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‘Southpaw’ Packs Too Weak a Punch

imageJake Gyllenhaal has quickly become one of Hollywood’s next great actors, mixing Christian Bale’s rapid weight change with Leonardo DiCaprio’s ability to get overlooked by major award circuits.

After losing 20 pounds to play the psychotic Lou in “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal bulks up to play boxer Billy Hope (subtle) in “Southpaw”. After tragedy strikes, Hope is separated from his daughter and must put his life back together, and he turns to an aging trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get him back in the ring. Antoine Fuqua directs.

Just as he has done in his recent films like “Prisoners” and the aforementioned “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal again dominates the screen with his method-acting presence. It may not be his strongest performance, and it almost certainly won’t win him any awards, but his Billy Hope is a heart-wrenching, torn character that Gyllenhaal dives into. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the movie doesn’t pack the same punch (boxing puns).

Most of the film is done so heavy-handed and in such workmanlike style that it doesn’t add anything new or fresh to the genre. Director Fuqua (known best recently for action films “Olympus Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer”) continues to go for style over substance in his films. In “Southpaw,” he never misses a chance to shove a visual metaphor down the audience’s throat, such as Gyllenhaal standing at the bottom of a dark staircase looking up (get it? Because he’s got to climb his way back up out of the darkness to the top!). Fuqua also feels the need to put the camera close to the actors, in an effort to force us to feel their pain (this is a pretty bleak film), instead of letting the actors do what they’re paid to do and convey the emotions naturally.

Speaking of said actors, every one of them brings their A-game; “Southpaw” would be nothing without its leading cast of Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and Rachel McAdams. Gyllenhaal and Whitaker have believable albeit not too moving chemistry as boxer-and-trainer, and McAdams crushes every scene she is in as Billy’s wife. The daughter in the film (Oona Laurence) gives one of the better performances by a kid actor that I’ve seen in a while, having to portray a young girl who has lost contact with her father and is confused and angry with the world around her.

Unfortunately, everything comes back to the standard narrative in “Southpaw.” The cliché story of redemption can be expected, but on numerous occasions plot points are dropped or overcome far too easily. For example, Forest Whitaker’s character says he doesn’t drink, yet a few scenes later we see him drunk in a bar, with the only excuse being, “what, a guy can’t pick up a new habit?” There is also a shooting in the film, and in several instances the film mentions how they still don’t have a suspect. Spoiler alert: that case is never brought to resolution, it kind of just fades away. Which is lazy for the plot, but also frustrating because you are genuinely interested in who pulled the trigger, as it isn’t clear in the scene.

For those who demand very basic storytelling and just want to see tales of redemption of broken men, “Southpaw” may work. But I found that the great acting and admittedly moving finale were not enough to overcome the film’s familiarities and slack storytelling, which is a disappointment because Gyllenhaal deserves better than to be stuck in an average film. All these actors deserve better (well, except maybe 50 Cent).

Critics Rating: 5/10


Gyllenhaal Steals the Show in ‘Nightcrawler’

Nightcrawlerfilm            Jake Gyllenhaal once patrolled the streets of Los Angeles as a cop in “End of Watch”; now he drives around them at night filming crime and accidents.

“Nightcrawler” is all about the people who independently film accidents and then sell them to news stations (“if it bleeds, it leads” the film makes sure to tell us a half dozen times). When Lou (Gyllenhaal) steps into this world, he begins to blur the line between observer and participant. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton costar as Dan Gilroy writes and has his directorial debut.

“Nightcrawler” is a nice looking, tense thriller that is almost completely driven by its characters. Every actor has a scene or two in which they own, but in the end this movie would be nothing without Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal is so creepy, unsettling and unrecognizable as Lou that it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. As the film progresses, we become more and more uneasy with every passing scene, as we know it is only a matter of time before Lou snaps; we just don’t know at what—or who—it is going to be at. Lou speaks almost completely in cliché business and motivational lingo (his motto is, “if you want to win the lottery, you have to earn the money to buy a ticket”) and it is not obvious if he is a brilliant negotiator or simply just insane.

Riz Ahmed plays Rick, a homeless young man who is hired as Lou’s assistant. Rick is too desperate for cash to turn away from Lou, or even realize what he is getting himself into, and by the time he begins to realize Lou may be a psychopath he is in too deep.

The rest of the supporting cast does a fine job as well. Russo plays a TV news director who buys Lou’s initial tape, and is equally repulsed and fascinated by him. Bill Paxton has a few fun lines as Lou’s rival, a fellow “nightcrawler”, and Kevin Rahm plays a TV executive, who serves as the voice of reason for the audience, questioning Lou’s methods and whether running certain clips is ethical, or even legal.

The film is edited and paced brilliantly, offering quick-cuts and perfectly timed scenes to keep the flow going, while never sacrificing content. The climax of the film is as tense and thrilling as anything I have seen at the movies this year, and even though while watching we have a feeling we know what is going to transpire, we just hope we are wrong.

Now there are a few points in “Nightcrawler” that feel like they were added simply to showcase Los Angeles, or try and make sure we are aware how “dedicated” Lou is to his job, and this makes the film’s narrative stray a bit and at times make the plot seem a bit aimless, but it is never anything Gyllenhaal can’t get back on track.

“Nightcrawler” is a solid thriller with a brilliant lead performance, shot in one of the most vibrant and neon-soaked cities in the world. The film is worth seeing simply because of Gyllenhaal, but the supporting characters, dark humor and exhilarating climax are a nice treat, too.

Critics Rating: 7/10