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: “Force Majeure” 2.9.15

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony. “Force Majeure” was a film I had been highly anticipating as many of the films that have either been nominated or won the former award, which has only been around for 16 years, have churned out some of my favorite foreign films, only second to the world’s most prestigious’ category – the Palm d’Or, which is the Cannes’ equivalent of the Academy’s Best Picture. The Un Certain regard category in which I speak of is almost always reserved for films that the Cannes voting panelists find to be of great significance and importance in relation to the international film community. Some films that have either been nominated and/or won this coveted award are as follows: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005 winner – Russia), “Tyson” (2008 nominee – America), “Dogtooth” (2009 winner – Greece – still one of my all time favorite foreign films), as well as director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (“Leviathan”) remarkable “Elena” (a 2011 nominee), and the 1-2-3 punch of 2013’s boastful nominees “Stranger by the Lake” (France), “Omar” (Palestine), and “Fruitvale Station” (United States). As I often times do with seeing a film solely based on the directed of who it is attached to, I also see films (especially foreign) that garner nominations in categories in which I find to have great validity by means of reputation. This film was yet another example of that approach to why I watch certain films. Not knowing or having the faintest idea of what it was about but still trusting my intuition and the word of mouth that comes out of Cannes every year.

The film introduces us to a family taking “holiday” (as most of us know the Europeans call it). They’re what you might consider to be the perfect nuclear family – a seemingly strong-willed father Tomas, his wife Ebba, and young daughter Vera and son Harry. Their holiday at a wealthy ski resort in the French Alps seems like the idyllic family vacation. Which we’re shown through a series of photographs as the start of the story. Ebba is just happy to have Tomas to both herself and their children, as it is inferred that he lives a pretty demanding work life at home. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and I couldn’t help but think of an American version of a trip to Disney World, where at the surface level, everything seems to be perfect. That is until one day they experience a catastrophic event, and the residual and lasting effects that it has on the family, particularly of Tomas’ wife Ebba,  while also acting as a sort of “reawakening” for each member to reevaluate both themselves and that of each of the other family members. This is essentially what the movie goes on to explore, without giving away any further plot details.

This wound up being both a beautiful and remarkable film that had my attention from the first frame to its final one. It works on almost all levels – from the story, to the acting, to the amazing cinematography of the French Alps, but even more importantly, how it explored the interpersonal dynamics of a family following a traumatizing event. The undeniably flawless direction by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is truly a sight to see for any true fan with an eye for film. The film captures this devastating family tragedy amongst the backdrop of the beautiful French Alps. Not only that, but like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Foxcatcher”) it does so with such a restrained approach using long take techniques to capture a certain sense of stillness to everything. That and like the late great Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability of filling up every single frame of the picture without a single inch going to waste. It also incorporates a beautiful classic score which I thought was right up on par with some of the best compositions of Kubrick’s films, which to me seemed so fascinating to the images being shown on-screen as it seemed to fit perfectly even if it comes off as a questionable choice for a movie score on behalf of the viewer at the beginning. The last but most verbose part of the review which I think is unquestionably worth noting in relation to this film is how deeply rooted it was in psychology. Anybody that really enjoys reading between a film’s lines for its underlying subtext should find this to be one of the more denser films they’ve seen. Evoking the works of the German director Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”, “The White Ribbon”, “Amour”) who acted as a reference point for me in its examination of traumatic events that shows how they manifest themselves from an individual standpoint. Looking at themes such as residual and vicarious trauma, self reevaluation, moral dilemmas, as well as the primitive instincts that make us human beings. This was just another example and further proof of a belief I’ve always held, in that foreign or international cinema, is operating at such a higher plane, than many if not all of its American counterparts that try to explore similar themes but that aren’t able to do so with such assuredness and a sense of realism. This wound up being a thoroughly engaging, well acted and shot, and probing psychological film that explores some very deep and heavy themes, that had my brain’s light switch turned on from start to finish. A must see for any fan even remotely interested in foreign or international cinema that challenges the viewer to really think, as opposed to merely sitting back and being entertained.

[B+]