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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Men, Women & Children

Still from Men, Women & Children

DIR: Jason Reitman • WRI: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilso • PRO: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Jason Blumenfeld, Michael Beugg, Mason Novick • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • CAST: Adam Sander, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Crocicchia, Emma Thompson

 

Men, Women & Children sees former wunderkind Jason Reitman return to a contemporary subject, after a baffling diversion into romantic melodrama with last year’s Labour Day. Unfortunately, Men, Women & Children is a far cry from Reitman’s masterpiece, 2011’s thrillingly tart Charlize Theron vehicle, Young Adult. Like Reitman’s other more successful features, Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009), Young Adult was a character study with a fairly narrow focus. Men, Women & Children, by contrast, is a multi-stranded portmanteau piece, in the vein of Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) or Alejandro Gonzáles Inárritu’s Babel (2006). Although ostensibly lighter in tone than either of those films, Men, Women & Children dutifully replicates their central oxymoron – attempting to vindicate the diversity of human interaction by reducing it to a schematic.

 

Orbiting around the idea of how technology facilitates the increasing isolation of the very people it claims to connect, Men, Women & Children hones in on a selection of suburbanites in present day Texas, including a jaded married couple played by Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt, a pair of disaffected teenagers played by Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, and two contrasting mothers, one of whom (Jennifer Garner) tirelessly monitors and restricts her daughter’s internet and phone use, while the other (Judy Greer) prostitutes her nubile daughter’s image on a subscription website. A trite framing device, in which the travails of these people are cross-cut with the progress of the Voyager satellite through space, seems to suggest that their interactions are emblematic of present day human society in general. In so doing, the film sets out to debunk the myth of the “global village”, while unselfconsciously perpetuating the false notion that new-technology communications are a genuinely global phenomenon. Emma Thompson’s narration, which sets descriptions of space exploration alongside observations of the masturbatory habits of middle-aged Texan fathers, underscores the point, although the self-satisfied smirk with which it is delivered doesn’t make the medicine go down any easier.

 

The film suffers from the curious problem of feeling didactic about nothing in particular. Many critics have read it as alarmist or hectoring, although that doesn’t seem to be quite accurate. Instead, Men, Women & Children attempts to cultivate a kind of studied neutrality, presenting its “findings” without explicit comment – at least until the very end, which wraps things up in a sentimental bow. The problem with this approach is that not one of the film’s observations is new, and its technique – in which artificial suspense is created by cross-cutting multiple story arcs in an attempt to disguise that each one is predictable as a metronome – undermines the quality of its performances. Sandler and DeWitt, particularly, are very good, given how little they have to work with; Judy Greer, likewise, makes something uncomfortably credible of a part that could easily have slid into caricature.

 

It’s a shame, however, that Reitman is more concerned with a banal thesis based on flattening the differences between people, than with the kind of drama that emerges from their complexity. Substituting characters for specimens, Men, Women & Children is as reductive as the new media it examines. There’s a certain grim irony, then, in the inevitable social media marketing campaign, which invited people to distil their inner thoughts to 135 characters and tag them with “#mwc”. Judging by the film’s disastrous performance at the U.S. box office, it seems not many people were interested. Perhaps they pre-emptively took Reitman’s message to heart, put down their smart-phones, and talked to each other instead – presumably about a film that had something more interesting to say.

 

David Turpin

16 See IFCO for details)
119 minutes.
Men, Women & Children is released 5th December.

Men, Women & Children – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Dallas Buyers Club

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DIR: Jean-Marc Vallee • WRI: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack • PRO: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter • DOP: Yves Belanger; ED: John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa • DES: John Paino CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Jennifer Garner

 

Someone is going to have to come up with a new word to describe Matthew McConaughey’s recent career revival soon. The word ‘renaissance’ is getting worn out. I know the English mangling description ‘McConaissance’ has been coined but that’s just a riff on the same word. If this current trajectory continues with a trip to the podium on Oscar night, a whole new lexicon may be needed.

We all knew from the get-go that McConaughey was a talent. From early peaks like the languid stoner stuck in a high school haze in Dazed & Confused and the stellar standard set in Lone Star, the native Texan exuded class and charisma.  It got lost for a bit there in a blizzard of rote rom-coms but in all honesty, how bad was life really for Matty even during this critically derided period? Handsomely compensated to head up blockbusters like Sahara or snog the faces off Hollywood’s hottest leading ladies? These were the definition of first world problems.

Pinpointing the upswing in material that he has been offered or chosen is hard to trace from the outside but clearly in a run that incorporates Bernie, Killer Joe and Mud, McConaughey has thrived by reconnecting with his Southern Gothic roots. Geographically, all the recent exceptional work is steeped in the South and so it is again here. He plays a real life electrician Ron Woodruff who relied on two Texan institutions in the ‘80s for casual employment – namely the rodeo and the oil fields.  A more macho creation would be hard to generate in fiction but Ron’s headlong and hedonistic approach to life hit a wall when he was diagnosed with HIV.

Reeling from shock, Ron’s gamut of initial emotions from denial to anger is played out with searing intensity and indignation. The film bravely depicts Ron as loaded down with his own prejudices and doesn’t flinch away from how narrow minded his world view was before and even after the diagnosis. In seeking out treatment, Ron is forced to consort with people he would never normally encounter. Personified here by Jared Leto’s sensitive transsexual Raylon.

With pithy finesse, the film evokes the climate of fear and ignorance swirling around AIDS in the late ‘80s. Ron is swiftly and brutally ostracised by his former friends and work colleagues. Ron doesn’t have time to dwell on the social exclusion because he’s in a race to prolong his life or procure any sort of decent treatment. With alacrity born of desperation, Ron educates himself about HIV and AIDS as he quickly absorbs enough knowledge to hold his own in any debate with officious medical professionals. When Ron’s research unearths the possibility that the favoured drug being peddled by big pharmaceutical companies for his treatment may not be the best option, he endeavours to find other options for himself. And others.

In the bleakest situation, Ron’s inquisitive and entrepreneurial nature rises to the fore and can’t be constrained by law or borders. In a bid to circumvent US rules, Ron sets up a medical club where the membership fee is just to join. Access to a range of imported medicines is thereafter classified as free. Under heavy scrutiny from the police and FDA, Ron’s operation has a limited time window but in most cases, so do Ron’s clients. The central thesis of the film pointedly reflects on a society that restricts terminal patients’ options at the very moment when all approaches and treatments should be considered.

From a distance I was sceptical of McConaughey’s Oscar credentials. Was the Academy’s fondness for radical physical transformation merely turning the award into a kind of weight-loss Olympics? However, in a film that lingers in the memory, it’s not his skeletal frame you remember most but the fire in his eyes during his tempestuous bursts of humour or temper.  Equally, the gradual thawing of his homophobia seems organic and unrushed. The film’s decision to present a complex character who eschews easy sympathy in favour of a rounded and often contradictory humanity is where the real triumph lies.

The lingering sadness surrounding the film is it took so long for Ron’s story to be told. This film was decades in the making. The combination of tackling AIDS while daring to aim justified criticism at big pharmaceutical companys meant the film was a hot potato that was about as ‘unsexy’ as it gets for studios and potential funders. The wait, however regrettable, has been worthwhile.

James Phelan

15A (See IFCO for details)
116  mins

Dallas Buyers Club is released on 7th February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC6mv0KhOBY

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