Parky At the Pictures (7/7/2023)
(Reviews of Smoking Causes Coughing; Name Me Lawand; The Damned Don't Cry; Small, Slow But Steady; and Big George Foreman)
SMOKING CAUSES COUGHING.
In his celebrated tome, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber (1987), Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni assembled his notes for 33 unmade films. Rather than squirrel ideas away for a rainy day, however, French maverick Quentin Dupieux has crammed them into Smoking Causes Coughing, a left-field variation on the horror anthology that generates many more laughs than chills.
Overseen by a giant rat named Chef Didier (Alain Chabat), Tobacco Force is a superheroic combo composed of Benzène (Gilles Lellouche), Méthanol (Vincent Lacoste), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi), and Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra). Having been hosed down by a wheeled Norbert 500 robot after giving a ferocious shelled villain named Tortusse such a deadly dose of cancer that he exploded (spattering a watching boy and his parents), the quintet are dispatched in a self-driving van to a secret hideout in the woods to brush up on their bonding skills.
While the others look around their quarters, Nicotine worries that Norbert has plunged into the lake and calls Chef Didier. He is in bed with a woman, but reassures Nicotine that the robot was programmed to self-destruct and guarantees that an updated model will arrive next day. She remains preoccupied, as the gang gather around a campfire. Ammoniaque is spooked by a noise in a bush and Benzène mocks her when he zaps a groundhog in the undergrowth. He is convinced they're invincible and teases the others for doubting their powers.
Suggesting they tell stories to pass the time, Benzène begins with a cautionary tale about two couples, Christophe (Grégoire Ludig) and Céline (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Bruno (Jérôme Niel) and Agathe (Doria Tillier), who rent a getaway in the country. Céline finds a box in the wardrobe containing a 1930 `Thinking Helmet'. Resembling a welder's mask, it purportedly isolates the wearer from distractions and enables them to think more clearly.
Christophe declares it bunkum and the others laugh when Céline dons the helmet over supper. She refuses to remove it and ponders how much she loathes her companions as she watches them dance. When they find her sitting in the bath with the helmet on, they call a doctor. But Céline ignores them and comes to the conclusion that human beings are poorly designed and a waste of space.
When the others carry her to the tool shed in an attempt to remove the helmet, Céline stabs Bruno in the eye with an awl and stalks Christophe and Agathe to the pool, where they are hiding under the protective tarpaulin. She drives the point of a parasol through her partner's skull before wading into the water to impale Agathe. However, she grabs Céline by the helmet and pulls her under so she drowns.
Benzène is pleased with his yarn, but Ammoniaque brands it unscary and attacks Méthanol when he tries to defend her from Benzène's sexist insults. Nicotine wants to go to bed, but Mercure insists on having his turn. He's thwarted, however, by Josette (Thémis Terrier-Thiebaux), a little girl who is staying nearby with her parents. She is singularly unimpressed with a video of Benzène defeating the insect-like Carfardin because he's clearly wearing a rubber suit.
When her parents rock up, they urge her to tell her own scary story and she leaves them depressed by describing how a fish rose to the surface of a lake and saw a man pouring chemicals into the water from a barrel. Even Mercure admits he can't top that and Tobacco Force retire to bed. As the others bunk down with their helmets on, Méthanol asks the woman in the store cupboard (Marie Bunel) if she has any sleeping pills. She hasn't and also has no intention of having sex with him.
Next morning, Nicotine confesses to Ammoniaque that she loves Chef Didier and was hurt by seeing him in bed with someone else. However, she cheers up when Ammoniaque reminds her how gross it would be to sleep with a rat with green ooze in his mouth. She also perks up when Nortbert 1200 (Ferdinand Canaud) is delivered. But everyone is disappointed by its linguistic skills and they wind up listening to a story told by the fish that Benzène was grilling after catching it in the lake.
It concerns Michaël (Anthony Sonigo) who falls into the grape crusher at a vineyard run by his Aunt Tony (Blanche Gardin). As there's no way to pull him out, she pushes a button in the hope of reversing the mechanism. But this doesn't work and neither does the forward switch. Cursing her nephew for insisting he's okay when he's half squished, Tony sends Max (Raphaël Quenard) to get the instruction manual.
