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Stanley Kubrick’s Early-Career Magazine Photographs Chart the Birth of an Uncanny Aesthetic

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Stanley Kubrick business is booming. A Christopher Nolan–supervised 70mm print (coming to the Museum of the Moving Image in July) premiered last month at Cannes, the theatrical rollout of which had the highest per-screen average of any film over Memorial Day weekend ($32,604). There’s a new book on the film, Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, as well as a fresh documentary, Filmworker, about the director’s longtime right-hand man, Leon Vitali. This is not to be cynical, just to note the tie-in context behind the timing of “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs,” on display through October at the Museum of the City of New York. Get your ticket and ascend to the third floor; walk in the opposite direction from the “Beyond Suffrage” exhibition on feminist activism in the Seventies and through the hallway selection of “King in New York” photos of MLK. (That an exhibit on one of the — great, but still — white male auteurs pulls you away from these two topics seems almost like a perverse space planning/curatorial commentary.)

Between 1945 (when he was only seventeen!) and 1950, Kubrick was first a contributor to, then an apprentice at, and finally staff photographer for Look magazine, a scrappier variant of Life. Kubrick’s first photo for them was of a dejected newspaper vendor surrounded by headlines about FDR’s death; it was staged, the subject asked to look more depressed than he was. Presented in linear order, the exhibit tracks Kubrick from mere technical precociousness to the development of a distinct Weegee-inflected, noir-oriented style that led directly to Fear and Desire, Killer’s Kiss, and The Killing, and whose increasingly obvious compositional principles and eccentricities informed everything to come after. The exhibit’s opening text lays out this groping toward a personal style as one of four themes informing his early work. The others: “looking” (i.e., that Kubrick had a “fascination with human relationships,” which is not how most people would describe the primary emphasis of his films); “mastering the system” (Kubrick as anatomist of institutions, which seems plausible); and “media savvy” (given that he spent hours watching and enthusing about the narrative efficiency of beer commercials, also plausible).

Stanley Kubrick’s series of subway photographs is one element of the show that posits him as a notable NYC chronicler.

There’s a fifth, tacit goal: to reclaim Kubrick as both NYC native son and one of its great chroniclers. He was indeed Bronx-born and -bred, but he shot only one film here (1955’s Killer’s Kiss). You could (maybe) argue that he never got over his formative years, given the insanely large and strangely convincing London-soundstage version of New York City he built for Eyes Wide Shut. That career-long trajectory — from necessity-driven location-bound shooting to elaborate artificial environments that are both incredibly real-looking while speaking to a consistent aesthetic — is micro-mirrored in the selection of photos, which move, if not precisely from outdoors to indoors, into progressively more constricted and constructed setups. This is not just a question of overt staging (which Kubrick embraced over time, and which the magazine noted in its captions) but of composition. Whether inside or out, the aesthetic mutates from relatively open and unconstrained to strong diagonals or other guide lines; the contours of every space are directly ascertainable, their restrictions clear. Every interior starts to look loomingly huge: Even a simple photo of Guy Lombardo and his dogs feels like a study for the Overlook Hotel.

I primarily associate motion, not static framing, with Kubrick’s films: the elegant drifting of 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon’s slow zooms, the Steadicam years from The Shining to Eyes Wide Shut. That variable removed, you can still clearly see “Kubrick” emerging in these photos. The early years are fine, technically proficient, on trend for the time but not quite so personally distinct: telephoto street snaps of couples, packed laundromats, all in observational mode. There is a noticeable tendency toward the sardonic, grotesque, or generally less-than-cheery, which the magazine’s captions tried to mitigate: a particularly grim shot of miserable-looking diners at a lunch counter rests underneath the headline “Whatever you want — food, clothing or house furnishings — the 5 and 10 has it.” You couldn’t write better heavy-handed anti-capitalism critique on purpose. I suspect the author of that copy knew exactly what they were doing, and that they could get away with it because nobody would pick up on it.

In 1949, Kubrick shot the New York–born cartoonist Peter Arno in his Park Avenue apartment.

