HANDS OF STONE
From almost the minute it begins, you can tell something is off about the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone. Rather than having faith in the Panamanian fighter’s intriguing and volatile life story, either the filmmaker (Venezuelan writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz) or the people responsible for editing this film decided to begin the film with narration—not Duran (played to fiery perfection by Edgar Ramirez) telling us his life story, but rather his trainer, the legendary Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), giving us his perspective on Duran’s rise and fall. What the almighty hell?
This being a Weinstein Company film, you can draw your own conclusions about where the narration and sloppy editing originated, but the resulting film is an unqualified mess that almost goes out of its way to hide what would have been impressive performances were they not chopped into micro-moments. The film speeds through Duran’s fascinating life story, from his life as a street kid in Panama to his professional boxing debut at the age of 16, to his most memorable match against Sugar Ray Leonard (an impressive turn by Usher Raymond IV), to his rematch with Leonard, which he ended with the infamous utterance “No mas.” (Duran claims he never said this, but he was clearly defeated.)
But rather than take the time and linger in any part of Duran’s colorful and sometimes self-destructive life that might help an audience learn about his past, his fighting style or, his motivation to want to fight and defeat any American boxer, Hands of Stone blazes through his early years. The focus is especially the whirlwind romance between him and future wife Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas, currently in War Dogs). When he was just a boy, he was at the heart of the Panamanian clash with American forces to keep control of the Panama Canal, and it tainted his feelings about coming to the states to train with Arcel at the behest of his local trainer Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades).
Perhaps even worse, the film takes time away from Duran’s story to walk us through various dealings involving Arcel with the New York mob (represented by John Turturro as boxing promoter Frankie Carbo), with whom Arcel had to clear Duran’s first fight in the city. I’m sure a fine movie could one day be made about Arcel and his long career as a man who trained a couple dozen of the finest fighters of the 20th century, but every minute Hands of Stone lets itself drift away from Duran, it becomes that less interesting. Not that I didn’t enjoy the dynamic between Arcel and his protective wife Stephanie (played with a quiet dignity by Ellen Barkin), but their scenes are more distraction than enhancement of this journey.
Not surprisingly, the best (and seemingly least mangled) sequences in Hands of Stone are the boxing matches themselves, which are brutal, bloody and carefully staged and executed so that we can see the techniques at work. Arcel drills strategy into Duran’s brain, and when he follows the gameplan, he wins; when he allows himself to be distracted, well, usually he still wins; it just takes a little longer. In particular, with the bouts with Leonard, we can see the different fighting styles of the two men—Duran comes in like a bull, while Leonard is more about floating and dancing until he finds his opening. Director Jakubowicz is clearly in his element in these scenes, and if the rest of the film were this powerful, it would be a true triumph.
I’m guessing somewhere in the world there is a much longer and better cut of Hands of Stone, and I’d love to take another crack at watching that version of Duran’s rags-to-riches story. The movie certainly doesn’t paint him as a saint. He has a chip on his shoulder and a short fuse connected to his temper. Only an actor as good as Ramirez (The Bourne Ultimatum, Carlos, Joy, last year’s Point Break remake) to show both sides to this complicated figure.
As much as Arcel’s story takes us out of Duran’s tale, the training sequences are essential to understanding how skilled a fighter Duran truly was in his prime. But then that pesky narration pops in again, reminding us through whose eyes we’re really seeing this unfold. It’s a shame because there’s clearly a much better work on a cutting-room floor somewhere, and I’d be curious to see it. What we’re left with are swirling, hacked-up fragments that don’t come together the way they should.
With his previous film, the remake of Evil Dead, writer-director Fede Alvarez stuck with the cabin-in-the-woods scenario, inhabited by supernatural creatures, and the result was about as bloody an affair as is possible with an R rating. So it only makes sense that Alvarez would flee in the opposite direction with his new, original film, Don’t Breathe, if only to challenge himself with a work set in the most rundown section of Detroit, with no other worldly beings, and very little blood. The result is one of the most truly suspenseful movies in recent memory, with all credit due to Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues (who also co-wrote the new Evil Dead) for carefully constructing a close quarters that lets us think we know who the bad guy(s) is/are, until we don’t.
Three young punks—Jane Levy (also a part of the Evil Dead remake) as Rocky, Dylan Minnette (Prisoners, Goosebumps) as Alex, and Daniel Zovatto (It Follows) as Money—have a racket where they rob the few houses worthy of robbing in the Detroit area. They’re looking for one last big score so they can live out their dreams of moving to California. Money has heard of just such a job, involving a hermit-like old man living in a terrible area with no neighbors. Apparently, years earlier, the man’s daughter was killed in a horrific car accident and he’s been sitting on the cash settlement, hidden somewhere in his home.