Holding down the green button for three seconds proves disastrous. But Michaël's mouth survives and Max hands it to Tony in a bucket. She's dumbfounded as Michaël expresses his relief that she isn't cross with him and good-naturedly suggests they keep things in perspective. She takes his advice, though, and gives him a toke on her joint while driving him home. However, it makes him dizzy and Tony has to pull over so Michaël can throw up over the side of the bucket.
Feeling closer to her nephew than she has in years, Tony goes along with his reassurance that his mother will take the episode in her stride. As Tony rings the doorbell, however, she drops the bucket and the family dog trots off with Michaël's mouth between its teeth.
The barracuda (Franck Lascombes) dies before completing the story and everyone laughs when Norbert 1200 declares it amusing. As they relax beside the lake, however, Chef Didier reveals that the world is about to end and Ammoniaque (who is secretly the boss's lover) tells describes how Lézardin (Benoît Poelvoorde) had followed through on his threat to blow the planet to smithereens.
In fact, he had put the countdown on hold to have dinner with his wife. This gives Benzène time to tell Nicotine that he had always admired her, while Mercure takes a boat to put in a video call to his wife and young daughters, who ask him for a bedtime story. Méthanol rushes back to the pod to denounce the cupboard woman for misreading his invitation for a drink and then blunders back to curse Benzène for cuddling Nicotine and Ammoniaque when no one ever loves him.
Halfway through his rabbit tale, Mercure is interrupted by a call from Chef Didier instructing him to activate Norbert 1200's anti-apocalypse system. The only snag is that U55 entails changing epochs and the quintet disagree about proceeding. Ultimately, they launch the programme just as Chef Didier receives news that Lézardin has been poisoned by his wife (Benoite Chivot) and son (Jules Dhios Francisco), who are tired of his megalomaniac schemes. He leaves voicemail ordering them to disengage immediately, but they don't get it and the film ends with the Tobacco Force members sitting in the dark smoking while the malfunctioning Norbert 1200 repeatedly intones the epoch process is running.
While not of the calibre of Keep an Eye Out (2018) or Deerskin (2019), Quentin Dupieux's tenth feature contains enough echoes of off-the-wall offerings like Rubber (2010) and Mandibles (2020) to keep aficionados happy. No doubt, they would like to see Tobacco Force in a full-length feature of their own. Perhaps Norbert 1200 can project the characters back into an origins story explaining their Power Rangeresque uniforms (although there's probably a hint of Daft Punk here, too), their bizarre armoury, and their relationship with ladies' rodent, Chef Didier. After all, Dupieux returned to Wrong Cops (2013) after introducing them in a short.
It would be worth it just to see Anaïs Demoustier's unflattering blonde bob again or Gilles Lellouche engaging in more hand-to-claw combat with the kind of post-Toho monster that Josette rightly described as `crap'. A bit more of villain Benoît Poelvoorde's complex home life wouldn't go amiss, either. However, one suspects we'll have to be content with this tantalising 77-minute glimpse into the Tobaccoverse.
Art director Joan Le Boru and costumier Justine Pearce merit mention along with the effects teams. Dupieux's photography splendidly pastiches 1990s TV visuals, while the deadpan parodic script treats murder, environmental spoliation, species mutation, and armageddon with cartoonish gravity. Overall, this rattlebag's retro-kitsch and schlocko violence are only fitfully funny. But its sheer absurdist outlandishness and the conviction of the knowing cast make it a guilty Gallic pleasure.
NAME ME LAWAND.
Having teamed with James Hall to explore the US indie scene in Werewolves Across America (2010) and chronicle musician Edwyn Collins's recovery from a severe stroke in The Possibilities Are Endless (2014), James Lovelace strikes out on his own in Name Me Lawand. Taking four years to make and requiring the director to learn British Sign Language, this is an ambitiously impressionistic insight into a Kurdish refugee's struggle to belong.
