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Column Fri Jul 24 2015

Southpaw, Irrational Man, Do I Sound Gay? & Unexpected

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Hello, everyone. Due to some time-consuming, film festival-related travel this week, I was unable to get to press screenings of/review the new Adam Sandler video-game action comedy Pixels or the latest film adaptation from author John (The Fault in Our Stars) Green, Paper Towns. I'm sure you're all busted up about not hearing me wax poetic about either, but there are still plenty of juicy titles to select from this weekend. Enjoy.

Southpaw

I won't lie: I cringed when I saw the the new Antoine Fuqua-directed boxing drama Southpaw had its lead character — a white boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal — with the name of Billy Hope. Seriously? I'm assuming this was a selection made my the film's writer, "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter. The decision is so subtle, I'm shocked that Billy didn't have "Great White Me" tattooed on his back. As it turns out, this little boxing movie cliché is one of so many I lost count about halfway through, which doesn't mean the film is terrible; it's just familiar to a fault.

I tend to enjoy the heightened drama of Antoine Fuqua's works, including Training Day, The Equalizer and Olympus Has Fallen, so the fact that Southpaw indulges itself as far as over-expression isn't inherently an issue. Billy is the undisputed champion in his division of boxing (I think it's light heavyweight), and he's been at the game so long that's he's beginning to see the early effects of long-term brain damage — nothing too serious, but enough that his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is pushing him to quit the game that has made them quite rich. Billy and Maureen grew up together as orphans, a fact that is repeated to us a few times, I believe to let us know that Maureen is no gold-digging boxer's wife; she's on his side and loves him for him. For importantly, she wants their young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) to have a a viable father when she gets older.

But Billy's oldest friend and fight coordinator Jordan (recently bankrupt 50 Cent) is pushing him to sign a three-fight deal to wrap up his career with a massive payday, and Billy's inclined to agree to it, even though there are no real viable fighters left for him to beat. The one exception being rising contender Miguel Escobar (an appropriately thuggish Miguel Gómez), who shows up at Billy's post-fight press conferences, baiting him into "taking a punch from a real man."

I don't think I'm spoiling anything since this moment is in every trailer for Southpaw (but just in case, if you don't want to know the film's big dramatic turn, stop reading), but the film makes a major shift early on, after a charity event attended by both Billy and Miguel. In the lobby of the hotel afterwards, a fight breaks out between the two boxers and shots ring out, leaving Maureen dead on the floor and Billy understandably crushed beyond words, a fact made all the worse by the fact that Maureen's final action was to try and stop the fight, and Billy's hair-trigger temper got the best of him.

At this point, it's probably worth talking about Gyllenhaal's spellbinding performance. And when I say "spellbinding," I only mean that you can't take your eyes off of whatever it is he's doing or trying to do. He plays Billy as a marble-mouthed raw nerve, a galoot who mumbles his way through every scene to the point where I felt like I needed a hearing aide. And those are in the scenes before Maureen's death. After she's gone, and he's forced to be a single dad who is too emotionally broken to think about her well being, let alone where his boxing career goes from here. It seems like in an instant, his money dries up, he pushes his friends away, and his anger is so front and center that he finds himself at Miguel's doorstep ready to commit murder (which doesn't happen or this would have been a much shorter film). Every action Billy makes seems aimed at self destruction, and as if on cue, child protection services is at his door removing his daughter.

Outside of Gyllenhaal's over-the-top acting work, Southpaw suffers from McAdams' departure in more ways than one. She's by far the most interesting character in the film. We so often see the pretty boxer's wife or girlfriend in a tight dress and covered in bling, but we're led to believe that Maureen is different and that there's something interesting going on with her; McAdams sells that perfectly, and her leaving the film — while necessary for this particular story — is a loss for us as well as Billy.

