BLEED FOR THIS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexuality/Nudity and some Accident Images

Directed by: Ben Younger

Written by: Ben Younger

Starring: Miles Teller, Katey Sagal, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Sully Erna, Ted Levine, Peter Quillin & Edwin Rodriguez

I’m not a big fan of sports movie for the main reason that it seems like the same story being told over and over again. In the past two years, we’ve received four boxing movies in theaters. These being: CREED, SOUTHPAW, HANDS OF STONE and BLEED FOR THIS. This last title caught my interest purely for it being noted as one of the most incredible comebacks in sports history. Having read about Vinny Pazienza’s recovery, I was very excited to see it on the big screen. My excitement was further heightened by the casting of Miles Teller, who’s been carving out quite an acting career, in the role of Paz. I’m not a fan of sports movies, but BLEED FOR THIS is easily one of the best sports films that I’ve seen!

The year is 1988. Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) is a boxer who’s been on a downward spiral of three losses. In an effort to wash his hands of Vinny, his manager throws the cocky fighter into the hands of washed-up coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). The two form a fast friendship and Vinny quickly rises through two weight classes. Shortly after celebrating a triumphant victory, Vinny ends up in a terrible car accident that leaves him with a broken neck. What follows is a lot of heartbreak as Vinny spends six months in a halo brace and is told by pretty much everyone that he’ll never be able to fight again. This is a comeback story though, so you can probably imagine what happens next. However, it’s a very inspirational and emotional story nonetheless.

The first thing that needs to be praised about BLEED FOR THIS is Miles Teller’s performance. Though he has put crappy acting into the DIVERGENT series, Teller shines when he’s given the right material. He wowed me in WHIPLASH and played a solid scumbag in WAR DOGS. In BLEED FOR THIS, he becomes Vinny Paz! He nails this guy’s distinct tough voice, his intimidating body language and the impressively ripped look of this champion boxer. It’s a fantastic performance that’s only further heightened by actual archive footage in the credits. This post-credits footage manages to further showcase how much Teller managed to capture Paz in his acting.

The supporting cast is stellar as well. Aaron Eckhart does a damn fine job as trainer Kevin Rooney. This is a deeply flawed character who tries his best to help Vinny, even when he doesn’t necessarily believe in what he’s doing. The chemistry between Eckhart and Teller brings a lot of genuine laughs and makes their emotional conversations appear completely believable. Another highlight is Ciaran Hinds as Vinny’s father, who experiences a whirlwind of emotions before and after his son’s life-threatening accident. Also, Ted Levine is perfectly scummy as Vinny’s selfish manager.

BLEED FOR THIS’s overall look and feel echoes the time period in which it’s set. There’s retro technology, stylish outfits and a great soundtrack. None of it seems remotely overbearing though, because the story stays focused on Vinny. The script wisely spends a solid chunk of time building up Vinny’s slow rise to a different kind of fame in the first 40 minutes and is so engaging that the viewer almost forgets what’s coming. As soon as Vinny steps into the car, my heart sank though and realized how much of an effect this movie was having on my emotional state. It had me by the feels and wasn’t letting me go anytime soon.

BLEED FOR THIS is all-out inspirational and not above a few cheesy clichés in telling the deeply motivational story about how someone accomplished the seemingly impossible. The final minutes leave a resonating message to take away. As I mentioned before, sports movies seem utterly repetitive to me and this is especially true of boxing movies. Yet, BLEED FOR THIS moved and captivated me from start to finish. The performances are top-notch from everyone. The visual style is great. The plot will hit you hard and take you for an emotional journey. It’s a fantastically uplifting sports film and an overall fantastic movie. If you’re at all interested in Vinny Pazienza’s story, then you’ll likely love BLEED FOR THIS!

Grade: A-

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

EVOLUTION (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Humor, and for Sci-Fi Action

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Directed by: Ivan Reitman

Written by: David Diamond, David Weissman & Don Jakoby

Starring: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, Ethan Suplee, Ty Burrell & Dan Aykroyd

EVOLUTION is a movie that can be summed up in three words: GHOSTBUSTERS with aliens. Don’t believe me? This movie is even directed by the same guy who brought both GHOSTBUSTER films to the screen. He’s treading familiar cinematic waters with a fresh cast and a different monster. I don’t distinctly remember the level of excitement that this film had upon release (I was 10 years old at the time), but I do remember it being a regular sleepover movie (at least, for me). So it had some sort of impact on kids and adults at the time, going as far as to receive a short-lived animated series as well.

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When a meteor crashes into Earth and winds up at the bottom of an 80-foot crater, it appears to be the discovery that Ira Kane and Harry Block, two college professors and friends, have been waiting for. They cut off a sample of the space rock and find that there’s extraterrestrial life contained in some goo from the meteor. What’s even more peculiar is that this goo seems to be evolving at a rapid rate with single-celled organisms becoming worms in the space of three days. Soon enough, the U.S. military arrives to steal Ira and Harry’s discovery. This annoyance becomes the least of their problems, because hostile alien creatures begin to invade nearby areas and attack civilians. It’s up to Harry, Ira, Wayne (an idiot fireman-in-training) and Allison (a clumsy scientist) to take down the alien menace before we go extinct…

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EVOLUTION has a number of famous faces in the cast, but these were the early days for a few of them. David Duchovny was coming fresh off of X-FILES and that seems to be the sole reason for his presence. As the main lead, he’s bland and delivers his lines in a wooden unenthused sort of way. Starring alongside him is MADTV regular Orlando Jones, who easily stands out as the best part of this movie. Jones nails nearly every one-liner he receives and has a hilarious highlight as scientists try to capture an alien bug inside of his colon (without the aid of lubricant). Jones never went on to have the career that he really deserved, but he’s easily the best part of this whole film. Ted Levine and a (far younger) Ty Burrell serve as inept military officers. They aren’t played for laughs, but do play off each other well as dickhead human antagonists. Seann William Scott (coming off AMERICAN PIE) is hit-or-miss as the would-be fireman. Dan Aykroyd is sadly underutilized as the city’s Mayor, while Julianne Moore is wasted on a one-joke character. The joke is that she’s clumsy and the movie gets all the mileage it can out of her tripping, dropping stuff, and running into things.

