I, Tonya: Movie Man Jackson

Why can’t it be just about the skating? If it were only about the skating, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) would probably end up as the best figure skater to ever do it. At the age of four she embarked on this career path, driven by her overbearing mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). The talent is evident from the first time she shows her skills in an older age group. Eventually, she becomes the first woman to land a triple axel.

If it were only about the skating, Tonya’s story would be a happy one. But exposed to the constant abuse from LaVona and her first love Jeff (Sebastian Stan), the volatility of her situation places her down a tragic path of darkness, culminating with “the incident” against competitor Nancy Kerrigan that would come to define her life.

Sure, the world may have gotten the great ESPN 30 for 30 in The Price of Gold, but it is kind of surprising that it took almost a quarter-century for the infamous Tonya Harding incident to be captured onto the silver screen. Jordan years (that’s 23 for the non-sports fans out there) later, I, Tonya officially arrives in the awards season and winds up standing as very, very surprising film.

Sometimes tone and approach can be the most important factors as it pertains to how well a movie’s story is told and whether it resonates or not. Massive kudos must be given to director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Fright Night 2011), writer/producer Steven Rogers, producers Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Bryan Unkeless, and even Tonya Harding herself who serves as a consultant for the movie for nailing these two components. There’s an alternate universe where I, Tonya is super dry and told with a straight face. That recipe is likely a forgettable view.

Why? Because the preposterous life story of Tonya Harding—from 4 years old on to her celebrity boxing stint—is too unbelievable not to chuckle or even laugh hard at; it might as well be a fiction except it actually happened. The Office-like format in storytelling takes a little while to find a groove, and the fourth-wall breaking isn’t always smoothly deployed, but necessary to seeing how the main characters’ recollection of the events are not the same. However, using this method allows a more emotionally-affecting look into Ms. Harding herself. Seriously, I Tonya goes there to those dark, icy, and uncomfortable places. Gillespie and company do the right thing in straying away from painting Tonya as a complete victim, but rather, examining how one, even with immense talent, is rather hopeless to beat a self-fulfilling prophecy without a stable environment.

Some biographies—especially around awards season—are rather tepid, absent of any spirit or excitement. Not, I, Tonya. The characters, from major to minor, pop off the screen. A mid-80’s to early 90’s soundtrack envelopes the screen with electricity. Gillespie’s skating scenes are some of the more breathtaking sequences of the entire year, filmed with grace and elegance.This is never a dull watch.

The energy is obviously carried into the performances as well. As mentioned, even the bit players in Julianne Nicholson, McKenna Grace, Bobby Cannavale, and Paul Walter Hauser (a real scene-stealer midway through as Tonya’s bodyguard) make their imprint on the feature. But this film is anchored by its superstar trifecta in Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney. Robbie is firmly a superstar who raises anything she’s in at this point, and her work as the troubled figure skater is her career-best, deftly switching between sadness, anger, and dark humor and remaining a character and not a caricature despite some embellishment. A moment midway through where Robbie asks a judge about what exactly they have against her and why it is not solely about skating is gut-wrenching.

Stan, who ironically was in a vastly movie with clear parallels to Tonya Harding in The Bronze, continues to cement himself as more than the Winter Soldier, and here’s to hoping his Marvel future doesn’t prevent him from doing more work like this. Janney is unrecognizable in her turn portraying Harding’s mother, ruthless, brow-beating, and foul-mouthed and the center of her daughter’s troubles and issues. Undoubtedly one of the definitive standout performances the 2017 calendar year.

What is truth? Jumbled, because everyone has their own version of it, according to the movie. But the truth is that with damn near flawless execution, a ton of energy, and top-notch performances, I, Tonya stands out as one of the more memorable biopics in recent memory.

A-

Photo credits go to vulture.com, usmagazine.com, teaser-trailer.com, and variety.com

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Bleed for This: Movie Man Jackson

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Only a matter of time before we get the Butterbean silver screen treatment. Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) has amassed much fame and fortune as a fighter. What he doesn’t have in pure skill he has in pure heart. That heart has led him to hold two belts across two different weight classes.

Shortly after winning the junior middleweight world title, Pazienza is on the receiving end of a vicious car accident, rendering him bedridden and his spine in a bad place. “The Pazmanian Devil” is unlikely to fight again, and walking again is a 50/50 proposition with the procedure he goes under. However, this procedure, which requires him to wear a bulky steel device called a Halo screwed into his head, is a procedure that could bring Paz back into the ring, despite everyone’s insistence that he give up these dreams. But he’s a fighter, and it is impossible to keep a fighter down for a 10 count.

