It's refreshing to see a film that begins with the onscreen declaration, "The following is kind of based on a true story a little bit." At least "Danny Collins" will concede that things have been anywhere from somewhat to substantially altered in dramatizing things for the screen. The admission predisposed me to like Dan Fogelman's film even before it had properly begun. We are soon introduced to aging rocker Danny Collins (Al Pacino) performing for an equally aging and primarily female audience. A prologue has informed us he once professed a desire to write like John Lennon but he seems to have become a cross between Neil Diamond and Tom Jones. He's also become fabulously rich but he hasn't written a new song in three decades and performs his same old hits over and over on tour after tour. But then his manager (Christopher Plummer) presents him with a letter from John Lennon, written to Collins years before but never delivered. Based on Lennon's advice to stay true to his art, he decides he needs to make some changes, beginning with ditching the cocaine and whiskey — well, maybe not the latter so much — and he heads off to a hotel in New Jersey to start writing again.
He also determines to meet up with the son (Bobby Cannavale) he had from a very brief relationship years ago but has never met (though he has mailed checks). Reconnecting goes less well than the writing; his offspring wants nothing to do with him. He also flirts outrageously with the hotel manager (Annette Bening) who deflects his advances initially. Well of course pretty much everything eventually turns out as you'd expect, though the film has the good sense to end on a slightly ambiguous note. That's only one indication of how intelligent the script is even if some of it is a tad predictable. What really elevates the production is the performances. "Danny Collins" may have the best performance Pacino has given in quite some time (I swear he's channeling Mel Brooks in his dialogue delivery). Bening is delicious and her scenes with Pacino sparkle. Plummer pretty well walks off with any scene he's in (and in describing his client as having "a good heart, he just keeps it up his ass half the time," he may have the movie's best line) and Cannavale — not to mention Melissa Benoist as his wife — are notable. The film may refry some not terribly original ideas but the presentation is superb.
2015 / Universal Studios Home Entertainment / 108m / $34.98 BR+DVD [R]
While We're Young
When a film like "While We're Young" shows up, I regret that my deadline doesn't allow for at least a second viewing and more time for contemplation. I'm not certain it's entirely successful, particularly in some odd shifts in tone, and Ben Stiller plays a character who's a tad — maybe more than a tad — too unlikable to function properly as the one we identify with. He portrays Josh, a university professor and documentary filmmaker whose first production was acclaimed but who has stalled on his second project. It's been eight years in the making, six hours long and it's still unfinished. His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) works as a producer, primarily for her father (Charles Grodin), a highly venerated documentarian. One of Josh's lectures is attended by Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried); Jamie is himself an aspiring documentary filmmaker and fawns over Josh, which precipitates an unlikely friendship. Josh and Cornelia find the younger couple fascinating, partly because they see in them their younger selves ("Their apartment is filled with all the things we threw away." Josh observes of the younger couple's collection of vinyl LPs and VHS tapes). In short order Jamie, with Josh and Cornelia's help, has completed a film that looks to be a success and Josh suspects that he has been used.
"While We're Young" possibly casts its satirical net a tad too wide and attempts to juggle too many ideas. If that's a fault it's one more films ought to have but director Noah Baumbach's script starts losing focus as it goes along. Or perhaps it simply shifts focus in a way I found unsatisfactory (I do know I found the ending disappointing). In its early portion, as it deals with Josh's attempts to retain or regain his youth — he takes up bike riding and discovers he's getting arthritis in his knees — the movie is funny and spot on. Or perhaps I'm just more conversant with the fact of diminishing physical abilities and aware that the process began getting serious when I was in my 40s? The depiction of 20-somethings as being manipulative and blithely unconcerned with honesty strikes me as trumped up. And I find it difficult to accept that someone who is supposed to be serious about filmmaking, as Jamie is meant to be, has no trouble with watching movies on VHS in the wrong aspect ratio and makes no qualitative difference between "Goonies" and "Citizen Kane." There's a sequence involving a shamanistic ritual that has the stoned participants making "profound" observations and then throwing up; it's very funny but it feels like it belongs in another movie. All this might make it sound as though "While We're Young" is something of a bust. To the contrary I think it flirts with greatness and I liked it quite a bit but I also think it's flawed in many respects. (I wonder if these things would bother me less on a second viewing?) For what does work — and that's most of the film — it's well worth your time.
