Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Jake Gyllenhall’s Southpaw goes wide this weekend after a very strong performance in limited release.
Gyllenhall has always had a strong indie streak — after all, he and sister Maggie started out together in Donnie Darko. But his career would have been very different if not for a handful of near-misses. If Gyllenhall had replaced Tobey Maguire in Spiderman 2; if Prince of Persia hadn’t flopped; if Gyllenhall had landed the lead in Batman Returns, would he be stretching himself from Nightcrawler to Southpaw?
Down, out, victim of our own mistakes – sometimes all of us feel cut and bruised. Stories of redemption have such a strong appeal that they often find an audience even when they get a little corny.
In sports, eventual failure is inevitable. But in boxing it’s as raw as meat.
The reviews seem to indicate that Southpaw is like many of Gyllenhall’s movies – a flawed endeavor that teeters on the edge but is saved by his virtuoso central performance.
We like movies like that – the added layer of tension makes the final reward so much sweeter.
Also in theaters this weekend is Listen To Me Marlon, a documentary profile of Marlon Brando. No talking heads. The actor speaks to us from beyond the grave in private tape recordings he made for himself, along with zillions of great film clips.
Can’t wait to see it. Brando himself always seemed in need of redemption. Self-indulgences and bad choices led to repeated falls from grace. And he redeemed himself again and again with spectacular comebacks.
Already a star from his performances in The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront won Brando his first Oscar.
Part of the Brando mystique is that he uttered more iconic lines (“Stellllaaaaa!”) than any other actor, ever. Waterfront gave us his second – “I coulda’ been a contenda.”
Many of Clint Eastwood’s later films have been concerned with redemption, often overlaid with themes of justice and revenge. The result is a moral tension that hooks us, even though the movies leave us flip-flopping like a fish in a boat.
At the time Gran Torino came out, we found it hard to admit how much we liked the movie, with its strains of “Not my America.” Part of the attraction was that Eastwood’s Korean vet character — the cigarettes and beer, the iconic car, the untreated cough — reminded us so powerfully of Midwestern men we’ve known. Every time the lighter came out, it triggered a Proustian moment – the sharp oily smell of lighter fluid subbing for madeleines.
Eastwood’s movies aren’t so much about a fall and rise back to grace. They belong to a different class of late life redemption – cousin to Ikira and A Christmas Carol.
A strange inclusion here, because the core appeal of Robbie Coltrane’s character is that he is unredeemed. The highly posed photo above doesn’t do it justice. Coltrane’s Cracker is a mess.
One of the reasons the American knockoff failed so miserably was that they made the character an ex-smoker. This character has to smoke. And in contemporary America, if you smoke you are automatically in need of redemption, a fact that was not lost on the first season of True Detective.
But the reason we found Cracker so addictive was that the character’s lack of grace was in and of itself redemptive. The only reason he is so effective at battling evil is that he embraces his own evil and turns it redemption for brief moments before falling again.
Cracker was the godfather of all the deeply flawed and conflicted characters of TV’s new golden age. Despite how much we loved it, we haven’t watched it for years. Maybe August is the perfect time for a binge.
We were hesitant about including Shawshank here. Is it really about redemption?
But as we do our weekly research, we consult a variety of sources, and one of our favorites is the reviews on Amazon. We like them for their honesty and because they come from real people, not jaded media types like ourselves.
We also like to look at the bar chart of customer stars. Shawshank has the most amazingly top-heavy curve of any movie we’ve ever checked – 91% are five-star, 6% are four-star.
That’s incredible. And a lot of the Amazon reviewers think it’s the perfect movie. Which made us think that for pure enjoyment and uplift this is the one to watch on a summer weekend afternoon. Besides, Stephen King, put “redemption” in the title.
Even though, to our lights, Shawshank is actually about avoiding the need for redemption, by maintaining hope and integrity even in the grimmest of situations. Another reason to watch it again on a summer afternoon!
Redemption is grace, and grace cannot come without the fall.
A couple months ago we saw Do The Right Thing again, and were amazed by how uncannily relevant it was. Which made us want to return to Malcolm.
Spike is still one of our favorite filmmakers, and we keep thinking that he’s due for another Brando-esque career resurgence in the form of a couple new masterpieces. And we suspect that Malcolm X still has a lot to say about the current racial and political landscape.
High on our list for summer re-viewing. We’d forgotten that Spike himself plays Malcolm’s friend Shorty, based on Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
One final note – Denzel made such a fantastic Malcolm that his image has almost supplanted the real man in our mind’s eye. But take a look at the images of the redeemed man himself.