Review: Bleed For This

Ben Younger knows how to make a boxing movie.

And in Vinny Pazienza, a loud-mouth Rhode Islander known as ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, Younger has found an ideal subject. Who better to embody the boxing genre’s recurrent theme of ‘overcoming adversity with sheer determination’ than a fighter who returned to the ring – and won a title –  a mere thirteen months after a potentially career, and spine, crippling car accident. It’s the stuff of a screenwriter’s dreams.

But in bringing his story to the screen, Younger fails to inject it with any stylistic ingenuity. He merely slots a round peg into a round hole; signalling Paz’s party-going lifestyle, his managerial issues, introducing a new washed-up trainer who immediately makes the change needed to kickstart Paz’s flailing career, the resulting triumph, the unexpected accident, the naysayers, the baby steps as Paz tries to make his comeback and finally the comeback itself. Etcetera, etcetera.

The tropes and emotional beats are hit with such a consistency, it’s as if Younger is using a punchbag himself. And therein lies the disappointment. Is Bleed For This entertaining cinema? Undoubtedly. Is it a good film? Not especially.

It’s hard to believe that 2014’s Whiplash was the last good Miles Teller film we’ve seen. He’s has 8 dubious credits to his name since then, and Bleed For This barely escapes being the 9th. Teller is far and away the best thing in this film; and given good material he can make a strong showcase for being one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. He brings an intensity, a bravado and a likeability to Vinny that certainly makes him easy to root for. And who’s to argue with the physical transformation? The reveal of his ripped and shredded body, adorned in merely a pair of leopard print panties early on in the film is testament to Teller’s commitment. He might as well be shouting ‘TAKE ME SERIOUSLY’.

If you can tear your eyes away, there’s some ‘worthy-of-mention’ performances happening elsewhere. Predominantly in Aaron Eckhart’s corner, where he plays the boozy, bellied coach Kevin Rooney, newly ditched by none other than Mike Tyson. With this and the recently released Sully, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sturdier supporting actor than Eckhart. Meanwhile, Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Paz’s brash, flashy, Catholic parents somewhat overcook the accents and the era.

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There are a couple of moments that eschew affectation and speak to the inventiveness of which Younger is capable. Certainly the shot of Pazienza’s head-on car collision is depicted in a novel and sickeningly real way, whilst the energetic camerawork and evocative production design serve up a believably gritty view of working-class America. And if you come away remembering one thing from the movie it should be Willis Earl Beal’s track ‘Too Dry To Cry’ which injects the narrative with the perfect dose of soul and swagger.

It’s interesting to discover that Pazienza returned to the ring thirteen months after the accident and beat future WBC World Jr. Middleweight Champion Luis Santana via a 10-round decision. However the film chooses to depict his comeback fight as against Robert Duran. Perhaps because in the former he won via unanimous decision, where in this fight Paz won on the line via decision – making for a greater tension-filled finale. And yet strangely, Younger bleeds his film dry of tension. From the get-go his film establishes a tone where you simply expect Paz to pull through and that completely decimates any nerve-shredding, nail-biting impulses we might have. The only time you’ll be on the edge of your seat is when Paz is getting his metal halo removed and chooses to have the screws extracted without general anesthesia.

Bleed For This tries to have its cake and eat it too. By inserting real archival footage of Paz in the ring, it’s trying to convince us of its authenticity – and certainly with Raging Bull’s Martin Scorsese wearing the hat of executive-producer, there’s a whiff of someone that knows how to shoot a fight. But with a good amount creative liability, Younger has created an alphabet soup biopic, bobbing and weaving where he sees fit, but without ever landing a punch.

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The final scene rather serves as an explanation why. Younger’s film bows out not with the ‘we-all-saw-it-coming’ moment of blood-stained, hard-earned, sweat-drenched glory, but with a moment of pensive reflection. Pazienza is being interviewed, and is asked what was the biggest lie he was told. He replies: “It’s not that simple,” – alluding to the naysayers; his doctors, his family, the media, his coaching staff –  that repeatedly told him full recovery was impossible. Paz continues. “Actually, it is that simple.”

And that seems to encapsulates the issue with Younger’s approach. It’s too cut and dry. Too damn obvious. Whilst the story itself is completely true and inspirational, Pazienza’s triumphant rehabilitation makes for a diluted and strangely cautious cinematic subject.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Saturday night, is his mere third outing as a director. And his tertiary effort might just be his most mature, melancholic and majestic work yet. A story about a working-class Massachusetts family, to whom fate has not been kind, and the ubiquity of grief, Manchester By the Sea is the kind of subdued, sobering experience that doesn’t lend itself to mainstream attention. But seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Casey Affleck, building upon a roster of roles he’s tackled with a tortured intensity, (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Gone Baby Gone) is Lee Chandler, a man whom life has chewed up and spat out and whom when we meet him is barely existing. Alternately abrasive and aloof, Lee is a competent if uncongenial handyman for 4 apartment buildings in Boston. Between the bar where he instigates fights with strangers to the one-bed squat where he falls asleep in front of the TV, beer in hand, there’s a sense of deadening routine which scarcely manages to distract from the deep-seated troubles which appear to plague our protagonist.

