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]

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Review – ‘Lone Survivor’ 10.19.14

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Peter Berg hasn’t made a good film since 1998 with his groundbreaking, twisted, and dementedly hilarious “Very Bad Things”. Since then he has gone on to direct quite a few flops starting with 2003’s “The Rundown”, then 2008’s “Hancock”, only to hit rock bottom when he directed 2012’s “Battleship”. Which at that point I almost dismissed him from my directors whose movies I’d watch list. He seems to be like a not as well known, watered down Michael Bay, strictly in terms of the kinds of films that he usually makes. Big budget Hollywood popcorn fare summer movies. Which to me is about as low as any serious director can go. That’s why I was slightly skeptical going into this one. As Berg hasn’t done a really good film in fifteen years. That and I remember seeing it advertised at one of my local theater conglomerate chains as I passed by when it had just come out. The friend who I was with at the time asked me if I wanted to go to see it. I quickly told him “Nah I think I’ll pass. It’s got Mark Wahlberg”. Anybody who knows me well enough knows how I feel about Wahlberg. He’s a Hollywood puppet (see “Transformers 4” for further proof). Let’s say I’m usually pretty disappointed with the roles he chooses. Though after hearing from a couple of friends of mine that it was actually good, and in one case great. I figured why the hell not. After all how bad could it be?

Based on a true story. “Lone Survivor” starts out by showing us an opening montage of different units within the military and the rigorous training that they go through in order to become soldiers. Soon after, we flash forward to a injured Mark Whalberg, known as Luttrel, as he’s being shipped off in a helicopter. Jumping back 3 years, we meet a rag tag group of soliders played by Wahlberg (Luttrel), Emile Hirsch (Dietz), Ben Foster (Axe), Taylor Kitsch (Murphy – who I could have sworn was Josh Hartnett until I sifted through the cast on my phone), and finally Eric Bana (Commander Kristensen). After some setting up of the characters and giving the viewer some background into who they are as people, they’re given their objective – the killing of a Taliban leader. They then very strategically plan their mission. Only to be lifted up in helicopters to head out and be dropped off in the Afghan Mountains. After some milling about in the mountainside they are exposed and have to capture an old man and 2 kids. They have to make a decision involving the Rules of Engagement and depending on which way they decide, their mission could potentially become very compromised. They ultimately wind up making a moral decision and then retreat back up into the mountains. Then about halfway in to the film, they see their first taste of action and the hunters become the hunted. Which sets the wheels in motion for the second half of the film.

There are a lot of strong elements that I liked about the film and just a couple of not so strong ones. First things first, hats off to Peter Berg. He takes a much smaller film than from what he’s used to and somehow makes it feel bigger. While also making it look artistic unlike his other commercial Blockbuster fare that he’s been doing. His grandeur style really works well here. It’s shot impeccably with some very nice, sweeping cinematography. He gets the camera right in there with each of the soldiers using extreme close up shots that are both intimate and personal, and allow the viewer to feel like they’re in on the proceedings. Along with this, he does a great job at capturing that “band of brothers” feel and making you really care for each of the characters. Once the second half starts and things really start to get going he begins shooting in a more hyper-kinetic style which gives the action a sense of immediacy. Which I personally haven’t seen done since Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008). It also has a great score, one that sounded like it was done by the post-rock inspirational group Explosions in the Sky. Adding rich textural guitar tones which I thought lent itself well in heightening the drama. As for each of the actors, they all do serviceable enough jobs in the roles they are given. Ben Foster, at least for me, stood out just a notch above the rest. The not so strong elements, for me, was that I felt like it got a little too caught up in itself in the last quarter/30 minutes. The way in which the turn of events unfold seemed slightly implausible. Also throughout, and particularly towards the end, there seemed to be this underlying American patriotism that comes across as a bit contrived and cliched. Even more, when the credits finally do roll they add in this poetic device to try and pull at the audience’s heartstrings. Very much like last year’s film by Paul Greengrass “Captain Phillips” of which I drew quite a few comparisons to. So while I really, really liked the first 3/4’s. The last quarter just didn’t hold up as well as I was hoping it would. But I have to give credit where credit is due with this one. It’s is a well shot action-packed thrill ride that has quite a bit of heart. So for Berg’s excellent direction and a great story with believable characters that I was both engaged and moved by. I would recommend this to just about anyone. I’m glad I wound up watching it in the end. Because after all, I almost skipped it entirely. Which would have been a mistake on my part.

[B]