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Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

07/29/2015

Southpaw
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — In the visceral boxing drama Southpaw (Weinstein), a seasoned trainer tries to convince a broken-down fighter that boxing is more mental than physical.

A successful practitioner of “the sweet science” must use his head and strategize. Thinking is more important than punching.

No doubt boxing has a cerebral dimension. Fighting smart, at least smarter than one’s opponent, is better than the alternative. But the express aim of the inherently violent game is to hurt the other guy physically. Out-thinking him is a means to inflicting more bodily damage than you receive.

If the viewer comes away believing that anyone who chooses to box is not very smart or, rather, is opting to use his or her head in the dumbest of ways, it doesn’t mean Southpaw is a failure. On the contrary, it is so effective at depicting the toll exacted by the sport that boxing becomes a source of fascination, no matter how seemingly irrational and barbaric.

As in most boxing flicks, boxing is both the problem and the solution — the source of the protagonist’s woes and the vehicle for his (or her) redemption. And yet, because violence is at the root of the game, Southpaw is inescapably, if not completely, problematic. Also, the audience is pummeled by a near-constant barrage of profanity.

The advice about using one’s mind instead of wildly unloading on your adversary is offered to the title character Billy Hope, light-heavyweight champion of the world. Played by a chiseled Jake Gyllenhaal, Billy is first seen preparing to enter the ring for a major bout.

According to the rap song (written and performed by Eminem) blaring on the soundtrack, he’s a “beast.” He’s reached the pinnacle of boxing because he fights like a maniac, with no regard for his own safety. He puts up little defence and gets pulverized, but he always withstands the onslaught and finds a way to win.

In their gaudy suburban mansion after this fight, Billy’s 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), ritualistically counts all the wounds on his face. He’s bruised and battered. It takes hours for the blood to stop oozing from his nose and mouth and days for his left eye to stop glowing like red marble. But he’s the champ.

Billy and his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), met as preteen orphans in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. They’re deeply in love and she’s his biggest supporter. But she can no longer let him endure the punishment. She urges him to retire or at least take a break. “You’re gonna be punch-drunk in two years if you keep this up,” she argues, presumably aware he already appears addled — perpetually woozy to the point people frequently assume he’s inebriated or high on drugs.

Then tragedy strikes. Billy is dealt a wrenching blow outside the ring. In the aftermath of this personal crisis, his manager Jordan Mains (played with a believable mix of charm and menace by the rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is no help. Billy loses all of his money, his house and just about everything he holds dear.

Can he wise up and channel his sorrow and rage into productive behaviour? Humbled and emotionally fragile, he makes his way to the ratty, inner-city gym run by Titus “Tick” Willis (Forest Whitaker), a no-nonsense trainer who agrees to teach him how to protect himself in the ring and, in effect, become a smart pugilist.

During the first third of the movie, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) does a masterful job of making the brutal allure of boxing as palpable as the bond between Maureen and Billy. Grittily realistic camerawork and tremendous acting by Gyllenhaal and McAdams contribute to an atmosphere that’s both lurid and heartfelt. There’s no attempt to analyze Billy’s masochistic personality. The images, many featuring copious amounts of blood, say enough.

What follows is more melodramatic and less compelling. Billy’s professional comeback happens too easily and his emotional recovery, including a painful domestic situation, is implausibly linked to his return to the ring. The all-important character of Tick is not fully formed, despite Whitaker’s solid efforts and despite getting some of the choicer lines in Kurt Sutter’s script.

By telling of a man who makes his living by being violent and is brought low by a violent act, then saves himself by engaging in further, albeit more tactical, violence, Southpaw tries to have it both ways. How can a cautionary tale about violence offer violence as the answer? This question pertains to the genre tropes of boxing movies and storytelling conventions in general. It also mirrors the puzzle surrounding this anachronistic sport. How can we be drawn to boxing and repelled by it at the same time?

The film contains pervasive rough, crude and crass language, much bloody boxing violence, a character on the verge of suicide, a scene of gun violence, an instance of partial male nudity and some drinking. The Catholic News Service classification is L -limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Trainwreck
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — The self-deprecation in the title of this raunchy romantic comedy, a vehicle for stand-up comedienne Amy Schumer, is warranted.

Schumer, who plays the lead and wrote the screenplay for Trainwreck (Universal), has seen her star rise over the past few years thanks to her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer and her propensity to combine X-rated humour with a satirical outlook, often about gender issues.

Underlying much of her material is the notion that women have as much right to be vulgar as men. And she’s not afraid to mock herself if she thinks it will help skewer sexism and hypocrisy within the entertainment industry or society-at-large.