Lawand Hamad Amin was born profoundly deaf and doctors in Iraq insisted there was no way to help him. Refusing to accept the verdict of teachers who dismissed him as disruptive, parents Rebwar and Golbahar risked all to bring him to Britain. However, older brother Rawa wishes that Lawand could find an entire planet on which he would be accepted for himself.
As we hear Lawand trying to express himself, we see images of migrants on makeshift rafts. Mother Golbahar describes arriving in Derby as being the end of one journey and the beginning of another story, as Lawand enrols at the Royal School For the Deaf. The sound is muffled to convey a sense of the five year-old's perspective, as he engages with his new surroundings and teachers like Lucy strive to make a connection with him. But's it's far from easy, as he has been traumatised by years of isolation in his homeland.
Lucy asks Lawand what `home' means to him and Rawa describes how he was bullied by other kids who considered him inferior rather than different. He wishes he could sign so that he could help his brother communicate, as he finds lessons tough. However, Lucy and her colleagues are patient and encouraging and Lawand starts picking up BSL and saying a few words of English.
He prefers signing and tells Lucy that he likes the wind because it makes him feel calm. She is impressed by his progress and Rebwar and Golbahar feel vindicated when she tells them he's an intelligent boy. Playing outside with the others in his blue jumper and school tie, he no longer feels he has to continually justify his existence.
A few years pass and Lawand looks sturdier and more composed. He tells new teacher Sophie Stone that he still feels angry sometimes and wishes his parents would learn to sign like Rawa. However, they want him to speak and are trying to give him an incentive. For all his progress, though, Lawand is still considered alien and the family learns that the Home Office is investigating its asylum case.
As a former drummer, Sophie is keen to use music to help Lawand and he enjoys feeling the vibrations of the drums and cymbals through a yellow balloon. She encourages him to take up the sticks and he lets rip. Having earned his trust, Sophie asks about his memories of home and the ordeals he had endured in coming to Britain. He remembers his father carrying him on his back and feeling scared during the boat crossing. Running from dogs also comes into his mind, as he rails against the miseries of being in a camp outside Dunkirk. Awed by his fortitude, Sophie calls him a `survivor'.
Playing football with his brother, Rawa is delighted by the change he has witnessed and wishes they could stay in Derby forever. Sitting on a ball on the pitch, Lawand learns about the Visual Vernacular by re-enacted Neo's bullet-dodging movements in The Matrix (1999). Sophie is impressed by how quickly he picks up the technique.
As Rebwar laments not being able to explain to Laward why the Home Office is pursuing them, the boy befriends Hudayfah. They divulge that their sign names are `Why' and `Maths' and they get the giggles playing a staring game. However, when Sophie sets an assignment to address the class on the importance of language, Lawand ducks out, in case the others tease him.
As he is so used to being alone, Lawand still doesn't feel comfortable in a class setting. But he tells Sophie about being scared and confused in Iraq and how much he hated the French camp until he met another deaf person. Known only as `The Volunteer', he taught Lawand his first signs and seemingly alerted the authorities to his plight so he could come to RSDD.
Just as Lawand starts feeling confident enough to pal up with Rudolf and play football with him, the Home Office decide to send specialists to verify RSDD's claim that deportation would be ruinous to Lawand's welfare. Aware of their presence, he has a rocky couple of days, as the class rehearse a play about the Solar System. Sophie does what she can to reassure him, as she knows how much pressure he is under to convince the authorities that his family can stay. We see him rise to the occasion and deliver his monologue, with Rawa being proud of him.
Radio news confirms that the Hamad Amins can stay and we see him yomping in a sun-dappled field with Hudayfah and Rudolf. He responds with alacrity to a request to talk about himself and he enthuses about the fact he is no longer bullied and feels safe enough to be himself. But, while Derby is now home, it bothers him that his parents still want him to speak and have made no effort to learn BSL. Consequently, he spends more leisure time zooming with friends than he does communicating with Rebwar and Golbahar.