Now living in squalor, Billy decides that the only thing that matters is getting his daughter back, needing a job and steady income to make that happen. He gets supervised visits with her, overseen by a compassionate social worker played by Naomie Harris, best known to American audiences as James Bond's new Miss Moneypenny. But even those moments don't bring either of them comfort as Leila resents her father for allowing things to get so bad that she ended up in this place. Looking for work, Billy goes where he knows best, a rundown gym operated by one-time great trainer Titus "Tick" Wills (Forest Whitaker), who lets Billy clean up after hours. Not at all surprising, being back around other fighters gives Billy the itch to start training again, and Tick begrudgingly agrees to help.

In case you've never seen a movie before, this is all leading to Billy whipping himself into fighting shape again and what is essentially a grudge match between Billy and Miguel, whom Billy blames for his wife's death and all the troubles that followed. The outcome isn't really the point, except it is in an Antoine Fuqua movie. The final boxing match is epic, bloody, sweaty, painful, and capture in physical terms Billy's emotional outpouring. The overall look of the film is so gritty and undersaturated that you'll feel the need for a good cleansing after watching it. For me, the film boils down to its portrayal of bombastic emotions. Gyllenhaal is in desperate need of being reeled in, just a touch, because the way he's playing Billy in this film is an absolute distraction from the pain we actually want to feel for him.

The real hidden gem in Southpaw is Whitaker, who hasn't had a role this meaty in quite some time. He's more than just the stereotypical trainer; he's a fully realized character with strange, telling quirks that are executed to perfection. If you are on the fence about seeing this film, let Whitaker be the thing that tips you over the edge to check it out. But the rest of the film is a mixed bag of so much we've seen before. If you're curious to see how Gyllenhaal continues to change his body from the dangerously skinny man he played in Nightcrawler to the muscle mass he is in Southpaw, that's a legit reason to see the film. But if you're looking for something, anything genuinely new, this is not the place.

Irrational Man

I like morally ambiguous Woody Allen, and the reason I know this is because I've seen him do it a few times over the years. I don't know why people are acting surprised that Allen's latest annual offering, Irrational Man, is dipping into waters he's waded into before (with albeit better results) with Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. The idea of finding (or failing to find) justification for murder is a subject that is ripe for repeat visits, especially when he never quite figures out if premeditated murder can ever be an approved behavior. Of course, there is so much more than that going on in Irrational Man, but that's the part that feels familiar, even if it's not the most interesting bit.

The story begins with new philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) arriving at a small Rhode Island college just as he feels his life is meaningless — a realization that is sending him into a tailspin that includes impotency and misery. At his first faculty mixer, he meets Rita (Parker Posey, absolutely on fire), another professor whose marriage is boring, and she's seeking excitement in this troubled man. At one point in the film, she makes it clear that she'd run away with him to Spain, if only he would ask. As much as Abe is enjoying their trysts, he's more interested in the young student with the short skirts named Jill (Emma Stone, in her second Allen outing), who has a long-time boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) and an attraction to tortured older men. Abe resists her as long as he can, but she pushes until he cracks. But oddly, this is not a film about two women warring over an unworthy man. It's about murder.

While having lunch at a local diner, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation at the table next to theirs involving a corrupt judge who has essentially ruined a woman's life in a custody hearing. After digging into the judge's past, Abe and Jill speculate about how much better the world would be without him in the world any longer. And after careful planning and surveillance, Abe finds a full-proof way to carry out the murder, without losing a minute of sleep about the consequences. Jill is unaware of his actions, but she begins to suspect when, of all people, Rita speculates that Abe would be the perfect suspect because he's the least likely person. And before long, Jill begins to see signs that Rita may be right, and her world begins to crumble.

Irrational Man has a lot to say about being drawn to damaged goods, about looking for a second lease on life and love, and about whether eliminating bad people from the world is the right thing to do. The film is the least interesting on this last point, although the existential arguments on the subject are quite interesting. Allen has never been one to give his audience clear-cut answers on any moral dilemma, but he also can rarely be accused of rambling on a subject that means something to him, and this film is the rare exception. The characters (with maybe the exception of Posey's Rita) are flailing. It's amusing to watch Abe come to life after he feels like something he's done will actually change the world for the better. His sex life improves greatly, and he's just a generally happy person after the killing, but that's not necessarily surprising or amusing.

