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.

The 2016 US Election

No doubt you’ve read masses of think-pieces, polemics and rallying war-cries over the past couple of days in reaction to the news that Donald Trump is to become the 45th President of the United States. I can’t promise to add anything new to the debate, but here are my thoughts regardless…

Bleary, and somewhat teary-eyed on Wednesday morning, I, like most of the world, digested the result of the US election. Republican candidate Donald Trump had surpassed expectation and secured the necessary 270 electoral votes required to make him President-elect, beating Democratic nominee, and predicted winner Hillary Clinton. After a farcical, grotesque and malicious campaign, this was the outcome many of us had dreaded most. It did not make the past 18 months worthwhile. It did not allow us to breathe a collective sigh of relief, comforted by the fact that logic and decency had prevailed. Instead, it inspired fear in the hearts of those whom have been the target of his bigoted rhetoric, those who have been appalled and frightened by his misogynist behaviour and those who saw in him the worst of humankind.

It inspired fear in the hearts of those whom have been the target of his bigoted rhetoric

Donald Trump is greed and ignorance and prejudice combined and now we must look to him as the voice of reason and guidance. I’m not one for melodrama, but this is a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. Here’s why:

Watching Hillary Clinton’s unbelievably composed and gracious concession speech on Wednesday afternoon really brought home the sadness of this election. Not just because Trump wasn’t defeated, but because Hillary wasn’t elected, and therefore her career has been ended prematurely.

I haven’t always been her biggest fan, and somewhat erred on the side of Bernie Sanders during the race to choose a Democratic candidate. His left-leaning policies felt like an extension, and progression of Obama’s legacy, and his grassroots campaign seemed to be the spark that was needed to revitalise American politics. What’s more, his tough and informed climate change agenda – viewing it as very much an existential crisis that needs to be tackled – felt genuine rather than strategic. As a senator for Vermont he’s sponsored bills to promote clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, and end fossil fuel subsidies. Both candidates had their flaws – Sanders’ experience in the foreign policy arena was lacking, and his ability to discuss the issue never extended beyond articulating a belief in military restraint. Furthermore, his statement that organisations such as Planned Parenthood formed part of the establishment he was so vehemently attacking felt troublesome. But he seemed like a candidate much more likely to ignite aggressive change.

Hillary, likewise, had her foibles. I thought her foreign policy stance to be too aggressive, her relationship with Wall Street unsettling, and the whole email scandal, well, an overblown misstep. And goodness knows she’s made errors in judgement – we all have, hers have just happened on a bigger stage –  from supporting welfare reform to voting for the Iraq war. However it can’t be denied that Hillary was an incredibly experienced candidate, and a candidate of whom I came to be increasingly supportive of, and blown away by. 

Hillary could have been a conduit for change… The idea that that opportunity to make history has been fluffed is unforgivable.

Her position as Secretary of State in the Obama administration solidified her pragmatism and her preparedness to work as a global strategist and to find viable solutions to international problems. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of her being an ardent feminist. Hillary was a candidate who was willing to have conversations about abortion, equal pay and women’s rights, and someone who understood the sheer urgency of that dialogue. She was a voice for those who have been hitherto under-represented, disqualified and patronised. She could’ve been a conduit for change, and a milestone for the gender equality movement. The idea that that opportunity to make history has been fluffed is unforgivable.

Ultimately she had SO much more to give; possessive of a skill-set and a perspective that now won’t be put to use, or at least to use in the highest position of political power. And frankly, it’s disgusting and horrendous that a man without that experience, who has bulldozed his way to candidacy with money and delusions and scare-mongering tactics has proved the successor.

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Before the result, I believed that if Hillary lost, she’d have to disappear for the shame of it. Her political career would be in ruins, and tail between her legs, she’d be forced to retreat somewhere remote and live out the rest of her days as a red-faced recluse. I cringe at how horrible this assumption is. It hasn’t been especially embarrassing for any of the male nominees who concede to their opponent. It’s simply par for the course. Hell even Al Gore survived. If anything, it’s more necessary than ever to see her continued presence in politics and campaigning for the causes she believes in. Not only because she’s a hugely inspirational agent for change, but because it reminds us of the injustice that happened and how terribly misguided America was to bestow their nation’s path for the next four years in Trump’s grabby hands.

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On a political level, as well as a personal one, the election was an abject failure, with the Electoral College once again rearing its ugly head, and proving itself the archaic institution that it is.

At best, the American voting system is a massively flawed one, masquerading as a democracy. At worst, it’s an insidious beast that fuels the wants of the few at the expense of the many. Via this system, a country purporting to uphold the highest democratic values, enabling freedoms, rights and opportunity for all, has elected a man whose opinions are flagrantly antithetical to these tenets. Essentially the Electoral College is a sieve, where people who have been systematically and historically ignored and disenfranchised – African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, the LGBT community, women – continue to be sifted out of relevancy.

