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On the Ropes

Portraits of fame and loss in Southpaw and Amy




SOUTHPAW. Just so we're all clear, that Jake Gyllenhaal did not win an Academy Award for his performance in Nightcrawler (2014) seems like the result of some grievous actuarial error. The fact that he was not even nominated feels more like a miscarriage of justice, although the mention of justice and a Hollywood trophy show in the same paragraph is more than a little silly. Point being, Gyllenhaal is perhaps the most committed, versatile, self-challenging dramatic actor working in major motion pictures today. He chooses tough, thought-provoking roles and throws himself into them with near-abandon, transforming his body and his manner to disappear into character. And maybe never more so than in Southpaw, an old-fashioned, riches-to-rags boxing yarn that may be slightly beneath his talents.

Written by Kurt Sutter (creator of TV's ultra-violent, Greek-cum-Shakespearean tragedy/biker drama Sons of Anarchy, to which I am fully addicted), Southpaw introduces us to Billy "The Great" Hope (Gyllenhaal) as he defends his light heavyweight title. As we are constantly reminded, Billy is a product of the system, raised in a series of foster homes and orphanages, including the one where he met his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). In the ring, he's a scrappy brawler, relying on his intensity and ability to take punishment to wear down his opponents. His method works, having brought him a 43-0 professional record, but it is not a sustainable one; Maureen worries he'll be brain-damaged before he retires. One night after a charity benefit, things get heated with one of Billy's would-be rivals, and Maureen falls victim to an errant bullet. Billy is lost without her. He drinks too much and has trouble maintaining connection with his precocious 10-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). He can't bring himself to fight properly and, with his income stream dried up, it isn't long before all the cars are being towed away, the fine furniture is up for auction, and he's locked out of his own mansion. The court removes Leila from his custody. These are dark times, indeed. Billy seeks out trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), who gives him a job and reluctantly puts him on a program to get back in fighting shape for, of course, one more shot at the title.

Southpaw is heir to decades of boxing pictures, but, to its credit, is the only one to have broken through in recent years. And it does manage to step out of the shadows of its cinematic forbearers, thanks mostly to the amount of heart and passion Sutter invests in his characters. Like SOA, this is to a certain extent a study in archetypes, but Sutter is interested in unpacking the moral, ethical and emotional stuff that creates, sustains and challenges such types. So it is a bit boilerplate, a throwback and nod to a bygone era. It has at its center, though, a protagonist who actually lives and breathes, who struggles to meet the obstacles life sends his way, and whose success in surmounting those obstacles is by no means a foregone conclusion. Sutter's writing is not without nuance, but it requires a subtlety of interpretation, a sympathetic reading that allows the complexity between the broad strokes to emerge. Gyllenhaal, unsurprisingly, rises to the occasion with aplomb. He becomes Billy Hope, less hero than hard-luck story, a guy who only really knows how to make a living one way, who loves his daughter and is lost without the guidance and succor of his wife. His performance is tough and moving and sad; it, more than the direction of Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day) or Sutter's script, works to elevate Southpaw above the gritty B-plusness of its inception. R. 123m.

AMY. Documentary is a tricky, dynamic genre. Done well, it can be every bit as compelling and surprising as fictional narrative. Done poorly, it becomes little more than lists and talking heads, a litany of facts without any suspense, humor or heart. Director Asif Kapadia (of the brilliant, heartbreaking Senna, which everyone should see, regardless of one's interest in motor-racing) is more aware of this than most. He imbues documentaries with style and drama, finding a way to tell stories that, even if we already know their endings, makes them compulsively watchable.

In this case, he's telling the brief life story of unnaturally brilliant singer/indelible tragic figure Amy Winehouse. A brash Jewish girl from North London, Winehouse was possessed of a singing voice from some other time and place: a big, beautiful, scary instrument in the body of a sad little girl. The movie sketches in Winehouse's childhood, but focuses mainly on her brief recording career, focusing especially on the release and aftermath of her second, devastatingly successful record, Back to Black (2006).

There are moments when Amy feels almost like a horror movie, when a skeletal Winehouse is repeatedly crushed under a storm of paparazzi, camera-flashes like lightning strikes, the sound of so many shutters like pouring rain. As her fame grows, and as she disappears into self-medication and bulimia, her sadness is palpable, tragic and inevitable. Kapadia examines the cost of celebrity a bit, but the movie is too balanced to be accused of having an agenda. Fairer to call it a portrait of an immensely talented artist for whom "success" did nothing to stave off depression. Winehouse was a brilliant, broken person who had more to say; Kapadia's re-telling of the end of her life makes me want to cry just thinking about it. R. 128m.

— John J. Bennett


MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION. Sorry, not Sarah Palin rogue. The team picks up its rubber masks and hi-tech gadgets again to take on its nefarious counterpart, the Syndicate. Starring Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner. PG13. 132m.

VACATION. Ed Helms plays the grown-up Rusty, who, like his father before him, takes the family to Wally World. With Christina Applegate. R. 99m.


ANT-MAN. Clever asides and Paul Rudd's likeability and subversive darkness almost distinguish this entertaining comic-book action flick from the rest of the Marvel machine. Supporting sidekick Michael Peña might be a comic genius. PG13. 117m.

INSIDE OUT. Pixar renders our inner lives and the tumult of growing up with clarity, charm, poignancy and humor through the personified emotions of a girl named Riley. With Amy Poehler. PG. 94m.

JURASSIC WORLD. A big, fun, well executed popcorn movie that sticks with dinosaur action thrills rather than convoluted plot. Like its star Chris Pratt, it doesn't take itself too seriously. PG13. 124m.

MINIONS. Sandra Bullock and John Hamm lend voices to the Despicable Me spin-off starring the goofy, Twinkie-esque henchmen. PG. 91m.

PAPER TOWNS. A trio of high school boys go on a mystery tour/spontaneity intensive when the enigmatic (and, duh, beautiful) girl next door vanishes. PG13. 109m.

PIXELS. Adam Sandler stars in this interplanetary war pic featuring classic arcade game characters. Spoiler alert: Pac-Man's kind of a jerk. PG13. 105m.

TRAINWRECK. Amy Schumer stars with Bill Hader in this rom com that elevates the genre with funny, flawed leads and precision screwball construction and direction from Judd Apatow. R. 125m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Thadeus Greenson


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