Sophie invites Lawand to give a talk to the class and he fills the whiteboard with pictures and maps to explain his journey. Moreover, he starts helping his parents learn the basics of BSL and he beams with pleasure as they spell out names and words. All seems settled, as the family light sparklers in the street where they live. But the Home Office has other ideas.
It issues a deportation order because it's believed that Lawand could learn another language and doesn't need to remain at BSDD. Sophie is appalled, but urges Lawand to rise above the problem and remember what he has learned and achieved. He goes to court in Birmingham determined to argue his case and we see the family travelling up by coach and waiting outside the imposing building for Lawand to have his say. We also see the messages of support that Hudayfah and Rudolf record for him.
Lawand persuades his father to join him and Rawa at the BSL Act rally in London, as he remains committed to equal rights for deaf people, even if he's not allowed to stay. In a closing statement, the siblings agree they no longer need to go to a new planet, as they have found beauty and security on Earth. As Lawand wanders on a beach at twilight, a caption reveals that the BSL Act was passed on 18 March 2022. Phone footage shows him learning that his appeal to remain has been successful and he dances for joy in the hallway with his younger brother.
It's somewhat apt that this inspirational documentary arrives in cinemas on the day that Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick ordered murals depicting popular cartoon characters to be painted over at a Kent reception centre for unaccompanied children seeking asylum because they were `too welcoming'. May he end up where he deserves and may Lawand Hamad Amin continue to do justice to himself, his family, and the Royal School For the Deaf Derby, as he seizes the opportunity that the Home Office was all too ready to snatch from him. There's a place for the officials concerned, too. Pretty warm, by all accounts.
Although it's impossible to ignore the moral and political aspects of Lawand's story, Edward Lovelace is more concerned with conveying an impression of what is has been like to grow up in the mind and body of a young deaf boy who felt so out of place that he felt he'd be better off on another planet. He succeeds admirably in conjunction with cinematographer Ben Fordesman, sound designer Ed Downham, and editors David Charap, Shahnaz Dulaimy, David Whittaker, and Michael Nollett. The combination of shallow-focus close-ups and muffled sound effectively replicate Lawand's sense of insularity and insecurity, while cutaways to phone footage and archive images admirably suggest excruciating recollections.
But Lovelace is less innovative in depicting Lawand's growing contentment, as he over relies on sun-kissed views that feel like they've been plucked from a commercial. Tom Hodge's score is also prone to kitschiness, particularly when events take a down turn. This is frustrating, as Lawand never once feels sorry for himself and shrouding him in such sentimentality does him a distinct disservice.
In focussing so entirely on Lawand in his seven chapters, Lovelace also overlooks a number of pertinent issues. The boy's transformation doesn't happen in a bubble and it might have been useful to show more about the domestic situation that impinges upon his progress at RSDD. We know that Rebwar and Golbahar are resistant to learning BSL, but how do they encourage Lawand and deal with Rawa and the younger sibling who is left unnamed? Nothing is said about employment or relations with neighbours, even though they clearly backed Lawand with petitions and protests. How did Rawa cope at his school and did he or other family members face any racial discrimination?
Given how close Lawand is to his family after having been through so much together, it might have been instructive to have at least touched upon these topics. As it is, this is a film of insight and importance and it deserves to be widely seen - especially by those who wouldn't recognise an appropriate welcome if it came up and introduced itself at a Covid drinks party.
THE DAMNED DON'T CRY.
Having put his mark on social realist convention in his debut feature, Lynn + Lucy (2019), British-Moroccan film-maker Fyzal Boulifa ventures into the burgeoning realm of Maghrebi queer cinema in swapping an Essex housing estate for the dingier outskirts of Tangier in The Damned Don't Cry. Owing much to a pair of Joan Crawford films, Vincent Sherman's The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1954), this mother-and-child drama (which is also part of the Safar Film Festival) is deeply poignant. But it also has cogent things to say about poverty, patriarchy, socio-religious conservatism, post-colonialism, and sexual identity.
