Monday, 5 October 2015

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Southpaw

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Produced by: Todd Black
Jason Blumenthal
Steve Tisch
Peter Riche
Alan Riche
Antoine Fuqua
Jerry Ye

Screenplay by: Kurt Sutter

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
Forest Whitaker
Rachel McAdams

Music by: James Horner

Cinematography by: Mauro Fiore

Editing by: John Refoua

Studio(s): WanDa Pictures
Riche Productions
Escape Artists
Fuqua Films

Distributed by: The Weinstein Company

Release date(s): July 24, 2015 (United States and United Kingdom)

Running time: 123 minutes

Country(s): United States

Language: English

Production budget: $25 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $70, 727, 879

As you can see, things got reduced in the reviewing terms there last week, but thankfully I can announce that it was due to the business of getting a number of different pieces of good news. Without giving away any spoilers, I can tell you now that not only will I be working as an extra on a major production, but I have been offered a place for the Cinemagic Short Film Academy. Both of these things came round rather quickly, the gig as an extra being quite unexpected, and I thought if I got at least one of these I'd be doing alright, but to get both is great. I don't want to get too high on a taste of glory, but it's nice to see that the wheels are turning, getting in motion now towards my real goals and ambitions. I don't want to wax lyrical too much, because I think I can leave that to a separate article in it's own right (after all, this is meant to be a review!), so, for all the latest and greatest as regards the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's review is for Southpaw, the sports drama directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. While Fuqua is by no means small fry as far as filmmakers go (I actually liked last year's film version of The Equaliser with Denzel Washington, and of course there's Training Day), much of the publicity drummed up around this film has been on the physical transformation of Gyllenhaal. For those of you who don't know (if you're a regular reader here, how don't you?), I'm a big fan of Gyllenhaal, and while he's always been good, the past five years has seen a succession of back-to-back great performances, most notably in Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners as the determined Detective Loki and in his unforgettable role as the ruthless career-climbing sociopath Lou Bloom in last year's Nightcrawler. Both of those performances won Gyllenhaal acting awards from yours truly, for Best Supporting Actor (Male) and Best Lead Actor (Male), so we've got on actor on board who right now is on a career high. Another notable member of Southpaw's crew is the late James Horner, the film's composer, who died shortly before the film's release, and it is the first of three posthumous works. There's a nice story involving his last score, as Fuqua is working on a remake of The Magnificent Seven presently, and found out from Horner's crew about a month after his death that the great composer had secretly written the compositions for the score, working off of the script and planning to surprise Fuqua with the finished work. Okay, so story goes that Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) is a successful,  undefeated boxer and reigning World Light Heavyweight champion, and is convinced by his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) to retire while he's still at the top following an eye injury in his most recent fight. However, at a charity event for the orphanage where he and his wife grew up, contender Miguel 'Magic' Escobar taunts him, leading to a brawl which results in Escobar's brother Hector accidentally shooting and killing Maureen. Billy's life spirals out of control as he begins to abuse alcohol and drugs, with his house and belongings repossessed and losing the custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). This series of incidents leads Billy to try to remain sober and get his life back, getting a job at the gym of seasoned boxer Titus 'Tick' Wills (Forest Whitaker), and eventually convinces him to train him so he can make a comeback. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, there are a number of solid performances at the front. In her small role as Maureen, Rachel McAdams is believable, and I think that Oona Laurence, who plays Hope's daughter Leila, carries herself off rather well, showing real promise for future prospects, and Forest Whitaker brings to the part of the stereotypical boxing trainer gravitas and credibility, elevating it beyond a cliche. However, if we are to talk performances, we have to talk about Jake Gyllenhaal. The publicity drummed up surrounding his physical transformation wasn't wrong, because he is absolutely shredded for this film. Gyllenhaal has got into shape before for the not-inappropriately forgotten Prince Of Persia film, but this is a whole other level altogether. This level of physicality suits the purpose of the Billy Hope character, as opposed to being a purely designer thing to indulge one's vanity. Just taking a look at Gyllenhaal as Hope, without opening his mouth, even though we see him in moments of real tenderness, we know from his shape and expressions that this is a man capable of extreme violence. There is a tension and energy that Gyllenhaal brings to this character that is palpable, and seeing those tendencies clashing with his true will and intent to rebuild his life makes for some of the film's best moments. I'll get to this more in a bit, but some the material here isn't particularly interesting, but watching Gyllenhaal and the possibilities of where he could take the character intrigued me, keeping me interested in the drama. His role serves the same purpose as Woody Harrelson's in Rampart a few years back, an Atlas holding the entire project upon his shoulders. In ten-fifteen years time, we're going to look retrospectively and realise just how hot of a streak Gyllenhaal's has been on in the 2010's. There are other aspects of the film which I liked. Some of the pieces of music in the film, namely Horner's score and the tracks from Eminem, Phenomenal and Kings Never Die, add to the flavour of the film. Also, technically it's a sound bit of work. Mauro Fiore is more often than not a DP who's always on form, and here, working in conjunction with John Refoua once again as the film's editor, the two compliment one another. The two both worked together previously on Avatar and The Equaliser, and I think that this chemistry comes across well in the final product. Finally, I thought that the sound design on the film was impressive. From the standpoint of depicting realistically some of the more brutal moments in the boxing ring whilst maintaining the subjective standpoint of Billy Hope's mental state(s), the film succeeds at both.

