DVD Midweek Reviews: “Champs” and “Danny Collins” (6.24.15)

“Champs” was my first pick of the week. Coming off the heels of a rather busy weekend of watching just purely feature films, I thought I would switch it up a little bit and watch a Netflix Streaming documentary that’s been out for a little over a month. Sports documentaries almost always fascinate me. Mainly because well, admittedly I don’t watch a whole lot of sports. So when I see documentaries like “Happy Valley” (released earlier this year) about Penn State University assistant coach’s Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges, it’s almost as if it’s entirely new news to me. An even better example of this example of this being “totally tuned out” than all of a sudden being “tuned in” months or even sometimes years later after the initial story was released to the public was when I watched famed documentarian Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” (2013) last year. I remember thinking to myself – wait what, Armstrong was doping? He eventually admitted it and was banned from the sport along with his titles taken away? This must have been the sports news story of the decade. And yet I hadn’t heard of a single thing about it before watching that documentary. So the point I’m trying to make is I’m so immersed in the world of film that an earthquake could hit San Francisco (I live in Portland, OR) and I probably wouldn’t know about it until they made a documentary about it, or better yet a feature film, well after the time that the event took place.

My point was proven once again here with the sports documentary “Champs”. Which focuses on 3 of the greatest boxers of the last quarter century or so in Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins…wait, who in the hell is Bernard Hopkins? Having been familiar with the other 2 boxers, particularly that of Mike Tyson (the “Tyson” documentary currently stands on my top 10 list of not only sports documentaries of all time but of documentaries in general) I had never even heard of the ex-Lightweight Heavyweight Champion of the World.

It’s a fairly straight-forward telling of each individual’s upbringing (mostly poor) and each of their plights in becoming some of the best, most recognized, fighters in the sport of boxing, of the past quarter century or so. About half of the documentary focuses on Tyson’s story, which for someone like myself, whose seen the “Tyson” documentary about a half dozen times or so, really brought nothing new to the table. What interested me most about this particular documentary was learning about both Holyfield (who I only knew about in relation to his 2 Tyson fights), and especially Hopkins, who did a lengthy prison sentence that allowed him to realize the impact he could have on the sport. And once released, he became the Lightweight Champion of the World. It also features a bevy of interviews with some rather well known and respected celebrities who have had ties to the boxing world. People like Mark Whalberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, etc, share their views in candid interviews where they try to explain how significant of a role each of these 3 fighters had on the world of boxing. The Tyson portion is mostly a rehash of clips and archival footage from the 2009 documentary of the same name. While the other 2 boxers are given almost equal treatment in the telling of the adversities they had to face both in and outside of the ring, which I thought was the documentary’s greatest strength. Omitting Tyson would have been an atrocity, but to rehash everything we’ve already been told, shown, and know about the infamous boxer yet once again, can’t help me but to think how much better of a documentary this could have been had the focus been more on Holyfield and Hopkins. [B-]

The second movie of the week was a film that was just released on DVD/VOD platforms this week called “Danny Collins”. I had been a bit conflicted about this film when it was released in theaters as to whether or not I really wanted to see it. However, despite its mediocre to moderate reviews, and virtually knowing next to nothing about it, I decided to give it a whirl when it came out on DVD.

Danny Collins (aka Steve Tilson), played by Al Pacino (in his best late Pacino performance thus far) plays a sort of a fictitious, modern-day, broken down musician, who can still draw in arena size audiences but whose personal life is on the fritz. Collins is a selfish man, more immersed in fame, fortune, booze, and cocaine than he is almost anything else. He’s estranged from his family, he believes his much younger wife is cheating on him, and he’s grown tired of going out night-to-night only to deliver songs that he became famous for several years earlier. Through an act of epiphany and self introspection, he decides to go on a quest to become reacquainted with his son (played by the likeable Bobby Cannavale), his wife (played by Jennifer Garner), and his granddaughter. With the help of his long term/best friend/tour manager (played by maybe the greatest 80+ actor alive, Christopher Plummer), along with a personal letter from the John Lennon, that he receives 40 years after he wrote it, and a new found muse that he finds in a hotel manager played by Annette Bening, he goes on sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to make amends with his estranged family while also trying to find inspiration to revitalize his career.

This wound up being a very entertaining film despite its contrivances and predictable story. Pacino reminds us here once again why he’s one of the best actors of the last 40+ years, putting in a knock out performance as the aging famous musician who has a self revelation about his life and everything that he has been missing up to this point. It’s one hell of a bravura performance and one of the greater roles I’ve seen in recent memory that’s been given to an actor of yesteryear (the only comparison I can think of is Michael Douglas as Liberace in “Behind The Candelabra”) (2013). The supporting players mentioned above are all play their best in what often times feels like a cliche script. But really that’s besides the point, because it’s so good to see Pacino back in top form, in a late career role which reminds us of the undeniable depth of his talent. If you’re looking for something more on the lighter side where the acting winds up superseding that of the actual story, and liked last year’s “Begin Again” (a movie I drew quite a few comparisons to) then this is something worth checking out. As long as you’re prepared enough that you will be delving into familiar Hollywood territory which can be overlooked for its universally identifiable story about the willingness of one man’s aspirations to reconnect with a former piece of his life and formal self. [soft B]

