Review: Danny Collins

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DIR: Dan Fogelman • WRI: Dan Fogelman • PRO: Nimitt Mankad, Jessie Nelson • DOP: Steve Yedlin • ED: Julie Monroe • MUS: Ryan Adams, Theodore Shapiro, John Lennon • DES: Dan Bishop • CAST: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby, Cannavale, Christopher Plummer

 

Despite having carved a lionized career playing mordacious mobsters, murderers, moguls and mentors in crime thrillers, Al Pacino has peppered such tragedian roles with the odd foray into the sunnier comedy genre over the course of his forty-something career. While early comedy roles in films such as Dick Tracy and Frankie and Johnnie may have garnered Pacino critical success, later roles in lesser critically received comedies such as Stand Up Guys and The Humbling have failed to reposition Pacino with anything of significant weight outside his celebrated career as the introspective intimidator in Hollywood crime dramas.

 

In his latest comedy jaunt Danny Collins, Pacino stars as the eponymous ageing pop star who compromised his musical integrity for commercial success when starting out in the industry forty years ago. In spite of his enduring successful career, he has grown cynical and frustrated with belting out the same repetitive hits to an increasingly older audience. When he discovers a letter from John Lennon written in 1971 encouraging him to remain faithful to his musical integrity, it inspires him to take control of his creativity in the way he should have done a long time ago. He sets about righting the wrongs of the past and along the way encounters a new family, true friendship and a psychological battle composing the songs he feels he was truly meant to write.

 

Inspired by the true story of British folk musician Steve Tilston, who received a letter from John Lennon thirty-four years after he wrote it, assuring him that success would not compromise his songwriting abilities, renowned Hollywood screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love. The Guilt Trip, Last Vegas) debuts his first foray into comedy as feature film director. With such screenwriting credentials and illustrious cast at the helm, it would be safe to assume that Fogelman should be able to elevate the over-familiar narrative of sentimental self-discovery into a refreshingly contemporary and cautionary tale about the malignancy of greed and success. Unfortunately, the hit-and-miss Fogelman is unable to draw on the screenwriting resources of some of his previous films, instead lapsing into the well-oiled narrative of transformation that Hollywood ubiquitously churns out by the bucket load. Evidently assuming this universal parable is not in need of refreshment, Fogelman repeatedly meets narrative expectations, which surprisingly for an experienced screenwriter, results in a somewhat indifference to his narrative, relying all too easily on Lennon’s soundtrack to bolster the film’s predictable ruts, of which there are far too many.

 

What was much needed in Danny Collins to leaven the formulaic narrative was to engage with the dark subtext that is sporadically introduced but let flaccidly hanging. In the hands of the ever-ruminative Pacino, the exploration of Danny’s morality and conscience; addiction, abandonment, manipulation of and by the industry, would have rooted his moral transition from self-obsessed, pitying crooner into worldly-wise family man, all the more tangible had his character been given the multi-textured attention Pacino is renowned for but is instead carpeted over with sugared-coated fluff. Indeed, it is the outstanding performances from its leading actors that saves Danny Collins from becoming another forgettable, twee comedy drama and Pacino can honourably salute his latest comedy role, which is nigh on flawless as the impish and childlike, washed-out, raspy crooner who balances the burden of self-destruction from the perilous trappings of show business with the emotional sensitivity of the first flushes of genuine love, friendship and family bonding. When given the opportunity, Pacino displays the emotional pain of the tragic loner with such palpable nuance; it is a tragedy in itself that this lack of emotional exploration into Pacino’s character, concealed behind the overuse of Lennon’s soundtrack, becomes a wasted opportunity and severe oversight by Fogelman.

 

Annette Bening is as infallible as ever and plays the perfect foil to Pacino’s roguish guff with understated sophistication and razor-sharp wit, while Christopher Plummer as Danny’s corrosive manager, is failed too often by misplaced vulgar dialogue, which is so painfully at odds with his character’s intent at times, that when he does express emotional humility, it appears alienating and disingenuous. The surprise revelation is Jennifer Garner who displays impeccable comedic timing and although remains within the boundaries of her habitual risk-free maternal roles, could have stolen the acting accolades from Pacino and Bening, had she benefitted from a more robust script and developed characterisation.

 

It would be expected that a film by a first-time director would contain many of the lesser-polished elements than would be customary from a more experienced filmmaker. However, it is not the direction that is the weakest component in Danny Collins but rather ironically, its immensely lethargic script that relies too heavily on thundering clichés that devalue the illuminating comedic performances from Pacino, Bening and Garner. Within a more solid and polished narrative of self-discovery, the conclusion would be fittingly apt, however, in the absence of this, it merely appears Fogelman has run out of steam or has just simply given up.

Danny Collins is, at times, an engaging and downright hilarious comedy drama that will have you laughing through the tears but this is simply owing to the sublime performances from its cast and not through a refreshingly new perspective on the hackneyed Hollywood narrative of transformation.