On a morning like any other, snow shovel looming mid-air, Lee receives a call that obliges his return to the humble New England hometown he vacated a few years previous. His affable, and well-liked older brother Joe (played by real-life Chandler, Kyle) has died of a cardiac arrest and bestowed guardianship of his 16-year-old son Patrick (a vibrant Lucas Hedges) upon a reluctant Lee. This abrupt, though not altogether unforeseen bereavement, forces Lee to confront a place and a past sheltering an unspeakable tragedy that splintered the community, and continues to reverberate amid these tight-knit people.

Seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Lonergan, the eloquent mind and steady hand behind the handsomely-mounted, character-driven dramas You Can Count On Me and Margaret, continues to demonstrate an ear poetically attuned to the nuances of quotidian speech and the inadequacies of it in communicating our emotions. Manchester By the Sea is a richly textured tapestry of awkward moments, strained interactions and everyday encounters, coursing with authenticity and elevated by the electrifying humanism with which they are depicted.

As Lee drags Patrick through the requisite funereal proceedings, their interactions are at once endearing, comedic and searingly sad. Affleck and Hedges possess a chemistry that surpasses some of the most memorable romantic duos, their heated back and forth enlivening the morbid circumstances with pacy, familial rhythms. Both are desperate to get back to their fragile normalities. For Patrick this involves hockey and band practices, dating two girls at the same time and looking after his father’s boat. For Lee, that’s recoiling to his stony, siloed existence in Boston as quickly as arrangements dictate. Both must negotiate the ripples that this event has on their futures.

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As such, this story toes a familiar line, but with a seldom-seen ability to capture a smorgasbord of human emotion. Moments of wrenching poignancy are punctuated with a tart, caustic humour; from a freezer-induced meltdown to a bungled attempt at lovemaking, you’ll find the laughter catches in your throat as tears roll down your cheeks. As Lonergan invokes this melting pot of love, frustration, anguish, hilarity and clumsiness, he deftly eschews cliche and melodrama, instead leaving incisive, elegiac impressions, as his characters amble their way through the mire, clashing and compromising and composing themselves as well as they can.

Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb.

Lonergan and his director of photography Jody Lee Lipes (who has done phenomenal work on indie movies such a Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and the underrated Bluebird), do a sensational job of capturing the stillness and sameness of the landscape. Lensed with a crisp elegance, the harsh winters and choppy waters are beautifully rendered, giving sense to a place and a people frozen in time. Less effective is the sound design, which sometimes threatens to overpower; especially when the other elements are so subtle and restrained.

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Still, it’s easy to forgive when the film is otherwise utterly engrossing. Lonergan continues to excel at coaxing naturalistic and heart-breaking performances from his actors. Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb. Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, is a quick-witted and wilful screen presence, nailing the self-centred braggadocio of a popular teenager but with an impressive charm and sensitivity. Kyle Chandler is reliably rugged and paternal as the pillar of the Chandler family – it’s a talented actor who can really make you feel their absence when their death occurs before they’ve even appeared on the screen. Speaking of minimal scenes, Michelle Williams also gives a shattering performance in her all-too-brief role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi; effusing the kind of verisimilitude for which she was praised in Blue Valentine, and which should hopefully garner her supporting actress nominations come awards season.

Manchester By the Sea could be accused of dealing audiences an unsatisfactory ending, but it works in the context of a film that resounds with a muted ache and authenticity. I can’t stop thinking about it – in the way that all films possessed of this much wisdom, warmth and woe – leave you reeling and feeling fortunate to have seen it.

Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice, US, 2014. DIR. Jonathan Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish.

Based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, this Toronto Film Festival release places Julianne Moore at the centre of an emotional tour de force that illuminates the experience of Alzheimer’s disease.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished linguistics professor at Columbia University, who is particularly fascinated by the relationship between memory and communication. Signposting her demise from the get-go, the film carefully drops hints that Alice’s sharpness might be going blunt. A conversational mistake here and there, a name forgotten or a momentary fumbling for words. The stakes are immediately clear – this is a woman whose everyday existence depends and thrives on her grasping of language, just as she appears to be losing it.

KSF-SA2014Intellect is Alice’s currency, her way of understanding the world – she supports her daughter’s law career and her son’s medical career, but her youngest daughter’s aspirations to become an actor are deemed frivolous and unrealistic. Everything she has defined herself by centres around academia, and use of the mind. The devastation of Alice’s diagnosis of early onset Alzeheimer’s is compounded by the possibility of it being hereditary and the risk that if her children were carrier’s they would be 100% likely to also suffer from the disease. Eventually, when Alice’s lectures become increasingly erratic and muddled and she’s forced to let her employees know of her medical condition, so unravels a fear of being redundant and useless.