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OK, so maybe we are still a ways away from the Butterbean biopic. But it is quite clear that even if the sport of boxing is in a steady popularity decline, Hollywood’s is still very interested in making movies about the sweet science. Outside of a slim few, one knows what they’re going to get when viewing a boxing movie. Bleed for This clinches to the well-worn boxing movie formula.

Rise, fall, adversity, rise. Flip the order in whichever way; as long as it ends with rise, that is the general plot of boxing movie, whether fictional or true. No different is done in Bleed for This. However, the script, penned by director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) does benefit from this actually happening. Though conventional, it does it does resonate a little simply because it was real life, an actual individual went through this and persevered through it. And albeit rushed in a few spots, the script feels pretty true to life, respecting and not embellishing Paz’s story.

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There are many ways for boxing judges to score rounds. One way is to look at the round in three parts, as it consists of three minutes most often. That’s how yours truly looked at Bleed for This. It’s got a solid, if unspectacular, start with a decent fight between Paz and Roger Mayweather. The final act features some good heartfelt moments and a well-staged boxing bout between Roberto Duran (how cool would it have been if Hands of Stone somehow connected with this?) and Pazienza. But a good chunk in the middle is a little of a slog to get through once Vinny comes home from the surgery up until he decides to go against doctor’s orders. Another issue of the screenplay is that Paz isn’t all that distinguishable from other fighters, from a character level, pretty one note. He’s got a fighting, never say no spirit…but so do the bulk of fighters.

The criticism of Paz’s slim character isn’t an indictment on the job Miles Teller does here. Rather it just makes one wish that there was more Teller could explore of the famed boxer’s character. From what he is given, Teller looks the part as a fighter and sells the physical pain and the dogged resolve it took to come back from this career and life-threatening injury. Aaron Eckhart is fun to watch, simultaneously offering a dash of levity along with with sincerity for the well-being of his boxer. Steady hands in Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, and Ted Levine are present and support the feature when asked to.

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Bleed for This sports a few good jabs and straights, but not enough of a sustained combination to contend for the top spot of boxing film heavyweights. Don’t expect knockout power.

C+

Photo credits go to awfulannouncing.com, boxingnewsandviews.com, and soafanatic.com

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Hands of Stone: Movie Man Jackson

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Even the most stony of fighters become soft sometimes. Panamanian Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramírez) was born into nothing; no education, no father to learn from, etc. His home country of Panama is under political turmoil from the United States of America. In spite of all of this, Duran uses this to become a skilled and hardened boxer. 

With the help of legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert de Niro), Duran makes his way up the ranks, undefeated, to challenge fellow undefeated lightweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV). Duran gets to the apex of the boxing sport, but everyone knows that the fall is easily as precipitous, if not more so, than the rise.

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What to make of Hands of Stone, the latest boxing epic in a genre that seems to have found revitalized life in the last year? Well, much of what has been made before, really. This is to say that Hands of Stone is watchable, good in some aspects, poor in others. If it were a 15 round fight, it goes about 7 and a half.

The film is directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, unknown to this viewer before this film. Pretty clear to see he’s got passion for this project, and is dedicated to telling if not all of the highs and lows of Duran’s story, than at least most of them. The production does suffer from a few things. There’s really no sense of time even with the date stamps provided; yours truly was a little shocked that some of the fights and events in the film were much more spaced out according to Wikipedia then they appeared to be in the film. Particularly, the end comes very quick, not too long after our hero has hit rock bottom. A real oddity is the inclusion of nudity. I’m no prude (especially for the beautiful Ana de Armas), but the bare skin serves nothing to the story and it actually goes on a little long.

As for the in-ring action, it is sort of disappointing. Perhaps we are all still spoiled off of Creed with the technical prowess Ryan Coogler exhibited in his pugilism scenes. Hands of Stone can sometimes look like it was filmed with stone hands. Jakubowicz loves the 180 degree pans—not only for fighting—and it can become a little annoying. Questionable camera angles exist as well; for every good sequence, an equally scattershot one is found where it can be hard to discern what is going on. Whether the result of stars that can’t go in the ring, or poor direction, it is nonetheless frustrating.

