Stronger: Movie Man Jackson

Pain endures. But determination is everlasting. Disaster strikes the city of Boston, Massachusetts on the date of April 15th, 2013 during one of the city’s most cherished celebrations in the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon bombing leads to loss of life and for many, injuries and lost limbs. One of those people falling in the latter category is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was attending the race to get back in good with his on-again, off again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).

A day after being amputated and treated for his lost legs, Jeff describes the people who committed the act, and becomes a hero in the process after their capture/death. But, as Jeff soon realizes, it’s a long road back to not only walking again, but general normalcy. Being a symbol can be a burden, and nothing can ever truly be the same as it once was. Physically and emotionally, Jeff and everyone around him will have to get Stronger to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt.

Stronger is not the movie I expected. What did I expect? Something akin to Bleed for This, which is to say a formulaic biopic with a standard fall/rise story progression and a strong(er) lead performance. What I actually got? A biopic that bucks the usual biographical drama format and generates real emotional investment, along with one of the year’s best lead actor performances. Stronger emerges as the fall season’s first legitimate awards contender.

There’s an alternate universe where Stronger would be overly contrived and even exploitative, sort of like the actual movie poster. While a moment or two of forcedness or ill-timed levity exists, director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Joe) never approaches this story in that matter. The act of the bombing isn’t played up for shock value, neither is the removal of Jeff’s bandages. Even the requisite moment that many of these movies have when the seminal “recovery” act is performed by the lead character accompanied by a swelling orchestral piece is thankfully absent. Directing-wise, Green has a way of putting the camera in the right places and focused on the right things while rightfully defocusing and/or obscuring what is too excessive. Stronger likely will not garner any technical merit, but DGG shows respect for the story and subject by going about it in this fashion.

And going about it in this fashion allows Stronger to truly tug at the heartstrings, but not entirely for the reasons expected. Stronger is a moving watch partly due to the tragedy of the Boston Bombing and what it did to Bauman, but that is only a part of the entire story. Similar movies would tell their stories and lead character in A to B form, with their lead characters only being defined by “getting back what they lost.”

Gordon Green has no fear in delving into the uncomfortable depths of Jeff Bauman and those around him, particularly his family and mother, Patty, played by an opportunistic and disheveled Miranda Richardson. For long stretches, Jeff can be unlikable and his mother insufferable. But, Green and screenplay writer John Pollono give reasons for them being as such. The exploration of symbols and even overnight celebrity allow the main characters to be that much more three-dimensional than initially envisioned at first glance.

Impressive writing does a lot for Stronger, but so does Jake Gyllenhaal, yet again adding another impressive role to his resume. Like his director, his performance never feels exploitative or in bad taste. But, he lets us in on the tortuous anguish. The most basic of tasks and PTSD flashbacks are excruciating to watch at times, as are the flaws in his character, leading to standout second and third act scenes. Remains to be seen if this is the one that finally gets him that elusive Best Actor nom (very early), but he should be in the conversation. His chemistry with Tatiana Maslany is outstanding, herself delivering work that goes well beyond the supportive girlfriend role. Their evolving relationship never gets old and is hardly ever sappy. It feels real and in the moment.

Stronger is a biopic that rarely feels as such. On the back of a great direction and brilliantly acted lead work, there’s a strong base that makes this real-life story every bit as resonant as it should be.

A-

Photo credits go to bbcamerica.com, cinemavine.com, and themoviemylife.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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Life: Movie Man Jackson

Let’s have the rapper Big K.R.I.T tell the people what he has to say about life. All aboard the International Space Station resides a crew of six individuals. In their space exploration, the crew recovers a probe from the planet Mars. This probe ends up containing extraterrestrial Life.

Tests show that this tiny organism—dubbed “Calvin”—is multi-celled, reacting to stimuli quickly and evolving rapidly. However, a specific test ends up making Calvin “aggressive” in ways that cannot be believed. With the crew’s safety compromised, they have to contain the threat and eliminate it before coming back to Terra firma. Good luck.

