Two films explore pain of fading brilliance

Ian McKellan in ‘Mr. Holmes’ and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Southpaw’

‘Southpaw,’ starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Forest Whitaker

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Rated R

 

This raw portrait of a professional boxer who experiences a run of extremely bad luck offers nothing new to the genre, but it’s still worth a look. 

In a story crafted by “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter, light heavyweight champ Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) has never lost a fight in his lengthy career. The lavish lifestyle he, his wife, and young daughter (Oona Laurence) enjoy is bought and paid for literally with his blood, as the opening act reveals. He takes a brutal pummeling in the ring and emerges the winner once again. But each fight is taking its toll and Maureen, his childhood sweetheart turned bride (Rachel McAdams), is begging him to give it up even as his greedy manager (50 Cent) is encouraging him to take more fights.

But before he can, tragedy visits him and in a flash, he’s lost almost everything. Now to get back to the top, he enlists the help of a reluctant old trainer and gym owner, Tick Willis, played by Forest Whitaker.

Gyllenhaal is kind of the Jeff Bridges of his generation. He can play it safe or take risks like “Brokeback Mountain,” his only Oscar nomination. But he always gives a great performance even if the movie itself doesn’t rise to meet his level of talent, as in features like “Love and Other Drugs.” Take last year’s greatly underrated “Nightcrawler,” where he played creepy freelance photographer Louis Bloom who does anything to get the money shot. That should have earned him a trip to the Oscars, but like Bridges was so many times, Gyllenhaal was shut out.

This movie offers a sturdy enough storyline even if it is derivative at its redemptive denouement, but Gyllenhaal punches his way through it in fine form. With a muscular frame covered in tattoos and his face scarred from years in the ring, his Billy is also just a bit slow from too many hits to the head, evidenced by his slow gait and speech.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the boxing scenes are brutal with close ups of blood spattering the ring as the opponents land some bone crunching punches. But outside the ring, the story takes a more predictable turn with Billy hitting rock bottom and fighting in and outside the arena to get back some of his former glory. It’s a timeworn story, but Gyllenhaal gives it a fighting chance.

 

‘Mr. Holmes,’ starring Ian McKellan, Laura Linney

Directed by Bill Condon

Rated PG

 

We never think of our favorite literary characters growing old, but in Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” he posits what happens to one of the greatest — Sherlock Holmes.

I’d never imagine him to be a doddering 93-year old living out the rest of his life in a small English coastal town, but in Bill Condon’s movie version, much of the action takes place along the scenic Sussex coast with Ian McKellan as the lead character, Mr. Holmes.

Now forgetful and feeble, he spends most days tending to his bees with the help of his housekeeper’ son, Roger (Milo Parker), while Roger’s mother, the widow Mrs. Munro (a slightly miscast Laura Linney), tends to the cantankerous old man.

When our old friend the detective is not seeing to his hives, he retreats to his study where he is attempting to retrace an old case from 35 years ago, one of his greatest failures as a detective. But his mind cannot seem to fill in the many blanks involving the case of a mysterious young wife whose husband thinks is being unfaithful.

It’s hard to imagine anyone better to play the elder Holmes than McKellan. In flashbacks he cuts a dashing figure as the younger man and then transforms with the help of prosthetics and body movement into the frail, infirm much older Holmes. And while the story is ever so slight, with Condon’s deft direction and great characters, it’s enough to have made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proud. Playing now in Houston theaters.

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