Plus: Miles Teller in the boxing biopic 'Bleed For This'

By Chris Nashawaty
September 03, 2016 at 07:50 PM EDT
Dale Robinette

It’s Labor Day weekend, and that can only mean one thing if you’re a movie lover, early Oscar tea-leaf reader, and fan of altitude sickness: the Telluride Film Festival has begun. This year’s event, the 43rd annual gathering high up in Colorado’s postcard-friendly San Juan Mountains, is no different from any other in two respects. First, unlike most world-class film festivals, the Telluride lineup isn’t unveiled until the event begins — so movie journalists and film critics like myself come in flying blind. Second, whatever anxiety that presents quickly passes since the slate tends to be loaded with splashy North American premieres as Telluride tries to get the drop on Toronto which follows right on its heels.

This year’s marquee titles include Clint Eastwood’s “Miracle on the Hudson” drama Sully, starring Tom Hanks, Damien Chazelle’s dreamy neo-retro musical La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi story Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Barry Jenkins’ hard-hitting Moonlight, and Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Inferno (not to mention Kenneth Lonergan’s Sundance break-out Manchester By the Sea). It’s as strong a line-up as any in recent memory, which is saying something considering that Telluride has screened seven of the last eight Best Picture winners.

The film that I was most curious and excited about coming into Telluride was Chazelle’s La La Land, not only because I was such a huge admirer of his previous film, Whiplash (it was my No. 1 film of 2014), but also because I’ve always been an unapologetic sucker for the romantic artifice of old-fashioned movie musicals. But we’ll get to that one in a sec. First up for me on Day One was director Ben Younger’s Bleed for This, a boxing biopic of the blue-collar bruiser Vinny Pazienza, starring Miles Teller. Younger, who made an indie splash with his debut film, 2000’s Boiler Room, only to have gone largely AWOL for the past decade, makes a solid return to the ring with the film. The movie chronicles the rise and fall (and rise) of Rhode Island’s Pazienza, and succeeds mostly as a showcase for Teller.

It’s hard to find a genre more cliché-festooned than the boxing film. Younger knows that, and doesn’t so much avoid those clichés as try to artfully re-arrange them the best that he can. Pazienza, a tough-as-nails champ from a boisterous, religious Italian-American family (his parents are played by Katey Sagal and Ciaran Hinds — their working-class milieu is reminiscent of David O. Russell’s The Fighter) wasn’t a master of technique in the ring. He was a brawler who could take a beating with a sick smile on his bloody mug. That resilience would prove to be his salvation when, shortly after winning his first title belt, he breaks his neck in a grisly head-on car crash. Doctors weren’t sure he’d be able to ever walk again. Paz promised that not only would he walk, he’d fight again. If all of this sounds a little too hokey, well, it kind of is. And the film’s parade of bad goombah wigs and hit-and-miss New England accents doesn’t help. But Teller delivers something better than the sum of the film’s clichés. With his bulked-up physique, wispy pencil-thin mustache, and slightly dim reckless intensity, he turns what could have been a cartoon into a real person. Aaron Eckhart, as his hangover-prone trainer, also turns a familiar archetype into a character with three full dimensions. These are two men written off as washed-up who need each other.

The fighting scenes bookending both sides of the middle-act tragedy are fine. But the film’s real dramatic heart is its middle chapter, where Paz has to battle back from surgery that leaves him looking like Frankenstein’s monster in a medieval metal “halo” brace orbiting his head, with screws bolted directly into his skull. The irony of a fighter known as “The Pazmanian Devil” wearing a halo is hard to miss. Is Bleed for This a great movie? No. But it has a lot more blood coursing through its veins than last year’s Southpaw or the recent Roberto Duran biopic, Hands of Stone. Side note, Pazienza has a comeback fight against Duran after his injury. Small world, boxing.

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Fresh off its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land tapdanced into Telluride with an imposing amount of hype. That sort of awards-bait buzz can handicap a film as it’s seen by a second wave of audiences, but La La Land, to me at least, is a stunning — and stunningly ambitious — film. It’s pure movie magic…and I can’t wait to see it again. It’s both fair and unfair to call Chazelle’s musical a love-letter homage to the color-crazy song-and-dance fantasias of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain. It is that, but it’s also so much more. It’s unapologetically romantic, thrillingly alive, and brilliantly inventive. If you give into it, you’ll feel like you’re floating on air.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling prove that their chemistry in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love was no one-off fluke. For my money, they’re the best on-screen couple in the movies in years. Stone plays Mia, a struggling actress who (barely) pays her bills working as a barista at a coffee shop on the lot of a Hollywood movie studio. Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist whose traditional musical taste and stubborn idealism put him at odds with the century he’s living in. They are both struggling to achieve their dreams in contemporary Los Angeles, and they’re both failing.

There have been a handful of lavish Hollywood musicals transferred to the big screen in recent years, but for the most part they’ve all felt weighted down by high-concept Broadway bloat. La La Land bucks that trend and instead goes for something more intimate, more risky, and far more personal. It manages to be nostalgically traditional without being corny. The film opens with a bravura sequence on an L.A. freeway as cars are stuck in traffic. One passenger begins to sing an upbeat ode to California, then gets out of her car, breaks into dance, and before you know it, everyone in the traffic jam is wildly singing and dancing too. It’s a hell of a way to open a movie, but it announces what audiences are in for. If you don’t like this, you’re not going to like the next two hours…and you may also want to check yourself into a hospital.

Mia and Sebastian are two of the drivers stuck in traffic, and they have a brief encounter no one would define as meet-cute (he honks at her, she gives him the finger). But after another close encounter or two, they become a couple, and their dreamy romance is transporting – especially one Astaire-and-Charisse-style song-and-dance number overlooking the glittering cityscape of L.A. from high up in the Hollywood hills. I don’t want to say too much about where the movie goes from there (after all, it doesn’t come out until December 2nd), but Stone and Gosling’s irresistible romance is a rare fizzy cocktail of heart-swelling joy and heartbreaking sadness. And the final sequence is easily the best 10 minutes I’ve spent in a theater this year.