Seeing Kubrick’s increasingly un-American-ly eccentric photos (a significant number of those on display the magazine did not publish) juxtaposed against wholesome Fifties-anticipating ads for Philco and The Farmer’s Daughter is hilarious. There’s a smiling photo of Eisenhower himself, openinga 1948 spread on Columbia University, where Kubrick’s aesthetic as a photographer pops into focus. A photo of an atomic scientist holding a glowing core is uncanny, directly anticipating similar lighting of Dr. Strangelove from underneath in one of that 1964 film’s most-circulated images. What lingers most from the exhibit is a staged shot of a teenage girl: back to the camera, head crumpled into her arm, resting against a wall whose lipsticked graffiti reads “I HATE LOVE!” From the captured to the created: “Through a Different Lens” does ultimately make the case that it depicts a visual thinker arriving at the first iteration of a consistent aesthetic moving gradually inward, toward the entirely controllable and potentially corrosive.

‘Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs’
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
212-534-1672
mcny.org
Through October 28

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The InfoWars Hit Austin: Alex Jones in Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’ and ‘A Scanner Darkly’

Mainstream awareness of Breitbart, Infowars and other unsavory conservative “news” outlets has skyrocketed, as millions suddenly found themselves needing to know who Steve Bannon et al. were. For me, none of these outlets or talking points were news: I’m Texas born-and-raised — there, free-floating libertarian paranoia is a standard component of the mental backdrop. In high school I’d listen to Alex Jones on late night talk radio warn that black helicopters were hovering over central Texas waiting to take us all to the concentration camps. It wasn’t at all surprising that he was in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. They’re Austin movies; why wouldn’t he be?

Jones was on FM station KJFK through 1999, when he predictably went Too Far with his (their words) “inside-terror-job-stuff.” That turned out to be a fortunate development for Jones, who could now position himself as a free voice shut down by the powers that be, giving credibility to the launch of his Infowars platform. The year before, he’d made his debut as a director with the DTV documentary America: Destroyed by Design, which focused on the usual suspects (the U.N., the Council on Trilateral Relations, the Bilderbergers et al.); Linklater saw it and cast Jones in 2001’s Waking Life. The West Texas-born Linklater is a self-identified libertarian who put a Ron Paul sign into Slacker, so it’s not surprising that he’d stumble onto Jones, who exemplifies the spirit of an area where you can pick up a Lyndon LaRouche newsletter at Whole Foods. Austin has a reputation as a cozy liberal college town, but it’s still part of Texas, and ambient libertarianism is a constant. Jones’ appearance in Linklater’s films is entirely in keeping with his then-normalized local celebrity presence: He used to curate a small shelf of conspiracy theory docs at locally beloved video store I Luv Video and in 2007 screened his work at the Alamo Drafthouse South.

In Waking Life, Jones drives around downtown Austin ranting through a bullhorn. The Fight-The-Man sentiments are very much in line with a career he’s spent screaming about how now he’s he’s not gonna take it anymore. “We’re gonna stand up, and we’re gonna be human beings,” he shouts. “We’re going to get fired up about the real things, the things that matter: creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.” With the black helicopters stripped from his talking points, Jones doesn’t sound that unsympathetic, just another anarcho-libertarian with too much time on his hands doing his coffee-shop spiel while cruising through the city. That’s very much Waking Life’s vibe, since the movie is at heart a college town bullshit session: the macho paranoia around the edges is the Texas touch.

Jones’ segment comes after the return of Slacker’s hitchhiker, now an angry prisoner vowing vengeance at everyone when he gets out, and precedes a segment in which Steven Prince (of American Boy and Taxi Driver arms dealer fame) tells a story about having to use a gun once to save his life. Having made the moral clear, he salutes the 2nd Amendment with his bartender, and then the two shoot each other dead. If all this seems violently out of place in a movie that’s mostly explicitly about Larger Philosophical Concerns, that’s Texas.

Jones’ briefer appearance in 2006’s A Scanner Darkly is more disturbingly heroic. Linklater’s Philip K. Dick adaptation stars Keanu Reeves as a government agent who slowly realizes he’s working for the bad guys. A moment of awakening comes walking down the street, when he sees Jones ranting through a bullhorn before a van pulls up and government goons toss him in the back. It’s a near-future dystopian sci-fi scenario, but it plays like a vindication of Jones’ ideas: Give it a few years, and all his dark prophecies will be vindicated. Jones certainly thought so: Talking up the movie on his show in 2006, he noted that “I know the people involved in [the film]. They understand the New World Order. They understand what’s going on.”