One of the many clever tricks that Alvarez uses is telegraphing a few key elements in the old man’s house as soon as the kids break in. As the burglars case the house, it serves as a tour of certain doors, a skylight, a particular tool or two, and just gives us the general layout of the ground floor and upstairs (where the old man is sleeping). At some point, we also find out the home’s owner (played with silent intensity by Stephen Lang) is blind, so this gives the criminals added confidence that they can be in and out in no time. What they don’t realize until it’s too late is that The Blind Man is ex-military, knows every corner of his own house, and can lock it up like a fortress, so that no one gets in or out.
There are sequences when the kids are sneaking around the house trying desperately to be quiet, so that the Blind Man (who owns several guns and manages to take another off one of the thieves) can’t tell where they are. And before long, our sympathies, which were easily with the Blind Man as the victim, slowly begin to shift for reasons I won’t go into. Probably the most terrifying moment in the film is when everyone ends up in the basement, which was not scoped out at the beginning, so both the kids and the audience are totally lost, especially when Lang’s character turns off the light and makes it his domain. Lang is truly astonishing in Don’t Breathe, with almost no dialogue, and such well-timed movement that he completely sells the blindness. His hands are almost touching a wall or ceiling or object just to confirm his position in a space. He hears every creek, every exhalation, and we’re almost convinced he can smell fear.
Alvarez confirms that he is a master of camera movement, as cinematographer Pedro Luque glides through each room, between people, making us feel like another person in the scenario who might get shot or choked if we make too much noise. The Blind Man is shooting to kill, for reasons we think we understand but don’t. The film uses long takes to give it immediacy and a sound design that makes every gunshot sound like a cannon going off and uses silence as a key to building tension. And breaking that silence will almost certainly mean death.
The pacing and reveals of the film are sheer perfection. And just when we think we’ve gotten through all of the shocks and twists, Alvarez and Sayagues unleash even more that are impossible to predict and some might consider truly foul. I’m not sure it was completely necessary to make us look at Lang as something close to evil; I loved the cautionary tale aspect of the crime-gone-wrong scenario plenty. But the final twist is so creepy, it almost seems worth pushing the limits of taste…almost. Also, by giving Rocky more of a motivation than her underdeveloped male counterparts about needing this money, it makes her seem less of a criminal. Again, I’m not sure that’s necessary when all is said and done, but Levy is so strong in the part, it’s genuinely not something I thought much about until after the film was done.
The true measure of Don’t Breathe’s success is that you’ll find yourself holding your own breath as the film unfolds, especially during the moments when the younger character must be as quiet as possible. I can’t remember the last time I heard an audience (especially in a horror movie) so quiet, and that pleases me considerably. (I’m waiting for the Alamo Drafthouse PSA with Stephen Lang, in which he threatens to wipe out anyone whose cell phone goes off during the movie.) Any movie terrifying enough to influence your air intake is a winner in my book.
To read my exclusive interview with Don’t Breathe director and co-writer Fede Alvarez, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
The most romantic film you will see all year just happens to be a barely fictionalized account of the first date of the couple who just happen to occupy the White House for a few more months. Writer-director Richard Tanne’s debut feature, Southside With You, is a simple yet wildly ambitious and slightly audacious look at two smart, thoughtful problem solvers who both happened to live on the South side of Chicago in the summer of 1989.
Michelle Robinson (played by Tika Sumpter, of the Ride Along films) was all about her career at the law firm (where she was the only black woman employed). She was also the supervisor of one Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), a Harvard-educated summer associate, who somehow became the star of the office almost immediately. One of Obama’s gifts was reading other people and knowing how far he can push them, so rather than simply ask Robinson on a date, he invited her to a community meeting he was attending. But what she didn’t know was that the meeting was only a small part of the day he had planned for them. What you must realize going into Southside With You is that it is most definitely not about watching the man who would be President and the woman who would be the First Lady; it’s about a guy on the make, who is willing to use every trick in his playbook to get this woman to kiss him by the end of their full day together.
The resulting film is a magnificent exercise in smart, funny, entertaining walk-and-talk, get-to-know-you banter, the kind we usually only get from the likes of Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy. But as they move through their day together, we learn about their history, shared goals, family values, career expectations, and their real sense of where this neighborhood is headed. They go to a museum, to see Do The Right Thing at the Music Box Theatre (I doubt they made the trip to Wrigleyville for that, but they did see it that day), and even ate the ice cream that finally binds them.
