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Put a Ring on It: Jake Gyllenhaal Fights for Love in ‘Southpaw,’ While Adam Sandler Fights Donkey Kong in ‘Pixels’

Jake Gyllenhaal fights for his daughter in ‘Southpaw,’ a German woman fights for a new life in ‘Phoenix,’ and Adam Sandler is … Adam Sandler.

Sometimes you want to see an actor leave everything on the floor. We’re sadists that way, we moviegoers. But when the acting is as masochistic as Jake Gyllenhaal’s is in Southpaw, you wish he’d keep a little something for himself. He plays a Hell’s Kitchen light heavyweight champ, and whenever he opens his mouth, you half-expect one of the DJs from Hot 97 to blast an air horn. (That accent is where somebody thinks hip-hop lives.) Gyllenhaal has made himself intimidatingly fit. The muscles on his fatless body ripple. The veins and striations form an interstate coursing with God only knows. His big eyes go Powerball crazy.

If he’s playing king of the boxing world, Gyllenhaal makes sure the throne doubles as an electric chair. This, we’ve been told, is actors’ acting: the explosiveness, the training, that accent. But one reason to wish Gyllenhall had gone for 7 or 8 out of 10 instead of 14 is that the movie isn’t very good. To his credit, this isn’t the sort of performance designed to transcend a film; it’s meant to complement it. The movie, written by Kurt Sutter and directed by Antoine Fuqua, takes almost every boxing cliché imaginable but doesn’t combine or stir them up. Each banality just sort of paces shamelessly back and forth, flashing at you like a body in a red-light district.

Gyllenhaal’s character, Billy, has just won his 43rd fight, and his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), thinks that’s a good number at which to hang it all up. She’s worried about his health and wants their 10-year-old bespectacled daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), to have a father. But Billy’s being taunted by a young upstart, and at a banquet where Billy has just mumbled his way through a speech, the kid and his crew take their shot — and not just with their fists. A sloppily shot and edited melee ensues, the fallout of which leaves Billy collapsed into addiction. He disobeys his wife and takes a fight for money (he’s been overspending), then hits a referee during a bout and winds up losing his money, home, and family — and has to, you know, fight his way back, not just to the top, but to Leila, who gets sucked into the foster care system, where she pretends to be better off. On one of Billy’s visits, a friend asks, “Is that your dad?” Leila does her best impersonation of an aggrieved girlfriend and answers, “I don’t know anymore.” Later, she slaps him and says she wishes he were dead. (There’s more where that came from.) Every time you think this guy has reached bottom, the movie plunges him through yet another floor.

The climb up requires a gym and a trainer and a job. Thank goodness for Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who’s able to provide Billy with all three. Messy old Tick is all washed up as a fighter, which makes him ideal to turn his life over to Billy. He’s not just a rung to recovery; he’s the whole ladder. Tick gives Billy all the skill he’s never had, including rhythm and good defense, surprising weaknesses for a titleholder who, when the movie starts, had never lost a fight. Anyway, Billy gets clean, gets fit, and tries to get beyond supervised visitation. Fuqua brought us Training Day and The Equalizer, titles that easily apply to this new movie. “Southpaw,” of course, refers to Billy’s left hand, and he deploys a last-minute, in-ring head fake that sends ringside commentators Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr. into a tizzy. It must be said that this seems like an awful lot of movie just to discover that this guy can hit with his left. And Billy’s training sequences are canned into a montage that feels like a poor excuse to dump a new Eminem song into the soundtrack. (On the other hand, the score is by James Horner, who died in June. The movie has been dedicated to him, and it’s the film’s most elegant touch.)

Otherwise, Fuqua seems content to make everything as basic and obvious as possible, and Sutter, who brought us the biker melodrama of Sons of Anarchy, has cut-rate notions of emotional manipulation. (Dammit, his is a custody battle fight drama!) I don’t know how you make an original boxing movie anymore. I don’t think the first boxing films were all that fresh. Even in 1931, The Champ must have seemed old-fashioned. But there was natural pathos in its hoariness. In taking from, evoking, or just failing to think past that movie and about a dozen others, Southpaw just makes this one seem tired. Its idea of pathos is mechanical, and its depiction of an elite white boxer pads a Hollywood romance that no longer aligns with the reality of a sport that, for 50 years, has been dominated by black men and Latinos. (Andrew Lindsay explored this preoccupation in his book Boxing in Black and White: A Statistical Study of Race in the Ring, 1949-1983.)