At best, the American voting system is a massively flawed one, masquerading as a democracy.

If you were watching the election on Tuesday night you would’ve heard the term ‘battleground’ or ‘swing’ state, defining that particular state as hotly-contested and decisive, possessive of the power to win or lose the election for a candidate. Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Iowa are the ‘Big 4’, with the former two being where the result has been decided in the last few elections. In simplistic terms, that means that 46 other states are considered of lesser importance. Indeed, when Clinton won Oregon, we effectively shrugged our shoulders because it ‘didn’t matter’. Imagining living in a state where your vote is irrelevant to the outcome of the election. The Electoral College system facilitates that injustice.

It’s also just plain ridiculous. Imagine playing a best of three game of football. The Blues vs. The Reds. In the first match, the Blues win 7 – 2. In the second match, the Reds win 2 – 1. And in the final deciding match the Reds secure a victory by the skin of their teeth by scoring a goal in the 90th minute, making it 1 – 0. Sure, they won the majority of the matches, but cumulatively the Blues scored more goals; 8, to the Reds’ 4. That’s double the amount of goals, and yet they’re deemed the losers. It kind of doesn’t seem fair. That’s the Electoral College for you.

Irrespective of the margin of victory, the electoral votes amount to the same. So it doesn’t matter if Clinton took New York or California by a landslide, but lost Pennsylvania by a fraction. If you lose a state, however marginally, with a defining amount of votes, such as Florida’s 29, you’ll stand to lose the election. Case in point, Al Gore acquired roughly 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 election. But Bush became President. That’s like the whole population of Tucson, Arizona being told that their votes don’t matter. Why? He managed to secure Florida’s electoral votes by a mere, paltry margin of 537.

Just as the Electoral College used to serve the interests of slave and landowners, so it has continued to bow to the whims of a southern, white, male (and female) elite. Nothing speaks to an outmoded, inherently biased and unrepresentative system more than the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.

What’s more worrying is how successfully the Republicans have gumshoed their way into power, now controlling both the House and the Senate, and therefore how quickly they might be able to push through regressive and potentially destructive legislation. At a bare minimum, the Republicans are going to halt progress in such areas as health care, climate change, immigration, economic inequality and unemployment, having already laid out their intentions to repeal and unravel much of the Obama administration’s accomplishments. The worst part is that Obama’s legacy – however patchy it is perceived to be – is going to be rounded off by the very person who undermined his right to the Presidency by initiating the birther movement. A bitter pill indeed.

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I’m not American. So there lies an argument that perhaps I’m taking this all too seriously. I couldn’t vote. I didn’t have a direct hand in the outcome of the election. I won’t feel the worst impact of the corrosive legislation a Republican government are likely to pass. However the reason for mine, and many other non-US people’s tears, are entirely justified. The United States is still one of – if not the, most powerful country in the world. It’s vast population, economy and influence marks it out as an instigator of change and a standard against which other countries are held up. Obama, and lest we forget Michelle, are a formidable duo. Together, they have shaken up the status quo and re-energised what it means to look and act like a President and First Lady. They are dignified, humorous, intelligent, poised, generous, level-headed and first and foremost, they are role models. They take their jobs very seriously, and they’ve proven very good at them. Barack and Michelle are about productivity rather than provocation, and their time in the White House has operated on a basis of inclusivity, access and advancement, however incremental it may have been. The deficit that’s going to felt in their absence is titanic. America is going to look weaker, more foolish and significantly less cool without the Obamas in the White House. It’s hard to believe that the rest of the world won’t falter slightly as result.

That’s the other thing that deeply perturbs me about Trump’s election; the complete U-turn he and his moronic persona represents. Hillary was often characterised as the ‘safe’ pair of hands, the person whom knew what she was doing and who – despite being a bit ‘vanilla’ – would effectively function as Obama’s third term. The Obama administration propelled the US out to sea with the promise of reaching an island, perhaps not a paradise, but an enticing destination nevertheless. Trump’s triumph has destroyed that ship entirely, and left America marooned, without a lifeboat in sight. It’s unsurprising that the Democrat party and their supporters are in a state of mourning.

Nothing speaks to an outmoded, inherently biased and unrepresentative system more than the election of a candidate endorsed by the KKK.

Donald Trump is the kind of person that wouldn’t do his homework, or his revision, and would only get the grade by cheating on the exam, or as his wife Melania is want to do, copying someone else’s answers. He’s the kind of person that won’t put in the time to understand the key issues, or weigh up his options. And it’s hard to imagine that he’ll spend any time speaking to lesser-heard communities about their predicaments and priorities. He is cavalier and worse than careless, he is callous. The only people he cares for are those like him, and it’s pretty obvious to state that America, and by extension, the world, is made up of a much, much larger and more diverse demographic than the one he represents.