With the arrival of Life in theaters, I think we’ve officially reached peaked space disaster survival movie levels, if we haven’t already. They’ve always been present, but, pun intended, they always felt spaced out release date-wise from one another. From Gravity to Interstellar to The Martian to Europa Report to Passengers, all may be slightly different in the questions they pose to audiences (sometimes, none), but they are kind of the same when boiled down to the core. This is a way of saying Life has some solid good thrills and chills, good direction, and yet is still sort of underwhelming.

All of those aforementioned films are survival films to an extent, but Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), carries a noticeable horror lean, which slightly separates it from its like minded brethren, even if ever so slightly. Taking cues from Alien, Espinosa creates palpable tension and a real feeling of isolation once s*** officially hits the fan. It’s a good looking movie overall, too, incorporating much more CGI than anticipated, but it blending seamlessly with the real-life cast. Some moments truly do stand out.

Generally speaking, yours truly likes his sci-fi to be thought-provoking, and raise a question or two. In the case of Life, that sadly never happens. Scriptwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick opt for the extremely conventional route here, settling into a (I hate this phrase, but it applies) by-the-numbers affair. Remove the organism, replace it with Jason, and voila! You’ve got Jason X. That’s not to say things aren’t still tense, but more predictable. The ending certainly leaves things open to more installments, though the prospects of this happening with the projected box office are slim to none at the moment.

Life boats three big name leads to carry matters, and they all do relatively good work despite being pretty flimsy. At times here, the great Jake Gyllenhaal looks like he’s sleepwalking through the proceedings, as a result of not having much to latch onto from a character perspective. But he, like all of the cast, still sells the fear that arises in being in space on a derelict ship with an unpredictable entity effectively.

This is a film that doesn’t concern itself with character information, just the scenario its characters find themselves in. The highlight of the movie is easily Ryan Reynolds, who brings levity to the situation without undermining it (in addition to having the most memorable scene). All of the cast members feel right at home as doctors and crew members in space, which does a lot for the believability aspect. Don’t expect to connect with any, though.

The fact of Life? It generates a passable pulse, taking similar jolts from other films to make a competent, if unspectacular, horror in outer space.

C+

Photo credits go to Youtube.com and Comingsoon.net.

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Nocturnal Animals: Movie Man Jackson

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Whenever you’ve got it, hold onto it. Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has made a new life with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). It’s a bourgeois life, one that Susan has been accustomed to with well-off parents. It’s also an empty one that only looks glamorous from the outside.

Many years before, Susan found love with writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). They married, and things were rosy for a while, until Susan determined that Edward couldn’t take care of her like she wanted to be taken care of due to his overly sensitive nature and writing profession.

Susan receives a manuscript of her ex’s latest novel, Nocturnal Animals, a name Edward affectionately called Susan. It’s a dark tale, about a Texas man and his family who run into a gang of unstable individuals on the highway. Seems random, but the more Susan delves into the novel, some characters and some events hit awfully close to home.

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With a title fitting for a horror movie, Nocturnal Animals is dark. It’s uncomfortable. It can be hard to watch and even a little scary. But like the best fashion, it is also impossible to take eyes off of, or forget. Nocturnal Animals illuminates in quality and memorability from from start to finish.

Attention is seized right from the movie’s opening credits sequence. Fashion mogul turned director Tom Ford (A Single Man) certainly sears this sequence on the brain as one that is equal parts revolting yet extremely mesmerizing, with a beautiful dreamlike musical track by composer Abel Korzeniowski.

While the meaning and/artistic merits of said scene are likely to be debated for a while (count yours truly as a guy who gets the meaning but still feels that it’s done for shock more than anything), I’ll admit that it was rather alluring. Much—if not all—of Nocturnal Animals is, whether it be in the sweltering Texas desert heat, or in the cool interiors of an NYC penthouse or art gallery. The color red makes its way into a great deal of the movie. Red typically symbolizes a lot: Love, anger, attention, revenge, courage, to name a few. These are all themes that Ford touches upon or goes into depth on, maybe not perfectly, but they are there.