Having been robbed by a client and unnerved by snooping cops, sex worker Fatima-Zahra (Aïcha Tebbae) decides to leave Casablanca with her teenage son, Selim (Abdellah El Hajjouji). Ostracised by her family for getting pregnant out of wedlock, Fatima-Zahra goes to see her father. She learns that her niece is getting married, but her sister doesn't want her around and Selim is appalled to hear that he was born because his mother was raped.
Hoping on a bus to Tangier, they find lodgings and Selim vows to get a job so that Fatima-Zahra doesn't have to sell herself. He hooks up with Abdou (Walid Chaibi), a fixer for wealthy foreigners, who tricks him into entering the apartment of a gay Frenchman named Sébastien (Antoine Reinartz). Affronted at being kissed, Selim pushes Sébastien down and humps him hurriedly before beating a retreat with a pocketful of cash.
He buys Fatima-Zahra a television and accepts a job as caretaker at Sébastien's riad in the medina. She also finds work at a garment factory, but feels humiliated when the supervisor orders her remove her make-up and a co-worker offers her lunch in return for a pep talk on embracing Islam. Her spirits are restored when she bumps into Moustapha (Moustapha Mokafih), a bus driver who had taken a shine to her and who needs companionship because his wife is ill.
Selim disapproves of the arrangement, even though he finds Fatima-Zahra a big apartment. However, Moustapha is suspicious about Sébastien because he's Christian and Selim is taken aback when his mother and the stranger suddenly leave the table during supper to pray. When she returns the perfume he has bought her because Moustapha claims it's not halal, Selim moves out and is grateful for a room at the riad.
They become lovers and Selim feels close to Sébastien when he explains about the potted plants on the terrace. But he's hurt when he discovers that Sébastien is in a long-distance relationship with Édouard (Jonathan Genet). Meanwhile, Fatima-Zahra has accepted Moustapha's invitation to become his second wife and she meets his spouse and children during an awkward visit to his home. Selim wants to come home, but she reveals that her future step-children are staying over to get to know her.
Angry at everyone, Selim tells Moustapha about Fatima-Zahra's past and he breaks up with her. She moves out of the apartment and joins Selim in a cramped flat after he trashes Sébastien's place. He seeks work with Abdou, but is set up and goes to jail. Fatima-Zahra comes to visit him and informs him that she's become devout. Having spent her life thinking she was a modern woman who was superior to the peasants around her, she has realised her place. But Selim mocks her for being gullible and reveals that he was responsible for Moustapha dumping her not divine intervention. Shaking her head sadly, she promises to take him back when he's freed. However, Selim spots her in the street outside the prison on the day of his release, and waits until she engages with a passing procession before making a run for it.
Having already demonstrated his versatility and fearlessness with shorts like Whore (2008), Burn My Body (2010), The Curse (2012), and Rate Me (2015), Boulifa proves again his readiness to rattle cages with this provocative snapshot of Moroccan society. The subplot involving Moustapha may feel slotted in to drive home points about Muslim masculinity and the status of women, but the treatment of issues like domestic bigotry, parent-child bonds, homosexuality, and the imperial legacy is much more adept.
What's most striking, however, is the fact that neither Aïcha Tebbae nor Abdellah El Hajjouji had ever acted before. Wearing her airs and graces on the sleeves of a caftan collection that seems rather large for someone supposedly on her uppers, Tebbae excels as the glamorously voluptuous Fatima-Zahra, whose coquettish sense of self-worth is balanced precariously on a delusion of modernity that she can't allow herself to doubt. However, cracks appear when she is told to remove her bright red lipstick by the sweatshop supervisor and she survives solely by going to the opposite extreme and demurely adopting head-covered religiosity.
The poutingly taciturn, but muscularly short-fused El Hajjouji also learns the hard way, as all three of the adult males he encounters (Abdou, Sébastien, and Moustapha) prove to be less than ideal role models. Even the man in the photo he has carried in his wallet lets him down by turning out to be a complete stranger rather than the much-mourned father from his mother's little white lies. His orientation is somewhat left in the air, as he has a crush on a girl from the neighbourhood before meeting Sébastien and ogles some women in a nightclub when celebrating his lover's birthday. This makes it such a shame that the climactic cut to black seems so definitive, as there seems to be much more life in the characters yet.