But what Sutter and Fuqua are doing with Southpaw feels like trolling. They don’t even make Billy Italian American or ethnically Irish! He’s just an orphan! The black characters are here to support the white ones. (Naomie Harris plays a foster care administrator whose sole job, it seems, is to nanny Leila. 50 Cent plays Billy’s manager, who knows to move on when Billy bottoms out.) And if you’re going to make an original movie about a white boxer without setting off certain alarms of disbelief, perhaps a name other than Billy “The Great” Hope is a good place to start. But this movie doesn’t care for decorum. It’s possible someone thought omitting the “white” after “great”was a nod to subtlety.

This kind of egregiousness threatens to upstage Gyllenhaal’s hard work, which in itself is pretty flagrant but honest, too. He’s now where Christian Bale was before The Fighter and American Hustle: an aggressive mannerist. He’s got a clearer sense of humor and his daring has more than one note in movies like Source Code and End of Watch; he just played nerdy Seymour in a quickie revival of Little Shop of Horrors. But you long to see him take all of that skill and create something soulful or organically weird, as opposed to the flamboyant nutjob he came up with for Nightcrawler, where the work kept getting in the way. What if he took the lunatic flight that Nicolas Cage took, while realizing, unlike Cage, that one side effect of going out on a limb is that the branch could break? The trouble with how hard Gyllenhaal goes in Southpaw is that he’s in the service of weak material, so you notice the effort. At some point, as Billy, Gyllenhaal’s screaming into a mattress, with a gun and a bullet nearby, and I found myself thinking, Who’s going to clean up the snot? It’s a blinkered and anguished piece of acting committed to a movie that doesn’t deserve it.

♦♦♦ PHOENIX 2013IFC Films

There’s preposterousness, and then there are the movies of Christian Petzold. Petzold’s a German whose suspense melodramas — 2009’s Jerichow, 2012’s Barbara — hinge on coincidences and plot twists so impossible, so desperate that they just work anyway, held together by his confidence in his storytelling. You might think his movies are dependent on insane collisions of conveniences. But, for Petzold, they’re part of a grand moral cosmos. Now he’s back with Phoenix, the strangest and most ambitious of his three most recent movies. It’s also the most devastating in its efficiency and elegance. The story concerns Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), a Berlin lounge singer and Holocaust survivor whose horribly disfigured face is surgically reconstructed. The new one eventually looks just like Hoss: fine-boned and enticingly big-eyed.

This is the kind of movie — or rather Petzold makes the kind of movie — in which Nelly learns that Nazis have killed her family but all she wants to know is whether her husband, Johannes (Ronald Zehrfeld), made it. You can’t believe it, but when you get a load of him (he definitely made it), all you can say, in distasteful arousal, is: never mind. Zehrfeld is a strapping hunk with Clark Gable’s mustache and Gable’s way of a romantic kind of rudeness. Together, before the war, he and Nina were a musical duo. Now he’s lifting boxes and wiping stuff down at a bar called Phoenix and doesn’t recognize this arisen woman. Which is perfect, since he’s got a proposition: His wife died in the camps, and he needs someone to pretend to be her in order to collect the inheritance her family left. Nelly consents out of some combination of shock, relief, and intrigue, against the wishes of the friend (Nina Kunzendorf) who has arranged for her new life.

