Wikipedia informs me that ‘Southpaw’ underwent a number of production changes. Initially, this screenplay penned by Kurt Stutter was written with Eminem in mind for the lead role. Antoine Fuqua was set to direct (that seems to be the only constant here). The picture went from being a DreamWorks production to an MGM one to a Columbia Pictures one until finally The Weinstein Company ended up distributing the film. Instead of Eminem, we have Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead.

This is one of the more challenging reviews I’ve had to write in recent memory. Not because the plot is difficult to break down by any means. No, it is because this is one of those rare “on the one hand, on the other hand” experiences. Is the glass half full or half empty?

I dunno. I sort of liked it. But, at the same time, I was disappointed that this movie wasn’t even remotely interested in surprising us even a little bit. Throw every boxing movie ever made (from ‘The Champ’ to ‘The Fighter’) into a blender and you get ‘Southpaw’. Mr. Stutter’s script is about as intelligent as the mumbling hero of the picture (even if it fares well with boxing details and has a big heart), but the cast gives it their all, and it is almost enough to make it work. Almost.

When we first meet Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), he is at the height of his fame. Billy and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) are products of Hell’s Kitchen orphanages, and the two do everything they can to ensure their sweet, 10-year-old daughter Leila (performed wonderfully by Oona Laurence) doesn’t have the kind of upbringing they had. A lot will be said about Gyllenhaal’s physical transformation for his role here, but McAdams is equally impressive and fully embodies a much tougher character than we’re used to seeing her play.

Billy is a world heavyweight champion with a 43-0 record. So, of course, something awful has to happen. After being taunted into a brawl with an up-and-coming, trash-talking boxer (Miguel Gomez), tragedy strikes. Billy spirals into self-destructive behavior and loses his wife, his mansion, his cars, his title, his manager, his career, and his daughter to child-services.

With brooding eyes and infrangible abs, Gyllenhaal plays a haunted soul just about perfectly. He delivers his lines slowly (this is a movie that knows just what a concussion can do to someone’s brain), and when his raging bull tendencies kick in, chairs and tables are tossed. There are a lot of close-ups so you can see the bereavement on his face. If this sounds like a painful watch, just remember his last name is Hope, so you can guess where this story goes.

Billy has to learn to live smart, and then fight smart – maybe the defensive maneuvering he learns inside the ring will help him become a better person outside the ring. Following his downfall, Billy walks into a dingy New York gym to seek the help of Tick Willis (a battered Forest Whitaker). I can’t make this appear any less clichéd than it is, but the actors elevate it with a depiction that is as complex as it is perfectly calibrated.

The performances are first-rate (though I could have done without Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and the movie underutilizes Naomie Harris). ‘Southpaw’ tries very hard to yank on our heartstrings, especially during the family court scenes. Gyllenhaal and young Laurence make such a great matched pair that we don’t mind being manipulated, if we’re completely aware of it.

Mr. Fuqua has always been great at staging action, and even if the fight that concludes the picture looks like many other fights we have seen in the movies, it still packs quite a visceral punch. Eminem didn’t get a starring role here, but at least his music is featured in one of the training montages, which is an abrupt change from the touching and delicate musical score by the great late James Horner (the film is dedicated to his memory). Like the titular boxer, this picture comes through as a light heavyweight – this story of redemption may not be exactly convincing, but if you can accept it as an R-rated fairytale, it is sort of effective. What we have here is a split decision. It’s a win for the actors, but the movie loses to conventionalism. Reluctantly, I can’t quite recommend ‘Southpaw’. But, I wouldn’t for a second dissuade you from seeing it. QED.


FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2007 file photo, British singer Amy Winehouse poses for photographs after being interviewed by The Associated Press at a studio in north London. Amy Winehouse, the beehived soul-jazz diva whose self-destructive habits overshadowed a distinctive musical talent, was found dead Saturday in her London home, police said. She was 27. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)


‘Amy’ is a portrait of the fast rise and ultimately sad demise of British singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse. Director Asif Kapadia has an abundance of archive footage to pull from: home videos, concert material, publicity interviews, and recording sessions. I suppose this is no longer a surprise with contemporary documentaries, especially when their subject spans a time period in the digital era. ‘Amy’ comes at you in allusive snippets. Waves of information come at the viewer, giving the picture an intensely intimate feel. One thing I’m growing weary of with recent documentaries is an overreliance on talking head clips to tell the story. ‘Amy’, thankfully, doesn’t have any talking heads and Mr. Kapadia is much more interested in providing us with a glimpse into her brief life; the interviews with friends and colleagues function as audio over existing photos and videos. Documentary filmmakers take note: with a wealth of footage, there is absolutely no need for talking heads.

As the picture opens, we see Amy at the age of 14 puttering about with some of her best friends. A few of them begin to sing ‘’Happy Birthday’ out of tune. Winehouse finishes the song and we realize that before the eyeliner, tattoos, and bouffant, that expressive, vacillating voice was there.

She was uncomfortable with her fame (“I don’t think I could handle it, I’d probably go mad, I mean it, I would go mad.” she says). Those closest to her exploited her and did not have her best interests at heart. Her husband, Blake Fielder, was the first to introduce her to crack cocaine. When I first heard the track ‘Rehab’, I more or less accepted it as a catchy pop tune but after seeing this documentary, I will never hear it again the same way. Mr. Kapadia displays her lyrics on screen as she sings them, so we are able to see the chief components of her songs as they mirror her obstreperous life. We read that sad line in the chorus: ‘My daddy thinks I’m fine”. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, comes off as one of the most horribly villainous figures here. He wanted her on the road, raking in the cash, rather than getting the help she unquestionably needed. Later, she flees the tabloid fray for St. Lucia where she was attempting to go clean, only to discover that her father has brought a reality-show camera crew there to chronicle his conjectural involvement in her revitalization. Three years after the release of ‘Rehab’, Amy would die of alcohol poisoning at the eerily horrific age of 27, an age the Grim Reaper seems to be fond of for musicians: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones.

If there is a quibble in this very powerful and very moving picture, it is the absence of some connective material. We are told that Amy’s father abandoned the family for another woman when she was 9 but returned, presumably, once she achieved fame. What we don’t get a sense of is what that transition must have been like. The same goes for her husband: he dumps her for another girl, and returns once she is famous (the lyrics of the album which skyrocketed her to fame, ‘Back to Black’, was entirely about the heartbreak she experienced when he left her the first time). The two have understandably damned the film by characterizing it as inaccurate, but Mr. Kapadia didn’t need to go to great extents to make them appear detestable – the images speak for themselves.

Amy approached her parents about her bulimia when she was a teenager: “I have this great diet. I eat what I want and then throw it up.” Her parents didn’t know how to respond so they ignored it thinking it was just a passing phase. And so begins her self-destructive orbit, the amplitude of her problems dismissed by those around her.

The more heartbreaking moment (and there are many sad moments) occurs towards the end. At the night of the 2008 Grammy Awards, Winehouse is at a private party in London, watching this gleaming extravaganza unfold. Tony Bennett is reading off the nominees for Record of the Year. When Bennett, her lifelong idol, announces that she has won, she stands on stage wide-eyed, dazed, and flabbergasted. There is an innocent vivaciousness in this moment, which made me think back to the Amy I saw in home movies at the start of the film. But seconds after her big win, Amy signals her best friend to get onstage, the two go backstage and she reveals, “This sucks without drugs”. Winning five Grammys sucked because she wasn’t high.

‘Amy’ is a great documentary – one that starts out pleasantly and becomes progressively more uncomfortable to watch. It is an engrossing, mesmerizing, and devastating commentary of modern celebrity and the collateral damage precipitated by fame. QED.