Linklater’s career-long idea that we all benefit from talking to each other, even if we don’t always agree, is severely stress-tested by this inclusion: Fifteen years on, Jones isn’t just another innocuous voice but someone who claims to have Our 45th President’s Ear, a conspiracy outlet with a seat at the daily White House press briefings. Unlike Jones, Linklater doesn’t appear to have gone that far at any point: He was never a 9/11 truther (“I don’t think our government is that competent,” he told The Washington Times in 2006) and, distancing himself from Jones, said: “I’ve always been interested in the conspiracist. Not that I think it’s true.” But a vampire can’t enter your house unless you invite it in, and the same principle applies here: Give someone a platform because he or she seems harmless enough, and you have to own the consequences. Jones destabilizes these two films now: The fact that his inclusion seemed harmlessly amusing at the time is an object lesson in never underestimating the marginal crazies’ potential for harm.

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From Belgium, a Vital Doc Portrait of Alcoholism and Adult Male Friendship

“You don’t die if you have other people around you,” grizzled alcoholic Bob tells slightly younger fellow inebriate Marcel — but if your best/only friend is also your biggest enabler, what then?

Filmed over two years with Waiting for Godot as a reference point, Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden’s documentary Ne Me Quitte Pas is a grimly funny deep dive into sustained alcoholism with a classical three-act structure: Things get worse, then comes rehab followed by the dread suspense of whether sobriety is sustainable.

Don’t get optimistic: Shot in widescreen, mostly in steady handheld, Ne Me Quitte Pas finds the comedy in two articulately self-destructive men who open the movie by articulating a shared wish for suicide. Marcel wants to die — but maybe not really — while the older, more phlegmatic Bob is philosophically resigned and seemingly indifferent to his own demise.

This is occasionally horrifying, physically committed filmmaking (the directors tag along for a drunken nighttime motorcycle ride and suffer a direct hit to the camera from Marcel when he’s wasted), deliberately paced at the speed of a long drinking session, and the Beckettian sensibility is pertinent: Instead of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” we get Marcel’s “I’ll eat. No, I’ll have another drink.”

Ne Me Quitte Pas
Directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden
Opens November 18, Museum of the Moving Image

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‘Trolls’ Insists That Only Male-Female Couplings Can Make Your Kids Happy

The wooden troll figures that Thomas Dam began carving and selling in the ‘50s had a great deal of folklore behind them but no cast of fixed characters. Though the Trolls have since been in TV specials, video games and a short-lived series, none of those have established what we might call canon, so DreamWorks’ animated feature-length adaptation is starting from scratch. Trolls is a pretty standard piece of subpar DreamWorks product: loud and shiny, more than a tad frantic despite a generic set of characters, written and directed by in-house lifers. Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is the ceaselessly upbeat monarch-to-be of an annoyingly peppy Troll kingdom. The happy creatures’ enemies are the miserable Bergens, who eat the Trolls once a year — it is, they say, the only way they can achieve happiness.

The Trolls finally flee, but their new home is discovered after 20 years of peace. Plucky Poppy must rescue them while teaching the Bergens that, with a little emotional willpower, anyone can find happiness within themselves. Obviously, no one’s going to make an animated film aimed at pubescents explaining that clinical depression is a real thing and no, not everybody gets to be happy — still, this is obnoxious and cynical.

This romance is between Poppy and grumpy Branch (Justin Timberlake), who refuses to participate in communal song-and-dance sessions; as is her duty, she gradually cajoles him into fun and romance. A parallel narrative of desire focuses on Bergen Prince Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who grows up miserable in a Troll-less existence — minutes before his very first Troll feast, the tasty creatures flee. When he whines that “my father said the first time should be special,” the language is weirdly sexual, as if dad had personally escorted his kid down to the brothel. Don’t worry, he finds love in the end.

The movie’s insistence on pairing everyone off in heteronormative couples — indeed, noting that that’s the only place happiness comes from — is predictably dogmatic. The insistence that everyone must be happy right now is the very opposite of Inside Out, with potentially beneficial Sadness once again ordered out of the room. Poppy teaches the Bergens that they can find happiness without eating Trolls — they just need to dance and make out, basically. That screws the marketing team a little bit: You don’t need Trolls to be happy, but you should still go buy a bunch right now. DreamWorks Animation is no slouch in the tie-in department, but this is the first time it’s outright bought (for an undisclosed fee) an entire pre-existing toy franchise; big things, presumably, are expected.