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Honestly, Nocturnal Animals works a lot better narrative-wise than it should. What could easily become confusing to follow never does become so, thanks to on-the-point editing and stylistic choices. The parallels between stories aren’t always congruent with one another, but when they are, Ford’s feature is extremely fascinating and rewarding, and maybe it just requires another watch for every piece to fit snugly. Aside from one visual in particular, he pushes audiences to make their own final decision as to what the meaning of the story is, whether it’s positive or negative, what happens to the (real world) characters, etc. Another strong strength? It’s unpredictable.

It’s no surprise that the cast assembled here makes for one of the stronger ensembles of the 2016 calendar year. When Amy Adams, no obvious slouch, turns in what is probably the fourth best performance of the entire movie (more as a result of her character, not her actual skill), there’s some high level acting present. Jake Gyllenhaal, again pulling double duty in a feature, is brilliant once again, and the writing for his characters allows him to display his amazing skills as both are given wonderful arcs. As an aside, he has what may be the most truest and moving quotes about love I’ve heard in an extremely long time. They are lines of dialogue I’ll never forget.

It’s Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson who give Nocturnal Animals an element of “fun” that would likely not be there without them. Make no mistake as that does not mean the work they do here is not deserving of serious supporting category consideration (already has garnered it at the time of this writing), but their characters are so dogged and world-weary (Shannon) or eccentrically vile (Taylor-Johnson) and it makes for an interesting showdown that could easily be its own movie. Shannon’s been a stud for a while, but it’s nice to see Taylor-Johnson reassert himself as a talent. He’s more or less The Joker as a guy who seemingly just likes to watch the world burn and inflict suffering on people, but he’s chilling every time he’s on screen. Pick better roles please!

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I don’t pop Molly I watch Tom Ford. And with Nocturnal Animals, I want to keep watching him, and I hope he directs more. But if it takes seven years to come up with a unique story worth telling in cinematic form, keep on making those Gucci handbags and Saint Laurent dresses while prepping that next film, Ford.

A-

Photo credits go to thefilmstage.com, ukmovies.yahoo.com, and everythingaction.com

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Everest: Movie Man Jackson

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“Our bodies will be literally dying.”

If Everest is now a “pushover” mountain to climb, I want absolutely nothing to do with the “super-difficult” ones. Back in the ’90’s, anyone who considered themselves an avid mountain climber made it an appointment to climb big bad Mount Everest. People from every point in the world converge in Nepal to take it on in an effort to reach the summit.

In 1996, experienced expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) are in charge of getting their respective groups to the peak. Their respective groups include a woman, Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who is tackling Everest to successfully say she has climbed all seven world summits, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), just a man who loves climbing, and Doug (John Hawkes), who desperately wants to get to the top after failing two previous times. Like any journey to the top of anything, the road can be fraught with peril, but sometimes, coming down is worse than going up. The last word always belongs to the mountain.

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Should a movie be defined by how it is shown? Everest would appear to think yes. With its opening week release in no other format expect IMAX and/or 3D, it is clear that the powers that be at Universal are making a statement, one that says that the best way to see the movie is in the biggest way possible. Much like the style-but-iffy-substance of Gravity (a poor man’s version of that movie, but yours truly’s opinion), Everest is best experienced with all of the frills, bells, and whistles.

In 3D, Everest is stunning. But, don’t get the idea that it is deployed throughout. For the first 30-40 minutes, it is somewhat useless. Once the real climbing trek begins is when the benefit of watching 3D kicks in. There are some awesome second-half sequences, directed by Baltasar Kormakur (2 Guns, Contraband, that show the sheer size of the expedition, and the beast that is Mt. Everest. These all do give the viewer the feel of being on the mountain with the climbers.

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When watching Everest, the amount of characters present does make it hard to keep up with everyone. With every character bundled to the brim with North Face, snow boots, and sunglasses, most end up being indistinguishable from one another. As a result, the stacked cast makes one see the actors and actresses themselves instead of the characters they are trying to portray. Character-wise, it is difficult to get a beat on them, outside of Rob Hall and maybe Beck Weathers, portrayed by Jason Clarke and Josh Brolin, respectively.

Clarke, especially in the second half, is impressive in his performance once the surroundings become insurmountable. Brolin initially seems like a grating and throwaway character (I knew little about this event), but is revealed to have a little bit more depth as things move on. Gyllenhaal, Martin Henderson, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Robin Clarke, and John Hawkes are fine with what they have, it is just challenging to care for any of them.

