Movie Review: Ramirez, Usher tangle impressively in “Hands of Stone”

Two things every sports fan remembers about the boxer Roberto Duran — that his nickname, “Hands of Stone” (“Manos de Piedra“) came from his ferocious, knock-out delivering fists — and “No mas,” the infamous phrase attached to a fight he was losing to Sugar Ray Leonard, a fight he quit in frustration.

But can you make a movie titled “Hands of Stone” without “No mas”? You can’t. But if it’s based on Duran’s autobiography and thus officially sanctioned, you don’t have to have him say it.

That’s a quibble with “Hands of Stone,” a swaggering and colorful boxing bio pic from the Venezuelan writer-director  Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Secuestro Express”). It presents an impulsive, temperamental and Yanqui-hating Duran, the face of Panamian nationalism during the “Give us the Canal” 1970s. He took titles in multiple weight classes, going a very macho toe-to-toe with all comers, often knocking out opponents with those rock-hard fists.

Edgar Ramirez plays Duran with a dazzling brio, a true “street kid” who brawled his way was from stealing fruit from trees inside the U.S. “Canal Zone,” to champion of the world.

Robert DeNiro brings a world-weary caginess to Ray Arcel, the veteran American trainer who was forced out of boxing by the mob, but got back in to turn “the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen” into a world champ. Not that Duran wanted that. Remember, he had a life-long antipathy for gringos.

“I don’t need advice from an American.

DeNiro’s Arcel narrates the story, which begins with Duran’s childhood and the days when Arcel crossed the wrong “wise guy” (John Turturro, quietly menacing) and had to give up the sport he loved. Arcel is full of grandfatherly advice in the corner.

“Luck is a woman you must seduce.” And he endures the taunts of the jerk he trained, an insecure man who could flip out if you so much as complimented, in a warning way, a foe they needed to prepare for.

“you love him so much, go and train HIM!”

Ramirez (“Joy,” “The Liberator,” “Point Break”) devours the screen as Duran, a man of dash and desire who eats like someone who used to starve (he did) and pursues everything he wants with an alarming vigor — including the rich chica rubia (blonde) school girl he eventually married (Ana de Armas of “War Dogs”).

Ruben Blades is the long-suffering rich Panamanian who sponsored Duran, and put up with him. A couple of solid character actors impersonate promoter Don King (Reg E. Cathey) and Howard Cosell.

And Usher Raymond transforms himself from pretty boy singer to pretty boy boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, a guy who fought Duran, lost and figured out how to beat him. It’s a canny performance, not a showy one.  Duran got under his skin, and vice versa.

“I will make him fight like a man!” Duran declares.

DeNiro’s Arcel is the force of calm in the corner, trying to give his fighter discipline, hoping the world will see him as the harbinger of Boxing’s Greatest Era, which he did.

A nice touch — Arcel brings a comb into the corner with him and grooms Duran’s hair during his between-rounds pep talks. Nothing more demoralizing to an opponent than for you to come back out there, handsome and unruffled as ever, after what the other guy was sure was a brutal, I’ve-got-this-guy-beat round.

This is Ramirez’s movie, a celebration of Duran that includes the sex, the infidelity, the America-bashing, the drugs and the indiscipline (hard to make weight when you love to gorge). It’s a playful, entertaining turn and he brings an exuberance to the guy that wins you over, even if you are a Leonard-loving Yanqui.

And he says he never uttered the phrase “No mas,” as he waved his gloved hands, mid-round, giving up in a rematch with his nemesis, the charismatic Yanqui Guar Ray Leonard.

Maybe he didn’t. It’s entirely possible Cosell, calling the fight  at ringside, got carried away with the little Spanish he knew and blurted that out to the world.

But no matter. “Hands of Stone” is still a first-rate boxing picture, a B-movie with just enough A-picture touches to make it sting.