The jukebox-musical soundtrack is a nightmare assemblage of all the worst trends of current overproduced FM radio, some of which are far past their use-by date (check out those fake record scratches!), complete with an empowerment ballad moment (“Get Back Up Again”) that’s the most noxious manifestation of the film’s palpably insincere optimism: Good things always happen because they do! None of this matters: The kids at the press screening seemed to dig it.

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The Longest-Ever Woody Allen Project Pushes Him Someplace New

As has been widely noted, Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes isn’t really a television series; its six episodes are not particularly self-contained, and plot developments crest and climax willy-nilly regardless of where each segment ends. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie, the longest one Allen’s ever made, and with the option of his usual brevity taken away by the demands of serialization, he’s forced to get weird to make it to the end. Even before the truly strange final two episodes, Crisis (which, yes, has its share of stupefyingly dull passages) is a fairly fascinating iteration of familiar jokes and anxieties with some significant new concerns. It turns out to be unexpectedly serious about a question almost never raised in American movies of any size: To what extent are we obligated to be political citizens? How conscious are we of the necessity to think about that and what can actually be done?

The attenuated plot, such as it is, follows novelist Sidney Munsinger (Allen) and his marriage-counselor wife Kay (Elaine May) as their cozy late-Sixties suburban lives somewhere in the tristate bubble of privilege are disrupted by Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), the radicalized, on-the-lam daughter of a family friend. Kay is increasingly enchanted by Lennie’s fervor and convictions, while Sidney remains perpetually appalled by her; nonetheless, the couple embarks on some mildly perilous expeditions to help her flee the country.

The opening credits are in Allen’s trademark Windsor-EF-Elongated font, but the music isn’t jazz — it’s Jefferson Airplane, moaning in “Volunteers” that we’ve “got a revolution.” No “White Rabbit,” no “For What It’s Worth” — kudos to Allen, in his first time out with classic rock, for avoiding the most overused staples of Sixties clichés. A scene-setting montage — racist chaos in Birmingham, Black Panther marches, anti-Vietnam student protesters — is familiar in a parodic way, and the narrator’s stentorian recitation of the usual historical clichés hints at contempt for rote rundowns of the decade’s talking points. The narrator lays it on thick: “The 1960s. America is brought to the verge of revolution.”

Cut to Allen’s Sidney in a barbershop, where his mundane conversation with a derisive hair-trimmer is less interesting than the patron behind him, reading a newspaper that blares the headline “VIET CRISIS WORSE.” That this is in the background, prominent but completely unacknowledged, is a perfect metaphor for Allen’s studiously non-topical filmography. Being a dutiful member of the standard left — cracking wise about conservatives without committing further — is his usual move; actually integrating significant political developments into the foreground of the plot is not.

Allen is up to a new kind of self-interrogation, as if he spent enough time reading the usual complaints about his films — why is everyone in NYC so rich and gleamingly white? — and decided to address them head-on. He does so mostly through May’s character. After being worked on by Lennie for a bit, Kay has a crisis: They’ve lived their lives in comfort, she tells her husband, but they never actually do anything to take action, and now she regrets that. In order to exhibit any kind of engagement with politics, Allen travels back fifty years — notably, to the moment when tuning out every social development to focus on his craft and career finally led him to big-screen success.

Cyrus’s Lennie is a caricature of Weatherman-leaning discourse, denouncing “the fascist propaganda machine” et al., but even so her presence prompts everyone around her to question their own politics. Allen does not take this lightly: The conclusions each character reaches, even if they choose studious avoidance (like Allen’s Sidney, predictably), matter less than the fact that they had to think them through in the first place. This crisis is a good deal fresher and more interesting than the usual “life is meaningless, maybe we should murder one another” moral dilemmas of Allen’s dramas, and, as portrayed by May, Kay’s grappling with her newfound political conscience is genuinely moving.

Lennie at first seems to inherit the mantle of Allen’s murderous men (from Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors all the way up through Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man), exercising misguided Raskolnikovian energies, but instead turns those “destruction is creation” urges in an entirely new direction. With new questions come, blessedly, new citations. No more greatest hits from Plato and Dostoyevsky — instead, we get Chairman Mao, Marx, and, no joke, Frantz Fanon. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d hear Woody Allen characters quoting from The Wretched of the Earth, but here we are.