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Sure, one could lambast Everest for cashing in on a grim event, but it isn’t as if film has never done this before. And, there is real respect that is given to honor those who did perish in the disaster. Everest works enough primarily because though the characters might be bland and tough to connect with, their harrowing situation isn’t, all the more realized in 3D.

Grade: B-

Photo credits go to celebuzz.com, People.com, and blogs.indiewire.com.

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Enemy: Movie Man Jackson

Enemy-Jake-Gyllenhaal

“Your voice is just like mine.”

No two snowflakes are alike. But two people can be, and I’m not talking only about identical twins. In Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes his living as a college professor of history. It is somewhat of a mundane one, but it pays the bills, puts a solid roof over his head, and has given him a steady, and sexy, girlfriend named Mary (Melanie Laurent).

From the recommendation of a colleague who believes Adam should view more movies more to give himself some variety in life, Adam rents Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, and immediately becomes transfixed on an actor, Daniel St. Claire, who looks just like himself. He takes it upon himself to find his carbon copy, real name Anthony Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal), married to wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), with a child on the way. It is unclear what Adam is looking for by trying to find Anthony, but he may be making an Enemy instead of a new friend.

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Yours truly is legitimately surprised that he has, somehow, been able to steer clear of spoilers, trailers, major thinkpieces, and more regarding Enemy, one of the more open-to-interpretation films I’ve witnessed in recent memory. The movie reunites director Denis Villenueve and Jake Gyllenhaal from Prisoners, and surprisingly, what they have combined to make here is even more layered than their first collaboration. Whether it gets under the skin like that aforementioned film will depend on the viewer, but still, Enemy will probably be talked about for years to come.

To compare this to anything in particular is probably doing a disservice to what Villeneuve and screenplay writer Javier Gullon have managed to come up with here. But, after viewing (and skimming over a think piece), I can’t stop thinking of 2003’s Identity, at least a little bit. That is a fine movie in its own right, except is is very reliant on a twist that leaves nothing to the imagination and can come off as pretty goofy. The great thing about Enemy is the fact that there is no real “twist,” or anything that tells the viewer how they are supposed to see the events on screen. No one involved has come forward to definitively expound on what things mean or how they should be looked at, leaving the final interpretation to the viewer.

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With Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve has proven to be really adept at asking a question of “How would you react if (insert scenario)…”  For the former, it was finding your missing child. For the latter, it is literally finding your doppelganger. Whether by pure luck or some direct intel on how man reacts to spotting his direct look-alike, Villeneuve captures all of the feelings of this engrossing scenario, from the astonishment and excitement, to the unease and surrealism of it. There’s a lot to take in, but credit goes to the cast for getting most of it in there.

At only 90 minutes, however, an additional 15-20 minutes would have been a nice plus to round out some characters. The actual visual aesthetic of the movie only adds to the bizarre nature of everything, bathed in a rusty, sepia tone that is equal parts beautiful and even ugly. These scenes themselves often feature minimal dialogue, which gives way to a score that can be soothing at times, and jagged at others.

The same guy playing two different characters that look exactly the same sounds like a potential disaster, but Jake Gyleenhaal, with technical prowess from Villeneuve, does it effortlessly. If there were but one criticism, it would be that his characters aren’t all that fleshed out. Or maybe they are, and it requires many views to pick up on the depth. Regardless, Gyllenhaal, and the film by extension, does a stellar job at giving each person portrayed their own personality, yet not making it super-obvious either, if that makes sense. At specific moments, the film doesn’t make it clear whether it is Adam or Anthony in important scenes , and instead relies on Gyllenhaal and its deductive audience to determine who is who. Feels good to not be consistently spoon-fed, sometimes. Both women in Laurent and Gadon pair well with Gyllenhaal, impress when needed, and are the linchpin for many of Enemy‘s themes and ideas.

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Surely, a lot more could be said about Enemy from yours truly, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d be up to the task of stating it in a comprehensible manner. The lack of crystal clarity and shorter-than-desired runtime could be a problem for some, but for those wanting to be challenged by a unique thriller in not just one, but multiple views, Enemy is likely to spark discussion until the end of time.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to moviemaker.co.uk, torontoist.com, awn.com, and geeknation.com.