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A few points on the scorecard are earned for the very solid work turned in the cast, though. Not counting Grudge Match, it is interesting to see Robert de Niro return to a boxing movie as a trainer, like Sly did as Rocky (obviously not being as linear). This isn’t a return to form for the legend, but it is certainly way less embarrassing than his appearance in Dirty Grandpa, and dry and unneeded story narration aside, he delivers a few dramatic highlights.

However, he’s actually outshined by a few of his less heralded cast-mates. Edgar Ramírez is Duran, and in a better movie we may be talking about his performance more. He’s compelling even in somewhat of a basic biographical/rise-fall boxing movie, and not a cookie-cutter protagonist, that term being used loosely here. All things considered, Usher keeps up and looks the role of Sugar Ray Leonard, not forcing Raymond to have to stretch too much as a pretty boy. Ana de Armas shows she can be much more than a pretty face moving forward, she’s very capable opposite Ramírez.

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Upon its conclusion, Hands of Stone feels like a boxer who has the potential knockout power, but never cared to learn how to box and take in the sweet science. He’s missing a few crucial things to make himself a true contender.

C-

Photo credits go to comingsoon.net, teaser-trailer.com, and traileraddict.com.

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TRI: Movie Man Jackson

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Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. When matters get tough for medical technician Natalie (Jensen Jacobs), she has never been the one to harden up and buckle down. In her life, she has left many things unfinished, which is something her husband, Rex (Jaylen Moore), as well as her good friend, Skyler (Walker Hays), haven’t exactly let her forget.

Upon encouragement from one of her cancer patients, Candice (Shawn Pelofsky), Natalie signs up for her first triathlon. 12 weeks isn’t an extremely long time to train, but it does afford her the opportunity to meet others who are using this triathlon for their own personal discovery. In them, she can find strength when she feels like quitting.

Directed by Jai Jamison, Tri (pronounced “try”) is an award-winning film scoring accolades like Film of the Year, Best Actress (Jensen Jacobs), Best Family/Faith-based film, and more from festivals such as the Northern Virginia International Film & Music Festival and the Boston International Film Festival. Its story is a simple one of overcoming adversity, and ultimately cancer.

Tri looks and plays out like a better Lifetime movie. This isn’t a slight, in this case, it is quite the praise. The cast is very sound in their performances, and most have had experience in movies before. That goes a long way in making the characters they play believable. They feel like real characters with real struggles, fears, doubts, etc., especially the central character played by Jensen Jacobs. She’s relatable, a person we’ve all been most likely during one time or another. The editing, sometimes a trouble spot in very small budgeted productions, has a nice, consistent flow to it, and the scenes where some of the characters are fighting with their internal thoughts are pulled off well. The only occasional personal annoyance is the overuse of background songs a few times.

Tri is an uplifting and grounded film, the result of its writing team having firsthand experience in triathlon training and completion, cancer survival, and the heartbreak that cancer loss can have on loved ones. The film is likely to be most powerful for those who may be embarking on a long program or lifestyle change, such as a marathon or weight loss, or dealing with the tragic loss of somebody dear at a particular time. With that said, though, its main lesson of trying, having the benefit of a support system, and not giving up no matter the circumstances can be applicable anywhere no matter the circumstances.

B

I’d like to thank Clint Morris for reaching out to me and providing me an opportunity to watch this good film. Some additional information:

TRI,  which earlier this year walked away with the top prize at the Northern Virginia International Film & Music Festival, begins at the Strand Theatre, Delaware Friday August 19.

The screening coincides with the Ironman race in Delaware, Ohio on Aug. 21.

 

TRI is an inspiring, emotionally-charged drama about a medical technician with a history of not finishing things who is inspired by a cancer patient to sign up for her first Triathlon.  The film’s potent garland of performers includes Jensen Jacobs and legendary TV star Tim Reid.

Natalie (Award-winning actress Jensen Jacobs), an ultrasound tech with a history of not finishing things, is inspired by a cancer patient to sign up for a Triathlon. Natalie is introduced to the strange (and aerodynamic) world of triathletes and meets a colorful cast of characters as she trains for the Nation’s Triathlon. With the support of her new teammates, she digs deep to discover just how far she can push her mind and body.

TRI is the first scripted feature narrative about triathlons that has been developed for theatrical release. Triathlon is the fastest growing endurance sport in the world and was the fastest growing of all sports in the UK in 2014. There are over 600,000 athletes registered with USA Triathlon, and over 3.2 million worldwide. 

