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Reviews: Boxing doc ‘Cradle of Champions,’ Emile Hirsch and John Cusack in western ‘Never Grow Old’ and more

Titus Williams and Coach Joe Higgins in a scene from “Cradle of Champions.” Credit: Showtime
Titus Williams, left, and Coach Joe Higgins in the documentary “Cradle of Champions.”
(Showtime)

‘Cradle of Champions’

The Olympics get more national TV exposure, but since their debut in the 1920s, regional Golden Gloves tournaments have been the traditional proving ground for U.S. amateur boxers — whether they’re on their way to becoming professionals, or just hanging out in gyms to stay off the streets.

Director Bartle Bull’s “Cradle of Champions” follows three athletes through the months leading up to the 2015 New York Golden Gloves competition. James Wilkins and Titus Williams are old rivals angling for a rematch, while Nisa Rodriguez is a single mother and college student seeking a record sixth title.

The documentary doesn’t make a big deal out of the unique challenges Rodriguez faces as a woman (aside from noting how water retention affects weigh-ins). Instead, “Cradle of Champions” is about how all three boxers have overcome rough pasts through a combination of faith, family and fighting.

Bull also gets into the history and culture of New York’s Golden Gloves, describing its roots as a form of community outreach by the city’s civic institutions. The trainers and organizers try to keep the competition clean and positive; the boxers (mostly) respond accordingly. Rodriguez mentors young women in the Bronx, while the temperamental Wilkins just tries to keep his own life under control, and the more aloof Williams focuses on his pro career.

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Everything builds to the final fight night, which Bull and his team shoot and cut with the nail-biting excitement of a fictional boxing movie like “Raging Bull” or “Creed.” The result is both a stirring sports doc and a rich nonfiction drama, populated by characters who could have stepped out of a Damon Runyon story.

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‘Cradle of Champions’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Available Tuesday on VOD

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‘Never Grow Old’

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Emile Hirsch in the movie "Never Grow Old."
(Saban Films / Lionsgate)

Irish writer-director Ivan Kavanagh pays homage to grim 1970s American westerns with “Never Grow Old,” a well-acted tale of frontier violence and spiritual redemption. Lively performances from John Cusack and Emile Hirsch add color to a bleak film that explores a classic western conflict: freedom versus responsibility.

Hirsch plays Pat Tate, an Irish immigrant working as a carpenter and undertaker in a quiet outpost on the trail to California. Cusack is Dutch Albert, who rides in with his gang and soon starts giving the local coffin-builder more work than he can handle. Pat tries to keep a low profile and ride out the invasion, but Dutch takes a liking to him, and won’t let him — or his wife and kids — alone.

“Never Grow Old” is dark both figuratively and literally. Kavanagh shoots many scenes in the pitch-black night, with flickering fire the only practical light source. And he rarely lets a scene end without someone winding up dead. The plot follows a fairly predictable path, tracking Dutch’s increasingly corrosive presence.

But Cusack is surprisingly charismatic as a cold-hearted creep; and Hirsch is sympathetic as a man who gradually realizes he needs to commit to something more than just protecting his family. “Never Grow Old” isn’t a top-shelf western, but it’s thoughtfully made, with something to say about how even in a country that encourages rugged individualism, community matters.

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‘Never Grow Old’

Rated: R, for strong bloody violence, language, some sexual content and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

Playing: Starts Wednesday, AMC Rolling Hills 20, Torrance; also on VOD

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‘Finding Steve McQueen’

(L-R) Rachael Taylor as Molly Murphy and Travis Fimmel as Harry Barber in the Momentum Pictures? act
Rachael Taylor and Travis Fimmel in the movie "Finding Steve McQueen."
(Momentum Pictures)

A debilitating case of the quirks almost kills “Finding Steve McQueen,” a retro heist comedy based on a real 1972 robbery. A likable cast and a fascinating, mostly forgotten story — about an attempt to steal millions of dollars of illegal presidential campaign contributions — keep the movie engaging, but can’t compensate for the waste of a promising premise.

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Travis Fimmel stars as Harry Barber, a genial mob driver who at the start of the picture is hiding out in a small Pennsylvania town. With the FBI closing in, Harry confesses to his girlfriend his role in a daring bank job, kept quiet by the authorities because the details might have been an embarrassment to President Nixon, right at the start of Watergate.

Director Mark Steven Johnson and co-screenwriters Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon divide their brief 90-minute running time pretty equally between the heist (masterminded by a veteran crook, well-played by William Fichtner), the investigation (led by by a dogged agent, also well-played by Forest Whitaker) and Harry’s fugitive years.

That diffuse focus — and a whimsical tone, bordering on the silly — work against the film. Perhaps the government intervened in this case yet again, making sure “Finding Steve McQueen” would be too muddled and goofy to be entertaining.

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‘Finding Steve McQueen’

Rated: R, for language throughout, including some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Vintage Los Feliz 3; The Frida Cinema, Santa Ana; also on VOD

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‘Chimera Strain’

Henry Ian Cusick in a scene from “Chimera Strain.” Credit: Vertical Entertainment
Henry Ian Cusick in a scene from "Chimera Strain."
(Vertical Entertainment)

Fan-favorite science-fiction TV actor Henry Ian Cusick brings soul and gravitas to the role of Quint, the fiercely driven genius at the center of writer-director Maurice Haeems’ “Chimera Strain.” As a medical researcher obsessed with discovering the secrets of cellular regeneration — and then using them to save the lives of his cryogenically frozen children — Cusick has both the sweaty intensity and mad grief of a desperate dad.

But “Chimera Strain” doesn’t match its star’s emotional peaks. Haeems employs a needlessly complex, time-jumping narrative structure and frequently interrupts the flow of the action for tedious debates about the ethics of using animals, embryos and human subjects to test potential miracle drugs. The film has the eerie atmosphere and outstanding makeup effects of a good fantasy thriller. But it’s way too choppy to build any tension.

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‘Chimera Strain’

Rated: R, for violence, bloody images, and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Galaxy Mission Grove, Riverside; also on VOD

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‘Off Season’

Jessica Cadden Osborne
Jessica Cadden Osborne in the movie "Off Season."
(Indican Pictures)

An ungainly hybrid of low-key drama and tawdry thriller, the Martha’s Vineyard-set indie “Off Season” squanders some inviting local color on a blah horror/mystery plot.

Jessica Cadden Osborne gives a good performance as Lena, a summer temp forced by circumstance to stick around into the fall, moving to a remote farm preparing for its harvest. Lena’s fellow employees, and the farmer’s family — including a curious little girl named Sadie (Braedyn Clark) — tell her stories about the people who have met fatal ends while living on the property. Lena fails to register any of this as a warning until people start dying.

Or, more accurately, the movie fails to give its slasher story line room to develop until it’s too late. “Off Season” has some modest charms as a portrait of a young woman making a living in a resort community. Everything else in the film — murders inclusive — feels like an afterthought.

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‘Off Season’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

Playing: Starts Friday, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood

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