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]

Review: ‘The Normal Heart’ 9.9.14

Another gem in a string of exemplary made for TV films by HBO. Which, I personally think are just as good as any feature films that get a theatrical release and in some cases, sometimes better (last year’s “Behind The Candelabra” being one that comes to mind). This piqued my interest after having seen it rack up Emmy nominations and/or wins in almost every category – Outstanding Television Movie (won), 1 Best Actor nomination, 4 Supporting Actor nominations, 1 Supporting Actress nomination, and also nominations for Directing, Writing, and Cinematography. So at the very least I knew I was getting myself into something that was going to be worthwhile. That, and I am really passionate about the subject matter, which is the HIV/AIDS virus that sprung up in the early 1980’s and became one of the worst health crises in the history of America. I am particularly interested in why the United States government chose to neglect treating millions of unhealthy patients, because they thought them to be “sick” (figuratively speaking that is). How an atrocity of this proportion could have possibly occured has always and will continue to always fascinate me. As depressing as the topic may be.

This focused on the beginning years of the epidemic. Which essentially took place between 1981-1985, when the HIV virus had just started to be detected and people started to become aware of a disease that would ultimately wind up killing millions of lives. Shown through the eyes of its central character, played by Mark Ruffalo (in yet another knockout performance), a gay writer, who recognizes early on that his life’s calling is in AIDS awareness and activism. He eventually becomes the Co-Founder of an organization called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. We are shown the relationship between him and his brother, played by Alfred Molina (one of the strongest dynamics in the film), who has never agreed with his brother’s lifestyle which pulls them further and further apart especially as his brother gets deeper and deeper and more passionate about the cause. Another key player is one of the pioneering doctors in AIDS research, a stand out performance by Julia Roberts (I haven’t seen her in anything this good since 2000’s “Erin Brokovich”), who at a very young age contracted Polio, and is bound to a wheelchair and who joins the fight with Ruffalo. Other relationships that are particularly strong outside of the aforementioned 2 are that of Ruffalo and his lover, who contracts the disease and perpetuates Ruffalo’s fight to find funding for the research needed. That as well as the relationships between himself and the other members of the organization, whose political ideals tend to shift over the course of the film.

I felt like this was a fascinating and well researched glimpse into the AIDS/HIV epidemic and what the early years of the disease looked like through the eyes of its central character. Someone who put his entire life into the cause and did everything he could possibly do that was within his capacity to try and bring AIDS awareness to the people. The ensemble cast were all fanstasic, hence the amount of Emmy nominations it received. Even if it did tend to fall a bit on the over melodramatic side at times (after all, it’s cable programming we’re talking about here). But the story was filled with so much heart, so much energy, and so much passion for its subjects, that I was able to overlook that one criticism. This is one, if you didn’t get a chance to catch it when it first premiered, or are like me and don’t have HBO, that I would encourage you to check out. Especially if you have even the slightest bit of interest in the source material.

Grade: B/B+