Tickets are on sale now

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Any Given Sunday: Movie Man Jackson

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On Any Given Sunday, a hero can fall, and a hero can rise. The Miami Sharks, once one of the best franchises in their football league, have fallen on hard times. They aren’t a profitable franchise anymore, and owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) is contemplating moving the team. They’ve lost four straight, and Coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) has just lost his 38 year old quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) to a debilitating injury.

In relief of Cap comes Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), a talented-yet-inexperienced young quarterback. Beamen begins to lead the team to success, but also clashes with D’Amato and his no-nonsense approach. If that weren’t enough, owner Pagniacci may have had enough of the coach’s refusal to adapt to the new age. There’s an unforgiving game played on the gridiron, but the game played outside of it can be just as unforgiving, if not more so.

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When it comes to football movies, there are generally a few classics that are at the top or near the top of every list. Rudy, Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard. One that doesn’t get mentioned as often but in the opinion of yours truly is just as fulfilling, if not more than those aforementioned movies, is the Oliver Stone-directed Any Given Sunday. It’s a movie I loved when I was young, and one I believe gets better and better with age.

Stylistically, like many of Stone’s movies, Any Given Sunday can be very hyperactive, full of cuts, splices, and the like. It is annoying in some movies, but in AGS, the style works wonderfully, in particular, the football scenes. They are so frenetic and fast paced to show that American football, in spite of all of its downtime between plays, is a manic couple of seconds when those plays are going on. Specifically, Stone captures what playing quarterback would be like stepping into a pressure cooker for the first time at the highest level of football. For my money, the opening scene when Foxx’s Beamen arrives to the line of scrimmage for the first time set to Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now is one of my favorites opening scenes of cinema ever, regardless of genre.

Stone doesn’t only focus on the football, though. Any Given Sunday is just as interested in the stuff that occurs outside of the hashmarks as it is inside of them. The business side of football, the locker room side of football, and the personal side of football are all analyzed. In many ways, the issues and ideological clashes Stone brings attention to such as team doctor ethics, old-school pocket quarterbacking v.s. dual-threat quarterbacking, and whether players are nothing more than new slaves for ownership foreshadowed many hot-topic conversations that exist today in football.

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These stories are very compelling. But still, a major issue of the film is its runtime. Not so much due to bloating or information overload, but the random scenes Stone throws in here and there that just feel overindulgent. Spending roughly one full minute seeing players snort cocaine off of escorts, seeing a player lose an eye, and witnessing an offensive lineman having to go to the bathroom urgently make little sense as to why they had to be included.

Everyone does their jobs cast-wise with what their roles ask of them. Coach D’Amato is one of Pacino’s best recent performances, which says a lot about his recent roles when one considers this was released in 1999. Despite the odd wardrobe for a coach, Pacino feels like a guy who has been around the game for a while, seen a lot of things, and is unsure about his place in the game as it becomes more modernized. Of course, his inches monologue is legendary and galvanizing. I’d say, however, that he is equaled or even upstaged by Jamie Foxx, taking on his first real dramatic role as “Steamin” Willie Beamen. Looking the part of the respective athletic position is important for any football movie, and it is easy to see Foxx’s natural athletic ability. But he’s so good next to Pacino, as a good amount of the film is the two characters coming at each other from different viewpoints. Beamen has layers; dynamic yet traditional, arrogant yet rightfully convicted in his skills. Willie Beamen is one of my personal favorite characters in any film, period.

Notable actors include Dennis Quaid as the grizzled quarterback who knows about leading a locker room, LL Cool J as a selfish running back only looking after himself (his character’s clashes with Beamen feel all the more real as Foxx/LL had real issues with one another), James Woods as a questionable-at-best team doctor, Aaron Eckhart as an up-and-coming coordinator, and Cameron Diaz who really impresses as a female owner/general manager who is very much hands-on. Non-actors such as Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown, while not exactly being stretched and for good reason, add to the proceedings and actually give the production an air of legitimacy.

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Any Given Sunday still serves as the truest movie representation of pro football and all of its issues that aren’t confined to the field. It might not be at the consensus very top of the draft board for football movies, but it hits just as hard in the entertainment department, if not harder than, those oft-mentioned movies at the top.

A-

Photo credits go to footballsfuture.com, esquire.com, and bluray.highdefdigest.com.

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Major League: Back to the Minors: Movie Man Jackson

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Spring training in full swing, which means it’s time to go back to the major leagues. Or—in this case—the minor leagues. Aging ball player Gus Cantrell (Scott Bakula) is playing out the string of his career in Fort Myers, Florida at the single A level. Unsure of what to do next, he is offered the manager’s position of the Minnesota Twins’ AAA team “The Buzz” by Twins owner Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), ex third baseman and owner of the Cleveland Indians.

