Jake Gyllenhaal


Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) is becoming one of my favorite actors, though I’ll admit that I may have been slow to recognize his abilities. I’d always thought he turned in good performances, but it wasn’t until last year’s Nightcrawler that I finally realized how talented he is. When I think about his career thus far, I’m most impressed by his versatility. From Donnie Darko to Brokeback Mountain to Jarhead– he transforms himself completely on screen. In Antoine Fuqua’s latest offering Southpaw, Gyllenhaal is masterful as Billy Hope, a boxer whose life unravels in the wake of tragedy.

Billy Hope embodies the rags to riches bootstrapping ethos of many professional athletes. He overcame a rough childhood in foster care, rising to the pinnacle of his sport as an undefeated world champion. He remains loyal to his childhood friends and his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams, Aloha), who was also raised in the system. They live in a huge mansion with their ten-year-old daughter Leila, enjoying all the trappings of Billy’s success while remaining true to their humble beginnings.

Trash-talk and boxing go hand in hand, so initially Billy is dismissive when challenged by upstart Miguel “Magic” Escobar, who wants a shot at the title. Billy tries to laugh off Escobar’s assertion that he’s “never been hit by a real man,” but his newfound nemesis is relentless in his provocation. After a particularly nasty insult aimed at Maureen, a brawl between the fighters and their respective camps ensues. Shots ring out in the fracas, and Maureen is fatally wounded. In the aftermath of this devastating tragedy, Billy completely unravels. Consumed by grief, he is incapable of being the support system Leila so desperately needs after the loss of her mother. When she is taken into child protective services, Billy has no one to blame but himself. Will he regain custody? Does he have any hope of resurrecting his career?

Southpaw’s strength literally and figuratively lies with Gyllenhaal. From the physical transformation he endured to mirror a prizefighter to the intonation and dialect he employed in his dialogue delivery – he completely immersed himself in the role. Forest Whitaker (Out of the Furnace) was also reliably effective in his supporting role as a trainer who helps Billy right the ship. However, although I enjoyed Southpaw, I didn’t absolutely love it. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but after mulling it over for a few days; I think the movie was almost too straightforward. Writer Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) needn’t have overcomplicated the story, but its resolution was a bit too tidy. Billy’s entire world went to shit. His wife, child, home, and livelihood were all ripped from him. The manner in which these conflicts were resolved was too streamlined. There were no plot twists, nothing unexpected.

I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know if you’ve seen the trailer. Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the role was evidenced by his physical transformation, and the boxing scenes were frighteningly realistic. But how are we supposed to believe that a fighter who had been defeated so thoroughly could bounce back so quickly? A good movie, but not a great one. Grade: B+



As summer draws to a close, we move away from the popcorn fare that has flooded theaters for the past three months.  I enjoy such movies, but I welcome those that have a little more “meat on the bone.”  Boasting an acclaimed cast and frighteningly realistic plot, Prisoners was such a movie.  Hugh Jackman proves his versatility as a leading man, whether it’s showcasing his vocal ability (Les Miserables) or pushing his body to its physical limits (The Wolverine).  In Prisoners, he gives an emotionally wrought performance as a father amid a devastating tragedy.

The movie begins in a small Pennsylvania community on Thanksgiving.  Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace (Mario Bello, Grown Ups 2) are joining good friends Franklin (Terrence Howard, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis, Won’t Back Down) for dinner, along with each couples’ two children.  Anna and Joy are 6 and 7, while Ralph and Eliza are in high school.  Thanksgiving is a time when families strengthen the ties that bind, and director Denis Villeneuve struck the perfect familial tone to contrast sharply with what follows.  The four kids go for a brief walk in the neighborhood, where the younger pair happens upon a strange RV.  They climb on it briefly, before their older siblings shoo them away.  An eerie sense of foreboding washes over the viewer here, foreshadowing the crux of the storyline.

After returning home, Anna asks if she and Joy can walk back to her house.  As the lazy day unfolds, Keller notices that Anna and Joy haven’t returned.  Initially the girls’ families are calm and composed, but as the girls remain unaccounted for, a feeling of dreadful panic swells within them.  They frantically search the neighborhood after Ralph mentions the strange camper they’d seen earlier.  When the RV is found in a wooded area hours later, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) responds to the call.  Loki finds Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper), a teenaged boy with some cognitive deficits.  Alex seems psychologically disturbed, but there’s no real proof that he did anything wrong, which leads to his ultimate release.