Very late into their careers, Allen and May are acting and underlining their age, playing characters who can take stumbling eons to get from one end of a sentence to another. Allen’s trademark stammering here is drawn out to sometimes excruciating lengths, and this can get tedious, but it’s also moving. Crisis has time to kill, so there are no short scenes, and the extended time with a
lifetime couple feels right — not funny, but lived-in in a way that the relationships in Allen’s work often aren’t. Otherwise, Allen’s blatant contempt for his assigned medium is bracingly structurally perverse and indifferent to the idea that TV shows should keep moving: After that barbershop opening, it takes two-and-a-half episodes before we leave the area of Allen’s house.

It’s not surprising that Cyrus, another veteran performer, holds her own and achieves the rare trick of making Allen’s dialogue not sound like she’s a puppet for his voice. The chaos she
instigates climaxes in a final episode in which Allen’s trademark long master shots document a full “everybody come to our house” farce. One after another, characters we’ve met, and some we haven’t, fill the couple’s home, and the unflagging camera trails along as increasing hordes form and separate into different clusters. It’s legitimately, low-key impressive staging at extended, mobile length — a virtue of Allen’s late work that hasn’t been acknowledged enough. Something old, something new: Crisis pushes Allen in productive new directions, even far enough to finally venture back out to Brooklyn.

 

Crisis in Six Scenes streams on Amazon.

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‘Masterminds’ Leaves You Time to Wonder: Does Director Jared Hess Hate Poor Folks?

When Relativity Media — the production company/distributor behind Masterminds, the newest vehicle for Zach Galifianakis to do his painfully committed schtick — started getting press, co-founder/co-CEO Ryan Kavanaugh boasted of his secret sauce for success. A proprietary risk-evaluation algorithm that crunched variables like cast, release date, relative examples in the same genre space, etc. was supposed to take the guesswork out of financing, delivering movies that hit their exact projected gross every time. These productions’ primary directive wasn’t to be good: Kavanaugh’s flagship hit was Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Turns out you can actually be too cynical: Trying to recapture that low-concept Blart magic led to a slate heavy on the miserable likes of The Lazarus Effect, the Total Recall remake, and, subsequently, bankruptcy. Following on the heels of this month’s instantly forgotten The Disappointments Room, Masterminds attempts to spearhead Relativity’s big comeback — which is counterintuitive, because it’s a film directed by Jared Hess, best known for the weird and divisive cult objects Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. While he didn’t write this film, Hess’s fingerprints are all over it, and the results are too loopy for the multiplex.

In 1997, David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) and some dimwitted confederates pulled off the second-largest cash heist ($17.3 million) in U.S. history up to that point. The facts are concisely outlined on Wikipedia and adhered to in the loosest possible way by the film, whose tone runs with the unkind title the caper earned in the press: “the hillbilly heist.” Lured with the false promise of sex by co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), Ghantt is roped into a motley crew of small-time losers led by Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) and subsequently hung out to dry when things go sour. The main romantic plotline combines two deplorable tropes: the attractive woman who leverages her sexuality to lead good men astray and the “nice guy” who eventually wins her over by just being such a goshdarn persistent puppy.

Galifianakis leans hard into the part, sporting a wig that Leslie Jones’s FBI agent accurately pegs as making him look like the love child of the two Kennys, Loggins and Rogers. The atemporality is usual for Hess, whose consistent aesthetic is poised somewhere between trailer-park chic and lower-middle-class tackiness: Though Masterminds ostensibly takes place in 1997, hard-working production designers have assembled a nightmare hellscape of leftover detritus from the last century. There are a variety of old Bell telephone booths scattered throughout, and everyone dresses like they went to a “best of 1985” anti-vintage sale. Frames are often symmetrical, with each prop placed for maximum visibility, like a junkyard parody of Wes Anderson filtered through Sears photography shot by a filmmaker with a major class chip on his shoulder.