Persuaded by his fiancée to do so, Gus takes the job, and immediately finds coaching this roster a struggle, albeit stacked with star potential that needs to be coached, such as Billy “Downtown” Anderson (Walton Goggins). As things slowly begin to turn around for the Buzz, more focus is placed on the Minnesota Twins’ struggling big league team and their idiotic manager, Leonard Huff (Ted McGinley). Feeling threatened, Leonard challenges Gus to a challenge. The AAA team versus his major league team. Just who is the best team in the Minnesota Twins’ baseball organization?

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Will there every be a Major League III? Technically, sort of, the world has already received it in Major League: Back to the Minors. Back to the Minors is the reason why the world and sports movie fans are likely to never get a Major League III/IV, or whatever proper sequel to Major League II.

Depending on who you talk to, BTTM is regarded as better than MLII. In the opinion of yours truly, that isn’t a sentiment I agree with, but to be fair, Back to the Minors isn’t aiming as high as II. There are a few links to the prior ones, but it often does feel standalone compared to those, which is OK, but also a big disappointment. With the Major League name, one expects entertaining characters, whether lovable ones (Willie Mays Hayes), or despised ones (Jack Parkman). BTTM features past characters who are forced in their inclusion and/or watered down (Pedro Cerrano, Roger Dorn, Taka Tanaka), but mainly new characters who just aren’t interesting. This is one of the movie’s biggest issues. It lacks the sports drama (and the humor) of the first Major League, and is absent of the humor (albeit dumber), that is present in Major League II. I hate comparing, but it is awfully hard not to.

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Not all characters are worthless, though. Scott Bakula is kind of a boring, but functional protagonist as the minor league manager and a good guy who just wants to see the best for these young players. He’s easy to cheer for. His antagonist big league manager is played by Ted McGinley. While he can be a little too over-the-top sometimes, and certainly no Rachel Phelps, he’s easily the most hilarious thing about Back to the Minors and is easy to hate.

As mentioned, this doesn’t exactly aim that high, but it is of shocking just how high the floor is. There is little effort put into the script, which does nothing to explain how Dorn became an owner again, or how exactly the two squads can play in the middle of the season. Cheap is the word that one could use to describe most of this movie. Not just in script, but in actual set location, directing, casting, etc. Triple A ballparks look more like Single A and Little League fields. The horrid special effects and noticeable green screen make it painfully obvious that nothing is really being done by anyone. It is a lesser-brought up reason as to why the first worked so well (and the second still passable), but seeing so many putrid effects really gives one an appreciation for Sheen, Snipes, Berenger, and the rest actually looking and performing like real ballplayers. Even if the Wild Thing Vaughn’s fastball was the result of HGH, it is the dedication that counts, right?

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I refuse to believe Major League: Back to the Minors had a budget of 46 million. There is just no way. Back to the Minors is like that knucleball pitch: Occasionally it’ll find the strike zone, but more times than not, the pitch misses it completely.

Grade: D-

Photo credits go to fan-interference.com, wikipedia.com, and ravepad.com.

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Creed: Movie Man Jackson

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“One step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time.”

A name is just a name…right? Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has lived a tough life during his 20-something odd years on this Earth. He’s been in and out of group homes never knowing his mother, or his father, who happens to be the deceased boxer and former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.

Adonis, like his father, is a hell of a fighter. But, after realizing his connection with the legendary prizefighter, he knows he needs to go all in to realize his true potential, knowing, however, that he wants to make it on his own without his father’s name. Which means leaving Los Angeles for Philadelphia to be trained by Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), now old and less than enthused to have anything to do with the ring. But, sensing something special in the kid, he relents, as Donnie may just have what it takes to be as good as, if not better than, Apollo.

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It seems like most, if not all, boxing movies pack the same punch story-wise, from the more recent Southpaw  to the granddaddy of boxing movies in Rocky. Really, Creed kind of follows the same structure. But, with that said, Creed is a complete crowd-pleaser. And, even though it is a standard boxing plot (coming up usually in a struggle, training, the main event), there are real surprises that give a movie a freshness that I did not know could exist.

