“Southpaw”

Ever since I read Edward Hoagland’s second novel “The Circle Home” in 1965, I have been drawn to boxing as a metaphor for slugging out a life. “Scrappy” might be the adjective that sticks best. In Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, “Southpaw” he plays the scrappy kid,who made it out of the orphanage with a partner who stayed by him,even when he was incarcerated. Now married,Billy Hope and Mo (Rachel McAdams) are living the “good life” with pergolas and pools and canopied beds. Their ten-year-old daughter, Leia (Iona Laurence)is protected and cherished.Then fate intervenes as screenwriter Kurt Sutter follows the typical story arc of falling from grace and redeeming oneself.

The dialogue and the storyline are the weakest parts of the film,and the great cinematography can not really save it, even though photography director Mauro Fiore choreographs some stunningly fast montages of gauze wrapped hands, blood-vessel-broken eyes, and neck-snapping punches and upper-cut jabs.

As Light Heavy Weight Champion of the World,Gyllenhaal has worked to look the part. His musculature is completely different from his last highly acclaimed role in “The Nightcrawler”. His neck and abs are impressive. His arm tattoos reading “Fighter” and “Father” set his roles. “Fear No Man” is inked on his back in the same font used in the initial credits.

Billy ends his career ignominiously by hitting a referee. The shot of him naked and alone sitting on a white-tiled,shower floor and crying out,”Anyone still here?” is an example of the dialogue. “I feel like I broke her heart” and ” My wife would have liked you” are other  examples of his simple declarative sentences. But one comes to a “fight movie” to see the sweat spume and the blood fly.  Here  the sound of the strikes and jabs is what you will remember.

The score is by the late James Horner, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Eminem has a new song heard as one of these  famous montages flick on and off the screen. The beat was good,but I could not make out the lyrics.

A social conscience of sorts is attempted with the character of Tic Wills (Forest Whitaker).He becomes Billy’s trainer and come-back manager who organizes charity bouts and teaches young street kids disciplined sport. Billy who has been dubbed “The Great White Dope” tells Wills, “I can handle the rules. I grew up in the system.” It is this same system that Billy wants to keep his daughter out of. But provisional custody is court ordered. Naomi Harris plays Angela Rivera,a social worker who shows professional caring and warmth. Oona Laurence,likewise, is painfully believable with her anger-crossed arms answering the question “Is that your Dad?” with her sad “I don’t know anymore.”

I was basically disappointed in “Southpaw”. Scriptwriting like,”Come on,baby, get off those ropes” leave me punch-drunk and I want to go home. And the boy named “Hoppy” because his mother liked bunnies was as sad as his killing. Sorry, but Clint Eastwood did a better job with his “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.

“Mr. Holmes”

Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. ~ Joseph Wood Krutch

Don’t miss director Bill Condon’s film “Mr. Holmes”. I was entranced with some of the best acting I have seen. The seventy-six -year- old Ian McKellen is so masterful that he brings tears to the viewers’ eyes in his show of joy, of fear and of grief. This performance just can not be missed on the big screen. McKellen’s silences, his stares, his impatience and his show of regret are astounding.  Playing a ninety-three- year-old man,who is  still filled with the wonderment of learning about the world and how to live in it, touches our souls.

The film based on a novel I have not read, (Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of The Mind”) shows Holmes losing his belief in the absolute power of pure logic. At his most indulgent, Oliver Wendell Holmes (  a real person and true American  Brahmin and contemporary of Longfellow) once stated that “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind over-tasked”. Here  Arthur Conan Doyle’s character,Sherlock Holmes, rather cruelly learns that intuition and feeling reference things that logic alone can miss.

The subsequent suicide of a young woman thirty years ago had precipitated the end of Holmes’ career. Now,dealing with major memory loss (that his physician has asked him to document with dots in a journal), Holmes is sadly obedient. Conundrums now posed are bedeviled with lapses of short-term memory as simple as the name of his housekeeper’s son.