Whether Hess loves or condescends to his outcasts is up for debate: The subtext is all about class dispossession, but a movie in which a character is stupid enough to propose a big-time bank robbery so that his gang can make it into the news (“the big show”) is pushing it. Hess’s relationship to Mexican stereotypes is particularly queasy-making: Given Galifianakis’s Hangover associations and the fact that this is made by the man who invited us to Vote for Pedro, it’s strangely inevitable that there’d be a shot of Galifianakis on the lam in Mexico, swaggering in slo-mo in a mariachi outfit with a piñata tucked under his arm.

The film is competent in its framing and editing in a way that most comedies aren’t (compare/contrast with Neighbors 2, which is barely a movie except in the most technical sense) and avoids dead-end-obvious improv. It’s also clear that Hess has a long-term aesthetic project he’s into. Whether you find this funny and/or distastefully condescending is perhaps a matter of taste, but nothing in the film is as funny as the question one of the real-life culprits asked a bank teller: “How much can I deposit before you have to report it to the feds? Don’t worry, it is not drug money.”

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Split Decision: No Champ Emerges From Boxing Biopic ‘Hands of Stone’

Robert De Niro — the Raging Bull himself, now aged from boxer to trainer — is introduced in Hands of Stone bathed in Madison Square Garden’s overhead spotlights, more the image of a reigning champ than the promising fighter whose American debut his character Ray Arcel has come to see. It’s impossible to follow the actual trajectory of the choppily edited fight, so it’s only clear just how impressive Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez) is supposed to be from the look on De Niro’s face. For every punch thrown, there’s a reaction shot: a quizzical eyebrow raise, a cocked head left or right. It’s like watching De Niro get his eyes checked; you can practically see the optometrist behind the camera, asking him to follow a finger. This sequence is immediately followed by a post-fight locker-room scene in which Durán chows down on all 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins, a moment of product placement that’s too blatant and too early, setting the amateur-hour tone for this biopic of the Panamanian fighter.

The real Durán’s reputation is paradoxical: Nearly every reference source deems him one of history’s greatest boxers, but the single fight he’s most associated with is his infamous 1980 rematch against Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond), which Durán stopped in the eighth round after clearly getting the worst of it. He claims he never actually said “No más” (the title of the inevitable 30 for 30 doc on the subject), but any film about him must eventually reckon with this blot on his record. Some claim Durán had stomach pain after eating too much before the fight, others blame a sore shoulder. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz advances a different theory: Durán was too overwhelmed by flashbacks to struggle on.

Those flashbacks cut to scenes from Hands of Stone’s first half, which sketches adolescent Durán’s impoverished upbringing before introducing Ramírez as the grown, swaggering up-and-comer. When paired with Arcel, Durán almost immediately abandons his anti-American sentiments (forged by a childhood spent in the shadow of abusive U.S. soldiers) and begins a montage rise to success. Arcel gets his own hurried origin story as well: Once a promising trainer, he stopped in 1953 after an attack by mob-connected elements (represented solely by occasional appearances from John Turturro as a red-sauce caricature of a mobster). His wife worries that working with Durán will incur their wrath, but Arcel doesn’t fret: “That thing with the wise guys? That was seventeen years ago!” Wiseguys was the title of the Nicholas Pileggi book that became Goodfellas, and intentionally or not the reference is another way the second-billed De Niro hangs heavily over this film.

Ditto the boxing scenes: Raging Bull is the obvious (and predictably unflattering by comparison) reference point. A Steadicam busily circles the ring, catching plausible jabs from Ramírez and the equally muster-passing bouncing of Usher, who translates his dance training into an acceptable pantomime of the sport. But the bouts are all muddles lacking sustained choreography or a sense of trajectory, with crowd-reaction shots and sports-announcer voice-over carrying the slack.

Hands of Stone isn’t any smoother in its non-athletic downtime, which includes several regrettable opportunities for “comic” bonding between Arcel and Durán that show De Niro at his late-period-improv worst. The prevailing dialogue mode is a complete assortment of clichés, from purely expository opening data points (“This is his 22nd knockout in 25 fights!”) to the rote obstacles impeding Durán’s courtship of his upper-class wife, Juanita (Jurnee Smollett-Bell): “We come from different worlds,” she says sadly, but that attitude doesn’t last long.