Weekend Recap: 3 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (TV Mini-Series), “Winter Sleep”, and “Results” (5/30-5/31)

I thought I would change things up here a bit on the website and switch up the format so I could review several movies all in one as opposed to writing a separate review for each and every single film I watch. For a cinephile like myself, I’ve found that the prior format, while enjoyable, was a bit daunting for both myself as a writer and for my followers as readers. Also, I found myself skipping over reviewing certain films that I’ve seen entirely, as to review them all would just be much too much work for the amount of time that my life allows. This way, I can write shortened reviews which will make it more realistic time-wise for both myself, and condense them as well which hopefully will make them a bit more accessible for people to read. As always with anything I do with the site, any feedback that people have whether good or bad is always much appreciated.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst Movie Poster

First off was the 6-part documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”, or otherwise known as simply “The Jinx”. This 6-part series debuted on HBO back in February, and since I’m about as out-of-touch with what’s on cable TV these days (I haven’t had cable in almost a decade) I just now got to this series that I had been hearing a lot about from many people whose consensus was that it was a must see. It’s directed by Andrew Jarecki, whose previous work was the 2003 Oscar nominated documentary “Capturing The Friedmans” as well as the mostly forgettable Ron Gosling and Kirsten Dunst box office flop “All Good Things” (2010). A movie that must have left so little of an impression on me that I didn’t even put two and two together that it was a fictionalized account of a based on a true story about New York City real estate mogul Robert Durst. Durst, unlike the film’s critics, was apparently so impressed by the film that he offered himself to be interviewed by its director Jarecki, hoping to clear his name after four decades and three accusations into murders that he claims he was innocent of (well, with the exception of one you could say, where it was proved that he did it but ultimately was acquitted of because it was found to be out of “self-defense” – one of the highlights but also one of the most disturbing parts about the story).

In a nutshell, this was one of the better documentaries I had seen in quite some time. The presentation of the material is spot on, and like last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden “Citizenfour”, we are given unprecedented access to fly-on-the-wall interviews with Durst, juxtaposed with the presentation of all of the background material humanely possible, from the disappearance of both his first wife and the murder of his girlfriend, to the third victim, a neighbor, of whom I spoke of above. I thought the beauty of it lay in its presentation of the material, as each episode probes and plunges further and further into every single aspect and detail of all three cases, interwoven with candid interviews from almost everybody involved – friends of the missing and deceased, lawyers, private investigators, police, etc. But even more importantly, the intimate one-on-one interviews between documentarian Jarecki and Durst himself, who prior to this documentary, had never cooperated with the media never mind allow himself to be filmed over several interviews spanning over the course of a year. This is about as good as investigative journalism gets. And everything from the editing to the music, to the way in which the story unfolds, is top notch. Culminating with a jaw gaping conclusion which doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, but the way in which it comes about needs to be seen to be believed. This is A rate documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, in a story that I embarassingly admit I knew little to next to nothing about prior to my watching it, but following it’s final episode, I was like cement stuck to my couch as I really didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing other than that I thought it was nothing short of exemplary. And currently stands at my #1 spot for Best Documentary that I’ve seen so far this year. [A-]

Next up was the Turkish film “Winter Sleep” by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”). A film that took home the Palme d’Or (Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Admittedly I had been pushing this one off for quite some time mostly because of its running time, which clocks in at 3 hours and 17 minutes. But considering how much I loved both “Once Upon a Time” and the director’s 2006 “Climates”, it was just a matter of time before I sat down and fully invested myself in it. The story loosely revolves around a philathropist who owns a hotel in the Turkish mountains outside of Istanbul and lives with both his sister and much younger wife. As well as several of the other townspeople. A recently released man from prison, his brother, and their son, are the other major players that encompass the central story within the film.

Like the works of the Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (“Leviathan”) and Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) the film explores very deep and profound themes involving interpersonal relationships between family, friends, and foes. While it involved many characters it mostly centers around its central character, the philanthropist and hotel owner Aydin, who sees himself as a man of strict morals and principles. Which are tested throughout the course of the film in what essentially becomes one conversation after another throughout it’s 3 hour plus run time. A lot of people, including myself, might be turned off by a film that’s practically entirely dialogue driven and very little happens in terms of action. That is if the dialogue wasn’t so damn interesting the character development so spot on and pitch perfect. As through each conversation the story reveals more and more about Aydin’s character, which I found utterly fascinating as the story progressed, I found myself more and more engaged to the point where I forgot about its running time. If you, like myself, are a fan of international cinema this is about as high up there on the ladder that it gets. Well deserving might I add of its coveted Palme d’Or win at Cannes 2014. [A-]