Keller’s grief and frustration are ratcheted up to an overwhelming level, and he abducts Alex, holding him prisoner to question him on the girls’ whereabouts.  Don’t worry – I haven’t revealed anything that wasn’t in the trailer.  The movie follows Keller’s desperate actions and Detective Loki’s investigation.  Alex is a viable suspect, but it also seems that Keller could be mistaken.  And if he’s wrong, has his quest to find the monster that took his child turned him into a monster himself?

Prisoners was successful in crafting a disturbing, somber tone that never felt too heavy.  Thrillers like this often run the risk of really bringing you down; but I never felt that way.  The notable cast features an impressive total of four Academy Award nominees and one Golden Globe nominee, and their collective talent shone through.  Jackman, Bello, Howard and Davis gave four unique performances, and I found the distinct coping mechanism of each family interesting and well portrayed.  Although Keller had his perceived culprit in tow, Villeneuve shaped a suspenseful narrative that kept viewers wondering throughout.  If I have a criticism, it’s that the details became briefly muddled.  Red herrings can be an effective tool if used properly, or they can feel insincere if the audience thinks the filmmaker is playing “gotcha” by casting false suspicion on a particular character.  Overall though, I thought the movie was very suspenseful and expertly acted, making it well worth the price of admission.  Grade: B+


This review first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

End of Watch

Some filmmakers are known for their keen ability to capture the essence of a particular city, either filtering a landscape through loving eyes or exposing a harsh underbelly as only a native can do.  Spike Lee and Woody Allen have made their careers showcasing New York City, for example.  When I think of L.A. as portrayed in film, Michael Mann comes to mind – most notably for his depiction of the city in Heat and Collateral.  I’ve recently taken note of another filmmaker who has continuously highlighted Los Angeles from both the criminal and law enforcement perspectives, with that line frequently blurred.   Writer/director David Ayer has lent a hand to a few gritty movies set in L.A., including the critically acclaimed Training Day.  He also featured police corruption in Street Kings, an atmospheric tale set amongst a group of dirty Los Angeles cops.  He sticks with familiar territory in his latest effort, End of Watch – with mostly good results.

End of Watch doesn’t aim for much, but what it lacks in originality it compensates for in performance.  The “buddy cop” genre is well worn, but End of Watch takes it a step further by showing a deep and meaningful friendship between two young patrol officers.  Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs) and Michael Pena (Tower Heights) star as Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, respectively.  On the rough and tumble streets of L.A., they reign supreme.  They don’t exactly do things by the book, but for the most part they act honorably and take their jobs seriously.  Whereas most officers never have occasion to pull their guns in the line of duty (a fact smartly mentioned by Brian as narrator), Brian and Mike flash their iron quite often, seeing more action in a week than the average cop sees in a year.  The movie showed the danger they faced, but also the camaraderie between each other and the rest of the department.  This jovial, fraternal atmosphere has been done a thousand times before, but as long as it’s well executed; I don’t mind a familiar theme.

Ayer is clearly on familiar ground, and I was reminded of Training Day by some of the aspects of the storyline, as well as the cinematography.  Brian and Mike don’t just call it quits after they punch out; they are intertwined in each other’s lives, almost like brothers.  They are commended for their bravery in the line of duty and establish a reputation as fearless officers of the law.  That fearlessness could be construed as foolishness when routine surveillance leads to a huge drug bust one day.  The bust results in seizure of contraband belonging to a Mexican drug cartel, and they don’t take kindly to having their goods intercepted.  Eventually Brian and Mike find out that a hit has been put out on them.  They are undeterred, refusing to take added precautions when on patrol.  After a while things come to a head with the cartel, and the bond between the pair is tested.

I enjoyed End of Watch because of Gyllenhaal and Pena.  They had a natural chemistry and were believable as best friends and partners.  The movie had a good flow and pace, and I felt like a fly on the wall of their lives from the outset.  This was probably because Gyllenhaal’s character was filming a documentary that allowed him to narrate and explain what was happening as it unfolded, a neat trick that drew the viewer into the story.  End of Watch is not without criticism though, and I have to give a tepid endorsement of the movie, based on its ending.  I still think that a movie can be won or lost in the last ten minutes; and the ending didn’t work for me here.  I didn’t like what happened from a narrative point of view, nor did I like an utterly pointless last-minute flashback that served no expository purpose.  Bad endings just leave me flat and disappointed, no matter how effectively a movie started out.  This review isn’t exactly hot-off-the-press, so by now there are other movies I’d see ahead of this one.  All in all, not a bad flick though.  Grade: B.