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Prisoners: Movie Man Jackson

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“We do not give up on your sister!” 

Common sense seems to lend itself to the idea that with every passing day that goes by in a child abduction, the fear of the worst increases exponentially. Every moment matters, and for Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello), and friends/neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), they become unfortunate Prisoners of time. On Thanksgiving afternoon, both of the family’s youngest daughters Anna, and Joy, have been taken away from them.

Only a mysterious RV parked on the street where the families reside is the only lead that Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective who has solved every case he has been assigned to, has. All evidence, in the eyes of Keller, points to the driver of the RV, mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano). With the police unable to do more than the law allows, Keller chooses to head his own investigation, to which there are no ceilings or depths he won’t break through–or sink to—in an effort to locate his daughter.

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There is the horror that comes from the macabre, the supernatural, the slasher, etc. These types of horror can be scary and effective, but sometimes, they don’t stick with the viewer. There is something about using real-life scenarios that really gets under one’s being. In the case of the film Prisoners, it can’t be classified as a horror, but an argument can be made that it is more unsettling, and even, horrific than the common horror film.

Yours truly is not a parent, but the thought of having a son or daughter abducted with little to no trace of where they are has to be rank up as one of the more frightening things that could happen to one’s child, only under seeing them get killed right in front of you. Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is permeated with a consistent feeling of dread throughout.

From the 10 minute mark on, the movie is unsettling, and a big part of that is a result of the miserable and depressing environment that Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins choose to exhibit, punctuated by the neverending overcast skies and the torrential downpour. Tone is set early and is never lost. But it isn’t just the usage of the environment to accentuate the story, sometimes it is the simple use of how a subject is focused on for seconds on end while another one is talking. It is a small touch, but a touch that made me feel like I wasn’t watching a movie here and there.

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The screenplay is well-written, with possibly only a very, very, tiny bit of overwriting in the middle. Runtime could be a problem for some, but the story is enthralling and has more than enough from the 10-minute mark to the end. Thematically, and symbolically, it gets under the skin as well, and offers another layer of heavyness, unease, and contemplation (Check out this spoiler-filled but detailed article that you may or may not agree with at Vigilant Citizen). Any mystery has a massive challenge of being unpredictable, and though there will always be people can snap all of the pieces together before the end (70% of the time I’m incorrect on my educated guesses), the misdirects will likely prevent most from getting it right. As another credits to the writing, the pieces and misdirects never feel contrived.

A superstar cast does nothing less than stellar work. Perhaps the most scary thing about Prisoners is Hugh Jackman’s performance. Not scary as in he did a bad job, but scary because when watching, it is unnerving to think that maybe, just maybe, one would go about things exactly as he does if they found themselves in the exact same situation with all indications pointing to one person. Another interesting aspect of the character that makes how he goes about finding justice frightening is the fact that though he and his friend’s daughter are both missing together, he is only shown to care about his own daughter. To some this could be considered a writing oversight, but it feels intentional and implies that we (humans) can be rather myopic despite our efforts not to be. Don’t mistake his one-note character emotion of anger as evidence that he has no layers; the layers just dissipate in this situation. Keller is a representation of impulse, like most would be, here.

His polar opposite is represented in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki. Where Keller is unhinged, Loki is methodical. He’s as mysterious and as layered as the case he is trying to solve, and yet, his character carries a level of trust that no one else possesses. Gyllenhaal loses himself yet again in a role that for most other actors, may have been overshadowed by Jackman’s intensity in his character. Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard are all talented pros and bring what is expected to the table, and even smaller roles played by guys like David Dastmalchian and Len Cariou are noteworthy.

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Years later, it still is baffling that Prisoners did not get the love at the 86th Academy Awards like it should have, in my humble opinion. Thrillers, and films as a whole, don’t get much better. Not an easy view, or one that can be viewed numerous times, but nonetheless a view that remains arresting each time out.

Grade: A

Photo credits go to IMDB.com, vigilantcitizen.com, movieloci.com, and thewrap.com.

