Thursday, August 13, 2015

Listen to Me Marlon and Southpaw

                                                 From Bums to Contenders
                                                              Review by Ken Burke
 While there is a certain sense of connection between the 2 under review in this posting (in that both protagonists have to fight back—literally, in the latter case—from an initial sense of ostracization and failure to achieve what they desire) their completely different formats of documentary and fiction make it more reasonable to pursue what’s offered to us by way of separate reviews.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                 Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
About as close as a documentary can get to being an autobiography when it’s mostly constructed by someone else, this exploration into the inner thoughts of famed actor Marlon Brando is based on extensive audio recordings he made over the years, recounting his life while offering advice to his future self, all enhanced with other footage, film clips, and images.
 My standard review format (see the one on Southpaw below) doesn’t usually work too well with documentaries, especially this one which does basically follow a chronological timeline through some of Marlon Brando’s life (despite the lack of an appropriate comma between Me and Marlon in the title; however, I guess when we’re dealing with reflections upon genius [a sincere compliment, not a snarky remark, I assure you] liberties can be taken with standard formats, as this film does marvelously well) but is too focused on the impact to be imparted to its audience to get effectively into my concept of “What Happens,” although it’s much more about what I call “So What”; accordingly, that’s mostly the aspect I’ll focus on after providing a brief summary of what’s presented here.  Over an unspecified number of years of his time with us (1924-2014), Brando made a lengthy series (hundreds of hours) of audio recordings in which he talked to himself, seemingly about just 2 topics:  recollections of his ongoing past—maybe to serve as an aural, rather than a written, journal about who he was and how he came to be that person—and advice to his ongoing future self to help calm what seems to be an ongoing internal storm, often made more disturbing by external events, most of which he presents as being beyond his control.  Director/ editor/co-writer Riley has culled through this enormous trove of inner-directed-dialogue (but with a strong sense of Brando putting himself on record about the influences and impacts upon his life, possibly to be known to others after his demise so that his biographers would have some additional material to weigh against whatever they were collecting from other-less-direct-sources) provided by Brando's estate, constructing an overview of Marlon’s life (incomplete as it might be in a mere 95 min.) so that those of us beyond his inner circle could try to know this intensely-convention-challenging-person in a manner that probes beneath his many singular-screen-presences.

 So, as we wander through his self-advice, augmented by personal memories of what he encountered as a media-megastar-but constantly-put-upon-celebrity we find some recollections of his early life in Omaha and Illinois but mostly what we get dwells upon his intention to liberate screen acting from the expected-emotional-presences of former movie idols (whom he equated to brand-name “cereal boxes,” because you knew what you’d get when you “opened them up” by attending their latest extension-of-known-roles), augmented by his rejection of reporters trying to put him into their own confining-boxes (in a couple of early news clips he completely upends the process, turning the female interviewers into interviewees who don’t know how to handle such playfulness from an emerging Hollywood star) and some personal trauma over the tragedies of 2 of his adult children.  Given that Riley has only a soundtrack from his subject to work with, he enhances it in a richly-planned-manner using various visual elements including clips from seminal Brando films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951; except for Brando the other main performers all won Oscars—Vivien Leigh for Best Actress, Karl Malden for Best Supporting Actor, Kim Hunter for Best Supporting Actress [Brando couldn't budge the sentimental weight of the honor going to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen (John Huston), just as arguments could be made against the winners of Best Director (George Stevens, A Place in the Sun) and Best Picture (An American in Paris [Vincente Minnelli]) relative to later appraisals of … Streetcar …]—along with 8 other nominations) and On the Waterfront (Kazan, 1954; Brando won his first Best Actor Oscar, along with 7 others for the film including Kazan as Best Director, Eva Marie Saint as Best Supporting Actress, Budd Schulberg for Best Story and Screenplay, and the overall experience as Best Picture [plus 4 other nominations]), both with enormously-powerful-performances

 Other extensive clips include scenes from Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz,1955; 4 Oscar nominations), Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone, 1962; 7 Oscar nominations), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972; Brando’s other Best Actor Oscar win, although he declined the award because of Hollywood’s blatant mistreatment of Native Americans in decades of westerns—this one also took Oscars for Best Picture, along with Best Adapted Screenplay for Coppola and Mario Puzo, plus 8 other nominations), Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973; 2 Oscar nominations including Brando for Best Actor [another sentimental favorite won, Jack Lemmon for Save the Tiger (John G. Avildsen), but Brando had no chance anyway after his prior refusal for The Godfather]), and Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979; won Oscars for Best Sound and Best Cinematography, nominated for 6 others), with all of these moving memories joined by interviews with Brando, stock footage, and visual enhancements to illustrate the soundtrack, predominantly a reconstruction of Marlon’s Beverly Hills home on a British sound stage so that Riley could present images of boxes of memorabilia, tape recorders playing portions of Brando’s commentary, etc.