Last up was the indie rom-com “Results” which came out this past Friday on VOD, the same day as it was released in theaters. I had seen a trailer for it before a movie I had seen recently, and thought it looked surprisingly rather clever for a genre which I have a guilty pleasure for but am often let down by. It revolves around three central characters – Guy Pearce, the local owner of a gym (who never before has been funnier, here showing that he can do comedy just as well as he can do drama), Cobie Smulders (a breakout gorgeous talent, who reminds me of a Olivia Wilde or Rosemarie Dewitt) his late twentysomething personal trainer who he employs and consequently also has a fling on the side with, and Kevin Corrigan’s too rich for his own good bachelor, the aging fat schlub who reminded me of a character Paul Giamatti would have played back in his “American Splendor” (2003) and “Sideways” (2004) days. The three of them, by way of a series of hilarious events that transpire, wind up in a sort of menage a trois (not literally, but rather figuratively) with plenty of laughs galore. This was a smart, highly entertaining, somewhat satirical look into the lives of personal trainers, and one rich, seemingly naive man, who comes in and complicates the lives of those around him. Resulting in a comedy that’s cleverly written and much smarter than the average romcom. In fact, following on the footheels of last year’s films like “Obvious Child” and “Begin Again”, this was the best of its kind I’ve seen out of the genre since then. And is highly recommended if you’re looking for something lite or if you want to impress your significant other on a date night. It’s very funny, heartfelt, and touching enough, and so far, at least of the films I’ve seen so far this year out of the genre (which admittedly is very few) ranks among its best. [B/B+]

Review: ‘Begin Again’ 11.5.14

Ireland born director John Carney hit the scene in the mid-aughts with his breakthrough film “Once” (2006). A movie that at the time of its release captivated and moved audiences with its depiction of 2 Dublin lover/musicians that was both equal parts sweet, touching, and moving. It garnered a Best Original Song Oscar the following year, and it’s 2 leads went on to become successful internationally well-known touring musicians. A feat that doesn’t really happen but every so often in that its 2 lead central characters went on to become something bigger than their screen selves could have ever possibly imagined in their wildest dreams. It’s really stuff that miracles are made of, especially considering that it was an independent film made on a small budget. Enter 2013 after a 6 year hiatus and Carney is back once again, but instead of giving us another story about more street musicians living in Europe he takes what at first glimpse appeared, at least to me, to be a familiar formula from his previous film except for that fact that this time taking place in America using mostly a bigger cast of American friendly and familiar faces, and takes another stab at the feel good music drama formula.

“Begin Again” opens with introducing us to our first of our 2 main leads – a down on his luck, poor excuse for a father, barely holding on music producer played by the always superb Mark Ruffalo (who in thinking about is right up there with my slew of favorite actors). He is an alcoholic and as the story slowly stars to unfold, we begin to see how his old days of success and increased drinking has had on his music producing partner (played by Mos Def), his daughter (“True Grit”‘s young and obviously very talented Hailee Steinfeld), and ex-wife (the always puts a smile on my face Catherine Keener). Both his personal, family, and professional life seem to be in serious jeopardy. That is until he meets a recently split from her famous musician boyfriend (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) and also vulnerable, down on her luck musician/muse character Keira Knightley. After some convincing her that he is her meal ticket to stardom. Knightley seems to equally need Ruffalo’s character as does her he in order for them to try and start both their lives over again.

I found myself really enjoying this film despite its somewhat predictable elements that we more or less have come to expect from a genre piece of its kind. The performances are all well written and acted, particularly that of Ruffalo’s character which I found to be an almost pseudo character study. He once again shines here as he did with his brave turn as an AIDS activist earlier this year in HBO’s “The Normal Heart”. Ruffalo always seems to somehow take a decent script and character and make it better because of his proficiency as an actor. The supporting turns by Mos Def, Catherine Keener, and Hailee Stenfield feel authentic and well cast. Also, Keira Knightley, who I can’t say I’m particularly fond of as an actress in a lead role does a pretty effective and convincing job here. And the 2 leads present a pretty believable on-screen duo. What felt slightly off to me here to go back to the predictability factor that I touched on earlier, was the clichéd storyline that propels us into an idea that the two leads come up with in hopes to achieve success. It felt slightly preposterous but because of my engagement in the story and having a keen sense of the genre of which it falls into, I found myself willing to suspend its plausibility factor. Lastly, and what I found to be the strongest element of the film, was Carney’s obvious knack of understanding the spellbinding power that music has on us all as human beings. The way in which music drives all of the characters portrayed, particularly of Knightley and the rag-tag group of street performers she’s set up with, has a certain energy and sense of inspiration that I thought was a strong point in a movie that is essentially an exploration of the power of music and how it can be a universally loved art form that has the potential to bring us joy in our lives when sometimes we can feel void of true feelings and inspire us to feel joyous, celebratory, and give us the power to feel like nothing else bad in the world actually exists. I thought at the core it captured that component quite well. Which is another credit to Carney and the way in which he seemingly understands this “universality of music” concept and applies it to his script and characters. Despite a couple of minor flaws I found this to be a mostly entertaining musical thrill ride. One that I can see both music lovers and aficionado’s alike enjoying as well as those looking for just a feel good musically themed drama with a fair amount of heart, spirit, and inspiration at the core of its story.

[B]