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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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End of Watch: Movie Man Jackson

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“This is where the forces of good prepare to fight the forces of evil.”

Every time a police officer puts on their uniform, they are taking a big, but accepted, risk that puts their livelihood in danger. Every time said officer makes it to their End of Watch, or shift, that is a thing to be thankful for. Officers and best friends Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), and Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), make a strong and morally sound tandem in the Newton division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their unbreakable bond for one another is the natural result of so much shared time in the squad car, locker room, crime incidents, and more.

To fulfill an assignment for film class, Brian decides to film their daily grind through camcorder and small cameras attached to their uniforms, making for unique point-of-views. While going through common disturbances, gang matters and house fires, a routine car stop and big-time arrest by the two ends up putting them on a treacherous road that stretches well beyond the unfriendly criminal scum of Los Angeles.

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Recently, one of my favorite websites in Grantland published a piece about a month ago written by Brian Curtis regarding what “gritty” really means. The effort to define gritty is more from a sports standpoint, but still, the article got yours truly thinking: What is “gritty” as it pertains to a film? Sometimes the word is thrown around so much, and I’m probably guilty of it just as much as anyone, that it loses its impact. Not every film that features gritty subject matter is automatically a gritty film. Most definitions of the word involve a descriptor of unflinching yet grounded realism and toughness. Regardless, whatever gritty means, End of Watch is undeniably it.

Immediately from the opening monologue delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character to accompany a chase sequence, the movie wastes absolutely no time in getting the audience into this dangerous world and setting by seeing the action through the eyes of a cop—literally. This is the first of many unique camera angles director/writer David Ayer (Fury, Street Kings, writer of Training Day) decides to make use of. The storyline reason (somewhat flimsy) that Brian gives about recording this for school gives Ayer free reign to do whatever he pleases with the lens. Sure, it is the handheld style that is often derided, but it is employed quite well here save for a few scenes, and does break down the barrier between the audience and the movie. Is it needed? Maybe, maybe not.

About the only real issue that can be had with the style is that Ayer never completely commits 100% to it. For about 98% of the film he does, but a few moments exist (and confirmed in the director’s commentary) where instead of being hooked into the realism of what is being shown, yours truly was left wondering who exactly was holding/manipulating the camera, as it looked too traditionally shot for something so gritty. This does take the attention away from the events in End of Watch, but only ever so briefly because it is so rare in occurrence.

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No matter how this is shot, the performances and superb chemistry of the leads are what drive it. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena absolutely immerse themselves as officers Taylor and Zavala. The months of training and field observation pay off amazingly. So many people play cops and don the uniform in movies but Gyllenhaal and Pena may be some of the few, if only two, who absolutely give off the feeling like they could go into the force, hit the streets, and make them a safer place. So natural together they are that is is hard to believe that it apparently took some time for the actors to get a feel for each other.

They definitely walk the walk and talk the talk as officers, with a major emphasis on the latter. Much detail is found out about this duo in conversations (mostly improvised) that occur in the police cruiser. Some are about nothing, others are about serious matters, but all serve to build two well-rounded characters that feel extraordinarily real, which gives the film’s events more high stakes. Taylor and Zavala are two righteous and gifted cops with a lot of bravery, knowledge, and street smarts, but Ayer does a great job at injecting every scenario the team comes across with a sense of unease. For as skillful as these guys are, there is always the idea that something can go horrifically wrong. They aren’t superheroes, just individuals who make a living in a tough profession.

The rest of the cast does provide strong backup though. Frank Grillo is always a strong presence in just about anything he finds his way in. America Ferrera and Cody Horn are the female equivalent of Zavala and Taylor, just with way less attention given. Both are still convincing. After the well-recognized praise of the Jake and Michael, the best work may be turned in by those who serve as their better halves in the film in Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez.

They both play absolutely critical parts that give End of Watch another level of emotion, in spite of their limited screentime. Out of the whole cast, the only performers that come off as ungrounded are those who portray the main antagonists. While possibly over-the-top, if Ayer’s sole goal was for them to be repulsive, he, and they, succeeded.