 Other Brando films are noted in this great documentary—most notably Viva Zapata! (Kazan, 1952; this one got Marlon another Best Actor Oscar nomination plus a Best Supporting Actor win for Anthony Quinn, finally playing a Mexican, his actual heritage), Julius Caesar (Mankiewitz, 1953; Brando was nominated for Oscar’s Best Actor, plus 4 other nominations but only 1 winner, for Best Art Direction [Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno, Edwin B. Willis, Hugh Hunt]) and The Wild One (László Benedek), as well as notable later performances such as in The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976; co-starring Jack Nicholson in what I’ve called an “archfiend western” where neither protagonist has redeeming qualities) and Superman (Richard Donner, 1978; nominated for 3 Oscars, received a Special Achievement one for visual effects)—although little mention is made of his latter-20th-century work, which is often regarded as idiosyncratic at best (or just plain weird).  But, if you just want to see film clips you could likely find them in other places while the real impact of this documentary is the fabled actor talking about his parents, his craft, and his relationships with the media-crazed-culture that so celebrated and defiled him, as we so frequently do with those that we idolize, then humanize by burrowing into scandals about their private lives that demonstrate how they have the same shortcomings we do, with Brando an easy target given his 3 wives (all marriages ended in divorce) and 16-17 children (reports vary; as Brando says: “Past a certain point the penis has its own agenda.  It has nothing to do with you.”), most of whom aren’t noted here except for the scandal involving son Christian sentenced to 10 years jail time for the killing of half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend, after which she provided more tragedy by committing suicide.

 Brando was a direct recipient of a difficult childhood himself, with an overbearing father (seen in the doc in a sort of This Is Your Life interview with his now-famous-son, with the tension between them covered up via some jaunty comments by both; Brando later said of him that he “measured everything by money,” but maybe that was because Brando Sr. was abandoned by his mother at age 4, leaving scars to be later visited upon the more-famous Marlon Brando Jr.) and an alcoholic mother, leading to Marlon becoming first the epitome of rebellious youth (“I was young and destined to spread my seed far and wide.”) that he’d be idolized later for in The Wild One, then gaining a more mature consciousness at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research before taking to heart NYC stage-actors-guru Stella Adler, with her devotion to the famous Konstantin Stanislavski-early-20th-century “System” of extreme Realism where the actor fully inhabits the role through projection into it, thinking and responding as the character would, feeling the weight of the fictional construct’s “biography” informing how the lines and actions should be delivered.  Brando provides some fine insights into how this approach gave him the satisfaction that he desired for turning performance into an organic experience for thespian and audience alike, despite the challenges it presented to more traditional actors and directors.  (His reaction to the movie industry: “There is no art.”)  As he notes in his tapes, life is difficult for all of us, so that “Acting is survival,” especially for those like Marlon who felt he wasn’t accepted as he was so he needed to distract others from his actual life by putting on appearances that could more easily be embraced, creating roles that allow the audience to lose themselves into the fiction, so that they become one with the story (a condensed version of what many noted film theorists championed as the Psychoanalytical perspective in the later 20th century, much to the chagrin of more cognitively-oriented-thinkers who tried to debunk this understanding of cinema just as fiercely as more scientifically-based-psychologists have attempted to replace Freud and his heritage in the halls of academia).

