Category Archives: Now Showing

SOUTHPAW

Producer:  Antoine Fuqua, Jerry Ye, Peter Riche, Alan Riche, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch
Director:  Antoine Fuqua
Writer:  Kurt Sutter
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Oona Laurence, Skylan Brooks, Beau Knapp, Rachel McAdams, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora and Miguel Gomez
Studio:  The Weinstein Company

C-

Essentially just a down-and-dirty variation on that classic pugilistic tearjerker “The Champ,” Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is notable primarily for the lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, who seems determined to emulate the physically transformative turns of Robert De Niro (whose “Raging Bull” is another obvious influence, along with “Rocky”). Of course neither writer Kurt Sutter (“The Shield,” “Sons of Anarchy”) nor Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) could be expected to produce a weeper like King Vidor’s 1931 original or Franco Zeffirelli’s sudsy 1975 remake, so without admitting any indebtedness at all to the earlier films, they’ve tried to downplay the sappiness and lay on the grittiness and grime. But despite its hardboiled exterior, the movie still wallows in sentiment and cliché.

In this take on the formula, Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a scrapper who’s worked his way up from an orphan’s life in Hell’s Kitchen, follows the “Rocky” technique of barreling full ahead against any opponent, taking a beating in the process but ultimately punching his way to costly victories. With the help of his savvy but utterly pragmatic manager Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cents” Jackson), he’s just ascended to the light heavyweight championship in a bloody bout at Madison Square Garden. He also has a good life out of the ring, living in a posh mansion with his loving wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their bright eleven-year old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).

Unfortunately, the good times end abruptly at a charity event where Billy’s confronted by his rival Miguel Escobar (swaggering, one-note Miguel Gomez). A shooting breaks out that leaves him a widower in such deep grief that he’s barely able to function and angrily dismisses the members of his childhood posse who failed to protect the person he loved most. It’s not long before Mains abandons him, the bank forecloses on the house, and—worst of all—child protective services temporarily removes Leila from his custody, setting out a series of requirements he has to fulfill before he can even visit her in her group residence, let alone get her back.

The rest of the picture follows Billy’s slow climb back to the top. He begins by taking a menial job at a gym run by legendary trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), whose interest is in helping the youngsters of the dangerous neighborhood and has no desire to work with pro fighters at all. Tick is also doubtful about Hope’s ability to overcome the bad habits like drinking, drugging and cursing that he deplores (though he’s not above indulging in some of them himself). But eventually he gives in to Billy’s pleas for help and agrees to train him for a comeback, bringing technique and discipline to Billy’s more haphazard, bulldog method. The result of all their effort is not unpredictable.

“Southpaw” has some points of interest. One is the boxing action, which Fuqua, Gyllenhaal, cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editor John Refoua—with the assistance of stunt coordinator John Cenatiempo, fight coordinator Terry Claybon and boxing consultant Lou DiBella—stage with visceral intensity and realism, even if the impact can only approximate what Martin Scorsese, De Niro, Michael Chapman, Thelma Schoonmaker and their colleagues achieved thirty-five years ago.

Another is Gyllenhaal’s performance, which is certain to divide viewers even more than his creepy turn in last year’s “Nightcrawler.” Many of us admired his work in Dan Gilroy’s film, but it was obviously designed to show off his versatility, one of those provocatively flamboyant efforts meant as proof of how far an actor can “stretch” beyond the audience’s expectations. Billy Hope goes even further to that end. Gyllenhaal has not only buffed up for the role, shedding pounds but strengthening muscle and making a great physical show in the ring, taking blows and responding in kind; he adopts elsewhere the persona of the mumbling, inarticulate guy who’s as beaten-down inside as he is on the outside. It comes off, to one person at least, as Method taken to an extreme, Brando’s Terry Malloy raised several notches—a very calculated, over-the-top turn reminiscent of what Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian on SNL used to refer to as “Acting!!!” It’s the sort of performance that seems intended for awards consideration, and one might be tempted to recall the comment Heath Ledger was reported to have made about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win for “Capote” (over his performance in “Brokeback Mountain”): “I thought it was for the best acting, not the most acting.” Whether Ledger actually said that is doubtful, but when watching “Southpaw” you ought to keep in mind the sensitive, subtle work that Gyllenhaal did in pictures from “Donny Darko” to “Prisoners.” His Billy Hope is more eye-catching, but in reality it’s not in the same league.

As to the rest, Whitaker gives a nice if unremarkable performance as the gruff but tender-hearted Tick (even if a subplot about a teen he and Billy try to help at the gym is as manipulative as it gets), and McAdams does fine in her relatively brief role. Unfortunately, Laurence never really clicks as young Leila. The script portrays her as entirely too precocious in the opening scenes—too much like a typical sitcom kid—and then overly snippy in reaction to his dad’s failings in the later reels; the result us that we’re told about their closeness rather than feeling it, though the fault lies more in the writing than in Laurence’s performance. Jackson is coolly efficient as Billy’s self-serving manager, and Naomie Harris okay as Leila’s dedicated case worker.