I certainly wouldn't call Irrational Man a miss from Allen, but it's certainly not essential viewing except to be reminded of what a true powerhouse Posey can be when given the right material. And with this film, I have a suspicion she's working well beyond the page, which might be why Allen has hired her for his 2016 film. Maybe the real lesson if this movie is that the best things come from the most unexpected places. The film is now playing in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Irrational Man star Parker Posey, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Do I Sound Gay?

With a title as amusing as Do I Sound Gay? and a rather light-hearted approach to the question of whether or not there is a recognizable "gay voice," it might surprise you to learn that journalist and first-time filmmaker David Thorpe's four-year investigation into this phenomenon hits its mark with such a definitive impact and taps into self-conscious concern of gay men that they might not even be aware of. Thorpe began shooting the film after a fairly traumatic breakup, and growing frustrated with the gay dating world of New York City, he began to look into way of distinguishing himself from the gay herd, as it were. Hating his voice for sounding too gay, he looked into speech lessons from a voice coach.

Using this as a jumping off point, Thorpe embarked on finding the root of the gay voice through talks with everyone from linguistics experts to random people on the street to gay celebrities (George Takei, Tim Gunn, David Sedaris, Dan Savage and CNN's Don Lemon (as well as honorary gay man Margaret Cho). The results are a fascinating and revealing look at not just the characteristics of said voice, but how it has become incorporated into gay culture, but also a moving look at the lengths some gay men have gone to hide any trace of being gay in the voice.

The mood of the doc is kept light, but Thorpe is smart to keep bringing it back to these stories of various forms of closeted behavior that have plagued gay men throughout the ages. It's also amusing that none of the men can agree on where the voice came from in their own lives (their mothers, female celebrities they admired, other gay men, some combination of all of these). Thorpe interviews gay men who sound straight, straight men who sound gay, and everyone in between. He also looks into whether possessing the gay voice impacts the way you are perceived and judged in society, implications of which could be deeper and farther reaching than one might realize. Do I Sound Gay? will make you look at your own voice as well, and the many influences that went into shaping it. It's a terrific, funny little film that isn't afraid to take things to a more serious and culturally aware place. Hey, every little bit helps. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Unexpected

Sometimes keeping things simple is the best way to go. Director Kris Swanberg (Empire Builder) and her co-writer Megan Mercier have come up with a way to tell the story of two pregnancies that is neither trite, nor dull, nor cutesy in any way. In fact, Unexpected pulls isn't afraid to point out the differences in beginning a family between 30-ish white teacher Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) and her 18-year-old black student Jasmine (extraordinary newcomer Gail Bean) who has none of the advantages of Samantha, but they still find way to connect about their shared experience.

Samantha has a live-in boyfriend (Anders Holm) who says he's happy about this unplanned baby, but doesn't do a great job convincing anyone he means it. Jasmine also has a boyfriend who is long gone before her baby is due, forcing her to lean on her already overtaxed family for support. Even before these pregnancies, these two women were friends, Jasmine being Samantha's best and most promising student. But with these babies due only days apart, their bond becomes much stronger as they discuss their hopes and ambitions for the future. Samantha doesn't want Jasmine to give up her dream of going to college, and the two even take a roadtrip from their Chicago home downstate to look at a school that they believe accommodates student mothers.

Disappointments and pressures from all sides put a strain on their relationship at a time when both could really use that extra set of eyes looking out for them. Samantha's mother (Elizabeth McGovern) is particularly stinging when it comes to her daughter being an unwed mother and taking an interest in the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Even after their friendship becomes damaged, it's clear that the conversations and inspiration they instilled in each other stuck with them. Swanberg isn't going for big, emotional moments, nor is she ignoring the life-altering changes that come with a baby on the way. Smulders and Bean are so good together that it's almost a shame when they have fewer scenes together in the final third of the film. But things have a way of working out, and I guess that's the biggest lesson learned in Unexpected, really beautiful, fragile work from a filmmaker showing signs of even better things to come. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Director Kris Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier will participate in a post-screening Q&A on Friday, July 24 after the 7:20pm show at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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