On the technical side, Caroline Champetier's camerawork is alert to both the nuances of the performances and the bustle of the downtown locales, while Nadah El Shazly's wonderful score makes innovative instrumental choices in reflecting the cultural influences at play. Samuel Charbonnot's interiors and Manokoune Cecile's costumes are similarly adept at conveying the shifts in the couple's circumstances and convictions. But it's Boulifa's Pasolini-cum-Fassbinderish direction that makes this cine-literate blend of commentary and melodrama so vibrant and moving.
SMALL, SLOW BUT STEADY.
Over three decades have passed since Liverpudlian Frank Clarke directed sister Margi in Blonde Fist (1991), while almost a quarter of a century has elapsed since Michelle Rodriguez came to the fore in fellow debutant Karyn Kusama's Girlfight (2000). In the interim, Hilary Swank has won an Oscar for Best Actress in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004), while Eugene Jarecki's The Opponent (2000), Megaly Richard-Serrano's On the Ropes (2007), and Hüseyin Tabak's Gypsy Queen (2019) have all centred on women boxers.
None, however, has quite captured the intensity of being in the ring like Shô Miyake's Small, Slow But Steady. Set in suburban Tokyo, this intense, but intimate drama has been semi-fictionalised from the Keiko Ogasawara memoir, whose title, Makenaide!, translates as `Do Not Lose!'
Captions inform us that Keiko Ogawa (Yukino Kishii) overcame sensorineural hearing loss to become a professional boxer at the age of 19. She won her first bout 112 seconds into the first round, but still trains at the same Arakawa gym owned by Mr Sasaki (Tomokazu Miura). Trainer Matsumoto (Shinichirô Matsuura) uses hand signals to conduct her sessions, while she signs with her musician brother, Seiji (Himi Sato), who shares her small flat.
It's December 2020 and people are wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Sasaki is undergoing tests for other health issues at the local hospital and wife Chiharu (Nobuko Sendô) is concerned. When not working as a chambermaid at a hotel, Keiko is at the gym, as she has a fight coming up. She can't hear the ring announcing declaring her the winner or the photographer urging her to smile for some post-fight snaps. Instead, she goes home and looks at the blurred images taken ringside by her mother, Kiyomi (Hiroko Nakajima), on a digital camera.
A journalist interviews Sasaki about Keiko and he reveals that she took up boxing because she'd been bullied as a child. Her deafness prevents her from hearing referees or the bell at the end of the round, while her diminutive size means she doesn't have much reach or speed. However, she has honesty and pluck and Sasaki is proud to help her, when others had turned her away. He is aware, though, that she won't have anywhere to go if anything happens to him, as there is no one to take over a gym that has been hit hard during lockdown.
As Sasaki has more tests, rumours spread that the gym will close and a number of regulars stop coming. Keiko's mother urges her to quit while she's ahead, but a workmate notices her black eye and congratulates her on winning her fight. Even the taciturn Seiji teases her about finally appearing normal when she admits that she sometimes gets scared in the ring.
Feeling she needs a break, Keiko tries to write to Sasaki, but can't find the words. However, he has decided to close the gym and tries to find Keiko a new base. Hayashi (Masaki Miura ) and Matsumoto are frustrated with her when she proves reluctant and Sasaki reminds her that it's disrespectful to take on an opponent without having the will to win. She can't bring herself to post her letter, however, and smiles during a mirror boxing session with Sasaki, who tears his jacket.
Much to Keiko's dismay, Sasaki collapses and she feels duty-bound to fight while he undergoes treatment on his brain. Chiharu offers encouragement and she throws herself into her training, even smiling when her coach gets overcome with emotion during a mitt session. When Keiko comes to visit Sasaki in hospital, Chiharu reads from her training notebook and we see a montage of road and gym routines set to Seiji's guitar strumming.
It's clear that boxing is her entire life, but her determination to succeed had slipped and only returned so as not to let Sasaki down in her last bout. She is knocked out, however, after losing concentration and charging forward after her opponent trod on her foot. As Covid rules still apply, the arena is empty and her family and friends can only watch online. Sitting in a wheelchair, Sasaki feels as though he's failed, but given it his best shot.
