HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

0
hands of stone

Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

—END—

 

 

 

Advertisements

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

0

Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Completely Sold on JOY (2015)

0

joy poster

 

When I think of Jennifer Lawrence, I do not think of THE HUNGER GAMES series or the X-MEN movies, but rather, I think of her work in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) and now JOY (2015).  Without a doubt, she is one of the most exciting actresses working today.  JOY belongs to Lawrence.

JOY, the latest film by writer/director David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence in both SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and AMERICAN HUSTLE, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, who created the Miracle Mop and went on to build a very successful business after her appearances on the QVC Home Shopping Network.

I know.  This sounds like a snooze, and many people are poking fun at a story based on the creator of the Miracle Mop, as well as calling writer/director David O. Russell overrated, but I like his style, and I like Jennifer Lawrence.  Combine these two talents with an equally talented ensemble cast, and you’ve got a movie that yes, quite frankly, makes the story of the Miracle Mop compelling and then some!

The film works for two reasons:  Russell’s writing and directorial style, and Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing acting.  These two could probably make a movie about a mop and I’d enjoy it— wait.  That’s what they just did.

JOY is narrated by Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and she introduces us to Joy as a little girl who likes to make things, and Mimi predicts great things for her granddaughter, but when we jump to Joy’s adulthood, we see that these “great things” have thus far eluded her.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) owns her own home, but in this home in addition to her two young children lives her mother  Terry (Virginia Madsen), an agoraphobic who stays in her bed all day and watches soap operas, her grandmother Mimi, and her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in the basement.  To make matters more complicated, her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) shows up after having been thrown out by his girlfriend, and Joy takes him in as well, as he gets to share the basement with Tony, and the two men can’t stand each other.

Now, this sounds like a horrible situation and it is, but it’s handled by Russell with lots of wit and humor, like when Rudy’s girlfriend announces to the household and to Terry in particular, “I’m returning him.”

Joy also shares a strange relationship with her ex-husband Tony.  As Mimi explains in her voice-over narration, they’re much better “ex’s” than they were a married couple, and throughout their lives they somehow remain friends.

When Joy comes up with the idea of the Miracle Mop, and gets Rudy and his new wealthy girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in it, it’s Tony  who directs Joy to a friend of his at QVC Network when sales of the mop go nowhere.  Through Tony’s connection, Joy meets the man who run QVC, Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), and although he’s not initially impressed, Joy does not give up and eventually is able to get her product on the network.

But success is not instantaneous, and there’s still a long road ahead for Joy and her dysfunctional family.

JOY is much closer in tone and feel to SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK than to AMERICAN HUSTLE, and since SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is probably my favorite David O. Russell movie, it’s why I also like JOY an awful lot as well.  I think I still prefer PLAYBOOK, mostly because in that film in addition to Russell, you had two powerhouse performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  In JOY, you have just the one, as it’s clearly Lawrence’s movie, and it’s her performance which drives it forward.  Cooper is just along fro the ride here.  He’s solid as always, but his role in this one is peripheral at best.

JOY belongs to Jennifer Lawrence.  She’s convincing as Joy throughout, even as she runs the full gamut of emotions from happiness to stress to flat out depression.  She covers it all and makes it look easy.  When she’s wide-eyed and inventive, she’s fun to watch, and when things go wrong as they do more often than not, she tugs at the heart strings, and when she has to be strong and feisty, she goes into full kick-ass mode and makes that work as well.

As I said, Cooper’s role is less impressive here, and for him, it’s almost a throwaway role as the part of QVC head Neil Walker could have been played by anybody.

The rest of the cast is solid and they really help this movie along.

The two stand-outs are Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s ex-husband Tony and Dascha Polanco as Joy’s best friend Jackie.  Ramirez does such a tremendous job as Tony that other than Lawrence, he was my favorite part of this movie.  He plays Tony as the guy who often doesn’t appear to be the smartest guy in the room, but he is the most loyal to his ex-wife Joy on a consistent basis, and so, as things move along, it turns out that more often than not in terms of looking out for Joy and having her best interests in mind, he is the smartest guy in the room.  Ramirez was in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  He played one of the leads, a priest battling demons.  Needless to say, he’s much better here in JOY.