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MPAA Rating:R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Robert DeNiro, Ana de ArmasUsher Raymond, Ruben Blades, Ellen Barkin
Credits: Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz A Weinstein Co. release.

Running time: 1:45

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Box Office: “Ben Hur” becomes “Ben Who?” “High Water” hits per screen average double

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Not a big weekend for any film rolling out of Hollywood this Aug. 19-21. Summer is essentially over, so Laika’s traditional mid-Aug.-late Sept. release (“ParaNorman,” for instance) underwhelmed, with its kid-audience back in school. Just over $12 million is a shame, because “Kubo and the Two Strings” is a winner — smart, funny, beautifully animated. Expect this one to have Oscar legs. Go see it.

“War Dogs” suggests that Miles Teller is no box office star — yet, and that Jonah Hill’s top end of appeal is under $15 million in a movie where his name is above the title. $14 million and change for that one.

And “Ben-Hur” is final proof, if “Exodus: Gods and Kings” wasn’t proof enough, that big budget Biblical spectacles are too risky to throw a lot of money at. Even the huge returns on “Noah” didn’t allow it to break even. “Ben-Hur,” remade to death, on TV constantly, recast and rejiggered, with zero star power to sell it, hit just $11 million and change. Thousands of screens, millions upon millions of potential Christian viewers, and…zilch.

Bad reviews from critics, silence from the pulpit? Probably. It messes with the Gospels, and you don’t do that to reach that audience.

“Hell or High Water,” the big wide release of this summer, went into a few hundred more theaters and is doing well enough to stick around to mid-September. Not sure if I’d throw it into more theaters, though. Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges aren’t big enough names to get it above $6K per screen, in some 400 theaters. Not enough to crack the top ten. Not sure there’s much more to be made from a darkly funny and politically pointed modern Western/heist picture.

“Suicide Squad” continues to top the box office, over $20 million this weekend.

“Sausage Party” is looking like a sleeper, a dirty cartoon with a pro-atheism message will double or triple “A Tale of the Christ” at the box office. Ouch.

 

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Movie Preview: “Zoom” marries animation and sex dolls and drugs and…

This one opens Sept. 2, and stars Allison Pill as a comic book artist who conjures up a filmmaker (Gael Garcia Bernal) in a spec script, stumbles into some drugs and connects to the custom-made sex doll business.

And then it all becomes a blur as comic book (animation) comically invades her reality.

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Box Office: “Ben-Hur” bombs, “Kubo” underwhelms

kuboSo it’s to be another weekend won by that limp Warner Brothers comic book actioner, “Suicide Squad.” Because none of the new releases has a prayer of pushing it off the top spot, despite the downward spiral of ticket sales for a blockbuster that’s been out for three weeks.

“Squad” will earn $19 million or so by Sunday, based on Friday’s sales. “Sausage Party” opened huge and earned much better reviews, but it too is  hemorrhaging audience and will only hit the mid-teens this weekend.

Which is just a little better than the buddy dramedy “War Dogs,” an underwhelming pairing of Miles Teller, Jonah Hill and the director of “The Hangover” in a story of gun dealing going wrong.

Doesn’t have a “prayer” is what Paramount has to admit about the latest remake of “Ben-Hur.” A $100 million faith-based epic that twists the New Testament and fails to be “epic” in more than a couple of scenes, starring a cast of little-knowns (and Morgan Freeman), it will be lucky to break $12 million this weekend.

Money poorly spent, as this past spring’s “Risen,” earned just as much and cost a fraction of that.

The weekend’s best new movie, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is on a lot of screens and is only managing about $13 million itself. If only parents could figure out that Laika (“Coraline”, “ParaNorman”) is a more entertaining and enriching animation bet than Pixar, lately, these stop-motion classics would be blockbusters. But no.

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Movie Review: “The Confirmation”, now on Netflix

confirmA little Catholic boy tries to stop his dad’s downward spiral into alcohol and poverty in “The Confirmation,” a bleak but funny comedy from the screenwriter of “Nebraska.”

