Month: March 2015

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Danny Collins”

indexDanny Collins  (2015; Dir.: Dan Fogelman)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the AMC Metreon 16 and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco.

 It feels as though Al Pacino has been “doing Al Pacino” in movies ever since he won the Oscar for 1992’s Scent of a Woman, where he played the blind, brash, brazenly offensive Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade.  Scent of a Woman was a terrible film in 1992 and it’s almost hilariously unwatchable today, yet people were inexplicably charmed by Pacino’s one-note bellowing, and it raised him to a new level of popularity.

Despite the fact that one-note screaming lessons were coming to dominate his work, Pacino’s 1990s post-Scent performances in films like Heat, Donnie Brasco and The Insider are a relatively diverse lot.  But like his generational equal Robert De Niro, he succumbed to a highly lucrative life of scenery-munching self-parody.  It was kind of fun at first, like a reclusive rock star playing a concert full of his greatest hits, but it’s grown progressively depressing, like that same rock star playing that same catalog of greatest hits a quarter century later.

images3In writer-director Dan Fogelman’s scattershot Danny Collins, there is a brief sensation that Pacino will engage in some soul-searching self-commentary on the subject (sorry, Jack and Jill does not count).   He plays the title character, a sensitive 1970s folk singer turned creatively bankrupt modern-day pop buffoon, a man who gets more washed up the more successful he becomes.  As the film opens, Danny is drowning in the clichés of boomer rock stardom – cocaine, booze, a ridiculously young fiancée, fake tans, wigs, and girdles – and his life has become a non-stop greatest hits tour played for an audience of Twizzler-eating seniors.

A birthday present from his best friend and tour manager Frank (Christopher Plummer, good in even the most incredulous roles) pulls Danny out of his downward spiral of runaway success.  It’s a framed 1971 letter written to Danny by John Lennon, stolen and lost for decades, in which Lennon responded to a magazine interview where Danny talked about his fear of commercial success, especially the negative effect it might have on his music.

index5In the letter, Lennon advises Danny that the key is to “stay true to yourself,” which Danny interprets as a call to ditch the mansion and the fiancée to hole up at a New Jersey Hilton, where he intends to reunite with his estranged family and write the One Perfect Song that will fix everything.  As soon as it becomes clear that the film is really about the megastar Danny bantering with starstruck hicks and learning how to love again, it sinks like a stone, and we’re right back to Pacino “doing Pacino”.

Pacino’s shameless preening results in some enjoyably loose-limbed moments, the best of which he shares with Annette Bening’s hotel manager, but the family scenes are a drag.  A teeming mass of quirks, tics, and inexplicable behavior, Danny’s family could have been assembled by a Sundance Film Festival selection committee.  There is the dewy-eyed but inwardly tough pregnant mother (Jennifer Garner), the resentful but sensitive father hiding a Big Secret (Bobby Cannavale), and an adorably sass-mouthed moppet named Hope.  They come straight out of Juno’s Buyers Club of Little Miss Station Agents, and the contrivances stack up whenever they’re around.

index4The actors all do fine work, but they’re swimming against the tide of Fogelman’s script, which features some sharp dialogue and interesting ideas but never assembles its pieces into a credible whole.  Fogelman absolves Danny of any responsibility for the familial estrangement very early, cutting off the film’s limbs in order to make the protagonist more ostensibly likeable.  Robbed of any real character stakes, Pacino is left to ham it up for the hotel staff, goof around with his granddaughter, and wait for the son to get over his shit.

Although the film claims to be “Based on a true story a little bit”, the Lennon letter is the only sliver of a semi-fact in Danny Collins.   A more accurate description would be “Based on an excuse to cram the film full of John Lennon’s greatest hits (while also slut-shaming the entire greatest hits concept)”.  Lennon’s music guides and comments on the story, in fairly predictable but effective fashion – “Whatever Gets You through the Night” plays as Danny marinates in liquor and drugs, and we hear “Beautiful Boy” after one of Danny’s failed attempts to reconcile with his son.

Fogelman gets a lot of emotional mileage out of his song licensing budget, but the film’s use of Lennon as a talisman of family values and artistic integrity feels false, and ignores many of the facts of Lennon’s life and career.  Yet that level of cognitive dissonance is strangely fitting for Danny Collins, a film that builds its star an ideal platform for game-changing introspection, and then never allows him to take the stage.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Wrecking Crew”

index3The Wrecking Crew (1996/2008/2015; Dir.: Denny Tedesco)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and the Chrisopher B. Smith Rafael Center in San Rafael.

In case you didn’t know, a loosely knit group of roughly two dozen Southern California session musicians dubbed The Wrecking Crew played on almost every pop song (and TV theme) you ever loved from the golden age of rock and roll. They were Phil Spector’s wall of sound, the Tijuana Brass, the backing band for The Mamas and the Papas and Elvis Presley, and they replaced entire bands on classic albums from The Beach Boys, The Association, and The Monkees, almost always without credit. The “members” included eventual frontmen Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, as well as workaholic session players like drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and bassist/single mother Carole Kaye (if Kaye isn’t your hero by the end of this film, then God help you), and in their prime they turned out roughly an album a day. One of the great recurring gags in The Wrecking Crew, an engaging documentary from Tedesco’s son Danny, is watching vintage television footage of studio-promoted rock stars performing on stage without a backing band, while lip-synching to a track played by The Wrecking Crew. There is some grousing from the musicians about the “secret starmaker machinery” that forced their brilliance into the dark, and Tedesco doesn’t shy from the harsh realities of the session player’s life, but this isn’t an angry or bitter film by any means. The goal, almost to a fault, is to celebrate these musicians and the songs they created, which is where the torturous backstory of The Wrecking Crew comes into play. Tedesco started filming in 1996, premiered the movie at South by Southwest in 2008, and only recently received a crowd-sourced infusion of cash to pay for the myriad musical rights, finally allowing the film to become available for public consumption. Hearing that music, from Phil Spector to Pet Sounds to The Pink Panther , makes all the difference – The Wrecking Crew may not be deep, but it’s glorious.

