Short takes: Southpaw, Saint Laurent, Inside Out & more

Southpaw

Southpaw– Jake Gyllenhaal gives a tremendous performance in Southpaw, but just like his turn in last year’s Nightcrawler it’s buried in a bland movie.  The grand scale and energy of Antoine Fuqua’s direction and Gyllenhaal’s ferocious intensity in the role of boxer Bobby Hope are almost enough to carry the movie past a mountain of cliches and a predictable story.  The script, by Kurt Sutter, is driven by big emotions rather than narrative logic.  It starts out with Hope in the prime of his career: he’s undefeated, has millions of dollars and a loving family.  He loses it all when his wife (Rachel McAdams) is gunned down during a brawl he’s involved in at a charity event.

Sadly, the movie can’t recover from her absence any more than Hope can.  After her death his entire fortune seems to evaporate, and he’s rushed back into the ring by a manager (Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent) who only wants more money.  Hope snaps during that rebound match, is suspended from fighting and ultimately loses custody of his daughter.  He eventually stumbles into the small, antique gym of Tick Willis (a fantastic Forest Whitaker), who just so happens to be a world-class trainer.  By the end, he’s landed back into the ring with the same man he was fighting when his wife died.  If you’re wondering how this all escalated so quickly, you’re not alone.  Southpaw is too focused on plowing through plot points to the Big Finish that it never fully connects. Grade: C-

Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent – The lavish, intoxicating world of Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent is alluring at first, but ultimately becomes a prison for its main character. Set mostly between 1967 and 1976, with a few flash forwards and flashbacks toward the end, the movie chronicles the infamous designer Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) at the peak of his popularity and creative output.  It’s a movie of interiors almost by necessity; the fashion shows, the posh dance clubs, the vibrant gay sex parties all happen in brightly lit, immaculate rooms.

Saint Laurent steps outside occasionally, to observe its subject unconscious in a construction site or during a couple shadowy cruising scenes, but it’s designed as a kind of beautiful hermetic seal.  Bonello takes his time with the story, dwelling in clubs and letting side characters dominate the frame.  One of my favorite scenes of the year involves a distracted Saint Laurent watching a blonde woman across a club as she smokes, gets up and dances to “I Put a Spell On You.”  He then gets up and asks her to model.  Otherwise mundane scenes are given extraordinary flourishes like this, while his descent into heavy pill use is observed with the same calm, collected stillness as his tormented creative process.  The movie’s focus on Saint Laurent’s instability builds to a final act that is way too drawn out, but Bonello ends it on such a clever note that it almost redeemed itself.  Grade: B

Inside Out

Inside Out – There’s an ingenious conceit at the core of the latest PIxar film that sadly comes undone by a heavy, too-neat plot.  Why must a movie set inside the rambunctious mind of a child be needlessly tethered to story?  Inside Out’s beginning and ending acts are bold and exhilarating, as we watch the emotional toll moving to a new place takes on 11-year-old Riley from the perspective of her emotions.  Those emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear, are voiced by some of the more recognizable members of the recent NBC comedy scene.  (And the indispensable Lewis Black who, let me just say, does not voice Joy).

I would have been happy watching an entire movie focused on Riley’s emotional entourage navigating the perils of being a pre-teen in a weird new place (San Francisco).  Alas, Inside Out essentially becomes a mismatched buddy comedy where Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) get lost in Riley’s long-term memory and must journey back to Headquarters, where her life is presided over by her emotions.  When the movie narrows its focus on Joy and Sadness it’s still entertaining if quite underwhelming by comparison. They wander through a movie set that makes her dreams, they meet her imaginary friend (an excellent Richard Kind) and they learn each other’s value to Riley’s emotional core.  Inside Out rarely takes time to explore the possibilities of Riley’s mind; instead, each aspect of her brain usually does what the plot requires it to do and is then unceremoniously discarded. Grade: C+

Spy

Spy – Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig’s latest collaboration is neither better nor worse than their last one, 2013’s The Heat.  She is an insanely talented comedic performer who is often held back by a screenplay’s grasps at unneeded sympathy.  It has been the case in all of her recent leading turns – The Heat, Identity Theft, Tammy and here.  

As a spoof, Spy goes for obvious jokes that are nonetheless fairly funny (except for an overplayed bit where Jason Stathem’s character over-exaggerates his past espionage).   McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a C.I.A. operative who is stuck helping field agents from behind a computer because no one realizes her talent.  When all the field agents’ identities are revealed, she finally gets her shot in the field and is sent out to help find a stolen nuclear warhead.  Her arch-nemesis is Rayna Boyanov (a sharply funny Rose Byrne), the woman who kills the Bond wannabe (Jude Law) that Susan directed (and not-so-secretly pined for) in the field.  Spy is held back by a story that overstays its welcome and lame 50 Cent cameos, but McCarthy tears through the movie with her relentless comedic magnetism.  Grade: C

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