What writer/director Bob Nelson has dreamed up here is a “Bicycle Thieves” for the New Economy, a moving yet humorous story of an underemployed alcoholic trying to right his life, but failing until he’s stuck taking care of his eight year old son over a long weekend.

Clive Owen is impressively disconnected and disheveled as Walt, a finishing carpenter a long time between jobs, a short time between drinks. And Jaeden Lieberher is the same face of innocence he was in “St. Vincent” as Walt’s son, Anthony.

Anthony is getting ready for Confirmation, soon to take his first communion in the church his mother drags him to, several times a week, in a working class suburb of Seattle. He’s too young to have much to confess, even when his priest (Stephen Tobolowsky) prods him.

“I don’t see my dad often enough to dishonor him.”

Walt’s ex-wife (Maria Bello) has remarried and is off for a weekend with her new husband. Walt, barely sober and with so little money on hand he can barely keep home, hearth and pickup truck together, will look after Anthony.

And it’s obvious, right from the drive to Walt’s house, that Anthony will be the caregiver here. Walt leaves him in the truck while he stops off at his local bar.

Over the course of their weekend, calamities pile up as Walt is evicted, his truck fails, and the woodworking and carving tools he needs to save himself from doom are stolen. He and Anthony embark on a picaresque journey through a blue collar nightmare of unemployed barflies, living hand to mouth, many of whom Walt and the kid must confront as Walt searches for the tools for the big break job he starts on Monday.

Robert Forster plays the old family friend who might help out, Patton Oswalt is a dry-waller whose “leads” on the theft are just daft, and Tim Blake Nelson is a fellow barfly raising his sons, including one Anthony’s age, with the careless obliviousness of Every Gun Control advocate’s nightmares.

“How many times do I have to tell you boys that these guns I give you are not playthings?”

Anthony hides Walt’s booze, hides his car keys to keep him from buying booze and aches to get Dad’s permission to get out of this Confirmation jazz.

“I don’t want to take Communion, Dad. I don’t want to eat Jesus!”

Owen makes Walt nicely frayed, yet competent. He can fix things, when he’s sober.

The “comedy” here comes from the situations and confrontations, and the peripheral characters, old Otto (Forster) trying to rule out one possible thief — “But he’s a good guy now. He found Jesus.” You may never believe Oswalt is a dry-wall installer. But you’ll believe he’s a little crazy, and that he’s “back on the Meth.”

As with his “Nebraska” script, Nelson demonstrates a near-peerless grasp of working class values and despair. The problems are tiny to an outsider. But lose your toolbox, as Antonio lost the bicycle he needed to ride to work in Vittorio De Sica‘s 1948 classic, “Bicycle Thieves,” and your whole world is consumed with getting it back.

Nothing in your worth as a man and a father will make sense until you do.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some mature thematic elements

Cast: Clive Owen, Jaeden LieberherMaria Bello, Robert Forster, Patton Oswalt, Matthew Modine
Credits: Written and directed by Bob Nelson. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:41

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Weekend movies: “Ben Hur” beaten down, “War Dogs” neutered, “Kubo” conquers all

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Had to happen. I mean, last weekend had “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Anthropoid,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “Sausage Party” opening wide, “Hell or High Water” opening wider.

And all were at least pretty good (“Pete’s Dragon”) and most were outstanding.

So this weekend, naturally, Hollywood taketh away.

Sure, the animated “Kubo and the Two Strings” from Laika and Focus Features, is a winner. “Lo and Behold,” the latest meditative documentary from the great Werner Herzog, scores. Rave reviews from one and all for those.

But the widest releases don’t earn raves.

“War Dogs” was a promising dark and supposedly funny Miami yeshiva alumni sell arms to the military buddy dramedy. Doesn’t really come off, and reviews are mixed. Teetering right on the brink of fresh or rotten on the Tomatometer all week.