Roger is the ten-year-old son played by Milo Parker. His character is exceedingly gifted and in awe of our detective’s methodology and rational carriage. It is lovely to see Holmes correct this bright boy’s put-down of his mother’s language and reading acumen. We have the feeling that the younger Holmes was as saucy. Parker,too,is an amazing actor with his wide eyes and constant questions and sassy,quick comebacks. McKellen excels in showing his delight and approval all the while reminding us of what the grade school detective must have been like. Now,boy and man swim together in the sea. Enjoy the clear language of Holmes’ : “Come along or we will lose the day.” Whether working in his apiary or watching the film, “Lady Grey” where an actor stars as the detective, Holmes states that ” Logic is rare. I dwell on circumstance.” When Roger asks Mr.Holmes what will happen to his bees if he dies, our detective says, “I can’t solve everything!”

Age and the passage of time is a motif in all three storylines: the case that caused Holmes to retire,the widowed housekeeper’s work to provide for her son,and the misplaced revenge of a Japanese national. Flashbacks to Japan include Hiroshima-scared faces and ground devastation. Holmes brings back prickly ash,a supposed remedy for senility. Asked by the young Roger of the herb’s side effects, Holmes responds with “hope”. “Forgetfulness the cure.” When Mrs.Munro  (Laura Linney) asks what to do with it,Holmes snarkily says,”cook with it to enhance your specialities.” McKellin’s earlier groans and subtle question of ,”Is that for dinner?” are right-on delightful in their old age commonness.

Laura Linney is herself masterful. Her protectiveness,tenderness and anger will stay with you. “Spite” and “malice” are words her son uses. She marvels, “Where did you get words like that?” Still she has her mother’s lesson, “Lesson, there then. Don’t say everything you think.” You will knowing smile at the film’s and her last line: “The workers do the work.”Mrs. Munro is  not talking about the bees!

Besides incredible acting all around and multiple story lines,we learn factoids of bee husbandry, the glass harmonica, and how the dead are not so far away when they are remembered with love and with well-placed  stones. We learn that Watson saved Holmes by “bringing him back from the brink” and writing a fictional tale where Holmes was the hero. Early on we learn that there are many misconceptions about Holmes, wearing a hat and smoking a pipe are two. The wrong house address is another. One truth abides Holmes tells his young friend,”When you are a detective and a man visits you, it is usually about his wife.”

On Monday afternoon,at one thirty on July twentieth,2015, there were sixty people in the theater,all over sixty. All were drawn to the screen as soon as McKellen’s steam train left Cuckmere Haven Station. You will be drawn,too, as you learn about “Welsh pony” boys,invisible stories,Catholic “sins of desire”,cowardice cloaked in sacrifice and the fact that logic alone can not explain human nature.

“Testament Of Youth”

What did young voices sound like in 1917 ? Before women were given their voting rights what did “head-strong” girls do ? Loyalty to their homelands and loyalty to their friends anchored them, but so did nature and love. The film “Testament Of Youth” is full of heartsong and birdsong. Director James Kent’s long,British period piece is also filled with the muck of war. Camera pans of field-loads of canvas-blanketed pallets, hundreds of glazed-eyed wounded, and a smattering of white-scarfed nurses set the scene.We hear the sounds of war while the screen remains black. Making her way through flag-waving citizens, the rosewood bereted Vera pushes through 1917 Armistice Day revelers. It is an engaging opening: a girl on the move. This is  young woman of purpose. She enters a church sanctuary to give thanks,and we see other women fingering rosary beads. An art work of shipwrecked souls floundering in water has Vera floating backward to four years earlier. It is a lovely start.

There is nothing new or surprising in this film. The director James Kent does not give us the historical scope,but more of an intimate telling of war’s effects. We see a teasing brother,provincial parents,tantrums,tearful train goodbyes and notes slide under doors.