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End of Watch is something that sticks in the mind long after the credits roll. Or at least it is sticking in mine. Not because it is deep or profound, but because it is so effective, and gritty of course, at showing what many have verified is an accurate representation of the everyday life of officers. Just hearing the word police conjures a lot of negative connotations in this current day and age, but this film shows that they are just people who decide to protect the prey from the predators. People who, as Taylor states at the beginning, bleed, think, love, and can be killed, like you and I.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to impawards.com, imfdb,com, and youtube.com.

Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson.

Accidental Love: Movie Man Jackson

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“Wait! She has no insurance.”

It was Tupac who (posthumously) once said that unconditional love  is the type of stuff that doesn’t wear off or fade. I wonder what he would say about Accidental Love. Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel) is a small-town, somewhat dumb waitress dating an equally, if not more dense police officer boyfriend Scott (James Marsden). Things have been going well, and Scott believes it is time to ask the question.

Seconds after Alice says yes, a stray nail fired from a nail gun lodges itself in her head, which forces the fresh fiancee to the emergency room. About a second before she is to go under for removal, the operations is ceased, due to the fact that she has no health insurance. With the nail messing up her sexual equilibrium, Alice ends up realizing that the only way that she will get the help she needs will be to go straight to the top. It is off to Washington, D.C to speak with Congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a well-meaning but spineless government official.

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There are two ways one could look at Accidental Love, under the moniker Nailed when production first started in 2008. Really, neither way would be wrong. The first way would be from the unfortunate standpoint. An insane amount of issues plagued this production, from lack of financial backing, to the blowups and walkouts of the cast. And that is only the confirmed stuff. The second way would be to see this as it as, in a pseudo chicken and egg scenario. Is this is dismal movie because of the troubles? Or would it have been a dismal movie even with a smooth delivery?

May be best to ask director Stephen Greene that question, known better as David O. Russell, who exited the production in 2010. Quickly, it’s seen that he’s trying to make a smart and biting satire on the United States health care system and government. Not an amazing story, but certainly relevant. Problem is, like a few of Russell’s other works, there is a lack of structure, perhaps due to its lack of being grounded in reality.

Almost all great satires feature exaggeration, but are still able to feel realistic as well. The various figures and events to drive the plot forward in this one include some type of moon base, Girl Scouts, and a circle of Shaman fire. If this sounds messy, that is because it is, only barely improved by an average ending that is the best aspect of this film.

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Talking about story with Russell-directed films is kind of a moot point, as the man has said before that he “…hates plots…all about characters.” That approach can be all well and good, but the characters better be on point if so, people that are interesting to spend some time with. There isn’t enough time spent to care about any of them, and the linchpin event in the plot happens five minutes into Accidental Love, hardly enough time to get a feel for anyone, especially Alice. It is a precursor to the rest of the runtime, which again, moves with little to no natural progression.

Tons of stars are present in Stephen Greene’s production, but sadly none amount to enough to raise this to a below average level. Even in an ensemble, often one person is at the forefront, that person being Jessica Biel here. While she isn’t given much to go off of, a feeling exists that even if more substantial material was given, Biel may not be able to run with it. She is trying, but when she needs to be funny, it is sad, and when she needs to be dramatic, it is hard to buy.

Her character spends time with Jake Gyllenhaal’s, in more of a whimsical role for him, and their chemistry is tepid at best. Most of the comedy, when it does occasionally land, comes from James Marsden and Tracy Morgan. That isn’t to say that they are consistent in providing hilarity. Both are saddled with character aspects that are funny the first two times (Marsden puts everything into percentages, Morgan is a horny black guy with a prolapsed anus), but get old fast after the nth time. Bill Hader, Beverly D’Angelo, Kirstie Alley, and more make appearances, but none to remember.

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Whether it is 2008 or 2015, Accidental Love is nothing to fall for. The only nail that this one needed is that of the proverbial one in the coffin.

Grade: D-

Photo credits go to blu-ray.com, imdb.com, and filmandtvnow.com.

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Nightcrawler: Movie Man Jackson

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“If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

Freaks operate at night. In Nightcrawler. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a middle aged individual living in the city of angels, Los Angeles, looking for a job. Lou is…a little odd to say the least, but the drive he possesses is evident. Still, a regular 9-to-5 doesn’t appear to be a match for this man.