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If nothing else, the result of the election is incredibly alienating. It’s never a good feeling to have your beliefs refuted, and now three times this year (the general election, Brexit and now the US election) that for which I have voted, or stood up for, has not been reflected in the wider political landscape. The causes that I hold closest to my heart – feminism, environmentalism, socialism – do not match up with those in power.  And I’m someone with very minimal experience of being a minority. I can’t imagine the despair and deprivation felt by those who have been so severely and repugnantly marginalised by Trump’s agenda.

There are a myriad more reasons I could give, in even greater, more granular detail for why a Trump presidency is one of the most devastating things to happen in my lifetime. The likelihood of our entering a period of cultural, social and economic backwardness, if not insanity, seems alarmingly conceivable. His plan for tax cuts and tariffs on imported goods alone could precipitate global economic insecurity, and I hardly want to give thought to the path towards planetary destruction he could set us on with his belief that climate change is “a Chinese hoax”.

In this atmosphere of discontent, many have spoken of the need to galvanise and organise. To speak out louder than ever before for what we care about. We can only hope that this becomes a teachable moment, rather than a trend or a continued downward spiral. And to use an old, but ever more relevant phrase, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.

Seeing Friday Night Lights with fresh eyes and a full heart

This year saw the 10-year-anniversary since cult-favourite Friday Night Lights debuted on NBC. As a fairly new devotee, I investigate what about the show sees its appeal endure…

The great thing about streaming platforms – and to be honest, box sets before them –  is that TV shows are gifted with a longer shelf life; preserved in ‘recommended picks’ for a new generation of episodic dalliances or fiercely loyal fans.

Stories and characters once banished to the past can live beyond the era in which they aired, ripe for rediscovery and newfound appreciation. Shows that I grew up around and oft heard mentioned during dinnertime discussions; The Shield, 24, Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, I have been able to pluck from nostalgia and finally understand.

I remember my parents trying to describe 24 to me. “You watch someone for an hour in real-time, so that each series makes up a whole day in their life” my mother vaguely summarised, perhaps trying to shield me from the terrorist sub-plots and gung-ho tactics of Jack Bauer. I mistook it for some kind of warped documentary, or a perverse realisation of The Sims. “So you watch them go to the bathroom? When do they sleep?”, I naively inquired. In retrospect, I can almost hear my parents smirking with superiority.

That naiveté extended to my rebuff of Friday Night Lights. Originally airing for 5 seasons between 2006 and 2011, during my prime pre-university years, I was of an age – considered mature – where I would’ve been allowed to join my parents in watching it. But I turned my nose up at the idea of high-school football, heated rivalries and sports jargon.

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“You watch One Tree Hill” my Dad protested, willing me to get on-board, “that’s about basketball”. True OTH had bestowed me with knowledge of what a point guard and a layup were, but “its about SO MUCH MORE than basketball” I retorted. I see now why my argument fell on deaf ears. Friday Night Lights far outstrips One Tree Hill in the reputation department, and is most definitely about so much more than high-school football.

It’s not the football games or the tantalisingly close victories that I stick around for. It’s the phenomenally well-written characters. And Taylor Kitsch’s smile.

It’s a paean to identity, morality and family. It’s about romance and first love and making mistakes. It’s about compromise and marriage and making more mistakes. And with a perhaps unrivalled earnestness it tackles the universal theme of following your dreams.

And so the love affair has begun. We spent all weekend together, and I still can’t get enough. I think about Friday Night Lights constantly, especially when we’re apart and I flirted obscenely with the notion of purchasing a Dillon Panthers t-shirt off Amazon the other day.

But why? How has this sometimes corny, slightly outdated show about small-town rituals and sporting obsession exerted a python-like grip on my attention and monopolised every spare hour since I met with the pilot?

The Guardian asserted that “its appeal lies in its optimism”. The Dillon Panthers are the underdogs from the get-go. Written off early in the State Championships, you’re rooting for them to overcome obstacles (paralysis, race, class, tornadoes, rivalry, corruption) all the way to the ten-yard line. But if I’m being honest, it’s not the football games or the tantalisingly close victories that I stick around for. It’s the phenomenally well-written characters. And Taylor Kitsch’s smile.

Across the 35 episodes I’ve watched thus far, the thing that continually astounds me is how well-drawn the individual narrative arcs are and how invested in each story I am. It would be easy for FNL to become the Eric and Tami show; Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are electrically good as Mr & Mrs Coach Taylor. But FNL routinely manages to span and interweave several storylines, without it ever feeling like characters (or at least those we really care about) are being short-shrifted or for want of a better word, benched.