“Your legacy is more than a name,” is the tagline, and message, that Creed carries. This message is one that isn’t seen too often, and makes a perfect point about accepting your “name,” history, and all that it entails while still making your own name and history. For some reason, I found this to be message and plotline to be hooking. As stated, this is the standard boxing tale of the rise of a fighter. But, the story doesn’t feel so rote because of the extra steps it takes to highlight aspects that aren’t about boxing. The fights outside of the ring are just as compelling as the ones inside of it. A few moments and dialogue can be a little corny, but it wouldn’t be in the Rocky universe without a little corniness and unintelligible speech, right?

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Make no mistake though, the action inside of the ring is a spectacle, filmed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station). He cares about the product that he’s putting out, mixing in many different camera shots (can’t remember the last time over-the-shoulder looked this great) to capture the sweet science so fluidly. The boxing is edge of the seat thrilling, with a haymaker of a score (with an great soundtrack as well) composed by Ludwig Göransson that brings in elements of the prior Rocky movies but ultimately making something original.

If there were those who believed that F4ntastic was a body blow to everyone, including Michael B. Jordan, involved in it, his knockout work as Adonis Creed proves that the man has a lot of staying power, if that wasn’t clear already. Adonis is a great character, with more to him than a man who just punches another man. Not to spoil anything as I believe the trailers did a relatively good job, but an early life reveal gives the younger Creed a ton of meaty backstory and actually differentiates him from most other cinematic boxers from a narrative perspective. He’s a complex character in the opinion of yours truly, full of confidence and self-doubt, his own man but not completely. Jordan gets the opportunity to show all of these aspects of his character and then some, and in the ring, he absolutely owns it, as fluid and natural as an actor can be. And though this shouldn’t matter, visually, he does look like he could be Apollo’s son.

Whoever thought that Rocky could ever be just as good of a trainer as Mickey was? As the old sage who is ready for life to pull the plug on him, ol’ Sly Stallone is better than he’s ever been since the first Rocky. He feels like a real character, going through real things that a man Rocky’s age goes through, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. Criticism has been given to Sly in the past for taking too much responsibility in films he appears in and not excelling in one particular area. Here, with a little creative control, he’s just asked to act, and he’s all the better for it. Tessa Thompson’s Bianca levels out the intensity with the type of support that Creed cannot get from Rocky. As far as in-ring opposition goes, the “big bad” played by real life fighter Tony Bellow may not be all that memorable, but he is a competent foil for the titular character, and in the story, it makes sense as to why the finale would happen.

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The sport of boxing itself has been on a steady overall decline, but with Creed, there may be a future for it on the big screen. With a dazzling three punch combination of excellent writing, superb acting, and detailed production, Creed lands flush and precise punches.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to theatlantic.com, and popinquirer.net.

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Southpaw: Movie Man Jackson

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“Mom always said it was us who took care of you.”

Well, at least this main event mostly delivered, unlike that May 2nd one. Light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has made his way from the tough foster home environment of Hell’s Kitchen to the bright lights inside the squared circle. At 43-0, he holds his division’s crown jewel and has been able to provide a comfortable life for his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), also from Hell’s Kitchen, and daughter Leila (Ooma Lawrence). He’s taken a beating, sure, but he’s been awfully strong at giving them out as well.

Always an emotional fireball, Billy emotions become harder to control once life gives him an uppercut he couldn’t have planned for. His actions in the aftermaths of these tragedies have lost him custody of Lelia, his finances, and his boxing career. Hope seems non-existent at this point, but Billy tries to find it from inner-city boxing trainer Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker). The fight to redemption will not be an easy one.

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If one is watching Southpaw and expecting a unique boxing story, that would be unwise. Yours truly enjoys boxing, but honestly, the sport, itself often featuring its best fighters coming from nothing to something, lends itself to the same type of story treatment that exists in the Rocky movies, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, etc. The trailer is, for all intents and purposes, the movie in Southpaw. No feinting of punches.

For most movies, that would be a bad thing. But even with well-worn story gloves, Southpaw manages to land most of its punches, primarily because of the work done by the cast. At this point, Jake Gyllenhaal may be one of the surest things in the business when it comes to turning in top-notch performances. Billy Hope is another role that he can put on his ever-impressive resume.

He is adept at displaying the raw emotion and fighting spirit his character carries in certain scenes, but also the lack of equilibrium that is represented by stammering his words, a probable result from one too many shots to the head. Undoubtedly, it is more stellar thespian work, but it would be a surprise to see an Oscar nomination only because the Hope character isn’t as layered as the people he played in, say Nightcrawler or Prisoners. If he didn’t get one in those, why here? But you never know about how other things are going to play out on the horizon.

