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Arts Film Review

New films: Southpaw, Paper Towns, Pixels

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Jake Gyllenhaal found another transformative role to sink himself into in this remarkable study of a professional boxer whose fortune runs out. It’s especially noteworthy coming so quickly after last year’s “Nightcrawler,” in which he appeared withdrawn and unhealthily skinny, to have bulked up for this role enough to look the part of a light-heavyweight champion.

Gyllenhaal’s Billy Hope came up through the system, in and out of care and prison, and stabilized in adulthood by the influence of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams ). She’s the one who’s made all the difficult decisions, including regarding fight contracts, offsetting the predatory nature of promoters and those who have stood to gain from his fame rather than his wellbeing. It’s a relationship that has worked well and brought him to world championship status, albeit with only a tenuous hold on the structure of their financial house of cards. But it’s not a situation that can sustain her loss.

Gyllenhaal is excellent in “Southpaw” but the story itself feels weaker than the central performance. After the first act, it’s very conventional in structure and could be a story about multiple trades or professions. That might even be intentional but it feels mundane as a result. The initial fall from grace is profound but from that point on it feels like something we’ve seen multiple times before even if not in this particular context.

That said, there are at least some elements that work in a manner that wouldn’t if Billy Hope weren’t in the public eye. “Southpaw” manages to be an indictment of the cult of celebrity and the fickle nature of adoration and fandom. At the same time, as he hits bottom, it’s a bottom he recognizes and has experience with. It might also have been different with a character who had no background on the mean streets or in institutions.

Throughout it all, Gyllenhaal is intense. He looks like a fighter (at least to these untrained eyes) and the fights appear similarly authentic. I especially appreciated the focus on the aftermath of a fight. We’ve seen a lot of films with close-ups of injuries and cuts (as we also get here) and swollen faces at the end of the evening. I know how a simple injury can often feel worse 24 hours later and I can only imagine the outcome of round after round of body blows, but “Southpaw” takes the time to linger on the morning after, the bloody pillow, the difficulty in simple acts like walking and sitting down – details that add to both the depiction and the performance.

Sadly, the performance is likely to get lost in the relative narrative mediocrity. But Gyllenhaal has another potentially epic film coming later this year in “Everest” and actors often get lucky during award season when they’re being thought of for more than one thing. He’s supported well in “Southpaw” by both McAdams and Forest Whitaker as a down to earth boxing coach (happily not in yet another role as a police officer or FBI agent) and the film might garner some love in the technical areas (sound, sound editing, etc.) that add authenticity to the fight sequences.
The lead performance alone makes the film worth watching, especially for fans or those who enjoy being up to speed on all the award season comparisons, but don’t be surprised if it still feels like a letdown overall.


Paper Towns” hits most of the typical notes of teenage romantic comedies pretty well, helped by an appealing central cast anchored by Nat Wolff, who previously stole scenes as the blind friend in “The Fault in Our Stars” (based on a book by the same author). The central plotline has Wolff’s Quentin following clues in an attempt to locate his neighbor and longtime unrequited love Margo (Cara Delevingne). However, unlike most films in this genre, it’s a little less tidy in its resolution and introduces some meaningful lessons for its target audience in terms of compatibility and personality, beyond the basic high school stereotypes. It’s well put together, well acted (Wolff has a Hanks-like, every-guy quality), and has an appealing soundtrack – but you might want to hide the car keys before your teenagers see it.

The latest Adam Sandler vehicle “Pixels” was inspired by a two minute short film (although “Futurama” fans might also recognize the concept) and feels like it. I don’t think it’s as absolutely horrendous as some people seem to think it is (I’d rather watch “Pixels 2” than “Grown Ups 3”), and there are a few genuinely funny moments. But there simply isn’t enough story to stretch to 105 minutes. It might have worked at 85 if it had concentrated on the basic concept of aliens attacking Earth in the form of video game characters from 1982 (and if it has actually stuck to things that existed in 1982!). Instead we get a messy love story plus Kevin James as President of the US – which might inadvertently make “Pixels” the most biting political satire of the year – slowing down the action. It also falls into the increasingly common trap of being a childish movie based on nostalgia almost no children will recognize. It’s childishness for the manchild. (Manchildish?) Do yourself a favor – watch the original short film on Youtube instead.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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