 

   Dee O’Donoghue

 

15A (See IFCO for details)

106 minutes

Danny Collins is released 29th May 2015

 

Danny Collins – Official Website

 

 

 

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Cinema Review: Ginger & Rosa

DIR: Sally Potter • PRO: Andrew Litvin, Christopher Sheppard • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Anders Refn • DES: Carlos Conti • CAST:  Christina Hendricks, Elle Fanning, Annette Bening, Alessandro Nivola

In perhaps the most excessive metaphor in cinema this year, the threat of nuclear holocaust has been used to represent the disintegration of a lifelong friendship between two teenage girls. While losing a close friend can seem like the end of the world at such a difficult age, it may be deemed over the top to stress it quite so much as Ginger & Rosa does.

Around the same time as the bombing of Hiroshima, the mothers of the titular teens bond as they go into simultaneous labours in a London hospital. Their girls naturally grow up the best of friends. Ginger (Elle Fanning, red-haired and just about English) is intelligent but angsty; Rosa (newcomer Alice Englert) is self-serving and over-confident. Together they blow off school to meet boys, attend anti-bomb protests and discuss religion and their place in the world. As Rosa develops faster as a young woman, Ginger develops more intellectually, encouraged by her lefty academic dad – the girls soon find themselves drifting far apart.

Sally Potter, the visually talented director of Orlando, has written a simple drama that struggles to fill its 90-minute running time. The first half of the film is pleasantly padded with Ginger and Rosa’s expeditions; kissing boys at bus stops, hitching lifts with dangerous strangers, trying out new fashions of the ’60s. But once the girls, particularly Ginger, become involved in the anti-nuclear movement the film slows down dramatically, and becomes a repetitive slog on its journey towards the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ginger’s panic and terror at the potential apocalypse, and fear of facing it without her increasingly distant friend, are not enough to hang half a film on. The subplot of the end of her parents’ marriage also resolves itself more-or-less halfway through – there’s a terrific short film in here somewhere, but it’s hardly feature material.

So while it’s finely made, Ginger & Rosa is anything but a satisfying film. A little into the second half a betrayal occurs so enormous that it is simply preposterous that these two ‘friends’  would ever speak to one another again. No amount of brave faces put on by the characters can change how awkward and implausible the story becomes. Ginger’s increasing despondency at all aspects of her life and the world she lives in become almost too much to take; you don’t know if you want to hold her or give her a good shaking!

Fanning gives an affecting performance, and is interestingly playing a character two or three years her senior, and believably so. Her natural sweetness makes the pain she suffers hard to bear, and she evokes the idealism of the era with wide-eyed wonder and tear-stained cheeks. Englert meanwhile captures the contradiction of a teenager who is simultaneously woman and child, wielding a newfound sexuality that is as confusing to everyone around her as it is to herself. As Ginger’s father, Alessandro Nivola (another American actor) does his best to humanise a decidedly despicable role, but it’s too much for him – he remains a self-righteous womaniser who only takes pride in his daughter when she says things he believes in. As distracting as her physics-defying cleavage is, is Christina Hendricks’s godawful attempt at an English accent. The Mad Men star is more than able to hold her own as Ginger’s beleaguered mother, but her strained attempts at capturing English vowel sounds take away from an otherwise fine performance. Elsewhere, Tim Spall and Oliver Platt are adorable as Ginger’s gay godfathers. Annette Bening also shows up.

Potter and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who shot last year’s Wuthering Heights) have captured a natural-looking recreation of early-’60s London, and a penchant for close-ups helps sell the performances of the actors even as the drama dwindles. The production design team deserve special praise for selling the era so well.

But despite all the craft that has gone into this film, there is no escaping the fact that there is not enough story to keep it buoyant, and what story there is is little new. Very little is resolved at the end, and a poem read by Fanning in voiceover is not enough to bring you out of the movie feeling you experienced anything more than a pretty, meandering dream of a fascinating time, slightly dumbed down.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
89 mins

Ginger & Rosa is released on 19th October 2012

Ginger & Rosa –  Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GekB_GI8Sis

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Cinema Review: Ruby Sparks

DIR: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris  WRI: Zoe Kazan PRO: Albert Berger , Ron Yerxa  DOP: Matthew Libatique  ED: Pamela Martin DES: Judy Becker  CAST:  Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

Your enjoyment of Ruby Sparks will come down entirely to whether you are someone who can switch their brain off, or someone who tends to over-think complicated ideas. Certainly no one involved in this bright romantic fantasy had their brains turned on, as if they had they might have realised the morally rotten core at the heart of an apparently charming little movie. The subtext of this film is frightening, but what’s truly terrifying is that it seems like no one who worked on the film is aware of it in the slightest.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer suffering a creative block, who a decade earlier had his only hit while still a teenager, with one of those books that ‘speaks’ to people. Burdened with all of the emotional issues (a dead father, a remarried mother, a slowly becoming successful ex), Calvin can’t get started on his new book. He’s the kooky kind you find in movies – he uses a typewriter like an obnoxious hipster, lives off his one successful book and has a dog with gender identity problems. The dog is named Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one point in the film it shreds a copy of Catcher in the Rye. You get the idea.

