Midweek Roundup: 2 New-To-DVD/VOD Reviews – “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” + “Manglehorn” (7.1.15)

First up in a series of back to back films I watched so far this week, was an independent film starring the Oscar nominated Rinko Kikuchi (2006’s “Babel”), in a film that had one of the more interesting concepts that I had heard about this year. And one that had a long theatrical run here in Portland, at mainly some of our more art house theaters. Coming off strong word-of-mouth and a synopsis built around a young Japanese woman (played by Kikuchi), who goes about her mundane existence somewhat jaded by the life that she’s living in as a secretary to a rather wealthy philanthropist. One day she stumbles across a VHS recording of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). She grows a certain fascination and obsessiveness with the film, particularly that of the scene where Steve Buscemi’s character buries the suitcase of money he gets from the ransom, and goes about planning a trip to the United States in hoping that she can go back to the exact location in which it was buried, in hopes that she’ll find the money and escape the monotony of her everyday life.

This was just as much of a hidden treasure of a find, much like the hidden gem of the VHS tape its main character finds and pursues as the main story line of the film. Anyone who is a fan of the original film (and I can’t speak for the series, having not seen it) will find this story entertaining as it puts a new spin on a person’s movie-fed obsession where the lines of reality and faux fiction are blurred to whereas someone who’s not familiar with movies (like the Kikucki character) might take something they see in a movie as reality and pick up where the story left off. Kind of like an updated, more contemporary version of the old series of books – “Choose Your Own Adventure”. Besides the original and inventive plot which alone should draw the viewer in. It features a rather strong, stand out performance by the brilliant and under utilized Japanese actress Kikuchi, and plays out like a character study about one woman’s hopefulness and new found sense of self-worth as she makes the trek from Tokyo to the rural icy winter of the North Dakota setting of which the original film was based in. It’s a somber piece, with a lot of it shot in beautiful wintry landscapes in the Dakotas. It allows the viewer to immerse themselves and invest in her “quest” to find the ransom money, and suspend disbelief in the sheer absurdity of her intentions. As well intentioned as they may be. This is for a specific type of target audience. For lovers of both the original “Fargo” and moviegoers looking for something a bit different than what they’re used to. I personally really enjoyed this film and the deft handling of the story, and found myself finding it to be quite enjoyable from beginning to end. This one already landed itself a spot on my list of Honorable Mentions of the films I’ve seen (so far) this year. I can say with some degree of confidence that it should not disappoint, especially for fans and lovers of more modern day, contemporary independent cinema. [strong B]

The second one up was from a director whom I really admire, the very young and talented David Gordon Green. Who’s maybe the most divisive independent filmmaker on the scene but who’s career trajectory draws similarities to that of someone like a Steven Soderbergh. Who, like Soderbergh, seems to have adapted the “one for them, one for me” approach to film-making. I loved his more indie friendly early work that he’s done with films like “George Washington” (2000) and “All The Real Girls” (2003). He then seemed to go in a bit more of a mainstream direction with films like “Pineapple Express” (2008), “Your Highness” (2011), and “The Sitter” (2011), only to seemingly be returning to his more independent roots with his back-to-back films released within the same year – 2013’s “Prince Avalanche” and the understated but brilliant character study “Joe”. So based on mere credibility alone and the shift in which his career has been taking as of late I sought this one out.

“Manglehorn” is the second feature film I’ve watched in two weeks starring Al Pacino, who, seems to be in sort of a resurgence phase as he’s been attached to more interesting looking projects like this one and the recently reviewed “Danny Collins”, also released this year. It takes a look at the life a character that seems slightly familiar to others like Bill Murray in last year’s “St. Vincent”. He’s a bigot, unlikable character, full of regrets of how his life could have played out but didn’t. In a series of voice-overs, we learn that he lost the once love of his life because well, he was too selfish to realize that he had much of a good thing going for him. He know lives in solitude as a locksmith. He sees his somewhat regularly, but because of his own failures, doesn’t seem to be able to develop much of a relationship with him. He tries to form a bond with a local banker (played by Holly Hunter) and an ex-drug addict turned massage parlor owner (played by one of the more interesting casting choices in art house director Harmony Korine). It’s through these relationships that he tried to “reconnect” with himself, but ultimately winds up failing at, because, well, he’s an old man set in his ways.

This was a mediocre film by Gordon Green, which has quite a few strong elements, particularly that of Pacino, who proves once again why he is one of the greatest actors of the past half century or so. When given the right kind of role and material, like this one, he’s one of those actors that can make a somewhat familiar, cliche driven script into something much greater than. His performance here is top notch, despite the contrived script and often times poor execution. There are themes here that will resonate with anybody, both young and old, about things like regret, remorse, and one’s ability (or lack thereof) to try and change. It’s somewhat of a mess when looked at an analyzed as a whole. But for Pacino’ performance alone, and a story that at times felt universally human, I can give it a recommendation. Along with another brilliant score by the post-rock band, Explosions in the Sky, it’s certainly not a great film, but is just good enough and worthwhile of a recommendation. [B-]

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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]