Then there’s “Ben-Hur,” about which there is no doubt. Good action beats, alterations to the well-known “Story of the Christ” — some of which work, some not so much — and a general choppiness and heartless approach to the emotional high points that we KNOW are there, break it. Consistently poor reviews for this one.

Another “Final Fantasy” video game adaptation sucks the life right out of you. “Kingsglaive” isn’t the silliest word in it. 

Will “Ben-Hur” find a big faith-based audience? We’ll know by Sunday.

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Movie Review: “Ben-Hur” loses heart

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It’s been a pretty good year for faith-based films, with “Risen” and “Miracles from Heaven” showing that Hollywood can get stories about Jesus and those who worship him right.

The latest remake of “Ben-Hur” pretty much lets down the side, though.

Russian director Timur Bekmambetov and his screenwriters make a thorough hash of the book. Not so much General Lew Wallace’s 19th century “A Tale of the Christ,” the one that tells the story of the Jewish prince who likes chariot racing, hates the Navy and meets Jesus in Jerusalem, though they chop that up, too.

I’m talking about the Bible, the Gospels, the New Testament.

In this “Ben-Hur, Dismas (Moises Arias), “the penitent thief” the Bible describes as accepting Jesus while they’re both nailed to crosses, becomes a Jewish zealot attempting to chase the Romans out, one assassination at a time. The Ben-Hurs shelter him.

Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is practically a neighbor of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). The timeline is so bollixed that there’s no need for a triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday. Jesus is there so often that Pontius Pilate points him out as a potential threat years before crucifying him.

If Mel Gibson went out of his way to remind the world of the Jewish religious hierarchy’s role in condemning Jesus and ensuring his death, the new “Ben-Hur” solely blames the Romans and leaves the Hebrews out of it. It’s got other fish to fry and hand out, with loaves, to feed the masses. It has pointed references to the House of Ben-Hur’s privileged place in Jerusalem’s “one percent.” They should wholly support Roman occupation against revolutionary zealots, Judah’s adopted “brother” Messala (Toby Kebbell) argues.

Because “When they’re done with us, they’ll turn on you.”

All that said, Bekmembetov, aptly-enough the director of the even more revisionist “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” stages a mean sea battle and a damn fine chariot race. It’s all the stations of the cross and the novel that he skips along the way that rob the film of its heart and soul.

Judah’s family took in the Roman boy Messala, grandson of a disgraced general, and the two lads grew up as brothers. Not that Messala didn’t lust after his adoptive sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia). He goes off to war, to prove himself and earn his fortune fighting barbarians in Germany and Persia.

When he returns, he’s an officer of Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) who wants Judah’s help putting down a rebellion. And if you remember the Charlton Heston/Stephen Boyd 1959 film, there’s an incident that forces Messala to send Judah into slavery and wipe out his family. Judah spends years chained to an oar in a Roman war galley.

Events conspire to free him, he winds up in the camp of an African horse trader (Morgan Freeman), and that takes him back to Jerusalem and the big showdown we all know is coming. 

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The story arc here, twisted around as it is, is closer to the mark if you’re looking for a vengeful man’s finding Jesus and redemption and freedom from hate.

But the movie skips past many moments that are supposed to be poignant to get to the famous race, and then saddles itself with a new ending that doesn’t atone for that.

Nazanin Boniadi (of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and “Homeland”) makes little impression as Esther, the lovely servant Judah marries and then almost loses to the new religion she has found.

Santoro, a towering Xerxes in “300,” makes for one of the handsomest Jesuses in screen history.

The Pilate here lacks cunning and gravitas, Kebbell (“Fantastic Four”) fails to make us feel Messala’s journey from love to bitterness and thenhatred. Morgan Freeman lends some weight, but not a lot of sparkle, to the proceedings.

But Huston (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies“) holds the screen and manages the film’s lone moment of pathos well.