There’s no point in explaining where all of this goes. But Petzold is in command of it. By the time you know what he’s up to, the movie’s over, and you’re in a stupor. The ending’s brilliantly abrupt. Petzold continues the German tradition of melodrama that Rainer Werner Fassbinder took up during his peak, in the 1970s and ’80. There are many tensions here (sexual, conjugal, moral, cosmetic, artistic) that forget to breathe. Petzold mixes up many thrillers and films noir (from Hitchcock’s to Georges Franju’s) and extracts from them the drama of the double. At the Phoenix, a pair of cabaret singers performs as a tandem. At some point, a different act is seated at the bar, and from behind they appear to be twins. Poor Nelly tolerates the advances of an American soldier only to hear someone inform him that he’s caressing the wrong girl. In this second life, she goes as Esther, the biblical queen who deploys her secret Jewishness strategically. Petzold is having a ball with all of this resurrection and recombination — and with Johannes, who once went by “Johnny,” exactly the sort of noir name a dame shouldn’t trust.

The movie itself is a reincarnation of Barbara, which was set in 1980 Germany under the watch of the Stasi, and in which Hoss and Zehrfeld were lovers in distrust. The deluded omniscience Zehrfeld played in Barbara is a willful obliviousness here. Johannes is so thoroughly convinced by Esther that you have to ask, what did Nelly originally look like? Were her voice and demeanor reconstructed, too? These are questions that Petzold, in his baldness, forces you to ask, but here you accept the whole scheme — his hatching it; her going along — as entwined trauma. That’s all that Hoss is playing: aftershock. She has to keep organized the layers of performance and pretending, to grasp the order of the masks she’s wearing, and what it means to let one slip or to remove them entirely. Hoss has to do this while appearing to do very little at all, to be hiding behind smiles and frowns. It’s warm, beautifully intelligent, soulful acting that’s confident enough to know that her cold stillness can singe. She’s the phoenix, yes. But she’s also the flame.


pixels-hpSony Pictures

Late-middle-period Adam Sandler is a crank nostalgist. “Was” is better than “is,” adolescence better than adulthood, fun better than family, and, with Pixels, 1980s arcade games beat whatever single-player nonsense you’re playing on your bed. The conceit is that once upon a time, somebody space-launched a capsule loaded with classic video games, which some alien race construed as an act of war. Out of plausible options, the president (Kevin James) recruits his childhood best friend (Sandler) — a former arcade-game champion turned lowly home-electronics technician — to help the military vanquish Galaga and Centipede, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, which, in 3-D, have just the right animated glow and sizzle as they attack live-action D.C. and London. But the movie just feels like a knocked-off Ghostbusters, right down to the cheap coveralls and light guns. (Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage fill in the rest of the personnel blanks.) But where’s that movie’s screwball lunacy? This is just a lot of chomp-chomp-chomp and point tallies wafting upward whenever something game-oriented is blown up.

Chris Columbus seems like the ideal director for stakes this low. His expertise is mildness. I’m almost never quite as sorry I came to his movies as I thought I’d be. There’s usually something. Here, there are the threats from the aliens, delivered by digitally manipulated ’80s-era icons like Ronald Reagan, Tammy Faye Bakker, and chipper, young Madonna. This is the movie at its most inspired. There’s a comic chill of doom in those warnings. Otherwise, there’s not much else, just thoughtless government lacquer. But playing the president is the rare sign that James’s onscreen self-image might have a capacity for loftiness. He even looks only mildly cowed by his scenes with Fiona Shaw, who, as the prime minister of England, goes whole hog in speaking British gibberish. Dinklage puts on a trashy black-pimp accent and wants to be paid for his services in days and nights with Martha Stewart and Serena Williams. And the older and grouchier Sandler gets, the more he seems like deadbeat Humphrey Bogart. To that end, Michelle Monaghan, as a pathetic divorcée who also happens to be a Defense Department muckety-muck, is on hand to play verbal air hockey with him. As the first lady, Jane Krakowski is on hand to impersonate air.

As if the ho-hum-ness weren’t enough, there’s a procedural hypocrisy at work in the nostalgia. Most of the action set pieces are only loosely executed the way you’d play, say, Donkey Kong. When a giant spaceship releases thousands of game characters over Washington, the movie becomes the sort of dull shoot-’em-up it’s railing against. That’s a problem only insofar as the movie doesn’t actually know what game it’s trying to play.