Bernard) is a boxer who has retired with an undefeated record, a fact he is extraordinarily proud of. He has escaped the crime-ridden neighborhood of his youth and has a real job and a beautiful white girlfriend Andrea (Torrance) whom he has nicknamed “Mermaid” because of a dress she once wore that made her appear like one. She loves him and is proud that he has bettered himself and is beginning to think about having a child with him.

One of Stally’s mates from the old days, Chris (Zicchi) has gone and done something extraordinarily stupid; he’s stolen drugs from George (Johns), Stally’s ex-manager who is in his spare time a mob boss. George wants Chris dead and reckless Chris is too proud to get himself out of the jam he’s in. Stally talks to George who gives Chris a way out; to engage in a boxing match with Stally. If Chris can last six rounds without being knocked out, he’s off the hook. The trouble is that if Chris does lose the match, there goes Stally’s undefeated record and that’s not something Stally is willing to give up easily.

The movie is mostly shot in black and white (with a few brief scenes in color, mostly when Andrea is around) and looks beautiful, the juxtaposition of black and white mirroring the commentary on racial relations in the UK. The movie is not really a boxing film and it isn’t really about the riots although the chaos is clearly on the mind of all of the characters involved. We see some footage of rioters (and I’m thinking some archival footage) but none of the main characters participate in them onscreen. Some brag about getting a “100% discount” from looting trainers or fur coats from various stores.

Bernard, who was the stunt double for John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, proves himself an able actor. He is subtle when he needs to be, understated when he needs to be and is capable of a fine primal scream when he needs it. There has been a parade of fine actors of color from the UK lately; Bernard may well be as talented as any of them.

Torrance has kind of a thankless role but she has the ethereal beauty of a Keira Knightley and reminds me of her in her line delivery as well. She is another actor in this production who shows some immense promise; Flemmings has a great eye for talent to say the least.

I think he wanted to make a movie that is outside the box; intelligent (and it is) and innovative (which it isn’t). In fact, I think he tried a little bit too hard; some of the scenes seem to be, as MGM used to put it, art for art’s sake and sometimes at the expense of the film. It looks beautiful, it’s acted well but the dialogue sounds a bit false. Worse, the use of handheld cameras during the boxing sequences (the film is divided into rounds corresponding to the boxing match between Chris and Stally) make those scenes incredibly hard to watch without feeling a little vertigo. I wish he had taken it easier on the handhelds as much of the rest of the film is beautifully shot.

Much of the movie is to my reckoning Stally’s internal monologue; during fights he uses poetry to center himself and I believe that the rest of the action is meant to be taken as what Stally is thinking about during the course of the match (I could be wrong on this point). It’s a brilliant idea but it isn’t executed as well as it might be.

Flemmings shows some natural talent in putting this film together on a microscopic budget. Sadly it isn’t as successful for me and I have a hard time recommending it for all but serious film buffs looking for new talents before anyone else has discovered them. The storytelling could have used a little bit of tweaking but despite my rating, he really isn’t far away from creating a movie that will knock the socks off of the whole bloody world. I look forward to that film with great anticipation.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances are pretty feral. Torrance reminded me a bit of Keira Knightley.
REASONS TO STAY: The story gets a little bit confusing. The boxing scenes utilize the shaky-cam to the point of being nearly unwatchable. The dialogue is a little too repetitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of violence both in the ring and outside of it.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was made for a mere £7000, or just under $9000 US.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bronx Bull
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Lost City of Z

Creed


Stallone gets a new lease on life.

Stallone gets a new lease on life.

(2015) Sports Drama (MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Richie Coster, Andre Ward, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Malik Bazille, Ricardo McGill, Gabe Rosado, Wood Harris, Buddy Osborn, Rupal Pujara, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Eye, Johanna Tolentino. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Legacies can be tricky things. We want our kids to end up better than us, to be their own people and to leave their own legacy, but sometimes our accomplishments get in the way of that. Our own success can put enormous pressure on our children.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) has had a hard time of it. Growing up in foster care after his mother passed away (having never known his daddy who died before he was born), he is raised by Mary Anne Creed (Rashad), wife of the immortal heavyweight champion. Eventually he finds out that his father was in fact Apollo Creed, the product of an extramarital affair. Mary Anne informed Adonis of this when he was younger and Adonis, who has the boxing bug pre-wired into him, prefers to go by his birth name so that he can make his own name in the sport. Sadly, that’s only gotten him so far – low-rent fights in Tijuana.