There is a quote from The Great Gatsby that seems to illustrate Alice’s experience well: “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world… He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass”. Everything that seemed stable and simple now appears to her as strange or complex; her familiar sky has become incoherent. The film does a brilliant job of communicating this gradual deterioration of the mind.

When Alice goes for a run for example; she loses her bearings. Moore’s frightened and disoriented expression becomes all the powerful considering this is her normal, repeated route. Camera movement and cinematography firmly locate our perspective with Alice’s, employing blurred visuals and 360 degree rotations, as Alice becomes increasingly panicky, to simulate her sense of being untethered and utterly lost. This is also effectively contrasted throughout the film with crisp and focused close-ups; of ice on a branch, seashells in a bowl, etc., so when specifics become increasingly difficult for Alice to grasp and her mind become vague and unfocused, the cinematography becomes all the more potent.

It’s tempting to call Julianne Moore a revelation, because her performance is so convincing, nuanced and heart breaking. But of course, Moore has been giving us stalwart, versatile and brilliant performances for two decades. Her Alice is at once brave, terrified, defiant and practical about her inhibited future. As she painstakingly loses grip of her reality, Moore’s eyes become more vacant, her skin more colourless, her body cowers in frailty and vulnerability and finally, she loses her beloved words. It’s a transformative performance – physically and intellectually – that won’t fail to tug on your heart-strings.

Moore immaculately, and accurately, captures an experience of Alzheimer’s and the sheer degeneration of the mind that no-one can really prepare you for.

75-2Alec Baldwin meanwhile plays a subdued and supportive husband, whilst their three children: Anna, Tom and Lydia are depicted by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart respectively. As an ensemble they illuminate the variety of responses to dealing with Alzheimer’s, from obliviousness to compassion to pandering to the disease. In part down to the precision of the script, the cast provide impeccable, subtle support without ever stepping on Moore’s toes.

Stewart in particular reveals an attentiveness and vulnerability to her performance, as Lydia grows from being a distant, struggling actor to an emotional pillar of the family, and someone on whom Alice can rely. Her scenes with Moore are a testament to the virtue of stripped back storytelling, and together they articulate a stunning depiction of a mother-daughter relationship, tested by tensions, disparities and misunderstandings, but united by a profound love for one another.

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Still Alice also goes a long way to changing the perception of people living with Alzheimer’s. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching speech that Alice delivers at an ‘Alzheimer’s Association’ conference, which reveals her keen awareness of being patronised, ridiculed or victimised and how removed she becomes from the decision-making process which affects her life. But it’s in the quiet moments of despair and misrecognition that Still Alice is at its most compelling and devastating, when Alice suddenly mistakes Lydia for someone else or when her sense of time lapses. You can’t help but feel empathy and sadness for her struggle (it goes without saying that tissues should be close to hand).

The delicacy and sensitivity with which Alzheimer’s disease is realised could in part be down to the fact that writing/directing couplet Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have had to deal with Glatzer’s diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whilst Alzheimer’s attacks the mind, and ALS ravages motor-neurone functioning, their understanding of incremental setbacks and adjustments and of living with something that alters your perception of your self is very clear to see.

still-aliceThe soundtrack predominantly consists of piano or string compositions, which layer a melancholy into the narrative at times unnecessary. But there’s also a discordant buzzing or tense crescendo in moments of memory lapse or crisis, that reiterate Alice’s confusion, to terrifying and poignant effect. Integrated into the narrative are also snippet flashbacks of Alice’s childhood, distinguished by a sepia-toned and grainy effect, until they eventually blur to non-existentence. This compositional synaesthesia weaves colour, sound and editing into its exploration of the disease, and work to dramatic effect to create for the audience a tangible and visible emulation of Alice’s struggle. An especially striking compositional touch, was this shot to the right, where the several mirrors resonate with the idea that Alice perception of herself is fracturing.

Still Alice could be accused of putting a prettier face on the disease, choosing the elegant, athletic and 50 year old Moore, as opposed to a more senile protagonist. And in doing so suggesting that is somehow more painful and more of a loss to get Alzheimer’s when you’re well educated, middle-class and have everything to live for. Whoever you are and whatever ever age you are, the gradual disintegration of your memories and of all you’ve accumulated in life, is a harrowing experience to endure.

But ultimately, this is Alice’s story and by extension, Moore’s film. A story of one individual whose self-assurance and control is eroded, whose ability to remember and recall is lost, but whose intelligence and vitality will be remembered by her family, and whose memories are never entirely forgotten.

Verdict: One of the most understated, powerful and shattering films of the year. Julianne Moore gives herself over to portraying Alice and perhaps much like the disease’ effect on her, this adaptation will leave you speechless.