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]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Heaven Adores You” 5.10.15

“Heaven Adores You” is a documentary about the late musician Elliott Smith, whose rise to fame and fortune ended abruptly when he died of an apparent suicide by self-inflicted stab wounds (whose case still remains open as the evidence was inconclusive) in 2003 at the tender ripe young age of 34. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign back in 2011, after 4 long years in gestation, the film has finally been given a proper release. It’s the first documentary ever made of an artist whose work has not only had such a tremendous influence on me but legions of other fans both stateside and internationally as he rose from the indie scene of the early 90’s to worldwide fame towards the end of the decade, become arguably one of the greatest singer/songwriters of his generation. Through a series of interviews of close friends, family, and various other industry types, the film paints a probing portrait into a man whose music left a long-lasting imprint and whose music is still unquestionably influential on the industry a little over a decade after his death.

The film begins with an opening shot of Smith in a white suit performing onstage at the 70th Academy Awards in 1998 with his song “Miss Misery”, which was nominated for Best Original Song in Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” (1997). Through a series of radio interviews, Smith candidly talks about what this experience was like for him. Not only did it bring him international acclaim to someone at that point only recognized in the States, but it catapulted his career to a whole new platform in the music industry. The story then flashes back to Smith’s upbringing, born and raised in Dallas, TX, with his childhood looking like a seemingly fairly normal one. Smith shows a very early interest in the guitar, and begins writing and playing his own music at the age of 13. By 14, Smith had ditched what he called the “mundane” way of living in the suburbs of Dallas to Portland, OR, a city that had one of the most thriving music scenes in the country during this time and became the epicenter for the kind of music that Smith’s early career’s musical pursuits catered to. It depicts his early rise in the Portland music scene with his post-punk outfit Heatmiser, a band who after just two years he would leave to focus on his own music as a solo artist. It then shift gears a bit and focuses on Smith’s rise to fame as a solo artist and where he was at each point musically in the albums he would put out from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. With much attention to detail on his creative process, to his love life and relationships which he would touch on in his work (“Hey You”), his move from Portland to New York City (one that he says had more to do because of a failed relationship and his break from Heatmiser). A tough move as Portland viewed him as a staple of their music scene at the time and whose fans purchased 70% of his music, the other 30% spread out over ever other city in the U.S. To his reluctant move to Los Angeles. At which time he developed a very serious drug problem while battling what seemed like some pretty serious inner demons, something he would never get over and eventually succumb to and pass away from.

This was a remarkable tribute to the life and work of Smith which was both insightful and utterly fascinating. As someone who considers themselves well versed about his life I thought it shed light on a number of things about him, not only as an artist but a person, that I never would have known had it not been for this film. Another misconception that the film touches on is that Smith’s songs weren’t really about himself at all although many people thought they were. According to Smith, the tragic characters in which he sang about in his songs were merely “archetypes” (as he refers to them as). I also liked how they focused a lot of attention on the Oscar nomination and what impact this had on him. Smith talks about the experience as a rather surprisingly humbling one. And in the process of doing so, shows a side of his sense of humor. He says he mostly took everything in stride, and realized that despite the attention, he was still a small fish in a big pond. I found myself laughing out loud when he talks about the fact that the Oscar organizers didn’t want him to walk the ride carpet. But he chose to do so instead, only to go unnoticed as he coincidentally showed up at the same time as Madonna. The ones closest to him talk about the fact that while although from the outside he seemed to not like the experience or the accolades he was given, on the inside he truly felt a sense that he had finally made it which brought him a new found confidence that he had never had up to that point. I thought this portion of the film was nicely well done. As was its inevitable conclusion, where Smith starts using heroin and begins to delve into the dark side. I had always thought Smith was a long time drug user, but it really wasn’t until around the time that he hit 30, a mere 3 years before his death, that he started to using drugs. It’s unflinching in its depiction of the last chapter of his life, and isn’t overly sympathetic which I thought was a brilliant decision on its part is it easily could have fallen into a melodramatic, “heroin is bad” anti drug movie. They simply leave it at “it was what it was”. He just got deeply immersed in a lifestyle that would ultimately be his demise. The films ends on a rather poignant note, with moving footage of tributes that were done in his honor in 2013, a decade after his death. This was an extremely well done, comprehensive and deeply affecting look at one of my favorite artists who left us far too early. By the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and it was met by a seated ovation from just about everyone in the theater. This wound up being one of the greatest testaments of an artist whose influence and legacy will live on to inspire decades to come.

[A-]