 Toward the end of this superb, soul-stirring documentary (which I’ve not been able to successfully capture in words; I know that it’s being released only in select markets but I highly encourage you to seek it out if available [see the first link about this film far below for where it’s currently playing or soon will be] or watch for it on video release) Brando says that “Life’s a rehearsal.  Life’s an improvisation,” but what it’s in preparation for he doesn’t reveal, although he may have a better understanding of that now, if there’s any individual consciousness left of him; if so, maybe someone with a solid command of séance procedures could conjure him up again, or at least allow him to speak through the digitized image of his face (that Brando had created a few decades ago, as another archival aspect of his life, like with the audio tapes) used at times in Riley’s re-creation of aspects of Brando’s presence.  For now, though, we’re simply left with a powerful collection of insights into one of humanity’s great artists, as that disembodied face speaks early on in Listen to Me Marlon delivering Shakespeare’s immortal words from Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28) as that ambitiously-failed-Scottish-protagonist notes his oncoming fate (in a manner that surely spoke to Brando, as he tried unsuccessfully to escape from his own life’s miseries by creating his private world in Tahiti, only to find that, like Vito Corleone talking to prized son Michael, "there wasn’t enough time” to accomplish what he envisioned in his dreams):

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last recorded syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

 Brando’s life certainly signified more than nothing (even if he may not have thought so at times), but surely was as almost-impenetrable to those of us who merely observed it from the outside as was another significant experience which also uses part of the above speech in its title, William Faulkner’s devastating Modernist novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929).  Like Faulkner in this complex, difficult book (and Marlon’s boxing hero, Jersey Joe Walcott), Brando wanted to challenge us, keep us off-guard until he delivered the knockout punch. (“Never let your audience know how it’s going to come out.”)  Riley, in this engrossing exploration of human passion, creativity, and pain suffered for both art and personal need, can’t begin to cover all that we might want to know about one of the most celebrated actors of the modern world, even as his oft-times-near-unintelligible-recorded-material and matching-murky-imagery leaves us unclear as to what’s being presented (a factor in my decision to stay with 4 stars rather than going higher, which might be justified, but if you want very high scores check out the ones far below in the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic links)—we have to subsist on nuance rather than substance in those instances—but it’s still a wondrous examination of a challenging, well-examined (if not always resolved) life, one that could hopefully serve as an inspiration for us as viewers to challenge convention ourselves, even when confronting “the horror, the horror” of doing so in a lifetime not accepted by many of those around us.  With that context, let me offer my Musical Metaphor for Listen to Me Marlon, Neil Diamond’s “I Am … I Said” (from the 1971 album Stones) at https://www. (this is the 3rd time I’ve used it, but it’s just too appropriate here) which brings together aspects of NY, Hollywood, and the anguish of the singer who’s got “an emptiness deep inside” that “won’t let [him] go”; it may be a bit schmaltzy considered the subtlety of the film I’m pairing it with, but I don’t think that either Marlon or Neil would be offended by my decision.  (By the way, the film is produced by Showtime which will cablecast it at some point after its theatrical run.)
                                      Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua)
Billy Hope, the undisputed Light Heavyweight World Champion boxer who wins his fights by being self-goaded into bloody punishment before he explodes on his opponents, suddenly faces a series of personal tragedies that ruin his life and family, forcing him to slowly rebuild his career and sense of self-worth in a(n overly) Rocky-like plot of redemption.
What Happens: As with Marlon Brando’s actual, complex persona and the despondent ex-boxer he portrayed in On the Waterfront, Billy Hope (a name for this character so obvious as to be unnecessarily distracting) aspires to succeed in his chosen lifestyle by defying conventionality so as to fire up his inner being to the point of feeling invincible.  In his case, as a light-heavyweight-pro-fighter, this means allowing his opponent to pulverize him to the point that Billy becomes so motivated (even while bleeding profusely) that he becomes unbeatable.  So far, this strategy has worked for him, as he has an outstanding 43-0 record and is currently (as our story begins) the undisputed world champ, holding the title belts of all of the professional organizations.  Still, this hard-scrabble-product of the NYC Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood is providing agony for his devoted wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams)—herself a product of that bitter environment, thereby an ideal soul-mate for Billy (Jake Gyllenhaal)—because she’s fearful that it’s now taking too long into his bouts for Billy to reach that “hulking-up” state (used figuratively here, because unlike the comic book/movie superhero character who first embodied that action by changing from scientist Bruce Banner into the big green monster or even now-remorseful-racist-talking-wrestler Hulk Hogan who used that same “pound-on-me-until-I’m-fully-ready-to-‘hulk out’-and-retaliate” strategy, Billy never becomes more larger-than-life than when he began his fight, he just gets charged up into pummeling-action, unleashing a furry of blows that suddenly softens up his opponent for the knockout, often coming from an unexpected left hook that defines this movie’s title).  Just as Maureen’s about to convince him to take a year off, though, they attend a charity event for children where he’s taunted by would-be-challenger Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez); as a fight breaks out between them, Miguel’s brother, Hector (Danny Henriquez), pulls a gun, leading to the accidental killing of Maureen which sends Billy’s life into a terrible downward spiral that occupies much of the rest of this movie.