It isn’t until Bloom drives by and makes a stop at the scene of a graphic car crash when the proverbial light bulb goes off in his head—capturing raw (pun intended) crime footage is the job for him. After asking for a position and being declined for it by well known “nightcrawler” Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Bloom decides to do it himself. Hiring an assistant, he goes wherever the story and crime scene take him. Operating under the mantra of “If it bleeds, it leads,” Lou makes it his mission to seize the most visceral content on recording, even if it means blurring the line between passive recorder and active role-player within it.

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From beginning to end, Nightcrawler makes its home in darkness, both literally in its structure around key events taking place at night, and figuratively in its analysis of its characters into a black abyss. Really stated the obvious there, but it is a fact. It is quite original, never predictable, and one of the more intense films of the year, if not the most.

The movie is a look at the news, and what makes its way on it. It is one thing to catch the big story and footage and to be first on the scoop. What is done with that story is up to the producers in the studio. Some key concepts here are the ideas of framing and leverage. The former pertains to really how something is shot. Simply, much like directing a movie, capturing something or lingering on something in a specific way as opposed to another way will create a specific desired effect on the viewer. Add in some charged language, and you have sensationalism at its peak.

Watching Lou Bloom get the perfect shot on his handheld  camera using knowledge of what works almost serves as a meta-ish take on directing, since we are watching first time director Dan Gilroy use much of what Bloom is harping on here. It is a wonderfully framed movie, with more tension than some horrors, whether in a production room or at a crime scene.

To those in power or aspiring to be in Nightcrawler, people are looked at as objects, expendable pawns as a means to a potentially rich end. Whoever has the leverage holds the cards to getting what he or she wants. Disturbing as it may be especially as I thought about this in real life terms, it is very fascinating to witness.

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Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom. He is not someone playing Lou Bloom, he wholly disappears into Lou Bloom. His 20 pounds lost have a very small part in this, but Gyllenhaal at this point is just a tremendous actor with a keen eye (and/or perhaps a great agent) for realizing what is a good script and a character someone of his talents can sink their teeth into. About the only minor grievance, and it is not an issue with Gyllenhaal, is that I personally would have loved to get even more background about how Lou came to be. Still, the delivery he brings, the self-affirmation his character possesses, and the occasional dark humor found in a really despicable character all in all make for one of the best characters of the year, and easily a top-notch performance.

It is the little things Jake does; it is not just what his character says, but how he raises his voice or sits in a chair when driving home a point. Even when Lou doesn’t have anything to say, his expressions tell a thousand words. It may be premature to say especially with still a few award-aiming movies yet to be see on my end, but Gyllenhaal should probably be in the running for some big awards come 2015.

Gyllenhaal’s character is definitely the focal point, but in this grimy business, he isn’t alone. Aside from Thor, Rene Russo hasn’t done anything of note. Literally, nothing besides Thor can be found in her filmography since 2005, and it isn’t like her role is sizable in those films. Here, she has a lot to do and comes through in spades. Her character’s “survival” is dependent on Lou Bloom, and as a result she is tied to his hip. There are many scenes between the two that show the very dark professional relationship, and it becomes uncomfortable to witness. Yet, it is all handled with subtlety. We know what is going on, but do not need to be shown it. It makes it that much more to think about, because the characters themselves are so mentally off. Other performances of note include Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed, both serving key roles to move the story along.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an unscrupulous news cameraman in the thriller Nightcrawler

With this being Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, it is an achievement at how complete it comes together, from production to cinematography. It is somewhat of a slow build that may be an issue to some, but here the pace felt logical and sensible. There is a little disappointment with the score. It may require another listen and watch but nothing really attracted the ear on first view. With a standout score this could be in a league of its own.

Unequivocally however, Nightcrawler is still in a very high league of films as it is. Can it crawl itself to a few major film nominations? Remains to be seen, but this should be seen, regardless.

Grade: A

Photo credits go to huffingtonpost.com, shockya.com, and m.famous.com.

Follow the MovieMan @MovieManJackson.