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]

DVD Review – “Big Eyes” 4.13.15

If you had of asked me a year ago whether or not I’d ever watch a Tim Burton film again my answer would probably have been no. In charting the director’s career trajectory, in the past decade or so, he’s made one “dud” after another. Becoming somewhat of a sell out. The type of commercial director that I usually try to stay as far away from as possible. Sure he’s single-handedly responsible for making some of film’s most iconic films ranging from “Beetlejuice” (1988), to what I call the Keaton/Nicholson “Batman” (1989), “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), to what’s still my favorite of Burton’s films – 1994’s “Ed Wood”. Since then, almost a full twenty years ago, he hasn’t made a single good film other than 2003’s “Big Fish” which I thoroughly enjoyed but mostly because it had that “classic” early Burton feel. He’s the master of the fairy tale and one could easily argue he created his own style and niche within the filmmaking industry. But following that film, he managed to somehow lose his touch, for lack of a better expression. Especially in more recent years with film’s like his atrocious “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” remake (1995) and “Alice in Wonderland”(2010). Amidst a slew of other “family friendly” films which has pretty much become his trademark at this point in his career. But even despite of my admitted disliking of where his career path has gone over these past several years. His new film, “Big Eyes”, looked like something entirely different outside of the current Burton universe that at this point we’ve almost come to expect from the director. What interested me about this film, and which was essentially my sole reason for seeing it, was the casting of its two central leads in both Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Both actors of whom I deeply admire. Then when I saw that both actors were nominated for Golden Globes in the Best Actress and Actor categories respectively, I decided with some apprehension to give the film a shot.

“Big Eyes” first introduces us to Margaret (played by Adams), a 1950’s Northern California housewife who for reasons that aren’t entirely spelled out, the implication is that she is unhappy in her current marriage, so she moves her and her daughter to San Francisco to start a new life for themselves. Margaret is a painter, and has a certain style in both form and self-expression that is both unique and singular to her. She paints young children that are sad and wide-eyed, eyes that look like over-sized jelly beans that like many artists, she seems to do for the love of the art form itself with no real particular desire for any sort of notoriety. It is by a chance encounter that she meets a fellow artist, a man named Walter (played by Waltz) one day while trying to sell her work. Walter comes across as charming, handsome, and very charismatic. She sees him as being somewhat well established within the art community. And before long the two wind up getting married. Walter takes on the role as art dealer, and encourages Margaret to focus solely on her paintings, and explains that he would like to team up as any husband and wife should on the path to what he sees as major success. Along the way we meet a rival art dealer (played by the always welcomed but underused Jason Schwartzmann), a San Francisco news writer (Danny Huston), as well as a critic for the New York Times (Terence Stamp). The couple’s career really starts to soar and take off. But there’s just one problem. Margaret finds out that Walter is taking credit for her work. And even despite her unhappiness with this idea of him accepting all of the credit from the art world, she continues to paint her singular style portraits, because she sees it, in benefits them both. Financially speaking of course. But as the popularity grows with her work, along does a sense of shame and fear that their “cover up” is not only illegal but a secret that as the film progresses, only becomes deeper and deeper in terms of its deceit and manipulation. Until Margaret decides to take action. Which is where the major plot device and elevation in story begins to take place.

The film contains more strengths than weaknesses but really doesn’t come across as equaling the sum of its parts. I’ll start by saying both Adams and Waltz put in two very fine performances. Both of which I see as totally deserving of their Golden Globe nominations (and earning Adams an eventual win). Though many critics see her win as a sort of “token gesture” in the year of Julianne Moore knowing that her performance couldn’t possibly be topped. To me though, who really shined here was Waltz, who has catapulted himself as being one of Hollywood’s finest, still somewhat new discovery (the guy’s won 2 Oscars since his breakout performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) ). He shows a certain range and depth here within his performance that is a perfect example of their being two sides to every person’s character. As more and more of his true character is revealed, the story itself becomes more and more interesting. A feat only an actor of Waltz’s stature could only pull off. The second thing I’d like to say about the film is like the early Burton films of old, he does an expert job in terms of the look of the film, transporting us right into 1950’s suburbia as he did with films like “Edward Scissorhands”. His use of framing and film composition makes sure that not one shot goes unwasted. Which for me personally was nice to see that he can still make a film that feels “Burton-esque”, utilizing his biggest strengths from a technical standpoint as a director. Which I haven’t seen in a long long time. The story itself is engaging enough and moves along at a steady pace, mainly because of its “can do no wrong” two leads. It had me hooked and genuinely interested in what was going to happen next. That is until the ending, where in my opinion the film loses almost everything that was built up before it, becoming both trite and predictable in its court room scenes of the exposition of the truth. I took into account that it’s based on a true story, but given if this is exactly how the events wound up transpiring, I just didn’t find myself buying in to the way in which the film was resolved. It felt too-textbook and lost steam in its last act. However, that being said, this is somewhat of a return to form for Burton, which reminded me of the days of old in that if given the right material and actors (both Adams and Waltz are dynamite) he can make a picture that still retains the strongest components of his earlier work. This is a movie I’m recommending simply for its standout performances. And if you can look past its mostly predictable and calculated ending , which I couldn’t, you might find somewhat of a hidden gem of a film that hits the mark mainly because of its two strong leads. That even given the the strong work on display, had my eyes rolling as the end credits finally came.

[B-]