Emily Watson, playing Vera’s mother,wails that:”We have a suffragette on our hands”! You can tell she is proud of her. Her father is a pushover and easy to please.Vera’s parents are indulgent and financially privileged. They love their children,and do not stand in the way of their dreams. Circumstances of war do not change this.

The aftermath of any war decimates families and deals out grief. This film is a pacifist tract and a feminist treatise couched as a romance. Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain,”Testament Of Youth” is a film that reminds the filmgoer that World War I was like all war: a destroyer. Especially, on a personal level we see a young woman lose a brother, a fiancée and for a while, her mind. Actress Alicia Vikander, the synthetic woman in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (reviewed 4/29/15), portrays Vera. Vera is intelligent,rebellious, willful and easy to admire. Vikander does her justice in her passionate pleas for a try at Oxford, a chance to help on the Front, and peace in the World. One of Vikander’s most beautifully done scenes is when she is begging her fiancée Roland to not lose the best part of himself in the horrors of war. Vera is most of all perceptive. The scene reminds us how unprepared soldiers are for the psychological onslaughts of the battlefield and in returning from it.

“Testament Of Youth” meshes the provincial and privileged class with “Masterpiece Theater-like” sentiments that hold the viewers’emotions at bay. We are always aware that this is personal history. The events have already happened. Somehow this knowledge deadens the desired effect of any immediacy of tragedy.

Visually,the film is a stunner. Verdant estate walks,pooled and mossy retreats, coastal waters and silvered strands are all here. Juxtaposed against mildewed barracks and tented surgeries, the camera plays up the idyllic. This is a film for the romantic idealist. Poetry plays a major part. Nursing and self-sacrifice a close second. I particularly enjoyed the close-ups of clothes pins, and lace curtains airing, burnished-leather books and library tables. The “fallen in combat” list is movingly shot. World War I trenches with the barbed wire and rain-soaked misery visually confront the real. Images seem to overtake dialogue.Yet,the words spoken are memorable. When Vera apologizes for her “Masonic secret” jibe and for being “caught up with myself” in her angst over her Oxford entrance exam,Roland ( Kit Harrington ) responds with “I worked it out for myself.” To this our feminist precursor states,”And so will I!”

Always fully chaperoned,usually by Aunt Belle, Roland and Vera both wishing to become writers use poetry to awaken their emotions. Roland pens “errant hair had sunbeams in it/There shone all/April in your eyes”. Their romance begins.

Vera’s later pleadings of “I want to know the truth”, and “Talk to me or how can I understand.” leads to her volunteering for the Front. With thirty men to a hut,Vera nurses the enemy prisoners of war. She speaks German and comforts;she closes the dead’s eyes;she bandages her brother and sends him off again to battle. This is a long film.

Furloughed for three days, Roland, battle-fatigued, heartlessly pushes Vera to the sand. She stands and dramatically pleads as she touches her heart, “This part of you,don’t destroy it”. Roland’s “It might be gone already.” is the film’s saddest line, even sadder than “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. We need to learn to live with them.” Vera goes on to give rousting anti-war speeches, “No more the endless cycle of revenge”, I say, “No More”.

Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson,as mother and teacher respectively, play their types well. The four men in Vera’s early life, brother,father, fiancée and family friend highlight “coming of age” traits like impatience,dutifulness, and playfulness. The endnote tells us Vera later marries George Catlin, the pacifist,and they have two children. Could this mean a sequel is in the offing. I’ll no doubt see it,but maybe at home as the episodes roll by.

“Amy”

Asif Kapadia’s documentary on British jazz singer Amy Winehouse is heartbreakingly powerful. Seeing such talent consumed by bad choices and bad circumstances moves one to tears. Whether Winehouse is belting out tunes,licking lollipops or hazed in cigarette smoke,her fixations make one wish to set her straight. At least straight out of the arms of creepy boyfriend and later husband,Blake Fielder. Their three-year marriage was a disaster, as were the outfits he encouraged Amy to prance around in. One wants to shout into the screen “lose the loser” even as one views the footage of their marriage soiled in heroin and crack cocaine.