But don’t forget, Obama was a player. So he did take her to that community meeting at a church, where he is immediately surrounded by people who love him and talk him up to Robinson like he hired them to do it. And then Obama gives a speech about an issue of the day, and that’s when the politician first emerges. Filmmaker Tanne has crafted a speech that feels so authentic, you’d swear it was taken from a transcript. Obama starts small—cracking a joke about the preacher who presides over this place; then he moves on the bigger issues at hand, ending with what seems like a reasonable, rational solution. It certainly helps that Sawyers bears a remarkable resemblance to the President, but it’s the writing that drives the moment home.
In a scene not too long after, the couple are at a bar. At this point Michelle has noticed the way that Barack tenses up (and sometimes even pulls out his dreaded cigarettes) whenever the subject of his father comes up. Her gifts as a natural problem solver are on full display, as she advises her future husband on forgiving the man who abandoned his mother when he was quite young. It’s a revealing moment that shows how quickly she understood and got to a couple of the dark corners of his mind as well.
But most of the film is just fun and enjoyment—the spirit and early emotions of a first date, without actually calling it that (at least she refuses to). And not surprisingly, the film makes for a wonderful date movie by refusing to fall into the traps about men and women that dominate so many modern romantic-comedies. Southside With Me is a film about adults with so much still to come in their lives, some of which they probably didn’t envision back in 1989. The film isn’t afraid to tackle issues of race, especially in the context of their largely white office place, and it’s a source of frustration for both, but a challenge they’re willing to take on.
Southside With You refuses to get deep into political agendas or ideals; we’ll save that for the history books. This is about the first day of feeling something strong about someone else, about that slow-moving lightning bolt that hits your heart, about somebody moving so far past your expectations that you know, from this day forward, you won’t be able to look at them the same. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with Southside With You stars Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
MORRIS FROM AMERICA
Writer-director Chad Hartigan has a way of sneaking his life lessons in when and where you least expect them. His previous work, 2013’s delicate This Is Martin Bonner, concerned an older gentleman who leaves his long-established life on the East Coast and moves to Nevada. The film was quiet and deliberately paced to the point where it almost felt fragile. But his latest, Morris From America, is an entirely different piece—a coming-of-age piece that is as much about the 13-year-old central character’s father growing up as it is about the boy’s emergence from his self-imposed shell.
Still reeling from the death of his mother, young Morris (newcomer Markees Christmas) and his father, new widower Curtis (Craig Robinson of “The Office” and Hot Tub Time Machine fame) have relocated to Germany of all places, where Curtis has a coaching position for a local soccer team. The pair tend to get along, but Morris’s troubles fitting in at school (or anywhere with kids his age) is discouraging to his father, and the life lessons tend to come at a rapid pace. Morris is the only black kid at his school, but that isn’t his only barrier. He’s shy, heavy, terse when engaged (even by those trying to be friendly), and doesn’t speak German fluently yet. His one true friend is his tutor, Inka (Carla Juri of Wetlands), who is not only teaching him a second language but is also giving him advice on what girls like in terms of behavior.
One girl in Morris’s class, Katrin (Lina Keller), seems to look at him more with curiosity than with any romantic potential, but that doesn’t stop Morris from developing a crush on her. In an effort to impress her, he decides to develop his skills as an amateur rapper and enters a local talent show. Watching Morris attempt to navigate these foreign waters is often quite uncomfortable, made only less so by his father’s attempts to encourage his son to make new friends, when Curtis has yet to make any real new friends himself (there is one fleeting, awkward scene of sharing beers with other coaches).
Although it’s barely addressed until the end of the film, Morris From America is about two men—one young, one grown—who miss the woman in their lives. Neither wears their pain on the surface, but it’s still clearly there and will be slow to go away. Late in the film, Katrin convinces Morris to take a bus to Hamburg to see a DJ friend of hers perform; she surprises him by asking the DJ to bring Morris up to freestyle rap, and it feels like a single-step beginning in the right direction for the kid. But after being abandoned in Hamburg, he’s forced to call home for help, and the resulting long car ride with his father includes a long monologue from Robinson about his first romantic gesture involving Morris’s mother. Not only does Robinson deliver the tale in a funny, meaningful way, but it also speaks to just how much he loved this woman and misses her every day. Filmmaker Hartigan isn’t trying to make us sob, but that doesn’t stop him from reaching right into our chests and gently squeezing our heartstrings.