And I cannot say enough about the dazzling, digitally-enhanced chariot race, where Bekmanbetov poured most of his energy. We are in the chariots, chasing the chariots, under the hooves and swooping down on the Roman Circus as the race pounds away.

The galley fight — shown from Judah’s below-decks point of view, is equally impressive. He sees officers deciding his fate only through the gaps in the deck planking and the sea-spray filled fight only through the oar-ports he and his fellow condemned row through. It’s a chilling, visceral and surreal sequence where in the 1959 film it was more majestic and stately.

And that, in the end, is the undoing of this latest version of one of the most-filmed tales in screen history. This “Ben-Hur” tries to squeeze what was once a three and a half hour movie into two hours. There’s no room for the majesty and power of Rome, and no budget to show the wealth of the Ben-Hurs and monumental building spree of the Romans, no pauses to absorb the words or actions of Jesus. When he interrupts a crowd stoning a woman, we’re supposed to feel something. There’s no time for that, here.

Everyone, from director to cast, seems so rushed that there’s no time for romance, less time for leaps of faith and every moment of conversion is abrupt, dictated by the script and not by the heart.

As Charlton Heston would have told you, if you rush it, it’s not an epic. Because “Ben-Hur” is supposed to be more than just a chariot race.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin BoniadiMorgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro

Credits: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, script by Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley, based on the Lew Wallace novel and . A Paramount release.

Running time: 2:04

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Movie Review: Will glib gun dealers get theirs in “War Dogs”?

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In “War Dogs,” a couple of homeys from Hebrew School take on the job of selling arms and ammunition to the U.S. military — for a big profit, of course.

Because not everybody who got rich off the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing mess in Afghanistan had to be a Friend of Dick (Cheney).

“Hangover” director Todd Phillips brings as much gravitas to this farce — two South Beach drop-outs sneaking arms across borders, circumventing U.S. law in Albania and lining their pockets doing it — as he can. But you never get the sense that he, his stars Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, or the real-life anti-heroes they’re portraying ever grappled with the amorality of it all, the consequences of filling Afghanistan with dated, defective ammo or of flooding the bloodstained Middle East with the arms that will destabilize the place for generations to come.

Teller (“Whiplash”) is David Packouz, our narrator, facing a life of limited prospects thanks to no education and not much going for him other than his Florida massage therapist license.

Enter his old pal, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a roly poly fast-talker who has returned to Miami after lining his pockets, slicking back his hair and learning how to price, buy and sell guns online in L.A.

Efraim is moving into middle man arms dealing, finding the “crumbs” in the daily posted Pentagon contracts that other contractors haven’t bid on.

“When you’re dealing with the Pentagon, crumbs are worth millions.”

David is drawn into business with him, and away we go — buying Italian Beretta pistols for the Iraqi police. Italy won’t allow arms exports to Iraq? No prob. They’ll just run the guns in from Jordan.

“Jordan Goldfarb?”

“JORDAN Jordan!”

David keeps this work life from his exotic foreign-born girlfriend (Ana de Armas). He’s learning from Efraim, an up-and-coming hustler who lies like he breathes.

“When does telling the truth ever help anybody?”

That flippancy comes and goes in this glib would-be romp. Tone is tough when you’re snickering at “gun nuts” while you live the good life off underhanded ways of selling them. The movie takes swipes at Bush era bungling and corruption while reveling in it, because, um, these guys had fun doing it?

Bradley Cooper plays a stubbly, shady legend of the blood money business, and Kevin Pollack is a devout Jewish Miami dry cleaning mogul who is their silent partner, doing all he can for Israel — he thinks.

Occasional  tense moments aside, these guys are depicted as having never, for more than a second, encountered the violence they’re enabling. That’s by design. This is how they rationalized what they were doing. David rationalized. Efraim didn’t bother.

And besides, Phillips is least at home co-writing and directing moral quandaries, tense standoffs and the like. He floods the soundtrack with vintage pop tunes, celebrates every time the U.S. Army bails the boys out (physically or financially) and has a hard time whenever the movie needs to turn serious.And he fills the screen with intertitles of the wit and wisdom of Efraim Diveroli.