But the spotlight here is on Gyllenhaal, who seems to be fighting for Academy Award recognition as determinedly as Billy is for the championship. In the end, though, one expects that in that department he’ll wind up closer to where Jon Voight did in the 1979 “Champ” (nominated for a Golden Globe but not an Oscar, and lost) than where Wallace Beery did in the 1931 one (copped the best-actor Oscar).

LILA & EVE

Producer:  Sara Risher and Darrin Reed
Director: Charles Stone II
Writer: Patrick Gilfillan 
Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Shea Whigham, Chris Chalk, Julius Tennon, Andre Royo, Aml Ameen, Yolonda Ross, Diarra Kilpatrick, Ron Caldwell and Michole Briana White.
Studio:  Samuel Goldwyn Films

C-

It’s commonplace to dismiss a cinematic potboiler involving women as “a Lifetime movie,” but in this case the description is literally true: one of the producing partners of “Lila & Eve” is Lifetime Films. And it is, in fact, also “a Lifetime movie” in the generic sense, though one distinguished by a ferociously committed performance by Viola Davis.

Specifically, this is one of those Lifetime movies about a mother who must deal with the loss of a child, most usually by seeking to bring the person responsible to justice. In this case, the mother’s grief takes her into revenge of the most direct sort, and before long we’re in “Death Wish” territory, with the plot turns growing more and more implausible as the picture lumbers toward what might pass for a happy ending.

As directed by Charles Stone III from Patrick Gilfillan’s script and edited by Robert Lambert, the film introduces Lila Walcott (Davis) in despair over the death of her older son Stephon (Aml Ameen), who was killed in a drive-by shooting near their home. Flashbacks show Stephon’s last birthday celebration with Lila and his younger brother Justin (Ron Caldwell), as well as the incident in which he died.

Lila visits police headquarters for information on the investigation from detectives Holliston (Shea Whigham) and Skaketti (Andre Royo), only to learn that Stephon was apparently collateral damage in the murder of a drug dealer, but no witnesses have come forth to provide the information needed to pursue the case. Her only solace is a support group for mothers who have suffered the loss of a child, and for the angry woman it’s hardly enough.

It’s at the Mothers of Angels, as the group is called, that Lila meets Eve (Jennifer Lopez), an equally angry mother—she lost a daughter, it’s explained—who reluctantly agrees to become Lila’s sponsor. Brassier and more contemptuous of the authorities, she insists that the only way to achieve closure will be to investigate Stephon’s death themselves and find the evidence that will lead to the punishment of those responsible.

So the women establish an unofficial stake-out at the corner where Stephon was killed and confront the newly-installed dealer there. The meeting does not go well: he threatens them with a gun, and Eve responds by shooting him. Lila is horrified by the fact they’ve killed a man, even in self-defense, but Eve assures her that she’ll take care of everything; and when it appears that they’re not suspected of the death, she convinces Lila that they should follow the trail upward from the small fry to the men actually in charge. They work their way up to the rich kingpin, leaving more and more bodies in their wake, and after he threatens Justin, set an elaborate trap—involving an explosion—that will take out the entire upper echelon of the gang. The women’s crusade has aroused the suspicions of Detective Holliston, but in the end his ability to bring them to justice depends on proving that they have no alibis for the nights in question.

Folded into this frankly preposterous plot are Lila’s domestic arrangements, among them taking care of Justin (a bright lad who comes to feel that his mother’s fixation on his brother is unhealthy) and dealing with the gentle advances of Ben (Julius Tennon), a kindly neighbor who obviously has feelings for her. With Eve’s help Lila even begins refurbishing the house on the days when they’re not off doing their vigilante thing; one sequence shows them determinedly repapering the walls. Gilfillan tosses a twist into their relationship in the final stages, but it serves only to make the scenario even less credible.

The only element that really separates “Lila & Eve” from cheap exploitation fare is Davis. Charles Bronson played the avenging angel of Michael Winner’s 1974 film in minimalist style, but Davis takes an opposite approach, portraying Lila’s pain and simmering hysteria as open wounds that have to be healed by extreme action. It’s a volcanically powerful performance. Lopez, by contrast, is just shrilly confident, prodding her companion at every step along the way. The coldness contrasts with Davis’ heat, but the character never moves beyond the stage of a plot device, especially toward the close, and Lopez hasn’t the resources to fill Eve in beyond the surface. The rest of the cast is adequate, but no more than that, and technically the film is merely competent, with Wyatt Garfield’s camerawork not always capturing the action as clearly as it might.

Like all fictional films about vigilantism, “Lila & Eve” raises uncomfortable moral issues, and like most, it skirts them. Should Lila pay for what she’s done in a court of law, however powerful the grief and fear that drove her? It’s an interesting question, but Gilfillan and Stone simply set it aside with a coda that’s meant to be clever but comes across as pandering instead. But then, what do you expect of a Lifetime movie?