Note that Durán’s courtship gambits cross what we now consider norms of consent and non-harassment, as he repeatedly stalks her down the streets and even pulls her to a wall when she wants to get away. Juanita subsequently fulfills the usual on-screen wife functions of nagging, crying, and (less standard of late) disrobing for a plainly gratuitous sex scene; Leonard and his spouse get one, too.

When the movie tears itself away from De Niro, it rushes through a fairly standard, Behind the Music–esque rise-fall-rise narrative: Ramírez roars, cries, and breaks down in drunken rages and binge-eating fits before his inevitable comeback fight, when he trains with someone other than Arcel. Here, once and for all, he must overcome his anti-Americanism. “The American you’re talking to?” Arcel scolds his former protégé. “He gave you the best years of his life.” And so, at the climax of a film about one of Panama’s most famous citizens — one assailed during his lowest moment by visions of brutal American soldiers and an impoverished childhood — a very odd, and presumably inadvertent suggestion comes through: In order to win, Durán had to learn to love the Yanqui.

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Nothing Sacred in Alpha and Omega

Someday they’ll make an animated movie in which carnivorous animals actually kill and eat their prey; until then, we’re stuck with the likes of Alpha and Omega, where the big lion-vs.-dinner encounter involves felines dodging a caribou stampede. That scene is shamelessly stolen from The Lion King, and in general—befitting a film co-directed by the force behind Brother Bear 2, and written by two guys whose credits include Happy N’Ever After 2 and Open Season—this is a shameless mélange of plot elements from already plenty generic Disney knockoffs. There’s an “omega” male wolf (Justin Long) and his “alpha” female love (Hayden Panettiere); stupid “tribe laws” prevent them from mating. The outsider wolf will, naturally, win over his haughty love, and anthropomorphized animals will learn not to blindly revere social hierarchies (while still respecting their parents). The cut-rate 3D (good on depth, but the lions’ faces look more like sloth blobs than anything) doesn’t help. The only quasi-original particulars: gyrating lions who coo generic r&b, and comic relief in the form of a golfing bird who repeatedly claims he’s French, rather than the more accurate French-Canadian. Otherwise—hey, they stole the bobsled from Cool Runnings! Is nothing sacred?

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Self-Made Man, Self-Made Anger: Biker Fox in Biker Fox

Self-made dealer of vintage auto parts, biking crank, health nut, and all-round angry dude: If you didn’t know otherwise, Biker Fox (given name: Frank P. DeLarzelere III) would seem like he’d come straight from a “Tim and Eric” sketch. But he’s real, and—aside from an opening-credits sequence blue-screened to ’80s music-video hell, complete with a tacky zoom into Fox’s spandex-clad crotch—this is no condescending comedy. Instead, director Jeremy Lamberton takes an unflinching look at a small-town guy who thinks of himself as an inspirational speaker, but whose overwhelming rage and weirdness (used as an aggressive weapon) are deeply frightening. Much of the film is comprised of Biker Fox just being Biker Fox: screaming at random, hectoring prospective customers, feeding wild raccoons no matter how many times he’s bitten, etc. The footage is mostly raw, though the few clearly staged HD bits are flawlessly framed. The energy is in Lamberton’s unwavering engagement with the question of what it means to be a genuine outsider in a place as inhospitable to weirdos as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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T.I. in Takers

“Come drink with me from the goblet of destruction,” quotes T.I.’s bank robber (from Genghis Khan!) before Takers‘ big heist kicks off—and he’s not joking. Acting as both producer and plot fulcrum, T.I. is the big human attraction in Takers, possessing the raw energy that charisma vacuums Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen (front and center) lack. Director John Luessenhop works around them in this cheerfully derivative attempt to merge the epically ponderous L.A.-scapes of Michael Mann’s Heat (criminals versus police, with equal screen time for both) with the digital blur of Michael Mann’s Collateral, but with far more firepower. At least a third of the running time is taken up by car and foot chases (Chris Brown still can’t act, but his parkour is excellent), long Entourage-esque stretches fetishizing expensive clothing, and a generous dose of explosions. The editing is Bourne-fast but mostly coherent, and the plot reversals (no matter how flatly acted) actually do surprise. Gravel-voiced cop Matt Dillon (evidently aging into his Clint Eastwood years ahead of schedule), in pursuit of T.I.’s merry band, is the only other person as compelling as the impeccable action. That’s more than enough to entertain; this is the best baseline-competent action movie to come out all summer.