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 Trials of Muhammad Ali’ 9.18.14

It’s an incredibly daunting task to write about somebody you admire and hold in such high regard as I do Muhammad Ali. I consider Ali to be one of if not the most important people in the history of the United States of America, never mind one of the greatest athletes. He stands right alongside others I so deeply admire like Malcolm X, Spike Lee, Stokely Charmichael, and countless others. He’s also one of the few people that I get so emotional just thinking about what facet of his life I could try to do justice by writing about. Because he really is that much of an idol of mine. Like the blurb from the reviewer on the poster says, I too feel like I should utter “dare I say – I’ve seen em all”. But I’ve certainly devoted a large part of my life absorbing everything humanely possible about this incredibly amazing and inspiring individual.

This, in my opinion, is the most comprehensive document of his life that I’ve seen up to this point. Rather than choosing to focus entirely on his boxing career and fight highlights as so many documentaries of him that I’ve seen do, this really probes into Muhammad Ali “the man”. Shedding light on his childhood having been born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky (one of the only “American” identities he would go on to carry with him). They show his introduction to the sporting of boxing at the tender young age of 12, to going on to win the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome at the age of 18 and thus declaring that he would be “the heavyweight champion of the world at 21” (he would miss it by only a year). Then shows how he him being thrust into the global spotlight in his early twenties, where he would go on to denounce his birth name, Cassius Clay; because it was given to him by the white man and he thought of it to be a slave name. To the depictons of his religious and political affiliations with the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Which takes up about the half of the film. Which I liked because I’ve always found it to be the most fascinating aspect of his life. And ultimately wound up being drafted into the Vietnam War and refusing to go because of his religious beliefs (the Muslim faith was vehemently opposed to any type of violence, never mind War). Then being ostracized by not only the American government (shame on you), but the American people (shame on you more) and ultimately being stripped of his boxing license. Following this, after 3 long years of “American exile” and touring around college campuses and becoming the single most important spokesperson for the African American community (Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X had both already been assassinated by this point), he’s cleared of all charges of draft dodging and being “sincerely unpatriotic” (since when is that a crime?). By this point, the American people have lost faith, and say that a man who’s been gone from the sport for so long could never come back and be the champ. In typical Ali fashion he eventually comes back to the sport with more vigor and vengeance than he ever had up to that point in his career, and goes on to win 2 more heavyweight bouts (they skip over the infamous 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire, otherwise known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”. But remember, this not a documentary about his fights. And, finally, his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Which they shed very little light on. Why? Because there’s entirely no reason to. This man lived more in the first third of his life than any of us will in this life, the afterlife, and the next life after.

This is an unbelievable documentary, all biases aside, for the sole reason that it really gets into the heart and soul of a man who stood by his convictions and religious beliefs for the entirety of his boxing career and into his adult life no matter how he was viewed by the United States government or the American people. The opening scene alone really allows the viewer to see how much hatred a portion of the American demographic (mostly White poeple) disliked Ali. It opens with a voice over of some of the most unkind, mean spirited, and hateful comments a person could possibly made, and the camera pans in on Ali as he sits there fully composed and unscathed by anything he’s just heard. Despite facing so much adversity throughout his boxing career he always was aware of who he was and never gave up his ideals or what he stood for. He would never become someone’s else’s “puppet” (one reason why he eventually dropped his sponsorship group of White Capitalists and named the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s son to be his manager) but instead became a leader, mentor, and spokesperson for all Black men and women throughout America during a time when the nation was experiencing its most political unrest. If you have even the slightest interest in Muhammad Ali “the man” and don’t necessarily want to see a documentary that focuses solely on his fights (for that I would highly recommend 1996’s Academy Award winning documentary “When We Were Kings”) then this is the documentary for you. Never have we been given such unlimited access into the heart and soul of a man who truly was “The Greatest”. This is one, just behind “Life Itself” and alongside “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, that’s earned itself a #2 or #3 spot of my favorite documentaries of the year.

Grade: A-/A

“See, we have been brainwashed. Everything good and of authority was made white. We look at Jesus, we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels, we see white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure if there’s a heaven in the sky and the colored folks die and go to heaven, where are the colored angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white!”

Why are we called Negroes”? “Why are we deaf, dumb, and blind“? Why is everybody making progress and yet we lag so far behind”?

-Muhammad Ali (Howard University, 1967)