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

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Daredevil


Daredevil

Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios engage in a little foreplay.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, Paul Ben-Victor, David Keith, Kevin Smith. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

It is a fact that every day, handicapped people show over and over again that they are capable of amazing things. Some are aided by technology but much of it is sheer willpower.

The young Matt Murdock (Terra), who has stood up for his father (David Keith) when neighborhood punks call him a washed-up boxer and a mob enforcer, is shocked one day to spot his loving dad thumping on someone who hadn’t been making his vig. Matt runs off, causing a traffic accident that ends with him being doused by toxic waste, right in the eyes. This leaves him blind for life. However, there is an interesting side effect: Matt wakes up to find he has outrageously acute hearing, including a kind of sonar sense, which allows him to “see” almost as well as any sighted person — better, in some ways.

He also spends time developing his body into a graceful, acrobatic, athletic machine. When his Dad refuses to throw a fight and is murdered, his son is left to seek revenge. The adult Matt Murdock (Affleck) becomes a lawyer. Justice being blind jokes aside, he has a particularly strong streak of wishing to do the right thing in him.

Not content at achieving justice through conventional means, Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil, utilizing a red leather costume, and becoming a semi-urban legend in New York, one that reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano) is hell-bent on tracking down. Those who have seen the first Batman movie will note the similarity. His day job allows Murdock to represent the downtrodden, much to the chagrin of partner “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), who yearns for clients who pay in actual cash, rather than in foodstuffs. Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Avari) who is in bed with the corrupt Wilson Fisk (Duncan), the legendary Kingpin of Crime. When Natchios tries to get out of business with Fisk, the Kingpin brings in a psychopathic master of hurled objects, Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Natchios, which he does, framing Daredevil for the deed in the process. Elektra — who is falling in love with the blind lawyer, swears revenge, not knowing that it is his alter ego she has sworn to kill.

The New York City of Daredevil is a dark, gothic place, not unlike the Gotham City of Batman, and like the Caped Crusader, Daredevil inhabits the shadows and rooftops of a corrupt, dangerous city. The problem with casting Affleck in the role of Matt Murdock is that he is far too likable. Affleck doesn’t carry off the brooding vigilante as well as he does the wisecracking lawyer, so the dual personality of Murdock doesn’t mesh as nicely as it could.

Farrell carries the movie, enthusiastically chewing the scenery and spitting it out so he can chew more. Favreau and Duncan are excellent as they nearly always are; Favreau would go on to direct the Iron Man movies but his association with the Marvel studios began here. His chemistry with Affleck is pretty keen.

The Elektra of the comics is far more threatening than the Elektra of the big screen. Garner, who on paper is an excellent choice to play her, is dispatched with near-comic ease in nearly every fight she takes part in. This compares unfavorably to the character in the four-color version (who is kickus assus maximus to the nth degree) and herein lies the problem with any adaptation of any comic.

Those who love the comic book will inevitably measure the movie against the comic, and in most aspects will find it wanting. Daredevil has always been one of the consistently best-written and innovative of story in Marvel’s arsenal. The movie’s writing denigrates it to an unsophisticated Batman knockoff. Yet, there are moments of poetry, such as when Murdock asks Elektra to stand in the rain, which allows him to see her face using his radar sense. That’s one of the best moments of any Marvel superhero film, ever.

A nice little aside – many of the characters here are named after comic book writers and artists, many of whom who worked on the Daredevil book itself. There are also several people associated with Daredevil’s long run at Marvel (including Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller) who make cameos in the movie. In addition, something must be said about the soundtrack which is one of the best for any movie in the last ten years. The tracks from Evanescence are particularly haunting. Also, The final confrontation between Fisk and Daredevil is very nicely done, visually speaking although the whole thing of the little water conduits running below the floor are head scratch-inducing.

Overall, this isn’t a bad movie. There are some deficiencies, true, but there is a large number of things the movie does well. Affleck would have been an excellent Daredevil had he another movie or two under his belt. The most important thing here however is to take the movie on its own merits. Try not to see it as a note-perfect portrayal of the comic hero, because you’ll only wind up disappointed. Judge it for what it is; a better-than-average action-adventure movie, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

WHY RENT THIS: Better than average action movie. Fine supporting performances from Farrell, Duncan and Favreau.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit of a Batman knock-off. Affleck carries off Murdock better than Daredevil. Elektra a bit too wimpy here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first American movie in which Farrell uses his native Irish brogue.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD features a featurette on the comic book series, a comparison of the “Shadow World” as visually realized in the movie vs. the comic book, three music videos and an enhanced viewing feature which, when an icon appears onscreen, allows viewers to see the same scene from different points of view. There is also a Directors Cut DVD edition which restores 30 minutes of footage to the film, cut initially to bring the movie from an R rating to PG-13.  However, oddly enough, the Directors Cut edition has almost no special features, merely a commentary track and a 15 minute making-of featurette. The Blu-Ray contains both the Directors Cut and all the features from the initial DVD release and as such is the best bet for those interested in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.2M on a $78M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tower Heist

Daredevil


Daredevil

The man without fear...of red leather.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Leland Orser, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

In the wake of the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, the rights to a boatload of Marvel superheroes were sold to several studios eager to cash in on the superhero craze. This led to a glut of hero movies in the middle pat of the last decade wth some of the releases being better than others.