 First thing you know, Billy loses a fight, angrily head-butts the referee, gets suspended for a year, watches his entourage/lifestyle-debts drain his income (even as that entourage “scatters like cockroaches”), loses his manager, Jordan Mains (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson)—who takes on “Magic” as a client (You know, it’s business, not personal; you may have heard something like that in a Brando movie at some point, capisce?)—then his house and belongings are sold off to settle debts and lawsuits, but, most importantly, after his drunken car crash into a tree Billy’s judged incompetent to maintain custody of his 10-year-old-daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), who’s taken into the semi-prison-environment of Child Protective Services where she furiously cuts off contact with Dad.  In an attempt to work his way back up from the bottom of the despair well, Billy takes a janitor job at a gym owned by former-boxer Titus “Tuck” Willis (Forest Whitaker), who finally, reluctantly agrees to train Billy to get back into the game, especially after “Magic” takes over part of the vacated title and a boy from the gym is killed by his abusive father while trying to defend his mother from the jerk.  Billy manages to get a fight with “Magic” in Las Vegas for a big payday, even allowing Leila to attend as long as she stays in the back with her caseworker, Angela Rivera (Naomie Harris).  Billy faces difficulty in the bout, including more taunts from “Magic” intended to get Billy to fly off the handle and be disqualified but, thanks to Tick’s training, Billy keeps his cool, employs a more effective defensive strategy, and wins the title back by a split decision (after a knockdown to “Magic,” who’s saved by the bell from being counted out), leading to forgiveness from Leila.

So What? The main “what” here is Gyllenhaal (although Laurence is preciously addictive as Leila—in the same vein that Abigail Breslin was as Olive Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine [Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris; 2006], whether she’s being charming, pouty, or downright angry at her father), who buffed up for the role, put himself through punishing training so that he’d look like a plausible boxer in the wider shots, longer takes than sports movies often use with non-athlete-actors (director Fuqua also trained, in empathy with Gyllenhaal and to remind himself from past sparring days what it feels like to be pounded around inside the “squared circle” of the boxing ring).  Hopefully, all that blood dripping from Billy’s mouth during and after his fights was part of the managed effects, but beyond that our lead actor took a lot of bruising hits that demonstrate how sincerely he wanted to immerse himself into his role (as admirable as the preparations and training endured by Robert Di Nero for Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980; nominated for 8 Oscars, Di Nero won for Best Actor along with Thelma Schoonmaker for Best Editing]—still the all-time-premiere-boxing-themed-film in my opinion [or at least the best one I’ve yet to see] and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter [David O. Russell, 2010; nominated for 7 Oscars, won for Christian Bale as Best Supporting Actor and Melissa Leo as Best Supporting Actress]).  However, except for the praise that our protagonist deserves as a guy willing to regain self-respect and become a role-model for his young daughter (if beating another guy senseless in front of a huge live-and pay-per-view-crowd rates as role-model-material)—with an even higher level of praise appropriate for Gyllenhaal’s intense ownership of this role (Stanislavski, Adler, and Brando would have all been proud of him)—this romanticized story about how a guy from the wrong side of the tracks (or the Avenues as the case may be) works his way up to wealth and fame through channeling his anger rather than truly bettering himself, loses everything (except the last ounce of dignity) by letting that anger overtake him, then regains his losses by accepting the directives of a wise, no-nonsense mentor is highly melodramatic, predictable, and repetitive.

 Southpaw especially borrows from the Rocky canon of retaining honor in the midst of adversity, being motivated toward successful brutality by a sick or dead friend, and having the nobility of a big heart within a muscular body even if the accompanying brains don’t provide the ideal complete package (the only thing missing is the meat locker).  There’s really nothing here that you haven’t already seen in the cinematic stories noted above, along with many other boxing-oriented-movies that trace their heritage back at least to the days of The Champ (King Vidor, 1931) where Best Actor Oscar-winning Wallace Beery (who tied for the award with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [Rouben Mamoulian], the only time that’s happened with Oscar’s Best Actors; for 1968 films there was a Best Actress tie between Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl [William Wyler] and Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter [Anthony Harvey]) helped set this genre in motion, but Southpaw’s competently done if you’d rather see this shtick in a theater rather than on your home video screen.

