Bleed for This (2016)

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Stepping into the ring is this boxing bio-pic that smacks with a few of the expected sporting movie cliches but thanks to a great great performance from Miles Teller, the rise to riches and fame story isn’t so tedious.

Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Teller) is in the junior welterweight category but doesn’t seem to have luck winning bouts. Once he teams up with former Mike Tyson coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) and bumps up to junior middleweight he begins succeeding. That run comes to a tragic halt as Pazienza breaks his neck in a car crash but he doesn’t want to quit and tries fighting again.

Ben Younger directs this biographical drama with a clear understanding of crafting the journey. There’s enough time and attention given to not just the party boy character of Vinny but his family also. The moment he winds up almost paralysed is delivered well, showing what that change has on everyone. A lot of the time in fighting/boxing films, it’s the bouts themselves that run tiresome or repetitive so gladly Younger focuses more on the character development than what happens confined behind the ropes.

Of course there is still the usual boxing pitfalls of initial fights, underdog statuses and the middle plot drive where Vinny shifts a gear and becomes a big winner. Then there’s the next fall and with a devastating accident like the one we see, it’s obvious we’ll receive the protagonists gritty resolve to progress and never give up. The ending fight is predictable and lacks any inspiring gusto but it certainly hits with a good comeback end showing off the powerful mindset some people have to endure and prove people wrong.

A neat moment of editing occurs nearing the end, sharp quick sounds of punching as Vinny smacks from the past. Along with this we get fast flashes of scenes retelling his story as we come the huge step in his career where he hopes to squash fears of his injuries and triumph.

Miles Teller lands a fantastic point in his career in a role that topples his dedicated wonder in ‘Whiplash’. That drum-centric film may be better but here Teller is a muscled machine that pushes the story onward and upwards as much as he can. It’s certainly his show and he excels as Pazienza bringing sweat dripping determination to the screen. Aaron Eckhart is great also, the knowing coach is believable and he has a good connection with Teller, dancing and drink induced scenes give him fun and character. Ciaran Hinds is another engaging talent through this, the actor immerses himself brilliantly as Vinny’s father.

There’s enough in this sporting feature to keep you watching but not enough to break the mould or overly excite. The performances are strong but the film doesn’t help make me think boxing movies need to step down for a while.

6.5/10

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The Girl on the Train (2016)

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Shuttling out the tunnel of a disappointing summer of movies is this bleak-tinged film with a harsh microscope on human flaws. It isn’t a hugely predictable turn we witness but then it’s not much of a surprise either, leaving Emily Blunt to be the biggest saving grace in quite a tepid thriller.

Frequent train passenger Rachel Watson (Blunt) spends her travelling time peering into the lives of people who live in homes along the rail-lines. She becomes fixated on the world of Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), who she follows one day. The next day she wakes up and Megan has gone missing leaving Rachel to try and figure out the truth whilst coping with her own problems.

Tate Taylor does ensure there’s a degree of captivation in this feature, the tone of the movie is dialled down to a greyish spectrum and along the way there’s a clear burrowing sense of danger which is great. Also the little moments where time seems to slow, people shudder just a smidge as the frame blurs and zooms are neat aspects that don’t just tie in with Rachel’s addiction but also build that level of unease and question of trust.

Author Paula Hawkins, of which this movie is based on, may be getting sick of the comparisons to ‘Gone Girl’ but when the marketing team releases a trailer that looks very much like the Fincher release then audiences/fans of that will relate the two. It’s no big issue relating the two as the stories both deal with dramatic relationships and the harsh nastiness people can hide within themselves. They also both harbour a mystery and twist narrative, perhaps this is where Hawkins’ plot falls down in contrast. Though the film tries taking us down tracks of surprise, it isn’t a massive twist that we get and overall the ending section of the movie becomes a lacklustre affair with scorn driving the way.

I doubt Hawkins is to blame, in translation I can imagine her novel lost impact and dramatic build up to the reveal. The movie seems to drip-feed more hints and though I didn’t guess the figure to blame, I wasn’t exactly stunned either. It’s the focus on Rachel and her problems that is the strongest story-telling quality. Just the way she tries struggling through existence and as we learn more about her, the routine she takes and her past, it’s these signs that keep the movie interesting.

