Monday , October 23 2017

De Niro, Ramirez enter ring in ‘Stone’ – Sumpter gives birth to ‘Southside With You’

This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Usher Raymond (left), and Edgar Ramirez in a scene from ‘Hands of Stone’. (AP)
This image released by The Weinstein Company shows Usher Raymond (left), and Edgar Ramirez in a scene from ‘Hands of Stone’. (AP)

 ‘Hands of Stone” is a sprawling yet fairly conventional biopic about the Panamanian boxing champion Roberto Duran — a man The Associated Press once declared the 7th greatest fighter and No. 1 lightweight of the 20th century. For the uninitiated, the title refers to Duran’s nickname. He was known for packing a mighty hit and (usually) winning.

“Hands of Stone” is a sprawling yet fairly conventional biopic about the Panamanian boxing champion Roberto Duran — a man The Associated Press once declared the 7th greatest fighter and No. 1 lightweight of the 20th century. For the uninitiated, the title refers to Duran’s nickname. He was known for packing a mighty hit and (usually) winning.

When he faced Sugar Ray Leonard for the Welterweight title in 1980, he was 71-1. He won that match too, only to forfeit it six months later in a bizarre re-match that’s become known as the “No Mas Fight”. Popular myth would have us all believe that Duran said “No Mas” to end the match partway through. He’d fallen out of shape in the months between the two fights.

That event is dramatized in writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film, with Edgar Ramirez as Duran and the singer Usher Raymond as Leonard. But while it might be the showdown that has cemented Duran’s unique place in history (even if he probably didn’t utter those words), it’s hardly the main event of “Hands of Stone”, which strives to give context to Duran’s life — complications and all.

Our entry to the story is oddly through the famed coach Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who comes to observe Duran in action before agreeing to train him. He’s already great at this point, but Arcel is there to take him to the next level — namely the United States. Duran isn’t interested at first — he hates the US for what they’ve done to his country. The framework allows “Hands of Stone” to jump back in time to a glossy reenactment of the 1964 riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal.

Origins

Duran, born in 1951, grew up in this heightened time which would color his political views into adulthood. An impoverished kid, he started brawling in the streets when he was just eight and fighting professionally by the age of 16. The film follows the standard biopic beats in recounting his scrappy origins and his aggressive pursuit of Felicidad Iglesias (portrayed by the Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who also plays the significant other role in “War Dogs”) and the quick, and humorous, expansion of their family.

He eventually gives himself over to Arcel’s counsel and they start down the path of making him a superstar, which of course leads to money, drugs and a hedonistic abandon that we’ve seen in films like this so, so many times.

With this entire story to work with, it is a little confusing as to why Jakubowicz packs in so much about Arcel as well — from his weird beef with the mob to his relationship with his wife (Ellen Barkin) and the secret daughter he’s hidden from her. Certainly an interesting man, worthy probably of his own biopic, but his arc here has the feel of an unnecessary side show. But it’s De Niro in a boxing movie, so co-lead it is.

Distractions aside, Ramirez and De Niro prove to be a good pairing. De Niro takes on the air of a kindly father figure — one who doesn’t yell and berate from the corner of the ring, but instead gently combs Duran’s dripping wet hair back in between rounds. The idea is that he’ll psychologically disarm opponents by looking improbably fresh, showered and groomed in the middle of a fight. Ramirez is solidly compelling as Duran, the complicated pit bull that he is, but the audience is kept at a distance and isn’t given an opportunity to truly empathize.

“Hands of Stone” is a solid film, but you just can’t help shake the feeling that we’ve seen it all before.

“Hands of Stone”, a Weinstein Company release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout and some sexuality/nudity”. Running time: 105 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Tika Sumpter is about to give birth — not just to her first baby, who appears to be due any minute, but to a new chapter in her career.

The actress has produced her first film, and stars in it, too: “Southside With You”, a romantic drama in theaters Friday about a fictionalized first date between the real president and first lady. Sumpter plays Michelle Robinson, a standout young legal associate who agrees to spend an afternoon with her junior colleague, Barack Obama.

Sumpter connected with the story so deeply that she told writer-director Richard Tanne she’d help him bring the film — his first — to the screen.

“I said, ‘You know what, even if I don’t get to play (Michelle), I want to get this film made,’” she recalled during a recent interview at the London Hotel, wearing a sleeveless shift dress that revealed a robust pregnancy. “I don’t know how; I’ve never produced, but I’m going to get this film made.”

Passionate

As Sumpter pitched the project to potential investors, she heard how passionate she sounded (“It’s like I’m speaking at the DNC”) and realized she had to play Michelle. This was the kind of character the actress had longed to play and see on screen: A smart, self-confident black woman at the center of a romance who isn’t desperately pining for the guy.

“That’s also ultimately why I wanted to do it, because you don’t always get the roles that are the leads and empowering like this. You get the girlfriend or the wife or you’re always the sidekick. You’re not the main event,” said Sumpter, whose most recent girlfriend role was opposite Kevin Hart in “Ride Along 2”. “And I think Michelle’s the prize, and she knows she’s a prize”.

Tanne said he wrote the part with Sumpter in mind.

“I just hoped she would say yes”, he said.

“Southside With You” follows the future first couple on a daylong excursion that Michelle insists is not a date. Barack (Parker Sawyers) has invited her to a community meeting, but first he wants to take her to an art gallery and to lunch. Tanne imagined the dialogue but says he based his screenplay on published reports about the eventual first couple’s actual first outing.

The film is set in Chicago and was shot last year in Michelle Obama’s hometown neighborhood.

Tanne and Sumpter said the Obamas are aware of the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but have not seen it. The White House was not consulted about the project and has yet to provide any official response to the film.

Sumpter hadn’t intended to be so pregnant as she promoted “Southside With You”, but the 36-year-old says the timing is actually perfect. Producing a film, carrying her first child and playing the future Mrs Obama has left the actress feeling like she can accomplish anything.

“It was not planned, but it’s like one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to pop right now but I have an empowerment with the baby here. She’s giving me strength and she’s why I do what I do and it’s bigger than me”.

Sumpter will continue to produce and is already developing her next project: a TV series with John Legend’s production company. Sumpter hasn’t revealed what role she’ll play, but says it’s another creation being born.

“That’s what I feel like. It’s just a lot of things coming to a culmination and being birthed”, she said. “It’s exciting”. (AP)

By Lindsey Bahr

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