Unable to meet a girl, Calvin’s psychiatrist recommends he try writing about his dream girl. He invents a girl with the sort of idiosyncrasies he finds attractive, imagines her being pretty but not overwhelmingly so, and then gives her the name of a bad drag queen act. Soon, thanks to his magic typewriter (probably?), Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is made flesh. While Calvin assumes he has gone insane, Ruby believes they’ve been in a relationship for some time and acts as if she’s always existed, unaware she is his creation. Soon Calvin and Ruby are happy together – she’s the sort of girl who likes zombie movies and jumps into pools unexpectedly; who could resist? But it’s not long before her underwritten life (she has no job or friends) and Calvin’s jealousy and fear of abandonment kick in, and he’s back at his typewriter literally changing her.

On the surface, Kazan, who also wrote the film, has scripted a somewhat clever takedown of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’  phenomenon, highlighting the implausibility of male expectations in a similar manner to how Weird Science looked at the fantasy of the buxom bombshell back in the ’80s. But scratch away that surface and a far nastier film is revealed. After running out of ideas halfway through her script, Kazan has opted for a conclusion that is unsuitably creepy. And I don’t mean ‘threatening text message from your ex’ creepy, I mean ‘walking in on your mother in bed with a stranger and it turns out it’s you from the future’ creepy.

At first Calvin’s rewrites do little more than lobotomise Ruby, leaving her a quivering, weeping mess or a braindead giggling simpleton, but later things turn even more disturbing for the writer and his intolerable mind puppet. He becomes so possessive that his writing of Ruby begins to physically abuse her, before ultimately forcing her to perform (mild) sexual acts against her will. Worse still, the film rewards him for ‘learning’ from his spate of domestic abuse with a happy ending. It is tonally completely unsuitable, and it reeks of desperation in storytelling and/or the writer being too clueless to understand her own work. Kazan’s only writing project prior to this was her dire, drab play We Live Here, an under-edited vanity project also about rich people’s problems that ran off-Broadway last year, so perhaps it was premature to expect her to write a feature film that didn’t raise this many eyebrows. But the very fact that Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Dano plays her inventor/tormenter adds an additional layer of ick to the proceedings, upgrading Hurricane Ruby from unsettling shit-storm to grotesque rape fantasy.

Kazan, while not much the writer, proves herself once again a strong screen presence, and captures Ruby’s various mood shifts well enough. Dano on the other hand weasels his way through the despicable role as best he can, but it’s not enough to rescue the character – where’s Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin when you need him? Annette Bening grates as Calvin’s hippie mum, while Antonio Banderas almost charms as her eccentric artist husband. Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan pop up briefly in roles they could do in their sleep, while Chris Messina steals what little of the film he can as Calvin’s jock-with-a-heart brother Harry, who also gets the best of Kazan’s few good lines.

Returning to filmmaking for their first time since their 2006 Oscar-winning breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine, director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their talents known here – Ruby Sparks is finely, brightly shot throughout and tidily cut with passable montages. People run excitedly to stirring music. It would all be quite lovely if it weren’t for that damn script.

And it all comes down to the script in the end. Telling us repeatedly that Calvin is a genius of a writer when all evidence points to the contrary (just as his faults are written into Ruby, Kazan’s are written into him), Kazan has unintentionally drawn a metaphor for her own script – just because she is famous does not make her a storyteller. Attempting to address similar issues to (500) Days of Summer, she has written a similarly faulted protagonist, but with none of the same charm (and indeed Paul Dano is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While those who can mentally gloss over its sordid subtext may enjoy a romcom with a twist, Ruby Sparks will remain a difficult film about an unlikeable, self-absorbed cur who gets to imagine his cake and eat it too.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
103 mins

Ruby Sparks is released on 12th October 2012

Ruby Sparks   –  Official Website

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Actors Masterclass with Annette Bening

The Galway Film Fleadh/Hubbard Casting in association with Fás Screen Training Ireland have announced that Annette Bening(American Brauty, Being Julia) will deliver the Actors Masterclass at the 22nd Galway Film Fleadh.

The class will be run for actors seeking to enhance their understanding of the craft and will take place at the Raddisson Hotel in Galway.

For further information contact Bronagh Keys at masterclasses@galwayfilmfleadh.com or call Criona Sexton/Sorcha Loughnane at FÁS Screen Training Ireland, 01 6077437/016077468.

The class costs €50 and to apply, logon to www.screentrainingireland.ie

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