Emily Blunt is by the far the best thing in this film, she utterly buries herself under the skin of Rachel and she looks like a shattered, damaged being. Depending on the following months of movies, I can see and also hope that Blunt is up for an Oscar, because she brings the tears, strength, broken self-belief and is a wonder to watch. Haley Bennett gets an interesting role also, trying to sink her teeth into a woman that’s trying to find something she doesn’t know what whilst being a temptress, mistress and wife. Justin Theroux gets more screen time than Luke Evans, but both men like Edgar Ramirez are nothing more than mysterious possibly bad guys who flit in between the lives of Rachel and Megan.

I was hoping the film would be more intense, or at least more of a bubbling pot of tension, instead it simmers slightly and only heats up thanks to Blunt and her incredible performance. The themes of addiction, abuse and depression don’t feel like the smart traits they should be, but mind this gap and sit down for an occasionally bumpy ride that has enough of the thriller genre to keep you seated.

6/10

Black Mass (2015)

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Tingling with grit and tension, this crime drama about a Boston gang lord finds all the right places in terms of cruel unease and territorial threat but falls short in true interest and classic gangster material.

Nearly all of South Boston is controlled by dangerously mean Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) but of course he wants the whole pie. That chance arises when childhood friend turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) comes to him for information about other troubles and Bulger uses his new found informant status to commit more crimes and rise in power.

Scott Cooper directs this 2 hour feature with enough stability, there’s no showing off, it’s a simple take of grime and bleakness to show us the world we’re getting ourselves settled in for. It’s perhaps this stable nature that makes the film feel a trifle too long and what with the FBI back and forth, it begins dragging as we come to a quite clear cut ending considering the choice to open on testimonials from Bulger’s former allies. I believe that Cooper captures the alarming nature of the Boston boss better, these scenes of his true deeper nastiness spark something in the movie that I wanted more of.

British playwright Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk take care of the screenplay and they do a fine job of the criminal rise but the story sags in the law department. The entire FBI narrative that then mixes in with Whitey Bulger’s growth becomes almost tedious. Also a lot more could have been done with the menace of Bulger as previously wished. That’s who he really is, underneath the care for old ladies and his child, he is a worryingly deranged man on the warpath for money and control, so seeing more of his life without interruptions of the ever annoying Connolly would have been a welcome change.

To me, one of the, if not the strongest element throughout was the score by Junkie XL who really grasped the unnerving quality of this environment and who Bulger is as a person. The music almost bleeds out of the scenes filling the audience with that cold dread as we wait to see what happens next. It’s that ‘Goodfellas’ feeling the film has a number of times, the two sided behaviour of Whitey like Tommy, the gang working together, the tone of the film, sadly it doesn’t keep up with that Scorsese trend because of never really connecting us to a character to lead the way, even if the music is constantly dark and brooding, the movie isn’t.

The execution of scenes like Bulger meeting Connolly’s wife in their home is so tense and the pair of actors create such edgy dark drama that it spikes the film for a moment. Ultimately, it is a film with men ruling the roost, women are subjected to prostitution, housewifery or death. The men beside Bulger kind of pale too, they blend into each other that by the end and the true life facts, some may have forgotten what they’d done or couldn’t care.

Johnny Depp is back on form to tell the truth, after so many childish gurning episodes for Burton and beyond, he slips under the mask of Bulger and becomes a convincing crook. The slicked hair, his hollowed cheeks and pinprick eyes do more than enough to make him look ghostly, but Depp provides a demeanour to further that deathlike stance he has over the story. At the same time it does feel like another performance because of how different he looks. Joel Edgerton is a great actor and is more than capable as the agent but his plot is something I couldn’t invest 100% in, therefore he feels like an annoying distraction as he falls down a slippery slope of corruption. Dakota Johnson is little more than a cameo as the non lip biting partner of Bulger. Benedict Cumberbatch gets to play a senator, a man of corruption being Bulger’s brother, he’s alright but isn’t engaging and his accent isn’t a help either. Juno Temple crops up in a short lived spritely role to show off the danger of Whitey. It is an ensemble cast of big names but it never feels that way.