He wants to do better though and gives up a high-paying job in which he’d just gotten promoted and heads east to Philadelphia to look up an old friend of his father; Rocky Balboa (Stallone). At first, Rocky is not terribly interested. He is busy running his restaurant and has left the boxing game behind him. Just about everyone and everything that has meant anything to him is dead or gone; he’s alone in Philly, growing older and somewhat wiser and a little bit wary about caring for anybody ever again.

Still, he sees something in Adonis – his persistence, his passion perhaps – and decides to take him on. After an impressive fight against an up-and-coming middleweight, word gets out about Adonis’ lineage. That attracts the attention of “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real life pugilist Ballew), the World Champion from Britain who is getting ready to hang up his gloves after being convicted on a weapons charge (which somewhat ironically wouldn’t be a crime in the United States). When a sure-fire payday falls through, his manager (McTavish) is scrambling to find one last opponent and the son of Apollo Creed would have to do, particularly with ex-Champ Rocky Balboa in his corner.

As Adonis begins training, he falls for a neighbor, Bianca (Thompson) who has a burgeoning career of her own as a sultry R&B singer. Everything is going better than Adonis could have hoped; but things begin to fall apart, partly through circumstance and partly through his own bull-headed rage. Can Adonis overcome the chip on his shoulder and make a name for himself, or will he be doomed to be the failed son of a legend who couldn’t measure up to his dad’s legacy?

Coogler, who directed Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station, absolutely nails it for his big studio debut. A fan of the Rocky series since childhood (and bonded with his own father over), he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, but merely brings all the right elements forward to make this a 21st century Rocky movie, and succeeds in what may sound like a modest ambition but is in reality much more difficult than making an homage or a reboot.

He shows off some astonishing chops as a director including a jaw-dropping travelling shot that follows Adonis into the arena from his dressing room for one of his first fights. He also films each of the three boxing matches in the film differently and  in doing so makes each match unique and memorable, so that the boxing sequences never get boring.

Stallone in particular benefits from Coogler’s sure hand in the director’s chair. We see Rocky not as a strong man in the prime of life but as an old man, facing his own mortality having outlived his wife and best friend. In many ways, Rocky has given up and is just waiting to play out his hand but Adonis instills in him once again the champion’s will to win. We see Rocky as not so much an icon, or even the cartoon character he eventually became in many ways, but as a  complex man who is much more than a pug who talks like he’s taken one too many shots to the head.

Jordan, who showed tremendous potential in Fruitvale Station, fulfills it here and shows that he can be a major star. His Adonis can be tender but has a hunger in him that drives him, one that sometimes drives him to rage. That rage often sabotages his dreams and drives away those closest to him. Adonis has to find a way to make peace with his feelings for his father and move on, and in a sense he does but there’s a lot more to it than that. To Coogler’s credit (he co-authored the screenplay), this is the kind of movie that makes you think about it and discover little nuances in the story that suddenly appear when you examine the performances. That’s some good writing, right there.

Early on, the movie is a little slow-paced as the characters are established, but that can be forgiven as it allows us to connect with them more later on. However, with the movie nearly two and a half hours long, that may be a bit more than modern attention-deficient audiences to bear, so keep that in mind.

When this movie was announced, I was sure this was going to continue flogging a franchise that I considered to be a dead horse. I was a little more hopeful when I heard Coogler was directing it – I’m a big fan of Fruitvale Station. But seeing this exceeded all my expectations and showed that even when you think a film franchise has done and said everything it can, the right artist can come in and breathe new life and make it seem fresh and new again. A lot of folks are calling this one of the best films of the year and I can’t really argue with them. This is certainly a must-see movie for the holiday season, and should be seen the first chance you get if you haven’t seen it already. I’m certainly regretting waiting so long to get into the theater to see it myself.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally powerful. Some of Stallone’s best work. Jordan serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit, particularly early on. A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence (and a little outside the ring), foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Rocky film to not be written by Stallone, nor does he appear as a boxer in the ring. It is also, at just over two hours, the longest film in the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Holly and The Quill begins!

Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out

One for the Money


One for the Money

Katherine Heigl poses for another glamour shot while Ana Reeder has a moment.

(2012) Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Katherine Heigl, Jason O’Mara, Debbie Reynolds, Daniel Sunjata, John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debra Monk, Nate Mooney, Adam Paul, Ana Reeder, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Leonardo Nam. Directed by Julie Ann Robinson

 

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When Stephanie Plum (Heigl) loses her job as a lingerie salesperson at Macy’s and goes six long months without a paycheck, she is reaching that desperation level of which I referred.

So when her cousin Vinnie (Fischler) has an opening at his bail bonds business for a bounty hunter. The kicker is that the guy she has to arrest is Joe Morelli (O’Mara) who was the one to – how to put this delicately – deflower Stephanie and then dump her unceremoniously, making him a first class schnook and a reason for Stephanie to jump on board with both feet.

Of course she knows next to nothing about bounty hunting, so she enlists the help of veteran hunter Ranger (Sunjata) who shows her the ropes and seems to be a little sweet on her (although this never goes anywhere in the movie). Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

The trouble is that Joe – a cop – doesn’t particularly want to go to prison and there’s a really good chance he’s innocent. He’s involved with a rather vicious boxer who may have murdered his girlfriend and may be involved with organized crime. The people who are after Joe are serious and lethal, and Stephanie finds herself smack dab in the middle. With the aid of her informants Lula (Shepherd) and Jackie (Bathe) – both prostitutes – a friendly boxing promoter (Leguizamo), her boss’s brassy secretary (Reeder) and her doting grandmother (Reynolds), she has a fighting chance to get out of this in one piece. That is, if Joe doesn’t kill her first.

This is based on the first installment of a series of books by Janet Evanovich that is extremely popular with the mystery-loving set. Heigl is apparently a big fan of the series and is producing the movie as well as starring in it. One suspects that she had a hand in casting herself in the role, which was a bit of a mistake. Heigl excels at breezy romantic comedy roles; her other action pics have been less successful.

In the books, Plum has loads of attitude and plenty of chutzpah, much more than Heigl conveys here. Heigl delivers the wisecracks but without the strength of character that Plum possesses. Heigl portrays her with a bit more vulnerability than I recall from the books. Now I’m not one of those sticklers for movie characters being absolutely identical to their literary counterparts – that’s not always possible or reasonable – but there are core traits that make the character unique and those shouldn’t be messed with.

Evanovich excels at creating unique characters and Ranger and Lula are two of her best. Shepherd makes something of a poor man’s Octavia Spencer but she does the role justice. I’m not real familiar with Sunjata but he is one of the better performers here; I looked forward to all of his scenes in the movie and he seemed to be the most at ease in his role. He didn’t make Ranger a superman, but he did give him that air of confidence that is needed to pull the part off.

Reynolds is one of the reasons to see the movie all by herself. She rarely makes screen appearances and while this doesn’t exactly rate with some of her finest work, it’s always wonderful to see a genuine Hollywood star (in the traditional sense of the word) at work.

The movie has been getting savage reviews and in some ways I can see the point – Robinson, primarily a television director, seems ill-at-ease on the big screen, creating a movie that seems more suitable for an hour-long network show than a big screen franchise. There’s a curious lack of energy here (although not for lack of trying) and while it conveys some of the charm of New Jersey, it adds none of the flavor, like a plate of spaghetti with no sauce.

Still, I found it pleasantly entertaining and while it’s not a movie that’s likely to stick in your memory for very long, it is diverting enough while you’re watching it. If I’m going to pay ten bucks a head for a movie, I at least want to be entertained and this movie delivers in that department. What more do you want?

REASONS TO GO: Way more fun than “Jersey Shore.” Engaging characters.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels more like a TV movie. Lacks energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a certain amount of violence, plenty of language, some sexuality (and partial nudity), a bit of drug use and plenty of Jersey attitude.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 18 volumes currently in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, all of which have a number in the title in some form.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bounty Hunter

GREY’S ANATOMY LOVERS: Heigl, O’Mara, Sunjata and Monk have all appeared on “Grey’s Anatomy,” with Heigl and Sunjata being past or present regular cast members. Robinson has directed several episodes of the show as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Big Miracle