Bottom Line Final Comments: It’s hard not to be impressed by the power of the actual fight scenes in Southpaw because they do alternate between wide shots that prove these actors are in real motion around the ring as they deliver blows to each other that have to hurt, no matter how well-rehearsed they are, and slo-mo-shots that help you feel the driving force behind those punches as the bodies and minds of these fighters are jarred in ways that few sane human beings would willingly endure.  (I just hope that the paydays are worth it for the real big-match-fighters as they constantly face abuse that can physically and cognitively cripple them for life, either now or when they’re older; as for the many virtual-unknowns who don’t even have the compensation of big-box-office-bucks as they take on the same life-defying-risks, my heart goes out to them that this is all they’ve found so far to give meaning to their existence, whether out of economic necessity or just a sense of accomplishment in a brutal world where the struggle for employment and income can make a person feel frustrated enough to want to bash in some skulls, thereby leading the rugged few to actually do it as an intended career.)  However, once you’re past the visceral impact of the in-ring-scenes (and assuming you can suspend your concerns about the barbarity of sanctioned brain damage among supposedly-civilized-humans long enough to watch such a movie, then consider its content while discussing it), what you get is a tale that’s not likely to be remembered for much of anything once this summer-release-season is over because even Gyllenhaal’s bodily-bombardment isn’t likely to be considered award-nomination-worthy if there are enough other roles where the actors have to deliver carefully-nuanced-dialogue rather than just rapid-fire-body-blows.

 De Niro brought a lot more to his portrayal of Jake LaMatta than just a loud-mouthed-lug with aggression problems in and out of the ring.  Jake certainly had those limitations but the script allowed De Niro to provide considerably more depth and complexity to his taken-from-life-character; Gyllenhaal’s not given the opportunity to rise to that level of interpersonal-engagement by his script, which has much more of the retread quality of Rocky V (Avildsen, 1990) or Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006) than the new-perspective/new-emphasis-engaging-character-renderings of something like the marvelous Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004; nominated for 7 Oscars, won 4 of them: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress [Hilary Swank], Best Supporting Actor [Morgan Freeman—playing a Black trainer similar to Whitaker's])Southpaw comes out swinging, but the contact just isn’t consistent nor effective enough for even the TKO that the production team might have hoped for.  As for a Musical Metaphor for Southpaw, though, I offer you what I consider to be not only an obvious song here but also a knockout, both in lyrical/ performance quality and in relevance to this somewhat-punch-drunk-movie, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (from the 1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water album) at ?v=ih5zA_eMGzY, including the extra verse found only in live recordings: “Now the years are rollin’ by me, They are rockin’ easily, I am older than I once was, younger than I’ll be, That’s not unusual, no it isn’t strange, After changes upon changes we are more or less the same, After changes we are more or less the same.”  This performance, from the video and album of the 1982 Concert in Central Park (recorded at that September 19, 1981 event, a free tribute to the singers’ home city, attended by about 500,000 with proceeds from the album and subsequent TV/video rights used to help refurbish the Park) goes for about 5:00 at the formal conclusion of the concert but there’s another minute of crowd response that was surely successful in getting the singers back out for their encores (Simon also offered this extremely relevant NYC song about the “lies and jests,” “the ragged people,” and “the whores on Seventh Avenue” when he appeared on the first broadcast of Saturday Night Live after the carnage of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on Manhattan).  That’s a hard act to follow, so I’ll leave you now but will return soon with additional musings on the current cinematic landscape.
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Here’s more information about Listen to Me Marlon: (5:18 contains an excerpt from the film, with Brando explaining how he thinks acting is about surprising and engaging the audience rather than just offering expected actions and reactions then we go to director Stevan Riley who talks about what he learned from Brando about acting; if you like what you see here then you might want to watch the entire fascinating 37:40 interview with Riley by Ondi Timoner from TheLipTV’s BYOD documentary talk show at, which includes further short segments from the documentary with clips from A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront

Here’s more information about Southpaw: (10:27 interview with director Antoine Fuqua and actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Oona Laurence)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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