Miles Teller proves he’s a contender in the intriguing true-life story told in Bleed For This, Spike Lee makes a welcome return, and teen drama Edge of Seventeen is a sweetly old-fashioned rites of passage tale
Bleed For This (15) ****
Sully (12A) ***
Chi-Raq (15) ****
The Edge of Seventeen (15) ***
The Unknown Girl (15) **
Boxing movies trade in clichés, but the great ones – Raging Bull, The Fighter, even the first Rocky – understand that the human element surrounding the sport is what makes it compelling on screen. Bleed For This (which counts Martin Scorsese as a producer) isn’t quite in that league, but it’s certainly got some moves of its own and does have a fascinating tale to tell. Based on the true story of world boxing champion Vinny Pazienza, its most brazen move initially is to pack an entire boxing movie into its first 40 minutes. Picking up the story of this cocky, Italian-American working class hero (winningly played here by Whiplash star Miles Teller), the film starts with Vinny being written off by his coach live on TV after suffering his third defeat in a row. Refusing to hang up his gloves, he teams up instead with Mike Tyson’s washed-up former trainer Kevin Rooney (an unrecognisably paunchy and bald-headed Aaron Eckhart), who realises Vinny has literally been punching below his weight all these years, so moves him up a couple of classes so he can fight at a more natural weight for his body type.
Winning his first title fight before the film is even a third of the way through, what would be a fitting endpoint for many an underdog sports movie turns out to be the prologue for a much more interesting comeback story after a car accident leaves Vinny with a broken neck. Thenceforth writer/director Ben Younger zeroes in not so much on boxing, but on how Vinny’s absolute love of the sport enables him to endure all manner of suffering for the chance to fight again. It’s this that makes the film so engrossing, especially when it becomes clear Vinny is willing to risk paralysis by declining an operation to fuse his spine in order to let it heal naturally – a recovery that requires him to wear a metal halo and neck brace for six months. Although a lot of Bleed for This – including a supporting cast of characters with outsized personalities that naturally lean towards caricature – can’t help but feel preposterous, Younger takes care to keep things rooted in the real and he’s aided by Teller and Eckhart, who give it their all in a movie that ultimately celebrates the simple power of living for the thing you love most.
Aaron Eckart also pops up as co-pilot to Tom Hanks in Sully, Clint Eastwood’s film about American Airlines pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic emergency landing of a passenger jet on the Hudson river shortly after take-off in January of 2009. The entire flight lasted 208 seconds and all 155 passengers and crew members were saved, which presents something of a dramatic problem for 90-minute movie, especially one in which the hero’s self-effacing modesty makes him seem like the product of an algorithm designed to create the most Tom Hanks-friendly role ever. Eastwood, however, manages to find ways to ratchet up the drama: not only does he repeatedly evoke memories of 9/11 by including post-traumatic-stress-induced dream sequences of planes flying into buildings, he turns the post-crash investigation into a Flight-style witch hunt in which Sully becomes a target for desk-bound bureaucrats intent on punishing him for drawing on his extensive real-world experience instead of following computer-simulated procedure. Such things feel a little hokey, but where the film succeeds in a big way – aside from casting Hanks and Eckhart – is the recreation of the emergency landing itself and its immediate aftermath: it’s thrilling, heart-in-mouth stuff.
Spike Lee gets back to something like his provocative best with Chi-Raq, a brash piece of agitprop about the need for gun control in America. Taking its inspiration from Aristophanes’ anti-war satire Lysistrata, Lee transposes its plot – about a group of women who withhold sex to bring about an end to violence – to modern day Chicago, where gun-related fatalities in the last 15 years have outnumbered American losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, hence the city’s titular compounded nickname. Presented in the style of a hip-hop musical – with Samuel L Jackson serving as a one-man Greek chorus – Chi-Raq doesn’t all work, but it’s simultaneously righteous and bawdy enough to gets its message across in entertaining fashion and features a great performance from up-and-coming actress Teyonah Parris in the lead.
In the age of The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars, there’s something almost quaint about the low-stakes dilemmas in teen comedy/drama The Edge of Seventeen. Echoing John Hughes’s belief that teenage life is melodramatic enough in its own right, it casts Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, a somewhat solipsistic teen whose already tempestuous relationship with her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and popular older brother (played by Everybody Wants Some!! star Blake Jenner) intensifies when the latter starts dating her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson). Though the film isn’t exactly deep, Steinfeld makes it watchable and there’s amusing support from Woody Harrelson as her wry teacher.
The Unknown Girl sees the Dardenne brothers’ normally fluid storytelling lurch into clunky Ken Loach territory with this tale of a doctor (Adèle Haenel) attempting to track down the identity of a young girl found dead near her surgery. Her own guilt at not helping the victim when she had the chance is the catalyst for her detective efforts, but too often the Dardennes rely on their ultra-naturalistic style and socially aware themes to excuse some pretty contrived and unconvincing plotting. A rare misfire. ■