“God bless Dick Cheney’s America!”

Hill feigns a high-pitched cackle of a laugh. This is a “Wolf of Wall Street” where he gets to be the wolf. Sort of. It’s a performance at the extremes, designed to irritate. He aims for funny-scary, Joe Pesci lite. He isn’t, though one would think he’d eaten Joe Pesci from the massive weight gain he’s undergone. Still, the comic in Hill riffs laughs into the proceedings — cutting in line at Jordanian customs.

“Don’t worry. I have to go first, I’m an American.”

Efraim haggles for a Jordanian black marketer’s Lacoste sunglasses.

“Tell him I want those shades,” he instructs his 11 year old interpreter. “Tell him in jibberish.”

Teller is meant to be the conscience of the piece, and he doesn’t really manage that — even after David becomes a father. It’s a bland turn, lacking “Eureka” moments of selling out or pangs of guilt.

The story arc is oh-so-familiar, the drugs, the hookers, the over-reach, the blowback. That being the case, Phillips does his movie (based on a Rolling Stone article) no favors by dragging out the trips between the waypoints and going on and on past the climax.

The amoral, anything-for-a-buck yarmulke wearing Jews depicted here border on stereotypes, but if cast and crew weren’t offended, who am I to judge?

Look for the real David Packouz  in a cameo singing “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to the residents of a Miami rest home. And that’s kind of the problem with the movie. It’s engrossing and sometimes entertaining, but too glib to resonate.

Nobody here fears the reaper, even though they’re providing him with scythes.

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MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references

Cast: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollack
Credits: Directed by , script by Todd Phillips, script by Steven Chin and Todd Phillips. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:54

 

 

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Tarnished Triumph? Nate Parker’s ugly past punctures “Birth of a Nation” balloon

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Actor turned actor/director Nate Parker and his film,  “Birth of a Nation”, were sensations at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A whopping $17.5 million was paid for the rights to this account of the slave rebellion Virginian Nat Turner led in Virginia in 1831.

This little known chapter in American history has been, by all accounts, thrillingly brought to life, and “Birth of a Nation,” a cheeky attempt to reclaim that phrase from the racist D.W. Griffith silent classic that has worn it for over a century, is due out in October.

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Maybe.

Because with Parker’s fame has come with scrutiny. A lot of people went to college with him at Penn State, where he was a wrestler. And they started bringing up the rape he and his pal, Jean Celestin, who got a STORY credit on the film, wriggled out of (civil settlement from the university, retrial abandoned when the victim bailed out of it).

And that is the narrative that is engulfing the film. Even cheerleaders for the movie and for Parker have had to address it, bending over backwards to talk about the era he was in school — it was the ’90s people, to hear Jezebel tell it, it was the Jim Crow 1940s — and the like. In an online media landscape where rape victims always get the benefit of the doubt and the trials of black men are regarded with a jaded eye (it took another black comic to bring down Bill Cosby), Parker coverage sits on the horns of a dilemma.

The victim attempted suicide multiple times, and according to her brother, succeeded in killing herself in 2012. That bombshell has rattled one and all, maybe even Parker.

But here’s the world he’s working in.

Woody Allen still makes movies, despite increasingly heated accounts of his relationship with his children and allegations of abuse.

Roman Polanski still works in Europe, where he sought refuge after drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. He’s over 80, still free and still working. Lionized by some.

Hollywood has continued to employ convicted sex offender Victor Salva (“Jeepers Creepers,” “Powder”). He videotaped himself molesting a 12 year old boy.

So it’s not like it’s a business that attracts saints, or holds talent to much of a moral standard. Mel Gibson? That’s anti-Semitism, another thing altogether.

But what will happen to “Birth”? Parker was slated to show it in Toronto, and do more awkward press interviews. 