2014 / Lionsgate / 97m / $24.99 BR [R]
If There Be Thorns
The Dollanganger family is back and in "If There Be Thorns," any vestiges of Gothic that tinged the first entry are long gone. So of course is Ellen Burstyn, whose character burnt to death at the end of the last movie. It's strictly soap opera now as the incestuous nature of Christopher (Jason Lewis) and Cathy (Rachel Carpani) is threatened first by having mom Corinne (Heather Graham, repeating from the first two TV movies) moving into the mansion next door and later by the arrival of Cathy's mother-in-law (Glynis Davies) who's been blackmailing Christopher. Corinne reveals to younger son Bart (Mason Cook, who does malevolent very well) that she is his grandmother and tries winning him over. She later claims she wants her family back, something that might be more achievable if she hadn't killed one in an attempt to poison them all. Corinne's manservant John Amos (Mackenzie Gray, who looks like a cross between Ron Perlman and Reggie Nalder) works at influencing the boy in his plan to destroy the sinful and corrupt family. His motivation for doing so is never explained but then we're dealing with paper-thin characters here. Corinne is insane (Graham has the most crazy eyes I've ever seen on film), John Amos is evil, Bart is easily influenced, and so on. Any shading comes entirely from the actors and only Burstyn managed to play more than was on the page. With her absence there's nothing to elevate the saga of the Dollangangers above the level of cheap melodrama.
2015 / Lionsgate / 90m / $14.98 [TV 14]
It! The Terror From Beyond Space
In the 1950s, United Artists, possibly the most unique of the major Hollywood studios, finally passed from the hands of its remaining founding members and the tone of its offerings changed considerably. The studio still released some prestige pictures — primarily through its association with Burt Lancaster's production company — but its bread and butter was low-budget productions of which the best remembered are the horror and science fiction offerings. Some were quite awful (can you say "Voodoo Island?"), some were interesting and had effective moments within their impoverished proceedings but most are just enjoyable schlock. In that final category we have "It! The Terror from Beyond Space," arguably the least subtly titled movie in cinema history. The story involves a rescue mission to Mars (in 1979!) where a previous manned spacecraft has been marooned. The crew finds but one survivor (Marshall Thompson) and they don't buy his story that an inhabitant of that planet has killed off the other members of his operation. They take him back to earth to face trial for murder, not realizing that the Martian has stowed away on their rocket ship.
Director Edward L. Cahn had been involved in movies as an editor starting in 1917 and began directing not long after talkies supplanted the silents, eventually racking 126 credits. Most of these were for independent companies — and surprisingly he ventured in television only twice, unlike a good many other Poverty Row directors. Production values are variable on his films but his direction is always sharp and "It!" is one of his best due in part to a good cast that includes Ann Doran and Dabbs Greer and some moody, shadowy photography. The latter is key because the monster suit — inhabited by former serial and western star Ray "Crash" Corrigan — is somewhat lacking. (The designer, Paul Blaisdell, was something of a genius at making something from nothing but Corrigan declined to be fitted for the suit. He simply sent over a pair of his longjohns for it to be built on leading to shortcomings in the execution. What looks like the creature's tongue is actually Corrigan's chin protruding from the mouth.) Art it ain't but it is fun — always assuming you have a taste for cheesy genre flicks. And it's interesting to contemplate just how closely the plot of "Alien" follows the proceedings here.
1958 / Olive Films / 69m / $29.95 BR [NR]
Lost For Words
Given that "Lost for Words" has won all kinds of acclaim as it makes its rounds of the festival circuit I'll reveal at the outset that I was far less impressed with it than apparently I'm supposed to be. The story has ex-Marine Michael (Sean Faris, also one of the producers) arrive in Hong Kong to write code for some international firm. He's been recently dumped by his girlfriend for unknown reasons and is having a difficult time getting over her. He and Chinese ballerina Anna (Grace Huang) meet cute while jogging and the two agree to help each other with learning the other's language. Of course things slowly but surely turn romantic. Per the official synopsis, they face "mounting political and cultural pressure" but I found nothing if the sort in the film itself. There's always supposed to be a hiccup in the boy-meets-girl scenario but other than a few days when Michael doesn't call Anna after they've made love for the first time, there are no difficulties. Anna's family accepts him immediately — even her grandfather, who learns it may have been Michael's grandfather who wounded him in the Korean war (excuse me — "police action").
What hasn't been left out of "Lost for Words" is more running time than the slim, relatively uncomplicated story can bear. Much of this is in frequent shots of Hong Kong — which looks lovely by night if you have a thing for colored lights. We get many views of Michael and Anna doing nothing very special or close-ups of items within their abodes and a good deal of touristy stuff, all of which are nothing but padding. Director Stanley J. Orzel seems to think he must remind us every 10 minutes or so that the film was made in Hong Kong with aerial views of the city or multiple establishing shots of the general area in which a scene is about to take place. The photography is beautiful but it's generally nonfunctional. Faris and Huang are attractive and have decent chemistry with each other but that doesn't compensate for a film that moves too slowly and has too much padding. And I can't get behind a film where the female lead simply ditches her career for the guy; this is 2015 and that kind of plot development is so last century.
2013 / Green Apple Entertainment / 107m / $19.95 [NR]