Tag Archives: Forest Whitaker

George of the Rumble

Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World

by George Wolf

Sixteen words in that title, leaving little room for nuance or any shred of mystery about the tale being told. And it’s a perfect fit for a film that is content to just summarize a life like a Wikipedia timeline, choosing the safest, most easily digestible path.

After a brief flashback segment, director and co-writer George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men Of Honor, Notorious, The Hate U Give) just ticks off the events of George Foreman’s life in simple, linear fashion.

He grew up poor in Houston, started boxing during his time in the Jobs Corps, won an Olympic Gold in 1968, won the heavyweight belt from Frazier in ’73, lost to Ali’s “rope a dope” strategy in ’74’s Rumble in the Jungle, quit to be full-time preacher in ’78, came back to the ring 10 years later and won the heavyweight championship again in 1994 at the age of 45.

All of that info is always a search engine away, but Tillman Jr. just regurgitates it onscreen, never embracing the chance to dig deeper or deliver any new insight.

And there are two great opportunities here. The first is George’s relationship with longtime mentor “Doc” Broadus, portrayed with heart and sensitivity by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. The second is Foreman’s conversion to a Man of God. Either one of these could have given the film a strong foundation to build around, and an easier route to getting audiences closer to the real Big George.

Khris Davis (Judas and the Black Messiah) beefed up considerably to play Foreman, and while he looks the part, fight sequences range from lackluster recreations to the WTF choice of a deep-faked Davis being inserted into real footage from Foreman’s 1991 bout with Evander Holyfield. Comical portrayals of both Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell only feed a longing for the historical relevance of the 1996 doc When We Were Kings.

George’s rise to gold medals, heavyweight belts and best-selling grills has indeed been extraordinary. It deserves better than the ordinary treatment that comes from Big George Foreman.

Her Propers


by George Wolf

As cliched and formulaic as music biopics can get, they’ve always got a Get Out of Jail Free Card: the hits. They can turn a stale, overly safe narrative like Bohemian Rhapsody into an Oscar contender, and elevate a joyous risk-taker such as Rocketman into another exhilarating dimension.

Respect certainly has some legendary music on its side, but the sublime cast and intimate perspective are plenty valuable as well.

Is Aretha’s the single greatest voice popular music has ever known? She’s certainly in the team picture, which means Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson has a tough gig in bringing Ms. Franklin to life with more humanity than impersonation.

She’s fantastic. A powerhouse vocalist herself, Hudson alters her phrasing only slightly, wisely channeling the breadth of Franklin’s gift over an unnecessary impersonation. But make no mistake, when Hudson starts digging into the Queen’s songbook, there will be goosebumps.

Director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson – both TV vets making their jump to the big screen – seem cognizant of the tired formula so brilliantly skewered nearly fifteen years ago by Walk Hard. They keep Respect focused on a twenty-year period from ’52 to ’72, and the personal struggles that saw Aretha take control of her life and her music.

Aretha battles to step out from the shadow of her father Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), her husband/manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and record exec Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), and Respect gives her story the feminist propers it deserves. Tommy keeps the grandness on the stage and in the studio, opting for an understated tone to the human drama that – one or two hiccups aside – gives it depth.

The finale takes us to Aretha’s live recording session for her landmark gospel album, and the film ends as both a celebration of a legend and an invitation to visit (or re-visit) the transcendent experience that is the 2018 documentary Amazing Grace.

Respect. Sock it to you.

Mystery, Meet Riddle

City of Lies

by George Wolf

After nearly three years of lawsuits, allegations, finger-pointing and false starts, City of Lies lands in theaters as an engrossing attempt to untangle a web of conspiracy.

Based on LAbyrinth, Randall Sullivan’s non-fiction best-seller about the investigations into the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls/Notorious B.I.G), the film leans on stellar performances and solid construction to advance its very clear agenda.

Johnny Depp stars as Russell Poole, the LAPD detective who collaborated on the book, with Forest Whitaker as journalist “Jack” Jackson, a fictional character modeled after Sullivan.

It was Poole’s belief that members of the LAPD conspired with Death Row Records mogul “Suge” Knight to murder both iconic rappers. Poole’s case is not a simple one, but director Brad Furman and first-time screenwriter Christian Contreras are able to deconstruct it and then reassemble the parts with a satisfying amount of thriller intrigue.

Employing shifting timelines and a touch of voiceover narration from Depp, Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Infiltrator) and Contreras find numerous avenues to inform us organically. As the case does come to resemble “a riddle inside an enigma,” our own sense of discovery is consistently nurtured, which naturally increases our investment in what Poole is selling.

Depp and Whitaker make their characters’ gradually increased trust authentic and well-earned, though some of the film’s period detail (especially in the wig and makeup dept.) isn’t exactly on point.

More curious is Furman’s late game decision – just when similarities to JFK are impossible to ignore – to roll out some grainy, slo motion footage that feels wildly misplaced.

And, much like Oliver Stone’s playbook in 1991, there is little interest in leaving equal time for rebutting Poole’s conclusions. Armed with strong accusations that hardly seem like a stretch anymore, this is a film with a complicated story it wants you to hear – and hopefully believe.

But believe it or don’t, City of Lies tells that story in a compelling fashion that doesn’t waste your time.

Punch Drunk


by Hope Madden

Hope is a tricky word in the hands of a writer. It is almost impossible not to assume the name Hope has been assigned a character for symbolic purposes. Certainly this can be done with finesse, but more often it’s as subtle as a punch in the face. (See what I did there?)

Such is the case with Southpaw, Antoine Fuqua’s by-the-numbers redemption tale about down-on-his-luck boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), who turns to a grizzled trainer played by Forest Whitaker to help him fight his way back to the top.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. Hope’s on top of the boxing world until tragedy strikes. His wife is killed, his daughter is taken into protective custody, he loses all his money and has to find the true boxer inside himself to reclaim his life. It is every boxing movie you have ever seen.

Sports films are perhaps the most cliché-ready of any – boxing films more than most. Some find a way to do the rags-to-riches (or riches-to-rags-to-riches) storyline well: The Fighter, Rocky. Even Gavin O’Connor‘s 2011 MMA film Warrior managed to embrace the well-worn path and still find new and interesting things to say. Much of that credit goes to a rock-solid cast including the great Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte (Oscar nominated for his role).

Southpaw certainly boasts an excellent performance in the battered and ripped form of Gyllenhaal. Following the greatest performance of his life in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal again delivers a deeply felt, sincere turn as Hope battles toward atonement.

The film opens with a bloody, manic Hope rushing directly toward the camera, his gnarled and dripping mug and howling mouth finally filling the entire screen. Fuqua – having proven an ability throughout his career to amp up otherwise familiar content with his particular flair with the camera – starts off promisingly.

Unfortunately, the filmmaker can’t deliver on that promise. All is well enough when the camera is on Gyllenhaal, who seems undeterred by the brashly formulaic story unfolding around him. His presence is almost alarming, and in his performance you see the intellectual, social, and emotional limitations this disgraced boxer has to battle.

It’s almost enough to overlook the brazenly derivative film around him.