Dascha Polanco plays a similar role as Joy’s best friend Jackie who along with Tony also proves to be her most loyal supporter.  Without Tony or Jackie, Joy’s success may never have happened.  Polanco, known for her work on the TV show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, is very good here.

The cast also includes Robert De Niro as Joy’s father Rudy.  It’s similar to the role De Niro played in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, where he played Bradley Cooper’s dad.  De Niro gets to enjoy some good moments, some comedic, some dramatic.  Isabella Rossellini also stands out as De Niro’s girlfriend Trudy, although it’s scary how much she reminds me of her mother, Ingrid Bergman.  There were a few lines there in the film which gave me chills as I almost felt I was watching Bergman again.

Trudy and Rudy end up financing the bulk of Joy’s mop project, and as things continually go poorly, the scenes where Trudy and Rudy berate Joy are some of the most painful moments in the film.  Trudy has a way of belittling Joy, and Rudy makes things worse by trying to sound supportive and saying lines like “It’s not Joy’s fault.  It’s my fault for encouraging her to be somebody she’s not.”  Ouch!

Rounding out this painful family trio is Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s half-sister Peggy, who is clearly jealous of her sister.  Peggy sides with Rudy and Trudy and when they gang up against Joy it gets rather ugly, which is why Tony and Jackie’s support for Joy resonates so strongly.

Then there’s Virginia Madsen as Joy’s agoraphobic mom Terry.  She never leaves her bedroom— heck, she hardly leaves her bed— yet her scenes are hilarious.  Furthermore, Russell adds the gimmick of featuring real soap opera stars like Susan Lucci and Maurice Bernard on the goofy soaps which Terry watches all day.  And there’s even a dream sequence where these characters invade Joy’s dreams.

Screen veteran Diane Ladd is also very good as Joy’s grandmother Mimi, and she’s a central figure here since the story is told through her first-person narration.  Ladd is the real life mother of Laura Dern.

And if the showbiz mother/daughter combos of Diane Ladd/Laura Dern and Ingrid Bergman/Isabella Rossellini weren’t enough, there is yet a third connected to this film.  Joan Rivers is a character in the movie since she performed on QVC, and in JOY Rivers is played by her real-life daughter Melissa Rivers.

The other reason I enjoyed JOY so much in addition to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and her supporting cast is the writing and direction of David O. Russell.  While I wasn’t as crazy about his previous film AMERICAN HUSTLE as a lot of other people were, I loved SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and THE FIGHTER (2010).  Now comes JOY, another film I really, really liked, so I guess I’m becoming a fan.

In JOY, the script is quirky and funny and takes an otherwise so-so story and imbues it with life and humor.  If someone were to ask me if I were interested in learning about the life of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop I’d probably shrug and answer “not really.”  But Russell makes this woman and her story interesting and compelling.

He makes Joy attractive not because of the mop but because she’s the glue which holds her dysfunctional family together.  That’s her real talent.  She’s always there for her family, always, and when they are not always there for her, those moments are painful.  You want to see her succeed because she has worked so hard, not at trying to become rich by selling mops, but at trying to keep her family together and functional.

Russell’s direction is also lively and inspired, from quirky dream sequences mixing soap opera characters with real characters in the story, to uncomfortable family arguments, to the way this film looks.  While not as impressive as the 1970s look from AMERICAN HUSTLE, the cinematography in JOY is still carefully mastered, as the film effectively captures the feel and look of the early 1990s.

JOY is getting mixed reviews, but I absolutely loved it.  With David O. Russell at the helm and penning the script, and Jennifer Lawrence leading a talented cast, I found this one captivating and entertaining throughout.

I was completely sold.

I’ll take one of those mops, thank you very much.

–END—