Led strongly by a promising Depp, hopefully on the route to good things, ‘Black Mass’ isn’t a strong entry to the gangster/crime genre but it’s up there being mean, grim and heavy.

6.5/10

 

 

Nightcrawler (2014)

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I was lucky enough to see this as part of a secret screening last night and it’s such a treat to watch. Affectingly dark, this is a solidly engaging and unnerving feature film debut for director Dan Gilroy. The Californian night will never seem so alive with crime and questionable morals of the media and public sourced footage. The film feels like a ticking time bomb as you witness the birth and growth of this nightcrawler’s talent.

In California, a sly yet passionate and willing man by the name of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is seeking quick money and stumbles upon the grimy yet lucrative career of nightcrawling; turning up to crimes, crashes etc to document the danger before police and get it sent to news teams for money. It’s a job that quickly suits Bloom’s nature and after hiring an intern it isn’t long until he’s bending around the law to try and get the next big scoops.

Dan Gilroy has such an eye for this type of story. The beginning is shot beautifully leading you down a road of false security as we see daylight exteriors setting up the location, but as expected the majority of the film takes place during the twilight hours of the city. There’s a simple yet vivid look to most of the movie making everything look sort of like a news report car crash item but the sheen of it gives it a glossy and frankly unnerving image. Gilroy clearly has patience in the 117 minute running time to build that apprehension of Bloom’s psyche and it works a lot as we see repeated shots of his life and/or routine making him seem to focused or normal, i.e, watering his plant or watching TV laughing to himself in his home. The film is undoubtedly stylish but not so much so that you never believe what you’re seeing, it’s lying in this realism of events that could happen that makes it more worrying.

James Newton Howard who is so successful and has talent for motion picture scores, uses that know-how for this smaller scaled film and it gives it a burning grimy quality, especially in the car chasing segments and at one montage point as you see the rise of Bloom in this field of expertise. That montage in general is fantastically done, with edits tallying up to Bloom’s home video collection, back and forth’s of his new car adding pace to the film, it’s also helpful to adding more tension to what was already there as we see how dangerously efficient he is at this new role.

The story itself, written by Gilroy is coursing with dark undertones, the writing of Lou Bloom is thick with that bubbling current of suspicion and unease. He spiels off information like a better written Wikipedia page, he has an eye for details and framings and has the brains to carry out the best led story, even if it means letting people die in the process. It’s a calmly scripted character that does so much more to make you anxious watching him, than if he was just overly mad for the sake of it. Of course you need bursts of his true self coming through and you get that now and then but it’s in the more relaxed, smarmy clearly scheming side of things that his character comes alive.

Taking the morning news angle and dangling a moral compass over the authenticity of it as a media package is very interesting as you just know news hounds and press teams will do anything for a story and it does all get shockingly crude as they document house invasions or bloody bodies. It may of course be a far stretch from how American news channels really work but you can believe it to a degree that they loosen their morals to get the best headline. Every character involved in this film is necessary and never contrived, they all work to compliment or go against Bloom as the lead and that gives space for opposing ideals, some loving his work and others firmly going against his footage.

It really is the Jake Gyllenhaal show however, as he embodies this deadly yet charming figure of a man. It’s an odd performance making you see Leo as some ghoul of a guy, in physicality and mind. Gyllenhaal uses his eyes a lot and to great effect, there’s something so scary in those wide eyes that draw you in and work hard to keep you there. He is excellent, one of his best performances ever and chilling is not the word to use for his acting, it’s so much better than that, a wiry, shadowy creepy performance that entices you and sucks you into the sleazy world of this film.

The only thing that is of minor bugging to me is the ending, I still don’t know whether I liked it, whether it worked or not. There’s also slight bits and pieces in the last 15 minutes of the film that feel rushed. These are small criticisms that might completely evaporate when I see it on release day, but they’re there nonetheless.

Deep and dark in visuals and performance, ‘Nightcrawler’ succeeds in balancing actual quality moments of hilarity with awkward laughter and metal tangled, blood drenched nightmarish after dark frights in a fresh and bold way.

8/10