Keiko is at work on the day the gym is emptied and Matsumoto poses for pictures with his family to send to members. She is looking at them on her phone under the road bridge where she regularly trains when she is recognised by the fighter who put her on the canvas. Buoyed by her respect, Keiko goes for a run and the film ends with views of the train tracks and motorways that weave their way, along with the Ara River, through the Arakawa tenements. The last sound we hear is a skipping rope slapping against a floor, so maybe Keiko joined the new gym after all.
At times feeling as documentarish as Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym (2010), this is a poignantly considered tribute to the noble art that never allows the low-key drama to become overpowering. Giving little away facially, the silent Yukino Kishii deftly conveys Keiko's emotions through body language. The training sequences are gruellingly authentic, with Kishii's hand speed during the mitt sessions generating thrilling sounds and rhythms that contrast with the more sedate nature of the non-boxing action established by editor Keiko Okawa.
Tomokazu Miura provides avuncular support as the gym owner hearing the bell for his last round. But the contemplative focus falls primarily on the tenacious, but vulnerable Kishii, even though Miyake and co-scenarist Masaaki Sakai offer few insights into the insular, self-doubting underdog's backstory or psyche. Instead, they keep Yûta Tsukinaga's 16mm camera trained on her movements inside the gym and in unprepossessing pandemic streets that are deprived of their usual bustle. The results are both compelling and compassionate, gritty and graceful.
BIG GEORGE FOREMAN.
The boxing biopic is an honourable screen tradition that dates back to Golden Age offerings like Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim (1942), which featured both John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) and James Corbett (Errol Flynn). Casting Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano, Robert Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) established the rags to riches formula that has proved consistently useful to directors seeking to coax the audience the empathise with someone who makes a living pummelling people's faces.
Given that Muhammad Ali was playing himself, Tom Gries didn't have to work too hard in The Greatest (1977). But the `had it tough' mantra has since recurred (mostly with justification) in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (Jake LaMotta, 1980), Ulli Edel's Tyson (Mike Tyson, 1995), Norman Jewison's The Hurricane (Rubin Carter, 1999), Charles Winkler's Rocky Marciano (1999), Michael Mann's Ali (2001), Ron Howard's Cinderella Man (James J. Braddock, 2005), Jonathan Jakobowitz's Hands of Stone (Roberto Durán, 2016), and Philippe Falardeau's Chuck (Chuck Wepner, 2016).
From the title alone, it's clear to see that George Tillman Jr. had closely consulted the playbook before making Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World. But, given the involvement of evangelising outfit Affirm Films, it's also evident that the Glory of God matters as much as any sporting prowess.
Ignored by teachers and teased by classmates for being poor, George Foreman (Austin David Jones) lives with mother Nancy (Sonja Sohn) and his three siblings in Houston, Texas. Narrowly avoiding arrest for a mugging, Foreman (Khris Davis) signs up to the Jobs Corps and winds up in Pleasanton, California, where he's taught to box by counsellor Doc Broadus (Forest Whitaker).
Within a year, the 19 year-old Foreman beats Soviet fighter Jonas Cepulis to win the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. However, he's bitter at being castigating for waving a little Stars and Stripes in the ring when other African American athletes are giving the Black Power salute on the victory rostrum. He vows to win a professional title to earn some respect and Broadus hooks him up with trainer Dick Sadler (Dwayne Barnes) and ex-champ Archie Moore (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) in Oakland. Here, he falls heavily for Paula (Shein Mompremier) and marries her during a 37-bout undefeated streak that takes him to a World Heavyweight title encounter with undefeated Joe Frazier (Carlos Takam) in Kingston, Jamaica on 22 January 1973.