He’s joined by a few others, some well known and some lesser known. Whitaker is essentially Paulie from Rocky, but he is needed to balance Hope out and truly build him back up, doubling as the trainer and the wise sage. Rachel McAdams is strong is Hope’s wife; not sure if the chemistry is tight with Gyllenhaal, though. The daughter part of the fractured father-daughter dynamic is done well by young Ooma Lawrence. Even Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is better than expected as his character amounts to a poor man’s Don King without the vocabulary.

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They all, especially Gyllenhaal of course, combine to elevate a been-there, done-that script. If Southpaw came out in the 70’s, or even the 80’s, it may and probably would be a critical darling. Alas, this is 2015, and the film doesn’t have the benefit. It is not a bad story, per se, but at times it and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) seem overly concerned with getting to the saddening moments without regard for pacing (too slow at points) or logical transitions (too fast at points). The story igniter that makes Billy spiral is hardly even explained. Even the great score, for example, done by the late James Hormer, feels like it is turned up to 11 just to make sure the audience doesn’t forget how to feel.

However, at the end of the day it doesn’t completely strip away the desire to see Hope rise back to the top, but when you’re waiting for Billy to put it back together, these things are noticed. It all builds to a finale that too goes as one would probably expect, but it is directly wonderfully and with little to no evidence of stunt doubles, further highlighting the investment that Gyllenhaal puts into his roles.

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Southpaw comes with the expected stance and fight plan most boxing films bring to the fight, which makes it easy to scout. But, at least it knows what it is, and it still wins a lot of rounds based on talent alone.

Grade: B 

Photo credits go to g-unitfamily.com, nydailynews.com, and blogs.indiewire.com.

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Bloodsport: Movie Man Jackson

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“You are next!”

Ahh, so this is where Johnny Cage comes from?  American Frank Dux (Jean Claude Van Damme) is an Army soldier and a super-skilled martial artist. At a young age, he was trained by sensei Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao) in the various fighting artforms along with Tanaka’s son Shingo. A family tragedy comes over the family, one that forces Senzo to impart his full knowledge and skill unto Frank.

Wanting to honor the Tanaka clan, Frank feels that the best way to do so is to compete in the Hong Kong-based Kumite, an illegal underground fighting tournament that honors the best fighter. Receiving Senzo’s blessing, he leaves his responsibilities to travel to Hong Kong, where he befriends a fellow American fighter (Ray Jackson) and reporter Janice Kent (Leah Ayres) who is trying to get more info on the Kumite. The Kumite is secret, and anyone who fights in it accepts the risk of death.

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No matter how many ways you punch it, kick it, snap it, or chop it, Bloodsport is a bad movie by most standards. A paper-thin plot, bad acting, and inconsistent editing are all found here. But if this is held to the standards of the best that cinema has to offer, it is, at least to yours truly, wrong to do so. On its impact on martial arts and sheer watchability? Bloodsport is “good,” and pretty entertaining.

Bloodsport can’t be talked about without bringing up Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first. “The Muscles from Brussels” has done many (straight to home) movies over the years, but his breakout role as Frank Dux may possibly still be his best. JCVD is legitimate as a martial artist, and makes moves looks pretty effortless on film. As an actor, he’s average at best and an embarrassment at worst, made worse by the fact that his character is 100 percent American with a Belgian accent. Nominated for the Worst New Star Razzie, one can certainly see why, but the bad that JCVD puts in turns out to be so damn good.

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Luckily, there’s enough of “so bad its good acting” to go around in this that everyone gets a chance to shine. Whether it be a young kid playing a teenage Frank Dux (possibly the worst performance I’ve ever seen), the other American fighter Ray Jackson who looks like he belongs on a buffet table instead of a fight to the death tourney, the blonde reporter who only serves one purpose, or even a commanding officer who would go on to win an Oscar, Bloodsport is full of deliciously challenged performers delivering equally poor lines. And it is made all the more memorable because many appear to take their roles seriously.

Not only did Van Damme use this as an acting vehicle, he also had a hand with the final product in the way of editing. The slow-motion effect does become overdone, and Van Damme and director Newt Arnold love montages maybe a little too much, but he manages to compile solid-looking martial arts action, which is the reason why anyone likely views this. For my money, though, the best things about this film are easily the 80’s power ballads that accompany any of the important scenes, with Paul Delph’s On My Own taking the title. They are one of the purest representations of cheesiness that exist in cinema history.