Now, it has to be said that while there are these things to the film's credit, I cannot say it is a great film or even a very good movie, because it is deeply flawed at it's heart. Screenwriter Kurt Sutter, most famous for creating a little show on FX known as Sons Of Anarchy, and has worked in the past on The Shield as a producer, writer, director and actor. So that's quite a CV, and however much I love The Shield, it could never bring me to acknowledge that this script has nothing new to offer the sports drama genre, or film as a whole, which is a shame considering The Shield changed cop shows forever. For all of it being written around and based upon Eminem's personal struggles, it has none of the unique and distinctive flavour of the rap artist's work. The film has been, perhaps unfavourably, been compared to Raging Bull, but instead feels like a mish-mash between Scorsese's picture and Rocky. What made those films so distinctive was that they both had authorial drive, in the case of the former the collaboration of Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the latter the semi-autobiographical tale of Sylvester Stallone, and although both went in very different directions, one a dark exploration of violent rage and masculinity, the other a social-realist fairy tale, they were equally admirable. They had an identity that was wholly theirs. Southpaw unfortunately comes across as something in between, striving to do Raging Bull but not being able to go all out and compromising to also Rocky's feel-good story. Do one or the other, not both. Also, none of the characters that were written on paper were anything more than a trope. I mean, the main character is called Billy Hope. Hope. That says it all. The reason I was interested was because of Gyllenhaal. Rachel McAdams' Maureen is the supportive wife whose only purpose to back up her husband, Forest Whitaker is the film's equivalent to Mickey Goldmill, even Fiddy, who the moment you see onscreen as a manager/promoter/shyster to Billy Hope, you know he's a shark that means trouble. The characters are dull and the plot moves in predictable ways. Also, I won't lie that I do wonder whether or not this is the right project for Fuqua. He's a solid director, but who knows if someone else couldn't have tended this project a bit better.

I have to say that if ever there was a script doctor needed, I'm calling Dr. Love right now! Kurt Sutter may have Sons Of Anarchy under his belt and worked on The Shield, but this is a script with dull, uninspiring characters, the plot moves in predictable ways, and as a whole there's a bit of an identity crisis going on, in that the film doesn't seem to know quite what it is. That said, warts and all, I still there's enough going on to give this film the proverbial thumbs up. Messy, yes, but there are a number of solid performances in the cast, and Jake Gyllenhaal continues on his roll, proving just how much of an acting powerhouse he is that he can almost single-handedly elevate this film into something of quality. Also, James Horner's score and some of Eminem's tracks for the film are good, and technically, particularly in the photography, editing and sound departments, it's an astute bit of work. Troublesome, but still a good watch. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.7/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Rolling

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