Howard Cosell (Matthew Glave) commentates on the Sunshine Showdown, which Foreman wins against the odds with six knockdowns (`Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!'). With the world at his feet, Foreman makes Jobs Corps bunkmate Desmond (John Magaro) his business manager. But he makes some dodgy investments, while Foreman cheats on Paula and allows the taunts of 32 year-old Muhammad Ali (Sullivan Jones) to get under skin prior to the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974. Consequently, he burnt himself out against the rope-a-dope tactic for seven rounds before Ali picked him off in the 8th (what a shame the film didn't use Harry Carpenter's immortal BBC commentary). Bombaye, indeed!
In a bid to demonstrate his staying power, Foreman vowed to knock out five fighters in a single night. However, the crowd kept cheering for Ali, who was commentating with Cosell and taunting Foreman about his refusal to give him a rematch. His career seemed to be over after losing to Jimmy Young on 17 March 1977. But the post-fight near-death experience followed hard on the heels of Foreman praying for the survival of the infant born to his sister, Mary (Erica Tazel), and he saw the light he had always denied because he couldn't understand why God would want his family to suffer.
Much to Broadus's chagrin, Foreman quits boxing and becomes a preacher for the Church of Eternal Life & Salvation, led by the Reverend Virdell Stokes (Sam Trammell). He asks forgiveness from Paula and Ali and sets up his own church with second wife, Mary Joan Martelly (Jasmine Mathews). After letting a troubled kid slip through the net, Foreman founds the Youth Centre in Houston. But, in 1986, he discovers that Desmond's investments have tanked and he has to go back into the ring at 38 in order to maintain his lifestyle.
Mary Joan fears his rage will return and they he will endanger himself by not being able to win without it. So, he seeks out Broadus and (via the obligatory training montage) sheds 50lbs to get down to 265. Initially sparring goes badly, but Mary Joan has a vision that he will regain his title to glorify God and he becomes more determined than ever to succeed.
On 9 March 1987, Foreman pulps Steve Zouski and builds an impressive undefeated run in presenting himself as a genial showman (who even promoted his own grill). Gone is the glowering zombie who has been suckered by Ali in Zaire and he has the public on his side when he challenged Evander Holyfield for the World Heavyweight belt on 19 April 1991. He loses the Battle of the Ages on points after 12 rounds and astonishes those who felt he was too out of shape after over a decade away.
Now with a healthy bank balance, Foreman vows to fulfil Mary Joan's vision that he would become champion again. So, at 45, he takes on Michael Moorer (who was the first southpaw holder in history and 19 years his junior) in Las Vegas on 5 November 1994. Losing going into the 10th round, Foreman produced a knockout blow that rewrote the record books. Kneeling in his corner, he gave thanks before embracing Broadus.
Nothing is said in the closing captions about the controversial points win over Axel Schulz in Germany in April 1995 that resulted in Foreman being stripped of his title for refusing a mandatory rematch. But this isn't really a fight film. It's about a sinner who was rewarded for being redeemed and, as such, will find more favour in Born Again than boxing circles.
This is a shame, as Tilman is a fine director, as he has previously proved with Soul Food (1997), Men of Honor (2000), The Longest Run (2015), and The Hate U Give (2018). But this isn't a patch on Notorious (2009), his profile of rapper The Notorious B.I.G., in spite of a committed performance by Khris Davis (who piled on the pounds in the patented Robert De Niro manner) and some deft support from Forest Whitaker and Sullivan Jones, who does his darnedest to impersonate Muhammad Ali, even though the script ignores his Muslim faith in depicting him as a smarmy, materialistic bully.
The boxing choreography is ploddingly unconvincing and no amount of jittery camerawork by David Tattersall and John Matysiak or pugnacious editing by Alex Blatt and Craig Hayes can disguise it, even when Marcelo Zarvos's score goes into Rocky overdrive. Moreover, the depiction of Foreman's changing domestic situation is riddled with chauvinistic clichés that reduce his mother and wives to caricatured ciphers.
Tillman and co-writer Frank Baldwin actually rein in the `alleluias' in their schematic scenario. So much so, in fact, that a bit more old school religion might have helped make Foreman's Damescene conversion more inspirational. But a story of this magnitude requires a documentary rather than a drama to do its glut of implausibilities full incredulity-defying justice.