Matt Murdock (Affleck) is a lawyer who was blinded in an accident as a young boy (Terra). His father Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Keith) is an ex-prize fighter trying to raise his boy as best he can on his own, desperately hoping he won’t make the same mistakes he did and elevate himself from a Hells Kitchen he could never escape himself.

Matt is bright enough although he gets picked on by the local bullies because he won’t fight, at the behest of his father. Young Matt believes his father to be an honest dockworker, but Jack has been picking up extra cash working as hired muscle for a local crime boss. When Matt accidentally witnesses his father’s other line of work, he runs blindly away, and winds up being dowsed in the face by the proverbial toxic liquid.

The result is that the boy is blinded for life, but the compensation is that his other senses sharpen significantly. As a matter of fact, he uses sound as a kind of “sonar” to allow him to “see” images. Tired of being picked on, he begins to work out, train himself to fight. In the meantime, Jack is shocked into going back on the straight and narrow and takes up fighting again and does pretty well. However, when he refuses to throw a fight, he is murdered.

Years later, Murdock works alongside his partner Foggy Nelson (Favreau) in a Hells Kitchen law firm that specializes in taking on the cases of the underdog against the corrupt and the untouchable. It doesn’t pay very well – often the poor clients pay in fish or some other form of barter – but Murdock is able to sleep nights. Well, he would if he were sleeping; instead, he goes out to exact justice that he can’t obtain as a lawyer as a costumed vigilante known as Daredevil. The police, predictably, pooh-pooh his existence but a lone reporter, Ben Urich (Pantoliano) pursues the story with the zeal of Woodward and Bernstein.

Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a billionaire, in a coffee shop and falls for her instantly. The attraction is mutual; she also has superb martial arts training and this is one of those rare courtships that take place by beating each other up. Elektra’s dad (Avari) is tied to the new crime boss, Wilson Fisk (Duncan) a.k.a. the Kingpin of Crime, and is anxious to get out and retire. Fisk doesn’t like people backing out on him and hires an Irish hit man named Bullseye (Farrell) to take care of business.

Bullseye has the uncanny knack of accuracy. Anything he throws hurls or shoots hits its target without fail. When Murdock discovers what’s going on, he immediately changes into his Daredevil guise and rushes out to protect the father of the woman he loves. Unfortunately, he gets there too late to prevent Natchios’ death, but just in time for Elektra to mistakenly believe him responsible. He also manages to avoid one of Bullseye’s projectiles, earning the obsessive enmity of Bullseye in the process.

Director Johnson was woefully inexperienced when he was given this project to direct and in many ways, it shows. What also shows is the reverence and respect in which he holds the source material. It becomes a two-edged sword; some of the elements he wants to bring from the comic book series (such as Daredevil’s uncanny agility) don’t translate well, although at the time it was released I thought it looked fine to be honest. After watching it at home recently, I found the wire work to look unnatural and there is quite a bit of it.

Affleck was uncomfortable playing a costumed superhero and it is very apparent. When he’s Matt Murdock, for the most part he’s fine. However, there are times as Murdock when he looks soulful and a bit sorry for himself; that just doesn’t jive too well with the costumed vigilante that Daredevil is and who Matt Murdock is on the comic book page. There, Murdock is stubborn and principled and prone to leaping where angels fear to tread – he is literally without fear. Here, Affleck plays him as stubborn and principled and a bit of a whiner. It’s not a bad performance but it isn’t the right one.

Garner was magnificent as Elektra here, which makes the spin-off film she did on the character all the more mystifying in how truly awful it was. She makes Elektra passionate and real, suspicious and lethal. The comic book character is one of the most compelling in the Marvel universe and while she doesn’t quite reach those standards, Garner does do a fine job in bringing her to life.

Duncan and Farrell both look like they’re having the time of their lives in the villain roles, with Farrell often looking up with a boyish smile like he just discovered its Christmas morning. Few actors today can play villains with the kind of relish that Farrell brings to the role. Duncan is far too jovial as a person to make Fisk as menacing as he is on the comic book pages, but he manages to make him memorable nonetheless.

Fox has had several of the Marvel properties under its banners (including the ongoing X-Men and the Fantastic Four) and while the movie was a success for the most part, it never achieved the popularity or acclaim to make a sequel likely – in fact, Affleck has stated flat-out that he would not consider playing the role again, or any other superhero role for that matter.

In any case, the movie is entertaining enough to recommend it and the soundtrack with its loud guitar-oriented rock is one of the better movie soundtracks of the last decade, and it made a star of Evanescence, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on your view of Evanescence (good thing in my book). If you’re looking for something to transcend the genre, keep on moving. If you’re looking for something that will keep you interested and invested for 90 minutes, you’ve found your movie.

WHY RENT THIS: There are times when Affleck is effective as Matt Murdock. The supporting cast is excellent. The filmmakers hold the source material in high regard and utilize a lot of elements that will make Daredevil fans smile. The soundtrack is great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The overuse of wirework makes the fight scenes look just awful. Affleck spends too much time looking soulful and trying to evoke pathos; the Matt Murdock I know doesn’t feel nearly as sorry for himself.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and some sensuality, but nothing too graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The budget for the movie was initially set at $50 million, but after the success of Spider-Man Fox upped the budget to $80 million.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes several music videos from the soundtrack, “Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil” which focuses on the creative aspects of the comic series and “Beyond Hell’s Kitchen” which details the challenges and tribulations on getting the movie made.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Revolutionary Road