Though she’s probably right about there being a double standard regarding what men and women can say or do without being subject to censure, her fondness for obscenity and self-debasement renders her material a dubious form of empowerment, feminist or otherwise. Schumer may be groundbreaking, but the ground she’s staking out is fallow at best.

She plays Amy, a sexually promiscuous New Yorker who has a strict rule about never spending the night after an encounter. Despite having a devoted if dimwitted boyfriend — the muscle-bound Steven (played by wrestling star John Cena) — she tests this rule routinely. A gauge of her wantonness: the role of “One-Night Stand Guy” appears four times in the movie’s credits.

Also a heavy drinker and inveterate marijuana smoker, Amy writes for a sleazy men’s magazine called S’Nuff. One day, her unscrupulous editor, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), tells her to profile an orthopedic surgeon who treats elite pro athletes such as the NBA’s LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire (who appear as themselves and get a surprisingly large amount of screen time). Amy hates sports, which is why Dianna, seeking a controversial angle, gave her the assignment.

Initially, Amy claims the nerdy bone doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) is not her type, a clue she likes him given she’s been the opposite of discriminating heretofore. Sure enough, they fall for one another. As commitment-phobic as they come, Amy is freaked out by her feelings for Aaron — and by his reciprocation. Will true romance blossom?

A subplot concerns Amy and her younger sister, a suburban mom and housewife, deciding to put their father Gordon (Colin Quinn), who has multiple sclerosis, into an assisted living facility. The movie’s first scene is a flashback to Gordon telling his two young daughters why he and their mother are divorcing — “Monogamy isn’t realistic.” In Amy’s case, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and now Gordon, an ornery rogue and bigot, urges her to remain single and not settle down with Aaron.

Somewhat surprisingly, the story follows a traditional trajectory, meaning no lives are actually wrecked as Amy endeavours to change her wild ways, albeit reluctantly and unapologetically. When you consider Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is at the wheel, directing for the fifth time — the first without having written the screenplay — this adherence to romantic-comedy convention makes sense.

A prolific exponent of blue comedy on both the big and small screens, Apatow usually tries to dilute the smut with sentimentality. In this instance, however, it simply can’t be done and the happy ending is implausible, though not unwelcome.

Trainwreck is not well paced or structured. Apatow’s improvisational style of filmmaking makes for a relaxed, naturalistic atmosphere, which suits Schumer’s matter-of-fact delivery. But he allows the narrative momentum to flag and the movie feels way too long. It doesn’t help that the clown in Saturday Night Live alum Hader is kept under wraps or that a non-actor like James, who plays Aaron’s best friend, has so many lines.

Aside from being offensive and unfunny, a crude quip about Mother Teresa suggests Schumer’s primary aim is to shock and appear edgy. As the novelty of her persona and her tweaking of the romantic comedy formula wear thin, she’s exposed as a one-trick pony.

The film contains many fairly graphic sexual encounters between unmarried men and women; frequent sexual banter, much of it extremely explicit; pervasive rough, crude and crass language; frequent profanity; some rear male nudity; several racially insensitive comments; and much alcohol and drug use. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Ant-Man
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — Better think twice before squashing that insect invader at your summer picnic — it could be Ant-Man (Disney), the diminutive superhero of the Marvel Comics universe.

Shrunk to bug size by means of a special suit, Ant-Man, a.k.a. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), acquires super-human strength and a nifty ability to control his fellow invertebrates, who bow before their leader.

Ridiculous, yes, but Ant-Man is nonetheless great fun, with swarms of creepy-crawlies rendered in glorious 3D.

Ant-Man technology was invented by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius connected to the elite “Avengers” superhero team. Years ago Pym himself wore the suit and crawled around fighting baddies. But age has caught up with him, and Pym seeks a successor.

Just why Pym chooses Scott, an ex-con, is uncertain, although this cat burglar’s knack for breaking and entering certainly comes in handy.

Freshly sprung from prison, Scott is determined to reform his life and earn the respect of his young daughter, Cassie (Ryder Fortson).

“Second chances don’t come around all that often,” Pym tells Scott. “This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.”

There’s no time to lose. Pym’s former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), wants to steal the technology to develop the ultimate weapon to bring peace to our time.

Needless to say, beneath Darren’s flashy version of the suit — nicknamed “Yellowjacket” — lies the beating heart of a megalomaniac bent on world domination — de rigueur for comic book movies.

Hoping an ant can stop a fly, the chase is on. At Scott’s side is Pym’s comely daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). When she’s not making eyes at Ant-Man, Hope dreams of wearing the suit herself.

Along for the wild ride are Scott’s jive-talking buddies, led by Luis (Michael Pena). They are amazed by his heroic transformation and likewise inspired to turn away from the dark side.

