Review: Southpaw

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DIR: Antoine Fuqua • WRI: Kurt Sutter • PRO: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Antoine Fuqua, David Ranes, Alan Riche, Peter Riche, Ning Ye • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: Derek R. Hill • MUS: James Horner • DES: James D. Bissell • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson, Oona Laurence, Rita Ora

 

Antoine Fuqua’s recent entry into the boxing canon Southpaw is visceral yet manipulative. It is a generic rags-to-riches story which includes a little girl (Laurence) whose sole purpose in the narrative is to try her best to make the audience weep. The film is steeped in melodrama.

Southpaw originated as vehicle for rapper Eminem who instead just provides the soundtrack. The lead role of Billy Hope (that’s no joke) was taken on by Jake Gyllenhaal. This proves a blessing for the film. Gyllenhaal’s performance as Billy Hope seems like Jake La Motta light. However, he adds a bumbling pathos to an innately clichéd character with an already well-worn path to follow down the film’s over-familiar plot.

Not only does Gyllenhaal borrow from Robert De Niro’s classic performance, Southpaw and its director borrows from almost every boxing film ever made, most glaringly from Raging Bull (1980). Fuqua lifts shots from a film which was so uniquely conceived 35 years previously. Genre tropes are hard to avoid in this kind of film but Southpaw indulges in them without a glimmer of self-consciousness.

Some fine acting by Gyllenhaal, McAdams as his wife and Forest Whitaker as his coach make this film watchable, but such is Fuqua’s appetite for the mundane, none of them can flourish. Gyllenhaal’s transformation is something to behold. The male body is something that has recently come to the forefront of Irish culture as the vast majority gaze toward the form of Conor McGregor in sexualised awe and appreciation. Gyllenhaal’s transformation from night crawler to buff brawler is commendable and raises more comparisons with De Niro’s ‘method’ acting in Raging Bull.

Fuqua not only sexualises his lead but also his counterpart McAdams. He does so for the sake of it. McAdams’ performance already oozes sexual confidence and social awareness. She is the brains of the operation. Fuqua ruins the elegance of her performance by exploiting her with his camera, like she is starring in a 50 Cent or Eminem music video. It is a misguided attempt at gender politics, another staple of the boxing genre.

Leger Grindon posits in his seminal essay Body and Soul: The Structure of the Boxing Genre ‘The boxer’s career unfolds in an exclusively male world which retards the fighter’s emotional development and intensifies his difference from women’. He goes on to say ‘In the romance, the female protagonist is associated with mainstream culture and the family’. All Billy knows is how to box. The distance from women is not as intense because of his relationship with his wife and daughter. However, it is them that teach him everything else he needs to know about life. McAdam’s character repeats the importance of home and family like it is a mantra, her philosophies are echoed by her daughter towards the end of the narrative.

 Grindon continues ‘Whereas the society of the boxer is defined not simply as male, but also as undeveloped and apart’. Billy Hope cannot conform to the rules of society. It is a tragic flaw for him, but especially for those closest to him. He constantly questions societal boundaries, lashing out in anger if he cannot transcend him, flipping tables if he cannot find the words he needs to express his feelings.

Causal filmgoers will probably enjoy this film. However, there are much better examples of this genre. Anyone who has seen the best ones will not enjoy such a clichéd affair. What must be stressed is do not, under any circumstances, watch the trailer for this film. It gives away too much plot points.

Tom Crowley

 

15A (See IFCO for details)
123 minutes

Southpaw is released 31st July 2015

 

 

 

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Cinema Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

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Dir: Justin Chadwick Wri: William Nicholson Pro: Anant Singh DOP: Lol Crawley  ED: Rick Russell DES: Johnny Breedt • MUS: Alex Heffes • CAST: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto, Robert Hobbs

Nelson Mandela’s death was announced at the end of the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. I wonder how the film affected the audience’s reaction to the news – perhaps Idris Elba’s performance moved them to shed tears they otherwise wouldn’t have? Did those scenes of vicious terror campaigns and wife-beating complicate anyone’s view of the man? Or did the film bring the great loss home, but for the wrong reasons; because it became clear that a popular culture representation of such a life can never do justice to it?

The film follows Mandela from his childhood – or, rather, we see just enough of Mandela the youth to get a sense of his tribal origins before skipping forward to Mandela the young lawyer. These sections are the film’s high points – the portrait of the young statesman as nonviolent political agitator, as charismatic womaniser and eventually, yes, wife-beater, is uncompromising. Soon he joins the ANC, meets Winnie Madikizela (Naomi Harris), who becomes his second wife, and becomes radicalised by the poverty and discrimination that is rampant in 1950s Johannesburg. Mandela renounces nonviolence and begins a terror campaign, goes on the run and is arrested. He and his allies are sentenced to life and shipped off to Robben Island. From then on, the film’s business is compression and reduction. 20 minutes for those 27 years – the decade after 1990 is positively galloped through, considering that that was when so much that was world-altering took place.

But there are greater sins than mere unevenness. Biographical films often aim for the elegance of an artful written biography by means of a sort of patterning. A theme is introduced within the story, before being reduced to a single visual cue that is repeated when significant-seeming. If you’re writing a biography, when certain past events are pertinent you can just bring them up again. But in film all you have are these few selective moments you’ve chosen to repeat. For example, whenever Mandela faces a challenge, there’s a flashback to a right-of-passage ceremony he took part in as a youth. The point is obvious, but simplistic. Political issues are reduced to internal personal struggles. What I’m getting at: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom isn’t just unbalanced, it’s unsophisticated. Gandhi was, Lincoln was, Malcolm X was – it’s probably just a characteristic of the genre.

The film does do interesting things with the real-world subject matter. Scenes of government violence, such as the Soweto massacre, are shot with documentary realism, lending them a TV news-style feeling of actuality. The courtroom scene makes effective use of an abridged version of Mandela’s actual 4-hour speech to the judge before his incarceration. And even though Elba doesn’t look much like Mandela, his accent is excellent, far better than, say, Morgan Freeman’s in Invictus. Watts’ Winnie Mandela almost shows Elba up, and the film deals admirably well with her life during Mandela’s years behind bars. But, like many biopics, the Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom feels like a missed opportunity.

Darragh John McCabe

12A (See IFCO for details)

146  mins

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is released on 3rd January 2014

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom– Official Website

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