Tag Archives: boxing

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI

 

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI
Finland
Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Runtime: 90 minutes
Language: Finnish

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Not many Finnish movies make it to NYC unless it’s under film festivals where they remain, undistributed and unreleased, so when I heard that Finland’s entry to the 89th Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film had arrived to the Angelika I rushed to go see it without even knowing what it was about. Reader, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is a gorgeously made black and white film that tells the story of retired boxer Olli Maki and the days leading up to his fated match with Davey Chase in 1962.

When the movie starts, Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti) is an amateur boxer who during a wedding party meets and falls for Raija (the lovely Oona Airola). Soon after, Olli’s manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) has Olli and Raija travel to Helsinki to prepare him for bigger and better things — in this case, his first big match, against none other than the American Davey Chase. From the get-go, Olli manifests a certain doubt about his own mettle, a thing that doesn’t go over too well with Ask who wants Olli to act as aggressive as possible and secure the Finnish win.

Problems start appearing soon after — Olli needs to lose a certain amount of weight to make his class and the weight isn’t coming off. Raija soon begins to feel out of place in Helsinki, and a telling trip to the salon, where the stylist gives her an updated do, speaks pages about isolation in a strange place. Compounded with Ask’s own marital problems, and the hiring of a documentary crew to film Olli’s every move as he prepares for his match, and we have a recipe for a man who may have a meltdown in the middle of all this pressure.

However, the movie, as restrained and documentary-like as it is, never caves into the more American expectation of this kind of drama. Instead it allows itself to move naturally, with events taking place in a realistic form until the day of the match arrives. This is a thoughtful movie about facing one’s own doubts and fears, and the true courage it takes to stand up in quiet defiance against the potential pitfalls of glory, and walk away gracefully.

THE FITS

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

Royalty Hightower in The Fits. Image by Variety.

Without sounding like a snob I want to confess something. Reader, I’ve seen a lot of movies. I don’t mean several hundred — that’s barely a calendar year from new releases, film festivals, and home releases. I’m talking about movies in the thousands, enough to pack a video store if they were in style.

When you can lay this claim about yourself you reach a point where you start looking for alternative forms of narration on camera, movies that are a little different from the mainstream. This is not to say mainstream cinema is bad — but when you see the same tired archetypes over and over again and now with the market saturated with colossal blockbusters retelling the same superhero story that always winds up with more reboots . . . well, to the art-theater you go.

The Fits came out as an official selection at New Directors, New Films back in March and I missed it by a fraction, so when it got its own release at Metrograph — a new movie theater for art-house lovers all the way on the LES — I rushed to see it. Reader, go see this marvelous film while it’s held over until the weekend of July 4th. This right here, is pure cinema, a story told with little dialogue, with characters that express through dance and feeling, meta-narration at its best.

Before we see her, we hear her: Toni, doing sit ups and pull ups at a boxing gym where her brother practices. Her face is a mask of pure determination, her body already lean and tomboyish, her hair in tight braids. She doesn’t say a word, even on the way home. At school we see her carrying some huge bag as though it were a cross over her shoulder; walking slowly in sharp contrast to the dance troupe she discovers and that ignites her interest. Friendships materialize out of thin air, and while Toni’s dance movements are heavy with boxing references, she starts “getting it” and even pierces her ears in order to feel more a part of the group of older women she clearly admires.

The Fits takes a takes a slow left turn, however, when one of the dance troupe instructors comes down with uncontrollable shaking and barely able to breathe. No one knows why it happened, and Toni’s friend Beezy suggests it may be epilepsy. Other girls also come down with what gets called “the fits” and the media alludes that the water may be unsafe to drink. But what does this have to do with Toni, proper, or her new found friends? Is every female under 18 at school going to fall under the spell of the fits?

Anna Rose Holmer leaves her debut film in a shroud of ambiguity that clearly went over well with the audience at the screening I saw: there was a collective mind-set of “getting it”, even when we kept seeing a sense of nascent horror creep into the fabric of the story. The Fits, with its casual sense of humor and visual incursions into poetry and surrealism (especially at the moving end sequence, a wonderful immersion into Toni’s mind that elevates the entire story out of its semi-darkness as the entire cast of girls dance, clothed in blue and gold) is closer to performance art itself than an traditional picture. So much of it relies on the non-verbal movements of Royalty Hightower who is on camera practically all throughout its run. This is a girl who can convey so much emotion into her oval face, she would be, I think, ill-serviced by rote dialogue that would verbally express what her character is going through in the awkwardness of childhood. The Fits might not be to everyone’s liking but if you discover it, you will have in your hands a wonderful piece of work.

ON DVD: CREED

Creed:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

creed-trailer-600

If anyone would have ever told me that there was yet another story waiting in the wings within the Rocky Balboa saga I would have laughed out myself into a coma for reasons that are more than obvious. How many times did Rocky have to fight against an unbeatable opponent? All that was left was placing him in the ring against a cyborg, or an alien or worse, a spoof (which actually, did happen: I can’t but think Grudge Match was in some way a not so subtle jab at all the Rocky movies gone bad). No, by the end of 2015, the Rocky Balboa story had come to a close, end of the line, time’s up, shop is closing. EVERYTHING MUST GO.

But . . . of course, there is always a but. It’s a “but” that was probably born in the seeds of Rocky V. Somewhere the spirit of Sage Stallone lives on this film, but now the part of the surrogate son has been taken over by a one-time rival and later friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, a young man rescued from a life of possible crime and delinquency who learns of his origins and now watches his father on YouTube clips. When he leaves what seems to be a promising job in an LA firm to come all the way back East to where it all started — Philadelphia — we can sense a hunger in Adonis. He wants this, to get in a ring and fight . . . but he needs the guidance to get there. And that man is none other than Rocky Balboa.

But no, this is not another Rocky gets in the ring and fights movie — far from it, Rocky, now owner of the restaurant that memorializes his wife Adrian’s name (she has died of cancer, off-screen), is far from the passionate man he once was. He’s become a much more sedate person, speaking in quiet tones, and can offer but a meal to this kid who wants his help in training him. It’s only after some serious thought in a touching scene where Rocky visits Adrian’s grave that he relents to become the young Adonis’ mentor while keeping his identity a secret from other boxing gym owners who may want to jump in on the money bandwagon and make a quick buck off of associating with Adonis.

At its heart, Ryan Coogler has reinvented a tired old rags to richers / ignominy to fame story that made Rocky a household winner in 1976 and spun it into powerful life with some truly ferocious direction and acting from both Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone that has to be seen. Jordan, much like the younger Rocky, is a reserved mask of tenacity hiding a bruised soul that needs to forgive himself before he can come into his own in the ring. Stallone now steps into the role made famous by Burgess Meredith, and I will say, his scenes are handled almost delicately — with measured weight, dignity, and the right amount of subtle pathos. Stallone’s Balboa is a tired man hiding a deeper secret, who still can “put ’em up and show a kid how it’s done. It’s his most elegant performance to date after years and years of playing uber-macho characters. Tessa Thompson is also a standout as Bianca, the girl Adonis falls for who has some issues of her own. Someone give this actress a  movie already–she’s been oozing presence now for three standout pictures starting with Dear White People and Selma.

creed

Creed is still a Rocky film at heart and isn’t afraid to show its somewhat manipulative streak, but you can forgive it for being so because of the near-perfect direction Ryan Coogler gets out of its story and performers. If you thought seeing Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum was the emotional peak of a man ready to get dirty, you need to see Creed’s biker sequence. It’s as operatic as anything committed to screen.

And shame on the Academy for shutting Creed out of directing, movie, and actor slots. Shame, shame, shame.