The documentary does a great job of meshing celebrity culture with its hanger-ons, greedy family members, and retreating friends. Amy with her ugly tats and blond streak in her dark hair is reckless and tasteless,vulnerable yet mouthy.  Shown as “a force of nature” with lots of attitude and charisma, she is fun to be around, but snarky and cutting when she needs attention. An over abundance of headshots shows her in back seats, under pink kitty-printed blankets and being interviewed on late night tv. Such raw talent, sincere and sultry is what moves us. Seeing her slide into bulimia and drugs is painful. This viewer kept mouthing the words: “somebody help her!” Having a daughter born just three months before Amy in 1983, I was more than touched that Amy did not live long enough to make it to her twenty-eighth birthday. If Winehouse was an “old soul” with her jazz phrasing and soulful rasp, she was a toddler in playing with risky choices. The need for direction was not there from her parents,her Jewish religion or her more loyal friends. Michael Jackson was her brother-in-death.

Born in 1983, dead in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, Amy Winehouse’s story is a celebration of her big, tempestuous sound. Listen to her North London “Moon River” and be astounded. Amy’s story is beautifully structured through her own lyrics. Having her words on-screen is moving and enlightening.You want to immediately download her  “I can still taste better days” so it will  not leave you. “Rehab”, “Stronger Than Me”, “You Know I’m No Good”,and “Back To Black”,a slang term for heroin, moves listeners emotionally. The documentary lifts Amy Winehouse out of the muck and stills the late night jokes. It makes you want to hug James Taylor, Carole King and Tony Bennett. Amy, your story makes us what to bring out the strings.

“Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl” and “The Fault In Our Stars”

Last year on June 6th, 2014, opening night, I saw John Greene’s film adaptation of “The Fault In Our Stars” with my husband, and two-hundred high school girls all in short-shorts. Evidentially, short-shorts are the “new thing” again, though I surmise their rise saves fabric for the industry as the one button cardigan saved money for the industry a few years back.

Greene’s book was better, deeper, and more literary with its Emily Dickinson allusions and major philosophical glimmerings than the film, but the second half of the adaptation is worth seeing. The first twenty minutes is slow with too much time given to Hazel’s early diagnosis and treatment, but once Hazel and Augustus hit Amsterdam,you remember first love.

Ansel Elgort (Augustus) is wonderful in his ability to show facial emotion, and Shailene Woodley is earnest and so believable as one of the dying teens. I liked Wilhem Defoe in an author’s role~here crazed and egotistical. I wish more time was spent on why Hazel so admired his book. I missed parent’s roles in the film, especially the warmth that the families showed in everyday dialogue. Laura Dern ,as Hazel’s mother, was well-portrayed as the mother who would come running sodden from her shower if need be. Gus’ parents were not given much play in the script. This is a shame because Greene developed these characters so well that Hazel and Gus’ story became their story,too.

This year’s piggyback film, “Me, Earl,and The Dying Girl” is more flawed, and certainly not an improvement on “The Fault In Our Stars”. With my own mother, a dear neighbor’s daughter, and a former student’s child all suffering from blood diseases, I was not in a hurry to be reminded that blood is life’s flow. With dire warnings of depression, nausea, and general hopelessness, I made my way to Director Alphonso Gomez-Regon’s “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” classic story start. From the general info of “this is what high school is like” with its tribes and nations (what we called “cliques” )the filmgoer is goosed with claymation-like mini-figures of a moose and a chipmunk. These animals and their interplay are supposed to conceptualize our protagonist’s fears when approached by an attractive female classmate.

In fact, crafts play a big part in “Me, Earl, And The Dying Girl”. The lovely and expressive Olivia Cooke (Rachel) scissors vignettes from the middle of her absent father’s favorite books, Earl (R.J.Cyler) slices red felt into hemoglobin cell props for a film gift to Rachel, and Greg ( Thomas Mann) uses self-created miniatures to depict his voice overs and his film parodies. The film parodies are some of the funniest moments as button-faced socks and orange juice become “Sock Work Orange” instead of “Clockwork Orange”, and “Eyes Wide Butt” becomes “Eyes Wide Shut”. “Breathe Less” for “Breathless” and “Rosemary Baby Carrots”, “2:48 Cowboy”, and “The 400 Bros” are a few others.

If Greg is “invisible, self-hating and detached” as Rachel at one time sums up his character. He is also bright and funny in his self-deprecation. The narcissism of emerging adults is well shown. “It’s me, in convenient gel form.” Greg announces to the drug -dosed patient. Later, Greg offers a strong dose of “gregitol”. Placing Rachel in the “boring, Jewish girls sub.group 2A ” further makes Greg seem like he is daily having lunch in Kandahar.

I have not read the Jesse Andrews book, but I did not like the adult depictions in his screenplay. Unlike John Greene’s depictions, Andrews shows well-meaning,but dysfunctional parents. Nick Offerman as Greg’s father is always in his bathrobe,sometimes leather belted,always holding his Persian cat, always eating gourmet entries and talking about his on-going academic thesis. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton)is always pushing and gently nagging,yet she does not seem to be aware that Greg is failing the last semester of his senior year. In one rather funny scene,Britton’s yammering,her non-stop word stream,turns Greg into a swirming worm on his bedroom floor. Her son calls his mother the Le Bron James of nagging. No teacher,not even the favored history/counselor Mr. McCarthy calls or effectively intervenes: all easy support with no effective outcome. Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon) drinks to numb her pain and “comes on” to the boys for some inappropriate succor. Offering teens alcohol is her added recipe for pain release. Even the “adult” limo driver for the senior prom is an real clown. Rachel’s father primarily talked to her by counting squirrels on their walks. Adults don’t fair well in this film.

Greg offers a few silly ,laughter-causing remedies for Rachel:”Enter a sub-human state” or “pretend you are dead”. The latter he apologizes for,for its insensitivity. Screen headings like “Day One Of A Doomed Relationship” remind us that this is Greg’s journey in befriending a mortality -challenged girl. Rachel is in stage four cancer,yet she helps Greg write his personal essay for his college app. and later sends an excuse for his lack of diligence.We know she is his real mentor for his future. I think this last awakening is the reason for the Sundance  Audience Award. Learning how to keep learning about a lost one is a conscious force of will. Skimming the surface of a person is a poor substitute for diving in. Greg returning to Rachel’s room and finding squirrels among the treed wall paper is one of my favorite scenes.

Brian Endo does a beautiful job with the original score. The cinematography is stifling indoors, but an attempt is made to use stairways and narrow, sky-lit pathways to elevate the horizon. Overall, I preferred the romantic treatment of “The Fault In Our Stars” to the awkward push/ pull friendships in “Me”. And “Dope”, previously reviewed, is a better coming of age film,yet.

“Gemma Bovery”

French film rarely disappoints me, and this “reworking” of art mirroring life as life mirroring art is a gem! In a Normandy village near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert penned the novel “Madame Bovary”. In this same village our imaginative baker,Martin Joubert, (Fabrice Lucheni) takes over. His balanced and peaceful life is made dramatic and intense with the coming of new British neighbors, Gemma and Charlie.

The film begins with a flashback of Charles (Jason Flamyng) burning Gemma’s things. We see lingerie,furniture, and magazines hit the flames of a front yard bonfire. The lovely Gemma’s diary is saved by our baker. The backstory of her marriage and the bothersome calls from Charlie’s ex-wife are briefly chronicled. The tear-stained pages are difficult to read,but we learn that Charles wished for a radical new start in the French countryside.

Back to the present we encounter Gus, the baker’s dog, hot in pursuit of Carrington,Gemma’s pooch. This animalistic and humorous symbolism continues throughout the movie. Our baker’s yeasty risings are paired with those of his mongrel’s. Martin tells us that “ten years of sexual tranquility” is up-ended as he watches Gemma smell his loaves and gather cosmos into bouquets. In one scene, Gemma is stung by a bee. Martin is asked to remove her dress and suck out the bee’s venom. Anaphylactic shock has the gorgeous Gemma ( Gemma Arterton) meet yet another admirer. This young law student lives  with his countess mother, and he provides the sexiest scenes.

The twenty-nine-year-old British Arterton is lovely whether exercising, painting or conjugating French verbs. Her up-turned upper lip is photographed in rain-hazed windows and in music-box-like dancing in a cathedral setting. Yet, heels and trench coat out fit her with the tools of seduction. Her printed cotton dresses do the trick,too. Love sick eyes are everywhere, even when her dastardly ex-boyfriend Patrick (Mel Raido) re-emerges to cause more harm. The blond curls and youth of Herve (Niels Schneider), the countess’ s son, only bring about adultery and ugly neck marks in comparison.

But this film is really, Martin’s story. And his tale is a surprising one. Only the French can make a romantic film “romantic” while making fun of romance,too. The French can celebrate life’s tragedies with a joy in life’s craziness. Director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer turned a graphic novel by Posey Simmonds into a refreshing,playful and thoughtful film.

Enjoy Martin’s brief socialist/capitalistic harangue, and his admonishment to his smirking son:” I’d rather you took drugs than talk crap.” Martin’s re-reading of Flaubert’s “….she was waiting for something to happen..” is wonderful and entrancing. Film viewers may rediscover the novel. If you wish to see bread kneaded seductively, beautiful bodies in lust,and a fanciful watcher trying to save the day, see this film as the French “staff of life”. Somehow the French “get it” with cupids and croissants and death and irony. I am joyful that a sequel called “Anna Karenina” may soon follow.

“Inside Out”

My favorite line in the Pixar-Disney Animated Studio’s new summer release is the off-hand lament : “Facts and opinions look so similar.” This remark should not be surprising since five core emotions rage on screen: Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness. Abstract thought is waiting in the wings as the inner workings of a child’s developing mind is awash in these emotions characterized and animated in colors and duties. Another favorite tossed off truism is “Emotions can’t quit, genius!”

This inventive film uses French fry forests,a bag of yellow joy balls, a Brazilian helicopter pilot,caramel corn curls and flowing ice-skating sequences to entrance and delight. Emotional intelligence has never been so teachable. Emotions work together. It is evident that psychologists were consulted as the mind’s interior workings are illustrated in the development of baby Riley. The storyboard takes us to Riley’s eleventh year as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her “train of thought” is a train. Her personality aspects are “islands”,for instance,Goofball Island and Honesty Island. Memories go “long term” during sleep. We stack memories and have to work on keeping them with us as “core memories”. Memories fade to the “dump” when we don’t take care of them. The “mind library” is made concrete. And in terms of technology,one wants Joy to be in control of our “console”.

Core emotions tussle. Anger yells “the foot is down”,and imagination as an amalgam of animals is named Bing Bong. He has adorable heart-shaped nostrils and saves Joy with a Radio-Flyer rocket transport. The co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen are also the writers and they keep the voices of Amy Poehler (Joy) and Diane Ladd (Riley’s mother) especially strong.

The labyrinthine mazes in getting back to headquarters were hard to “find the fun” in,just like in real circumstances, but the suggestion that we “could cry until we can’t breathe” was presented as a silly option. The fact was stated and shown that Sadness is needed to return to Joy. As we grow our “console” expands and we even incur a “curse word library”.

No cursing will be done in viewing this sweet celebration of our emotional workings. Take a youngster and find that talking about feelings need not be a subconscious fear. I am certain that a sequel is in the offing. The pin-ball like gaming and the air transport tubes may have a drone or two added as those brain fragmentations and incidents of déjà vu present themselves.