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Whether the events of the film are real or entirely fabricated, Bloodsport has, in all of its cheap and hilarious flaws, served as very real inspiration for franchises like Mortal Kombat, and any other low budget straight-to-video fighting movies. Long live the Kumite, Kumite, Kumite. Even if it actually didn’t exist, it feels like it did.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to gymtalk.com, moviepostershop.com, and moviebuzzers.com.

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Major League II: Movie Man Jackson

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“Well, at least the bird survived.”

Who cares? It’s a rat with wings.” 

With spring training winding down, it’s only right that yours truly takes a look at a baseball flick. Stepping into the batter’s box today? Major League II. After dethroning the Yankees in the one game playoff the prior year, but falling to the Chicago White Sox in the American League Championship Series, the Cleveland Indians have championship aspirations in the new baseball year. And why wouldn’t they? All of their key players have returned, including speedy Willie Mays Hayes (Omar Epps), veteran catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), mysterious slugger Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) and bad-boy heat-thrower “Wild Thing” Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen).

The taste of newfound, unforeseen success can ruin some people or teams. Father Time is catching up to Jake, Pedro’s found a new inner peace not provided by Jobu, Willie is convinced he’s a power hitter now, and Ricky’s focused on prolonging his career and not throwing the heat he’s known for. It all adds up to a very rough start, and to recapture the magic found in last year’s run, the Tribe must rally around each other.

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When great sports movies are discussed, the original Major League from 1989 always feels like it gets overlooked, combining extremely hilarious and quotable dialogue with superbly directed and realistic baseball action. To many, yours truly included, it is a home run. The same cannot be said for Major League II. While not as bad as the five percent on Rotten Tomatoes may leave one to believe, this one absolutely comes with less high heat than its predecessor.

In essence, ML2 isn’t much different than what came before it from a story sense. Cleveland stinks bad, but eventually turns it around right in time, with the only true difference being that the Indians in this movie are supposed to be good from the get-go. The key problem is the complete lack in pacing and build as the team transforms from worst team in Major League Baseball to a contender. I hate doing this constant comparison, but it is hard not to. ML1 showed Cleveland as a bad team in the first half of the movie, but a potentially talented one here and there with enough flashes to make the viewer believe in the impending turnaround.

With ML2, the team is just flat out putrid with no indication that they will pull it together, and when they finally do “get it together,” its less organic because it just sort of happens, dulling the pennant chase as a result. It is very forced, as it was hard to buy that the particular turning point was the catalyst for the reversal in fortune. Speaking of forced, much more attention is given to Sheen’s character in a love triangle subplot with two women who add nothing whatsoever. With the increased focus given to the Wild Thing, the story can feel less about the team and more about Vaughn, which isn’t a good thing.

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Plot withstanding, Major League II doesn’t strike out because it provides a riot of laughs, as much as, if not more than, the first. The story isn’t as tight as a sports tale; it’s better to view ML2 as a baseball farce, dependent on slapstick and ridiculousness (rated R in the first, PG! in the second), from standing up on a wall to catch a sure home run, to loading the bases one out away from the World Series to get redemption on a nemesis. Sure, the humor is pretty lowbrow, but yours truly would be telling a boldface lie if I didn’t laugh heartily.

Part of that is due to the bulk of the cast returning. Sheen, Haysbert, Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, etc. are all back and have the same solid rapport as before. Sadly, Wesley Snipes does not reprise his role of Hayes, played here by Omar Epps. Epps tries top hard to be cool and effortless, and what came easy for Snipes can’t be said for his replacement.

On another note, it is nice to see so many of the supporting characters outshine the main ones. As far as sports villains goes, Jack Parkman (David Keith) should be up there with the Shooter McGavin’s of the world. He’s every stereotype that an jerk athlete is made up of: Smug, selfish, and entitled. Randy Quaid has an notable role as a heckling, foul-mouthed fan, Bob Uecker gets more screentime being the unfiltered broadcast voice of the Indians in Harry Doyle, and catcher Rube Baker is pretty much a country bumpkin rube playing baseball. All four roles are over-the-top and lack in subtlety, but they certainly are entertaining, and quotable.

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If the Major League movies were a pitch repertoire, the first one would be a fastball, and the second one would be more like a secondary pitch, say a slider or a change-up (let’s not talk about what the third is until next year). Major League II lacks the drama and pure baseball beauty of the first, but carries a bit more comedy with it, even if it is dumber.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to cineplex.com, seattlesportsnet.com, and espn.com.

Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson.