The brief title Chuck belies the complexity of heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. And yet Wepner's life story has as many tragic moments as glorious ones, with a fair sampling of the too often predictable, banal indulgence in alcohol and drugs. Through ups and downs, director Philippe Falardeau manages to mine Wepner's humanity.    

The pride of Bayonne, New Jersey, where he grew up, Wepner made boxing history for many brutal bouts, most notably, as featured here, for being picked to fight Muhammad Ali, March 24, 1975 for the world Heavyweight title.  Every boxing fan knows Chuck didn't win, but he latest all but nineteen seconds of the fifteenth round, an amazing endurance contest with Wepner knocking Ali down in the ninth round. The brief reenactment here makes clear the punishing, unrelenting nature of the contest. This, with his other bloody fights, also earned Wepner the nickname he disliked, "Bayonne Bleeder."

As he shows in his wonderful 2011 film Monsieur Lazhar, director Falardeau understands the emotional depth of underestimated, apparently two-dimensional individuals. Here he presents the pain Wepner feels as his marriage to Phyliss falls apart, even though Chuck knowns his physical indulgence in sex, booze, and cocaine caused it. Chuck's voiceover observations throughout the story make clear his perspective on all his foibles, from meeting Stallone to prison time as well as his obsession with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight.

As Wepner, Liev Schreiber brings a touch of his Ray Donovan toughness to the character, but his command of the struggle makes Chuck a moving, poignant person. In supporting roles, Elisabeth Moss as Phyliss conveys a strength of values that doesn't compromise. Naomi Watts as the sympathetic but equally sensible bartender Linda brings energy to her portrayal. Both Michael Rappaport as Chuck's alienated brother and Ron Perlman as manager Al Braverman give solid performances. Morgan Spector is an appealing Stallone, and Pooch Hall as Ali does a nice job imitating Ali's intonation and phrasing.

Chuck is a good movie about a noteworthy boxer because it shows his equally, if not more difficult battles out of the ring. At Landmark's Tivoli Cinema. 

 

In 1949, Ealing studio's Whisky Galore charmed viewers with its story of the small Scottish island of Todday running out of liquor at the height of World War II. By remarkable, welcome luck, the British SS Cabinet Minister runs aground within reach of the shore. The cargo ship stows 50,000 crates of Scottish Whisky. Heaven has arrived.

But it's Sunday and heaven demands its due. So, while the ship lists and threatens to sink, no one can liberate the payload until the midnight bells toll Monday. Then it's all hands on deck, retrieving what seems like manna. This, however, must be accomplished by outfoxing Captain Wagget, the establishment's spoil sport who forbids the salvaging of 600,000 bottles of liquid sustenance. 

Director Gillies MacKinnon's remake of Whisky Galore! remains faithful to this narrative and to the time period, that is, the villagers exhibit all the conservative values of the 40s with no condescension toward them. For all who can embrace the traditional religious and rigid gender constraints, it's a trip to a refreshingly old-fashioned past complete with a scowling, disapproving old hag; a minister who likes his drink; two sweet young women determined to marry; and British military with no sense of humor. MacKinnon doesn't update the story; he relishes its solid, old-fashioned quality.

As with director Alexander Mackendrick's version, the film is based on Compton MacKenzie's 1949 novel, inspired by real events, as the opening title card proudly announces. Motivation for director MacKinnon's faithful retelling came from his hope that color, as opposed to the 1949 black-and-white, would add vibrancy. Indeed, cinematographer Nigel Willoughby crafts a beautiful film in daylight and night scenes, and Patrick Doyle's music nicely reinforces the Scottish setting without being overbearing. The appeal relies, however, on the actors, among them the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith, always reliable, and Gregor Fisher. My favorite, however, is Eddie Izzard as Captain Wagget.

Whisky Galore! screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, May 19 through Sunday, May 21 at 8:00 p.m. each evening. 

 

Oren Moverman, the brilliant director of The Messenger, displays his talents as writer and director in The Dinner. Some viewers might see the plot, written by Moverman and based on Herman Koch's novel, as far too complex. However, Moverman teases the complexities apart with striking effect.

The content of The Dinner concerns sibling rivalry, marriage, Gettysburg, cancer, politics, and history. Its form concerns lighting, music and terraced sound, and acting -- all stunning aspects of a worthy film. The plot centers on the title dinner, attended by two brothers and their spouses, with the silent presence of their three children, boys involved in a heinous crime. 

Their fiery act does not center the film. Inter-relationships do. The brothers Lohman comprise Stan, a Congressman, running for governor and trying to pass a bill about mental health even as he dines; and Paul, a former history teacher, a mental case off his meds. Richard Gere's performance as the politician, the moral center, is admirable, but Steve Coogan, a comedian turned tragedian here, has never performed better, ever, not even in Philomena

Matching their acting, chop for chop, are Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall the wives. Each actor must reach a climactic scene by creeping up on it, and she does so stunningly. The Dinner offers exemplary supporting actors, including Adepero Oduye as the politician's assistant, and Michael Chernus as the maitre'd, who narrates each course that divides the film like chapters, from aperitif  to digestif.

Moverman's attention to layered sound is also exemplary, and his lighting and attention to framing -- Stan stands in that memorial arch at Gettysburg -- armature and architecture are admirable as is the whole of The Dinner, a complex moral fable.

 

Anyone who knows anything about Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) knows she led a circumspect life. Her passions were banked, her circle small, and her relationships few. For years, she was often the only female in anthologies of American literature, and she still reigns supreme among her sisters and brothers in the canon.

Terence Davies brought "Sunset Song" to film with quiet passion. He manages to wring only dullness out of Dickinson's life with his script and direction. He begins at Mt. Holyoke where Dickinson flouted "acute evangelism" by refusing to be "come to God." Her sister Lavinia, her brother Austin, and her father Edward saved her from that. Her father agreed to let her write in the night, something no proper lady should desire or deliver.

This biopic traces Dickinson's life of writing alongside her dismay at her brother's infidelity and her grief at her father's death. She is seen wracked with coughs and pain and palsy until her death.

She is not seen as real, however, despite Cynthia Nixon's effort to render her in flesh and blood as an adult. Jennifer Ehle plays Vinnie with more passion, but Duncan Duff is almost risible as Austin. Keith Carradine plays Father with appropriate arrogance.

Davies chose to insinuate Nixon declaiming lines from Dickinson's poetry in voice-over at the oddest moments, sort of like ditties in a mediocre musical. At one point, she quotes "I Am Nobody" to her newborn nephew. Despite one radiant scene of Emily before sun-shined windows, there are stillborn pauses. None of these moments would bring anyone to appreciate Dickinson's passionate poetry. 

Because I could not stop for this,  / the film limply streamed for me. / I admit to fast-forwarding, / because it ran an eternity.

 

Their Finest is a nicknamed title for this movie history. It whispers of Winston Churchill's history, entitled Their Finest Hour, and cuts into the title of Lissa Evans' novel on which Gaby Chiappe based, Their Finest Hour and a Half. That title suggests whimsy, but the movie exceeds persiflage.

The film tells of a Welshwoman in search of her role in life within a story of film propaganda. Catrin Cole started as a secretary before being thrust into the role of scriptwriter to produce the "slop," as women's dialogue is called. In 1940, as London is bombarded by the Nazis, the Ministry of Information must face that its films are being laughed at instead of applauded. So the Film Division sets out to design a good film of "authenticity informed by optimism." Soon, the film becomes an agent for pulling Americans into World War II as well. Catrin's live-in boyfriend is being a horse's patootie, and her apartment is bombed flat, and she is starting to fall for her boss. 

Without good acting and credible writing, Their Finest would sink into nostalgia, a copy of a genuine film from the Brits in the Forties. Their Finest is an inside look at how the American audience was perceived as different from British viewers. In wartime, women and old men were given opportunities that peacetime did not afford either group.

Those old men include an old actor, played to a fare-thee-well by Bill Nighy,  and Richard E. Grant as the supervisor. Sam Claflin, from Me Before You, is little wooden as the scriptwriter, his mustache stuck to his face. Rachael Stirling, familiar from The Bletchley Circle, is the differently inclined show-runner, and handsome Jake Lacy is the plastic Norski-American.As Catrin, Gemma Atherton focuses the film. Director Lone Scherfig keeps the story true and zippy with extra ounces of reality. Their Finest is really fine.

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