Movie Review: “Bleed for This”

Starring
Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciarán Hinds, Katey Sagal, Ted Levine
Director
Ben Younger

Boxing movies tend to follow a very clear formula. If it’s an underdog story, it’s typically obvious what conflicts will arise and, whether won or not, there’s the catharsis that comes after the final boxing match. The newest entry in the subgenre, “Bleed for This,” checks a lot of boxes, but it isn’t without heart or a good, albeit familiar, story to tell. Writer/director Ben Younger’s film entertains with some immersive boxing scenes, a real sense of time and place, and some standout supporting performances.

The movie is based on the true story of Vinny “The Pazamanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller), a boxer who didn’t believe in quitting and won three championships in three different weight classes. The story begins with the local Providence boxer having just gained some notoriety after winning two world title fights. At the beginning of the film, we see Vinny taking a beating from Roger Mayweather for the lightweight championship. His trainer Lou (Ted Levine) tells him he should throw in the towel and leave boxing forever. That’s something Vinny isn’t going to do, so Lou teams him up with fellow underdog Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), Mike Tyson’s former trainer. Rooney convinces Vinny to move up a weight class, and the gamble pays off in their first fight together. After a rousing victory and some hope, Vinny gets into a brutal car wreck, leaving him with a broken neck. The doctor tells him he’ll never box again, but Vinny doesn’t know how to do anything else. Boxing is his life, so with Kevin’s help and his family’s support, he trains hard enough to return to boxing in a year’s time to fight the biggest, and most dangerous, match of his career.

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Movie Review: “War Dogs”

Starring
Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollack
Director
Todd Phillips

It’s been three years since director Todd Phillips released the critically derided final installment in his “Hangover” trilogy, and in that time, his aspirations as a filmmaker have clearly grown. Phillips’ latest movie, based on the 2011 Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers” by Guy Lawson (which was later turned into a book titled “Arms and the Dudes”), is a measured attempt to showcase his serious side à la “The Big Short.” But while “War Dogs” occupies a similar space as Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning dramedy, providing an entertaining look at how a pair of ambitious twentysomething pals became millionaires due to the U.S. government’s own negligence, it doesn’t really have anything important to say – or rather, the important stuff feels like an afterthought compared to the highly dramatized events at the center of the film.

The year is 2005, and college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a licensed massage therapist in Miami Beach while trying to launch his own business selling bedsheets to retirement homes. When his latest scheme fails and his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) announces that she’s pregnant, David decides that he needs to find a real job in order to support his family. Enter childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bottom-feeding arms dealer who’s moved back to town after working for his uncle selling police-seized weapons in California. Efraim has started his own arms dealing business in Miami, and it’s pretty successful, living off the crumbs of small military contracts that the major companies generally ignore. Efraim offers to bring on David to help with the day-to-day operations, and within six months, the pair lands its biggest deal yet. But when that contract leads to a more lucrative opportunity with the Pentagon to supply weapons and ammo to the Afghan army, the two friends quickly find themselves in over their heads.

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Movie Review: “Allegiant”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, Naomi Watts, Maggie Q, Jeff Daniels
Director
Robert Schwentke

As the “Divergent” series unfolds, it feels more and more like a giant bluff. Now in the homestretch, Veronica Roth’s not-too-distant dystopian nightmare is slowly devolving into a needlessly complicated metaphor for high school. There are factions, they keep to themselves, and once you switch factions, you cannot visit anyone from your previous faction. There is melodrama by the truckload. One boy does not like the special attention his girl is getting from the grown-ups, who are grooming her for Bigger, More Important Things. He is jealous. High school, high school, high school.

Society has collapsed inside the walled city of Chicago, where Evelyn (Naomi Watts), leader of the Factionless army and mother of Dauntless badass Four (Theo James), has wrested control and is holding public trials of those who did the bidding of now-dead Erudite leader Jeanine. This includes Caleb (Ansel Elgort), brother of Dauntless heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley). Tris and Four use back channels to spring Caleb from custody, and the three, along with fellow Dauntless Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Peter (Miles Teller), climb the wall to discover a godforsaken wasteland. This wasteland turns out to be partly artificial, and the group is rescued by a group working for the Bureau, situated where O’Hare Airport used to be. O’Hare, of course, doesn’t mean anything to anyone in the film. That information is solely for the audience’s benefit. As Caleb himself says, “What’s an airport?”

The Bureau is run by David (Jeff Daniels), who has been watching Tris’ entire life from afar like she’s on a really warped version of “The Truman Show.” David declares that Tris is the only “pure” divergent in the entire city, while everyone else, factionless or not, is “damaged.” David wants to take Tris to meet his superiors, in order to prove that his Chicago “experiment” is working, and that they are on the verge of a breakthrough. Meanwhile, war is erupting in Chicago between the Factionless army and the once-peaceful Amity faction, renamed Allegiant. That should matter to David, right?

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Movie Review: Fantastic Four

Starring
Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Tobey Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson
Director
Josh Trank

“Fantastic Four” is perhaps this summer’s most frustrating movie. Films that are consistently terrible are generally not frustrating, because they rarely show any potential beyond what they are. But that’s not the case with co-writer/director Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” a movie full of potential that it’s not allowed to deliver upon.

