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‘The Featherweight’ Review: Impressive Boxing Biopic as Mockumentary

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An Emmy-nominated documentary cinematographer with credit together with “Procession” and “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Robert Kolodny places his skilled eye for capturing nonfiction to playful narrative use in his function directing debut “The Featherweight.” A meticulously designed, gutsily performed biopic of world champion featherweight boxer Guglielmo Papaleo, higher often called Willie Pep — protecting not his Forties glory days however his faltering try at a comeback twenty years later — the movie is convincingly long-established as a candid all-access documentary, a promotional puff piece curdling earlier than our eyes into an unintended examine of psychological breakdown.

So convincingly, actually, that uninformed viewers chancing upon “The Featherweight” on the competition circuit could surprise precisely what it’s they’re watching, not least if — in a realization of Pep’s personal glumly said fears — they do not know who this once-celebrated sportsman was. Kolodny places nary a foot mistaken in his exact replication of a midcentury vérité aesthetic and gaze, from the actual grain and thrust of the camerawork to the authentically abrasive tone and tenor of the performances. (The movie’s closing credit embrace telling hat-tips to D.A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles.)

As a feat of cinematic masquerade, it might hardly be pulled off with any extra panache: The time period “mockumentary” hardly feels acceptable for a movie this reverent of its supposed type, and this toughly loving towards its human topic. It’s efficient sufficient to make one surprise why faux-documentary is often the area of Christopher Visitor-type comedy somewhat than drama, although some could discover “The Featherweight” extra of an immaculate train than an emotionally involving expertise. (Definitely, one needn’t be versed in Pep’s profession to anticipate the movie’s total southbound arc.) Both manner, it’s a formidable calling card for a lot of the expertise concerned, certain to select up additional competition spots and specialist distribution following its premiere in Venice’s Horizons sidebar.

In boxing-biopic phrases, Steve Loff’s screenplay primarily takes as its start line the place the place “Raging Bull” ends — coincidentally the 12 months 1964 in each circumstances — because the middle-aged, burnt-out fighter embarks on a brand new profession part that no person else a lot believes in. The place Jake LaMotta turned to stand-up comedy, the 42-year-old Pep (James Madio) units his sights on a form of display screen stardom, inviting a digital camera crew into his Hartford, Connecticut house to survey each his house life and his relaunched boxing profession. The previous he shares together with his a lot youthful, plainly mismatched fourth spouse, aspiring actress Linda (a blazing Ruby Wolf). The latter may be very a lot his personal folly, given little encouragement by his long-suffering supervisor Bob (Ron Livingston) and his frankly skeptical coach Invoice (Stephen Lang), desperately attempting to steer Pep to throw within the towel and take a training job in Florida.

The movie’s stress lies within the hole between the movie Pep thinks he’s making — a homey, salt-of-the-earth comeback-kid story — and the imaginative and prescient of these behind the digital camera, clearly chasing a more durable, uglier actuality. (The fictional filmmakers, a fraternal duo that parallels Kolodny and his brother/DP Adam, goal for a non-interventionist method however supply occasional off-screen commentary — at one level even providing Linda phrases of sympathy after a vicious marital spat, whereas refusing her request to show off the digital camera.) As a lot as Pep tries to handle his scrappy, salt-of-the-earth picture, holding court docket with household and mates whereas he displays on previous triumphs and repeats stale anecdotes, the on-camera narrative too simply spirals uncontrolled: His marriage splinters as he tries to thwart Linda’s profession targets, whereas the reemergence of his estranged, drug-addicted son Billy (Keir Gilchrist) attracts unwelcome consideration to his shortcomings as a father too.

The thornier and extra tortured “The Featherweight” will get as a personality examine, then, the extra panicked and paranoid Pep grows as an onscreen presence — all whereas his boxing plans are dealt some inevitably humiliating blows. Gifted the position of his profession after 30 years of regular supporting work, an outstanding Madio (finest identified for TV’s “Band of Brothers”) performs the unraveled champ with a violent, underlying defensiveness that belies the jovial paisan air he retains feigning for the digital camera: Menace and insecurity are even certain up within the expectant manner he tells his hoary, much-practised jokes. His truest, ugliest self tends to emerge in his more and more frequent set-tos with Linda, whose impatience together with his documentary persona step by step wears by way of even her appreciable appearing means. As a trophy spouse deserted in pursuit of different prizes, Fox is sorely affecting, her worldly poise crumpling as Linda’s inexperience is uncovered and abused.

Mixing cleverly vintage-fashioned digital lensing with 16mm and Tremendous 8 inventory for the movie’s Forties boxing sequences — thus conveying a way of graduated weathering between eras — the Kolodnys persistently preserve an immersive, on-the-fly aesthetic, attentive to what was then a bracing modernity of filmmaking approach, even inside the movie’s painstaking interval look. Sonia Foltarz’s manufacturing design and Naomi Wolff Lachter’s costuming are absolutely complicit within the phantasm; Robert Greene’s enhancing is neatly aware of mid-’60s documentary pacing and development, and deft in its splicing of archival footage amid the dazzling reconstruction. There’s no pointed cutaway right here to the “real” Willie Pep; “The Featherweight” holds to its model of actuality to the final.

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