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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Split Decision

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday July 23, 04:45 pm
Southpaw is solid, but not exactly substantial

 Southpaw

Cineplex

3/5

While boxing has lost pretty much all of its mainstream popularity over the last couple of decades (the disappointing Pacquiao-Mayweather fight felt more like a last hurrah than a rebirth), boxing movies are still alive and kicking. There’s undeniably something compelling about the subgenre: Men fighting against adversity and their own demons in a soul-stirring journey. Victories are stirring, while defeats leave scars.

The one problem with boxing-inspired dramas is that there are only so many plotlines, and a limited number of outcomes. In fact, between the oft-belittled Rocky series and Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, they’ve all been explored decades ago.

One could argue Southpaw’s main character, Billy Hope (“Hope,” get it?), is a mixture of both: He’s a simple man, but also one with a bottomless amount of rage simmering just under the surface. Written by Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter and directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, Southpaw has at least one thing going for it that most boxing movies don’t: It’s technically accurate.

We meet Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) riding high after winning the light heavyweight title, but before he can even take a shower we learn some harsh truths about the champ. Hope relies heavily on his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and seems incapable of taking charge of his life. Furthermore, Billy’s fighting style — constantly on the offensive, with little concern over the punishment he takes — practically guarantees a short professional career, and his time in the ring seems to be coming to an end.

Then Maureen takes a bullet during a scuffle with a contender (that’s not a spoiler; the scene is in the film’s trailer), and Hope ends up alone. Mentally destroyed, he goes into full self-destruction mode: His fortune vanishes, he gets in hot water with the boxing world and he manages to lose custody of his daughter due to his reckless behaviour. The only good thing about rock bottom is all the montages that come after.

Once considered too bland for starring roles (Prince of Persia, geesh), Jake Gyllenhaal is killing it lately. Following up on his perception-shattering work in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal pushes himself even harder in Southpaw. Sure, the physical transformation is striking, but the actor also infuses the character with a complex, fluctuating psychology.

Even though there’s nothing intrinsically new about Southpaw, Sutter and Fuqua can do gritty like nobody’s business. By depicting the nuts and bolts of preparing for a fight, they provide the film with a sheen of reality that similar movies lack.

It’s too bad the same care wasn’t put into stock characters like the shady promoter (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and the mouthy rival (Miguel Gómez). There are hints of larger stories for both characters, but those go sadly undeveloped.

Overall, Southpaw is a solid effort, but there’s little substance to it. Outside of Gyllenhaal, everybody involved with this production should be working on widening their horizons, rather than operating in the same wheelhouse they’ve always inhabited.

 

Testament of Youth

Roxy

3/5

The plight of star-crossed lovers separated by both social status and armed conflict has been a staple of war movies since the beginning. As a result, Testament of Youth may seem both old-fashioned and a veritable compendium of war clichés, but there’s a good reason for that — the film is based on one of the first WWI memoirs (by Vera Brittain), which served as the blueprint for the hundreds of books and movies that followed.

Vera (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) is a willful young woman hell-bent on going to Oxford like her brother. But her mindset changes as Britain becomes involved in World War I and she falls in love with Roland (Kit Harrington, Game of Thrones), a would-be writer who enlists early on. Concerned about the safety of her friends and her sibling, Vera becomes a nurse, a position that places her in a front-row seat when it comes to the horrors of war.

As meaty as the context is, Testament of Youth feels slight. The need to cover large amounts of text in a few minutes conspires against granting depth for the relationships on display, particularly the romance between Vera and Roland. While Vikander is at the top of her game, Harrington seems stuck playing the perpetually mopey Jon Snow, only this time in the trenches of WWI. The difference between one actor and the other portraying the inurement of the soul is vast.

The movie goes on long after some cataclysmic events reshape Vera’s perception of the world, yet Vikander is so eminently watchable that boredom never settles in. There’s also something to be said about a film that values academia: Here you have a female protagonist with agency who chooses education over a man. It’s distressing how rare this dramatic choice is in modern cinema.

 

Infinitely Polar Bear

Roxy (opens Friday 31)

3.5/5

Infinitely Polar Bear has been waiting awhile for its release. Originally slammed at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and further hammered at TIFF, the movie is one of those quirky family indies that once were all the rage and now aren’t cool enough for the festival crowd.

Mark Ruffalo (who just this year was nominated for an Emmy and an Oscar, not to mention playing the Hulk) shakes off his trademark lethargy to play Cameron, the manic-depressive father of two girls. Cam is unable to maintain a job, so his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is forced to pursue higher education in another city in order to become the family’s provider. Suddenly Cam is turned into the sole caregiver of two precocious daughters. Things don’t completely fall apart, and that could be considered a triumph.

Set in the ‘70s, Infinitely Polar Bear has several things going for it. Ruffalo and Saldana are very strong, and their struggle for normality feels painfully realistic. They both make well-intentioned yet questionable decisions. Maggie’s ambiguity towards Cameron is both unsettling and justifiable, an example that more often than not love doesn’t conquer all.

The movie deserves kudos for treating mental illness as something that can’t fully be managed by ingesting handfuls of pills. The audience is often put in Cameron’s shoes, and as annoyingly manic as he can get, his reluctance to numb his sense of self with meds is easy to relate to. Infinitely Polar Bear also gets points for favouring character over cuteness when it comes to casting the daughters, who become characters in their own right.

It’s a bit of a stretch to believe someone like Saldana could fall for a manic outsider, but once you’ve accepted that, the film can be compelling, and at times even touching.

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