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The fact that it excavates past surfaces, and gets to know characters like Riggins’ brother Billy, Saracen’s best friend Landry or Smash’s mother Corrina is testament to the fact that it’s not just the football team and the cheerleaders that get to bask in the spotlight. The show cares about the town as whole and each individual’s role within it. From the pilot onwards we’ve been introduced to the menagerie of Dillon residents whose affiliations to football range from supportive to exploitative. Characters from multifarious backgrounds with manifold intentions exist in Dillon, and FNL doesn’t evince a preference for any type.

Sure, there have been hiccups. Let’s not mention the Landry/Tyra murder debacle, a plotline conceived out of network pressure to amp up the drama, and subsequently the ratings. Or the ill-thought out romantic asides to keep characters treading water (RIP Carlotta and Jackie, victims to circumstance and lazy penmanship).

But the show excels when it sticks to what it does best. And that’s the little things. The frustrations of marriage, and the awkwardness of school corridor encounters with your ex. Julie Taylor’s embarrassment at having her Mum work at her school (something I know only too well), and having ‘the chat’ with her Dad (something I was thankfully spared). When Eric flies off the handle at Tami’s sister for taping over one of his games, the 90s kid in me broke into a rueful grin of remembrance. I’m sure many-a married couple can take solace in Eric and Tami’s sometimes strained, but always loving, back and forth.

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What’s more it doesn’t confine its characters to stereotypes. Who can forget the tragedy-tinged pilot that sees star quarterback Jason Street paralysed after an ill-advised tackle? Convention would dictate that his status is validated with glory on the pitch, but in a show determined to set itself apart, that validation must be discovered elsewhere. It’s a bold move and it was only the beginning.

Church-going cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), with her shiny brown hair and perfectly plucked eyebrows is perhaps the closest thing you’ll get to cookie-cutter on this show and even she has her moments of tenacity and rebellion. FNL playfully, and continually subverts the boilerplate identities that high-schoolers are meant to fit into. QB1 Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is painfully shy and cares more about his ailing grandma than partying on weekends. (Who else felt a bit sick when he experimented with open relationships and kissed two girls in one episode?! So not cool Saracen). Drunken, womanising fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is part douchebag, part nicest guy on the planet. I’m surprised I haven’t gone into an arrhythmia the amount of times my heart melted at his gestures of kindness and protection.

It’s harder to like other characters. Not everyone on this show is a hero, nor should they be. Smash Williams and Buddy Garrity spring to mind, both of whom teeter on the brink of obnoxiousness on several occasions. But the writers clearly possess an affection for their characters and rather than consigning them to a certain fate, they take the time to make you reassess your judgments. For all of Smash’s locker-room smack talk and juiced up bravado, it pains him to disappoint his single mother (brought to life brilliantly by Liz Mikel), and there’s a glimmer of sensitivity in his dealings with bipolar girlfriend Waverley. Similarly, Buddy Garrity gets his moment of sympathy when, having been kicked out of his house for extra-marital indiscretions, he takes an ex-convict under his wing.

It can’t be said that every appearance is depicted with such refinement. There’s the occasional aggressive thug or opposing team offender that recalls convention, but where it matters, these characters are packed to the rafters with nuances, flaws and redeeming features.

Take for instance, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki). The kind of blonde, lithe beauty who might as well be wearing a tiara, because she has ‘homecoming queen’ written all over her. But both the writers, and Tyra, know she has more to offer than that.

In season 1, she’s working at a diner on the eve of a Dillon Panthers game, pouring coffee and explaining the tiresome ceremonies that plague her football-infatuated town to a cute customer. “Just a bunch of overheated jocks too dumb to know they have no future, fighting over a game that has no meaning, in a town from which there is no escape,” Tyra mutters. This isn’t a girl you’ll find at a pep rally anytime soon.

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It’s in these exchanges that FNL explodes commonly-held perceptions. It allows its characters to dream big, to exist beyond the boundaries that a small-town in Texas might impose. Which is true of FNL itself. The show refuses to liken itself to fellow high-school dramas and evokes classic Greek tragedies more than it does the melodrama of other cable shows.

The greatest thing about FNL is that every pass, every victory, every moment of triumph feels hard-earned. Dillon is a town tempered by struggle and the joy of watching this show is seeing the characters make it out the other side. The persistence and confidence instilled in these players by Coach Taylor, and in the students by Tami, is a lesson that we could all do to learn.  

As summarised in a Grantland piece:

In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of [the US] seemed most in doubt.

And though that optimism never extended to commercial ratings, Friday Night Lights has found a home in the hearts of many. Thank goodness – like Jason Street did Lyla Garrity – I gave it a second chance.