Part of the charm of Ant-Man is its scale and tone. Director Peyton Reed keeps tongue firmly in cheek as he downsizes the usual over-the-top violence of a Marvel film in favour of a clever heist picture, seasoned with plenty of humour and nice messages about honour and redemption.

The climactic battle, featuring a backyard bug zapper and a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, is a far cry from the apocalyptic destruction in this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. And that’s a good thing.

The film contains cartoonish but bloodless violence, brief innuendo, and a few mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Paper Towns
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The disillusionment and ennui of high school seniors, always fertile ground for literature, was perfected in films by John Hughes decades ago.

In the case of Paper Towns (Fox), a faithful adaptation of John Green’s young-adult novel, the kids discuss their anxieties — and talk, and talk some more — for nearly two hours. Seldom does enlightenment dawn, but they gamely plug away.

The dependable coming-of-age/teen romance formula is supposed to have its characters become wiser as they balance their intense emotions and precocity with the knowledge of looming adult responsibilities. As directed by Jake Schrier from the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, no one becomes much smarter, and it being high school, everyone’s obsessively focused on their upcoming prom.

Sexuality and language issues put this on the adult side of the ledger, but mature adolescents, the target audience, should easily navigate this material.

Quentin (Nat Wolff) and Margo (Cara Delevingne) have been friends since early childhood, when her family moved across the street in a sterile suburb of Orlando, Florida. By senior year, they’ve grown apart, but one night, Margo invites Quentin to help her with a night of criminal mischief against her cheating ex-boyfriend, and their bond is restored.

Margo is intensely world-weary with Orlando’s “paper houses and people,” and announces, “I’ve lived here 11 years and I’ve never come across anyone that matters.”

Her solution to this is to suddenly run away, a coping mechanism she’s used before. She drops Quentin some spooky scavenger-hunt clues — including one in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass — so he can figure out her location.

This sets Quentin, along with friends Ben (Austin Abrams), Radar (Justice Smith), Lacey (Halston Sage) and Angela (Jaz Sinclair) on a quirky 1,200-mile road trip north to upper New York State to find Margo, who is hiding practically in plain sight in a “paper town.” That’s a term used by cartographers for invented places they add to maps to keep copyright infringement at bay.

In the safe and snug realm of a Green novel — he also wrote The Fault in Our Stars — they’re all good kids, reluctant, unlike Margo, to so much as bend any rules. Margo demands that Quentin become more enlightened and self-aware, but whether someone finds his journey worthwhile depends upon the prism of the age of the viewer.

The film contains mentions of sexual activity, teenage sexual banter, fleeting rear male nudity, and fleeting crude language and profanities. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Pixels
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — All those misspent hours of youth, spending quarters on mindless video games, are finally put to use in Pixels (Columbia), a manic comedy about an alien invasion of Earth by 3D characters from the arcade.

This inane mash-up of Revenge of the Nerds and Wreck-It Ralph envisions former players, now grown up, drafted by the government to defeat the enemy at their own games (literally).

The trouble starts in 1982, when NASA sends a probe into outer space, containing samples of human culture. Why include Pride and Prejudice when you can send Pac-Man, you may wonder?

Alien baddies intercept, misinterpret the video games as attack plans, and decide to turn the tables, using monster (and mean-spirited) interpretations of the day-glo characters.

Thirty years later, after Guam is attacked by a swarm of cartoons, U.S. President Will Cooper (Kevin James) must come up with a plan to rescue the planet. Who better to vanquish evil than his boyhood nerdy pals: Sam (Adam Sandler), Ludlow (Josh Gad), and Eddie (Peter Dinklage)?

As kids in the 1980s, this quartet saved the world thousands of times — at 25 cents a game in the arcade. Now rebranded as the “Arcaders,” they face their pixelated friends in real time, with a few modifications.

“Pac-Man’s a bad guy?” Sam asks in amazement. And even the cuddly Smurfs are suspect.

Game on, big time, and Donkey Kong, Galaga, Centipede, and Space Invaders lay waste to much of London, Washington and New York. The president calls in backup, in the guise of a comely weapons specialist, Violet (Michelle Monaghan).

Smitten, Ludlow tells her, “You smell so nice, like the Book of Genesis,” one of the script’s many non sequiturs.

Actually, Violet only has eyes for Sam, as he unleashes his inner hero with proclamations like, “We got this! If we don’t, the world ends.”

Director Chris Columbus, famous for Home Alone and two Harry Potter films, juggles an uneasy mix of shtick and schlock. Regrettably, Pixels is short on fun and long on tasteless humour, making what should be a wholesome kids’ movie questionable for even mature teens.

By the time tennis star Serena Williams and domestic diva Martha Stewart make their appearance, viewers will wish for “Game Over.”

The film contains bawdy humour, some sexual innuendo, and a few mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

 

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