Years after director Tim Story’s bland take on the superhero team, the filmmaker behind 2012’s “Chronicle” gives us a grounded vision of the Marvel heroes. The players – Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Susan Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) – remain the same, except they’re much younger and, at the start of the film, aren’t very close, with the exception of Ben and Reed.

Ever since Reed was a little kid, he showed signs of genius, but that genius was always misunderstood. The only person who truly gets him is Ben, who supports his dream of teleportation. One day, Reed’s teleporting device is noticed by Susan and Johnny’s father, Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey), at a science fair, which lands him a spot at the Baxter Building, a place for brilliant minds. Dr. Storm has been trying to crack interdimensional travel for years, and he uncovers the final piece of the puzzle in Reed. With the help of Susan, Johnny and the brilliant by cold Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed gets the job done, but unfortunately, the government doesn’t want to send a bunch of kids to another dimension. While drunk one night, the young scientists (along with Ben) suit up and transport themselves to that other dimension, which leads to disastrous results.

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A Set Visit with the Gang from “21 and Over”

Imagine a college bar in a Pacific Northwest town and there’s a very outstanding chance that you’ll imagine a place almost exactly like Dantes in Seattle’s University Village section. The place has a rustic, slightly run-down, feeling countered by lots of colored lights, chalkboards full of bargains on bar food, specialty cocktails – most of which I wouldn’t let anywhere near my Drink of the Week posts – and cartoonish demon head sculptures mounted on the wall as if they’d been bagged in Nairobi by Colonel Blimp himself.

Now, imagine it’s September 2011 and you’re a broke-ass freelance entertainment writer in search of a day job, but nevertheless very happy to fly up the coast for a set visit and roundtable interview with the cast and writers/directors of “21 and Over.” So it was that I and a group of journos from online men’s magazines and humor sites had been ferried over from area hotels to watch a key bit of early action in the film being shot and, later, to meet with the talent.

One piece of additional good news was that the talent in question actually has some. The first film directed by the co-scripters of the sleeper megahit “The Hangover,” Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, “21 and Over” is hitting a theater near you March 1st after a somewhat delayed release. If you loved “The Hangover,” there’s a decent chance you’ll like “21 and Over,” even if that film was – in typical Hollywood style – somewhat heavily rewritten by a number of hands. For starters, it trades on a similar formula of bromantic mystery plus broad comedy played out by strong (but not overly expensive) comic talent. It’s a somewhat dumb, but occasionally hilarious low-brow effort anchored by a very funny and credible trio of young male actors with outstanding comic rapport, and a female lead who’s allowed to be a semi-believable human being for a change.

The plot involves a surprise out of town birthday visit which results in birthday boy Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) suffering an alcohol-induced near coma. Naturally, Jeff Chang – who’s full name is repeated with Charlie Brown-like regularity – has an important medical school interview the next day. Worse, neither wild-and-crazy instigator Miller (Miles Teller) nor literally buttoned-down Casey (Skylar Astin) can even remotely recall Jeff Chang’s Seattle address.

If you’re expecting the result to be a comic odyssey of debauchery and absurd hijinks that would almost certainly lead to a fatality in real life, you wouldn’t be wrong. If you’re looking for a gorgeous love interest in all of this, Sarah Wright does the honors as Nicole, a smart girl whose next foolish choice might be hooking up with prepster Casey.

Our set visit began with us doing what most people do, most of the time, on film sets. We waited, watching a short dialogue scene being filmed and drinking non-alcoholic beverages from craft services – or maybe it was beer from the bar, I can’t remember. (Probably not, but I can’t be sure. I would later have a brief comic odyssey of my own trying, unsuccessfully, to recover the lost voice recorder which held all of my notes from the set visit.)

If memory serves, we were told that one of the co-directors, Scott Moore, was off filming other material that day. That may have been a slightly big deal as Moore and Lucas have been working together for a long time, and “21 and Over” is their first shot at the directing big time. In fact, Lucas later expressed a bit of honest concern about the day, saying that he generally considered himself a decent “half a director.” Still, everything appeared to be going smoothly.

Eventually, things kicked up to a higher gear as we watched Justin Chon perform one of the film’s many physical comedy lowlights while being filmed by Terry Stacey, a top-drawer cinematographer who has proven that comedies needn’t be visually flat with “50/50,” “Adventureland,” and 2003’s “American Splendor,” one of the best movies of the 21st century so far.

Standing not far behind Stacey, we watched from above as Chon – best known by his own description as “the Asian kid from ‘Twilight’” – mounted a mechanical bull, rode very briefly, and then upchucked in spectacular fashion. The upchucking was thanks to a mechanical device attached to Chon but, in classic practical effects style, hidden from the camera’s view.

The delicate part was that that effects gag was to be captured in extreme slow motion. In the finished film, the individual droplets of fake throw-up dance about in the air and the audience is grateful the film is neither in 3D nor Smell-O-Vision.

Soon enough, however, Chon – who clearly knows his way around physical action – was managing some very nice recoveries after staging his fall from the bull, and director of photography Stacey had mostly finished the shot. It was time for a break and some roundtable chats at the pizza joint across the street.

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