Another universal message of the film is about being yourself, which might sound like a cliché, but in the context of Morris From America, it’s very specifically about the kid’s rap lyrics, which initially focus on sleeping with multiple women at once, wasting people, and collecting stacks of cash—surprisingly enough, Morris has no life experience with any of these practices. Rather than discouraging Morris from rapping altogether, Curtis pushes a “write what you know” philosophy on his son, and the results are impressive. The film is positive and hopeful, without resorting to over-the-top, uplifting nonsense. This is a work about making the best of a unique and often-stressful life situation, and sometimes, that’s all we can hope for or achieve. The film opens today at the ArcLight theaters.
You can read my exclusive interview with Morris From America writer-director Chad Hartigan and star Craig Robinson on Ain’t It Cool News.
LO AND BEHOLD, REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD
When a new doc by Werner Herzog comes out, you don’t even think about it; you just go. His insights into his subjects and resulting narration and questions (which alternate from hilarious and deeply touching to downright disturbing) always make for wildly entertaining works, such as Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Unlike his other docs, Lo & Behold does not focus on one person or place. Herzog’s ambition is to capture a bit of the uncapturable by looking at many aspects of technology and the digital world it has created and will likely never stop being modified, updated and made easier to enter into.
More a filmed thesis, the movie offers 10 entry points into the online world, from the sacred ground (just a small room on the UCLA campus, really) where the internet was effectively born, and interviews with great thinkers like Elon Musk to sobering questions about the role of robots in the near future and one of the worst examples of cyber-bullying ever recorded. As always, Herzog is posing impossible inquiries of his subject—“Does the Internet dream of itself?”—but the answers never disappoint, and the resulting responses form a type of loose and highly engaging philosophy that tells us as much about Herzog as it does about his subject.
Herzog deliberately juxtaposes examples of the connected world that make our future seem bright with ones that seem to spell our doom as a polite and caring society. The filmmaker seems to be skirting the idea of pulling together a master philosophy about the world of today and the world to come, but he never quite pulls all of his threads into a single strand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Herzog has so much to say about each of his focal points that it’s sometimes surprising and slightly frustrating not to hear what his final assessment is on the subject of, for example, artificial intelligence. I’m still more of a fan of his single-subject works, but Lo & Behold might be one of his most informative pieces and feels the most like surreal art. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS
Set amid the end of the British mandate for Palestine through the early years of the State of Israel (although never truly focusing on either), A Tale of Love and Darkness captures the formative childhood remembrances of young Amos Oz, who would grow to write an autobiographical story of the same name. At its care, the work is about a mother passing down the gift and love of storytelling. Fania Oz (played by the film’s director, Natalie Portman, who also adapted the book) is a protective and mentally unstable woman who, in her better moments, spins tales of their family’s past or other yarns about the old country to Oz, who cannot imagine that he’s emotional enough a being to become a writer himself. In fact, his father Arieh (Gilad Kahana) is a writer and Amos sometimes sees the man as weak, especially when it’s clear that he’s being unfaithful to Fania.
Shot entirely in Hebrew and narrated by Amos as an old man, Love and Darkness is an emotional powder keg of a movie, with Portman committing everything she has in her acting arsenal to this performance. Fania can’t fathom being a party to the loveless marriage that she’s in, and she often fantasizes about a much handsomer, muscular man that she should be with instead of the bookish, distant Arieh. With Amos often her only reason for staying alive, Fania throws herself into parenting him when she isn’t almost crippled with depression, which keeps her bedridden for much of the film. Sometimes, she gives him life lessons and even advice on storytelling (especially when it’s okay to make things up about someone real). These would be sweet scenes were they not borne of Fania’s state.
As the storyteller herself, writer-director Portman clearly feels a connection with this material specifically and the art of storytelling in general (she’s made a nice living taking part in filmed stories since she was a kid), but being Israeli-born herself has clearly pulled her into Oz’s story that much more. She paints a grim portrait of late-1940s Israel, while the fantasy world she shares with her son is far brighter and loaded with color. Young Tessler is a remarkable find, but even when he’s simply playing the observer to his parents’ behavior or to life in his community, he captures the open-faced innocence and curiosity you’d expect.
Despite the film’s great depth and beauty, Love and Darkness does little to coax us into this narrative. It’s like staring as a technically wondrous painting that lacks the warmth to stir up empathy in the observer. And while we certainly feel for Amos’s plight and Fania’s dilemma as a mother, there’s also a distance in the way Portman lets things play out. This is easily, the actor’s finest work since her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan, and for that reason alone, the film is probably worth seeking out, but I’m not tempted to ever watch it again.