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The story itself is predictable. You won’t have a hard time at all guessing how everything will play out, but that’s doesn’t necessarily make the whole film bad as the encounters with the aliens themselves are fun. Some of the effects haven’t aged well over time, while others look impressive. One monster coming out of a lake is Syfy level quality of CGI these days, but looked pretty cool at the time this film was made. The alien designs are also creative with a green-skinned dog-like creature, winged dinosaurs, and blue-skinned apes being highlights. The movie too often relies on cheap, obvious humor, but even these moments can get still get a few laughs out of me.

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EVOLUTION is pretty much a shameless remake of GHOSTBUSTERS under a different name, complete with a climax involving characters wearing matching jump-suits to take down a giant otherworldly menace. The cast is a mixed bag with certain actors being highlights and others being wasted on bland characters. The aliens themselves are cool to look at and the scenes of our heroes fighting them are enjoyable. I won’t deny that my vision of this film might be slightly clouded by a nostalgic haze (I watched this a lot when I was a kid), but EVOLUTION stands as an entertaining guilty pleasure.

Grade: B-

BIG GAME (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence, and some Language

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Directed by: Jalmari Helander

Written by: Jalmari Helander & Petri Jokiranta

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Felicity Huffman, Victor Garber, Ted Levine, Jim Broadbent & Ray Stevenson

In 2010, a little Finnish movie by the name of RARE EXPORTS got a small theatrical release. That film was a decidedly darker take on the legend of Santa Claus and wound up being one of my favorite movies of that year. I eagerly awaited to see what director/writer Jalmari Helander would do next. Over four years later, we’ve now been given his sophomore feature: BIG GAME. People planning to watch this movie should know in advance that this isn’t a massive action-packed extravaganza. Instead, it’s a family friendly adventure that would fit right in during the 80’s with GREMLINS, GOONIES, and MONSTER SQUAD audiences. BIG GAME is a fun homage to cheesy adventures of yesteryear that wholeheartedly embraces every cliché that comes with that territory.

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Oskari’s thirteenth birthday has arrived and he is going on a ceremonial trip through a thick forest countryside to become a man. Oskari’s solo hunting venture through Finland’s woods takes a surprising turn when Air Force One (conveniently flying over Finland) is shot down. Miraculously, the President of the United States has survived and is rescued by Oskari. The destruction of Air Force One was only the first step in an assassination plot conceived by a traitorous secret service agent and a demented big game hunter. Oskari and the cowardly President must work together if they plan on getting out of the woods alive.

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BIG GAME isn’t a full-blown action flick and is purposely ridiculous. I think that the marketing has made this film look like something it isn’t and that’s upsetting some folks who wouldn’t necessarily be fans of stuff like RARE EXPORTS. The movie may be clichéd to a fault, but that was entirely intentional and helps boost the fun/nostalgia factor being dished out. The script is a basic, by-the-numbers story, but the execution is where everything shines in BIG GAME. The film looks gorgeous. RARE EXPORTS had a beautiful visual style too and BIG GAME benefits from using the same cinematographer. As far as the effects go, they all look up to snuff and far better than recent CGI messes that have been brought to the screen (I’m thinking of a few scenes in the latest TERMINATOR). If there are any major complaints that I have with this film, they lie in the pacing and a really short running time. The story certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, but rather, understays it. I wanted the film to last longer, especially given that one certain glaring plot thread isn’t tied up in a satisfying way.

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BIG GAME sports a cast with some famous faces. Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States, but is far from his conventional bad-ass hero archetype. Instead, this President is a wuss from the get-go (as evidenced by a newspaper headline that reads “Lame Duck President”). Though I imagine that a few Jackson fans will be pissed that he’s not kicking ass and taking names for most of this film, I thought it was a lot of fun to see him in an unconventional role. Ray Stevenson is clearly having a blast as the corrupt secret service agent and seems like he’s naturally built for the part of a villain. He was awesome as a big bad gangster in DEXTER Season 7 and pretty much seems to be channeling that same fun, charismatic baddie in this film. Onni Tommila isn’t a well-known face to Americans, but he was the awesome leading kid in RARE EXPORTS and shows that he has a knack for this type of role yet again in BIG GAME. Ted Levine and Jim Broadbent pop up as two of the President’s men in the White House. It was amusing to see White House staff members’ react to the mayhem playing out in the Finland countryside, but these scenes feel unneeded and really slow down the action when it does get going.

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Much like RARE EXPORTS, BIG GAME isn’t a movie for everybody. It’s purposely ridiculous, over-the-top, and very campy. I don’t think it’s on the same level of RARE EXPORTS, but this sophomore effort remains a wholly enjoyable (surprisingly) family friendly adventure that serves it’s purpose in being a fun B-flick with really excellent cinematography and locations. BIG GAME should entertain its intended audience and is well worth checking out as long as you keep your expectations at a reasonable level.

Grade: B

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