VOD REVIEW – “Love Hunter”

index5Love Hunter (2015; Dir.: Branislav “Brane” Bala and Nemanja Bala)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Out now on iTunes, Amazon, and most VOD services, and available on DVD and Netflix Instant starting April 15.

Writer-directors Branislav and Nemanja Bala have fashioned Love Hunter as a semi-autobiographical star vehicle for singer-songwriter Milan Mumin. Wait, who? The Serbian-born Mumin fronted The Love Hunters, a key band in the Yugoslav War-era rock scene that never registered stateside, and for the last decade he’s been driving a New York City cab while continuing to chase his musical dreams. That’s essentially where Love Hunter picks up, with the gregarious Mumin playing “himself,” a cab-driving guitar player forced to choose between his solo album ambitions and the domestic demands of his fiancée, while soaking in the rhythms of the city and developing a crush on his pretty bassist. It hits an exact midpoint between the warming Once and the tacky Begin Again, both in terms of tone and quality, and it tends to drag considerably whenever the Bob Mould-like Mumin is forced to put down his guitar and carry the emotional weight of the film.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/SA Current (3/19 and 3/26 issues)

index#barnesyardbumps:

*After a 2014 dominated by revenge narratives, Argentinean director Damian Szifron’s Oscar-nominated Wild Tales is the revenge film to end all revenge films, a glorious and bonkers blast of visual creativity and storytelling energy, and one of the most purely entertaining films of the year.

*The San Antonio Current published a slightly different edit of my Wild Tales review.

index*David Cameron Mitchell’s deeply unsettling and nightmarishly lucid horror film It Follows feels like Texas Chainsaw Tobe Hooper directing a Richard Linklater rewrite of Under the Skin.

*Although its Sacramento premiere was pushed back, the Israeli courtroom drama Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem is still a minimalist and moving combination of A Separation and Anatomy of a Murder.

index*TV and music video director Yann Demange makes an extremely promising feature debut with the harrowing thriller ’71.

#barnesyardharrumphs:

*The slick but superficial Russian hockey documentary Red Army is a 76-minute feature in search of a short film.

*Run All Night has Liam Neeson once again playing a seemingly washed-up alcoholic and deadbeat dad who secretly possesses a particular set of skills, most of which revolve around the ancient art of wasting fools.

images#barnesyarddumps:

*The well-intentioned but shameless anti-bullying drama A Girl Like Her attempts an ill-conceived blend of found footage and faux documentary that never works.

THE BARNESYARD’S NOW PLAYING POWER RANKINGS (March 27 to April 2, 2015)

index* = SF Bay Area only

BUMPED

1) It Follows
2) American Sniper
3) Wild Tales
*4) Timbuktu
5) ’71
6) The Hunting Ground
7) What We Do in the Shadows
*8) Selma
*9) The Wrecking Crew
*10)
Merchants of Doubt

indexMIXED-POSITIVE

11) Chappie
12) Still Alice
13) Kingsman: The Secret Service
*14) Leviathan
*15) Living is Easy with Eyes Closed

MIXED-NEGATIVE

16) Focus
*17) Danny Collins
18) Run All Night

indexDUMPED

19) Insurgent
*20) Birdman
21) Fifty Shades of Grey
22) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
23) The Imitation Game
24) Taken 3
25) A Girl Like Her
26) The Gunman

HAVEN’T SEEN (in alphabetical order)

indexCinderella
*Deli Man
Do You Believe?
The DUFF
Get Hard
Home
*An Honest Liar
Jupiter Ascending
The Lazarus Effect
*Magician: The Astonishing/Orson Welles
McFarland, USA
Night at the Museum 2
Paddington
*Salad Days
*Serena
*Seymour: An Introduction
*Song of the Sea
The Spongebob Movie
Strange Magic
That Thing Called Tadhana
*3 Hearts
*Welcome to New York

This list is updated every Thursday. The rankings reflect the opinion of Daniel Barnes only. All films playing in Sacramento area theaters are listed, as well as select films playing exclusively in the San Francisco Bay Area.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine”

indexMatt Shepard is a Friend of Mine (2015; Dir.: Michelle Josue)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco, the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Rialto Sonoma County in Sebastopol.

There have been numerous attempts to adapt, translate, and contextualize the death of gay University of Wyoming student Matt Shepard ever since his horrifying murder galvanized the nation in 1998. Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, written and directed by Shepard’s childhood friend Michelle Josue, is an open and honest attempt to understand his life, to show “our Matt” to a world that picked him up as a symbol first and a person last. With the consent and assistance of his heroic and still-grieving parents, Josue tracks Shepard’s upbringing from Casper, Wyoming to Saudi Arabia to a Swiss boarding school (where he befriended Josue), and to his life-shattering sexual assault while on a weekend trip to Morocco that sent him back to the “safety” of Wyoming. By allowing Shepard to become flesh and blood, it only makes his hate crime murder seem that much more personal (Shepard was so small in stature, the crime scene deputies thought he was a 12 year-old boy), the outpouring of hate at his funeral that much more infuriating, and the “generation of advocates” that became his legacy that much more inspiring. There are amateur touches here and there, like when Josue shoots herself staring off blankly at the prison that holds Shepard’s murderers, but overall the filmmaking is very accomplished.  Be prepared for a powerhouse emotional experience – I cried throughout the film, I cried thinking about it later, I cried going over my notes, I’m crying right now, and I’ll probably cry while copy editing my review, loading images, adding tags, and setting the publish date.