Thursday, July 30, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: DANNY COLLINS (2015) and WHITE GOD (2015)

(US - 2015)

Al Pacino, or more specifically, the modern incarnation of Al Pacino, hasn't been known for nuance and sensitivity, but DANNY COLLINS provides the great actor with his best role in years. That DANNY COLLINS works as well as it does is a testament to Pacino's gifts as an actor, because upon a first glance, he seems laughably miscast as an aged '70s rock star on a decades-long greatest hits tour. Danny Collins began his career as a folk singer but soon went for big money, becoming an arena rocker singing songs written by others, songs that are now synonymous with him and the only things that his increasingly elderly audience wants to hear. He's still filthy rich and living the easy life with booze, recreational coke, and being a sugar daddy to a gold-digging plaything in her early 20s (Katarina Cas). But a surprise birthday gift from his best friend and career-long manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) has Danny re-evaluating his life and the choices he's made: it seems John Lennon read a 1971 interview with Danny and sent him a letter of encouragement, telling him that he liked his music and that he should call him if he should ever want to talk or write some songs. Lennon included his home phone number. The letter never got to Danny and somehow ended up in the hands of a collector, who sold it to Frank. It wasn't long after that interview that Danny gave up on his own songwriting and became the flashy, crowd-pleasing Danny Collins known to the world today. Canceling his tour and checking into a New Jersey Hilton, Danny is determined to become the man of integrity that John Lennon reached out to over 40 years ago, not just musically ("I haven't written a song in 30 years...I'm a court jester with a microphone"), but by connecting with Tom (Bobby Cannavale), the result of a one-nighter with a groupie back in the early '80s.

Inspired by an actual incident--British cult folk singer Steve Tilston was interviewed by ZigZag in 1971 and was sent a letter of support by Lennon that he never received until 2010--CARS, TANGLED, and LAST VEGAS screenwriter Dan Fogelman, making his directing debut, takes some liberties with where the protagonist ends up (Tilston has worked steadily to this day, but never came close to the mega-stardom of the fictional Danny Collins), and you're first instinct is to compare Danny to the pre-Rick Rubin critical rebirth of Neil Diamond. Fogelman also can't resist occasional forays into the mawkish--of course a potentially fatal illness comes into play--but it's very hard to dislike DANNY COLLINS. Pacino seems so wrong as a cheeseball Barry Manilow that you're convinced the film is sunk before the opening credits are even over, but fortunately, Fogelman keeps the focus on Collins' offstage life. Pacino imbues the character with the eccentricity he often brings to the screen, but does an admirable job of restraining himself and creating a living, breathing character as opposed to a cartoonish spectacle. Danny Collins is a guy who's let everyone close to him down, but as Frank attests "He has a good heart...it's just stuck up his ass sometimes." It's been a long time since Pacino was this charming in a movie, and his mischievous grin while flirting with uptight hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening) and his persistent, heartfelt attempts to bond with Tom and his wife (Jennifer Garner) and their daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) represent Pacino at the top of his game. It's hard not to see Danny as a commentary on Pacino himself, with so many hammy performances in the second half of his career that are so unlike the relatively reserved work of his younger self (though, really, even as far back s DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Pacino's been prone to indulging his hammy side). DANNY COLLINS is often maudlin and manipulative, and a third act downward spiral can be seen coming a mile away, but it works thanks to a restrained and engaged Pacino and a solid supporting cast. (R, 108 mins)

(Hungary/Germany/Sweden - 2014; US release 2015)

A heavy-handed societal allegory about oppression and class struggle, WHITE GOD is nonetheless an impressive achievement in that the filmmakers managed to depict an army of angry dogs taking over Budapest without using CGI. Over 250 dogs were brought in for the insane final half hour, which is largely a canine version of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, with director Kornel Mundruczo working with a large team of trainers to coordinate what amounts to a precision, military-like attack. Some of the dogs, particularly a pair of Arizona-born Rhodesian Ridgeback brothers named Luke and Bodie who play the lead dog, are naturals who deliver remarkably expressive performances. The film itself is rather silly, with the kind of metaphor-heavy plot one might concoct in a high-school creative writing class: 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is forced to spend the summer with her estranged father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter, who looks like the Hungarian Terry Kinney), and brings her dog Hagen (Luke and Bodie) along. Daniel isn't too keen on the street mutt-turned-beloved pet and refuses to pay a tax on unregistered dogs after a busybody neighbor reports him. Lili pleads with Daniel to not dump Hagen in a shelter, and in a fit of road rage, Daniel yanks Hagen out of the car and abandons him on the side of the road. Forced to fend for himself, Hagen explores the city, struggles to find food, befriends other stray mutts, and is eventually abducted into a dogfighting ring. As Lili grows rebellious and her relationship with her father deteriorates, she tries to find Hagen, who eventually ends up in a dog pound and leads a canine revolt against their captors before running wild through the streets, the pack of dogs becoming Hagan's army on his quest for vengeance against those who ruined his life and the lives of so many other dogs. The symbolism is obvious (especially when the dogs start attacking privileged, bourgeois shoppers), but on a technical level, Mundruczo's presentation of the dogs running rampant makes for some stunning moments--it's hard to imagine how much work went into getting 250 dogs to work together in unison. Veteran Hollywood animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller's team worked with a Hungarian crew to pull it off, using many strays and shelter dogs, all of whom found permanent homes after the shoot. Mundruczo presents the dogs in harrowing situations, whether it's dogfights or Hagen trying to cross a busy highway, and by abandoning any use of CGI, it makes the experience that much more immediate and intense. Even though we know the dogs were in good hands and none were harmed, it still makes for some nerve-wracking scenes simply wouldn't have worked with CGI dogs. (R, 121 mins)

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