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Someone once said that there are only seven basic plots, and after a certain point, everything else is just a combination of those ideas. In other words, the whole concept of originality is somewhat limited.

That especially seems to be the case with movies, where movie studios only appear to be comfortable with a concept if you can say how it is like something else. In some ways, it is hard to blame them - after all, it can cost tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie. But it also may be the reason why more and more people are staying home to watch HBO or Netflix or Amazon.

In some ways, the two movies I saw last weekend are perfect examples of formula filmmaking. Except that in one case, exceptionally strong performances make it worth seeing. And in the other, we get to watch a movie star being born in a piece of material that is actually a fresh take on an old idea.

The first movie is Southpaw, the new boxing movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a champion junior middleweight boxer who finds himself down and out through a set of circumstances that would seem wholly unbelievable except for the fact that we've seen such things happen in real life. (I'm going to be careful about not spoiling anything here - I hate it when people do that to me.) Gyllenhaal's Billy Hope has to rebuild his life, career and relationship with his family from the bottom, and he does so with the help of old-time boxing trainer Tick Willis, played by Forest Whitaker.

The thing about most boxing movies is, they almost have to hit certain beats .. the victories, the defeat, the rehabilitation, the training, etc... (Raging Bull is the prominent exception.) Southpaw follows in the tradition of The Champ and the Rocky movies, to the degree that there are certain moments that you yearn for Bill Conti's iconic theme music instead of Eminem's rap, and you keep waiting for Burgess Meredith to peer around a corner. (It is especially hard for me since I have such specific memories of being in the first audience to see Rocky back when I was a film student ... remind me to tell you that story sometime.)

But it almost doesn't matter, because Gyllenhaal, Whitaker and Rachel McAdams (as Billy's wife) are totally committed to making their characters real people instead of plot points, and they are so good that you forget that you've seen stuff like this before. I wouldn't say I loved Southpaw, but I did like it a lot, and I can appreciate terrific actors doing solid work. I'm also almost to the point where Gyllenhaal has joined the list of performers who I will see in pretty much anything they do. (As noted earlier this week, Adam Sandler is on the other list...)

The second movie was Trainwreck, the new Amy Schumer romantic comedy directed by Judd Apatow, and the best thing I can tell you about Trainwreck is that I laughed almost nonstop for two hours. That counts for a lot.

Trainwreck, to be clear, is a vulgar, seriously R-rated comedy about a woman who is not just incapable of being monogamous, but is actively, almost defiantly promiscuous - utterly convinced that she cannot and should not commit to anyone, and that love is an emotion to be mocked. However, cracks in her facade being to appear when she meets a sports doctor (played with utter charm by Bill Hader), and she has to resolve her feelings with her history.

Being a romantic comedy, Trainwreck also has to hit certain beats, but it also takes pleasure in subverting a lot of them, which it does with great verve, enormous humor, and a dirty mind. Schumer is utterly fearless in a characterization that she has admitted hits pretty close to home, and she, in my opinion, comes out of the movie as a potentially huge movie star.

And by the way, the other person who looks like he has a great shot at movie stardom is - go figure - LeBron James, who plays a version of himself as Hader's best friend, and is really, really funny.




BTW ... thanks to all the MNB readers who showed up last night at Nel Centro in Portland for our little get-together ... it was great fun putting faces with names, and to hang out with people who have become friends via MNB over the years.




That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

Fins Up!
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