He has tried to make amends, re-branding himself as an ardent supporter of women and womanhood. But the damage, two months before release, is piling up. The film is already tainted. Will this die down? Will the film be pushed back, or rolled out more quietly?

 

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Movie Review: “Gleason” has heroes that aren’t the title character

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Steve Gleason is a smart, articulate and self-aware retired NFL star whose life on the field was defined by one play — a blocked 2006 punt that came to symbolize his team’s and his city’s comeback from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

It was his post-playing days life that raised his profile from New Orleans Saint punt-blocker to national spokesman for people, like himself, who suffer from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, the motor neuron illness that was named “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” after it killed the famed New York Yankee in the 1940s.

But as “Gleason,” a documentary built out of Gleason’s efforts to make a video diary for his infant that grew into a vivid study of the progression of this deadly disease and how a smart, thoughtful person reacts to it makes clear, the guy is no saint, no matter who he played for.

There’s something to be said for making a documentary about someone dying from a deadly disease, and not putting a halo on them or their noble suffering.

Refreshingly, for such portraits, Gleason and his wife Michel curse and struggle with his increasing dependence on her and other caregivers. They easily make scatological jokes when Steve loses control of his bowels and requires enemas. They weep as their struggle grows more overwhelming, as Steve tries to get across who he was to the son, Rivers, born in the early stages of the disease, growing up with a father who needs video to be able to pass along life lessons to a kid who will only know him as a dependent in a wheelchair.

We watch plucky Michel physically wear down from the demands of looking after Steve, and we see Steve deteriorate from the illness and the wear of starting a charity that lobbies Congress, raises cash for electronics that allow ALS sufferers to communicate when the illness has robbed them of speech and brings attention to the disease and to Steve, presented as a public face of ALS.

The folks he and his wife assemble and call on — Team Gleason — give you an appreciation of the burden this illness places on one and all. And it makes you shudder at what those who aren’t famous, aren’t well-off, must endure.

Look at the photo above. Is the average person facing the trauma, fatalism and expense of ALS going to Machu Pichu for photo ops? No.

gleason1The Seattle native gets to hang with Mike McReady of his favorite band, Pearl Jam, and interview Dave Grohl. But when Congress lets Medicaid cut funding for gear that gives ALS sufferers a more complete life, Gleason’s charity steps in to fill the gap and his name goes on a bill that gets that funding restored.

Steve tosses around “hero” a lot, pondering what that means, and the film that Clay Tweel (“Finder’s Keepers”) assembled from all this footage, carries that question further.

The Saints unveiled a statue of Gleason blocking that punt a year after his diagnosis, six years after the block itself. Would they have done that without his illness, without the attention he determined to draw to it?

Gleason didn’t start the stunningly successful and far better known “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,” he merely joined in and helped organize the New Orleans event that went for a “record” number of those dumping buckets over their heads for charity.

As Steve pursues a course that echoes his charity’s motto, “No White Flags,” we hear him talk about how others in his condition choose not to do this or that, to let their increasingly circumscribed, pain-filled and burdensome lives end. The implication? The real heroes are the ones who deal with the consequences of his struggle, his caregivers.

The film’s unblinking and unfiltered look at the indignities and horrors of ALS and its impact on a loving marriage is without parallel. Steve, communicating through a computer, criticizes his wife, tries to engage in discussions about his needs and all Michel can do is apologize and shrug it off.

“This is our life, this is what it is,” she says, stoically.

They are doing what thousands of others do, families without deep pockets, big support systems and cameras catching their every utterance, struggling to hang on — for a new treatment, for a possible cure, or for an end to their awful burdens.

“Gleason,” perhaps unintentionally, shows us that hope can be a heroic thing, but that real heroes are those who keep others’ hopes alive.

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MPAA Rating: R for language

Cast: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco
Credits: Directed by Clay Tweel. An Open Road/Amazon release.

Running time: 1:50

 

 

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