Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Danny Collins

Director: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Čas, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Eric Michael Roy, Nick Offerman
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

About a decade ago, Neil Diamond released a Rick Rubin-produced album that was complete departure from anything he'd previously done, trading his usual, over-the-top bombast for an acoustic guitar and stripped down sound. The result was his biggest commercial and critical hit in years. I couldn't help but think of it while watching the immensely enjoyable Danny Collins, wondering if Diamond had a crisis similar to the title character to cause that change in course. Probably not, even if the aging rocker Al Pacino plays seems much closer in style to Diamond than the actual inspiration, folk singer Steve Tilston.

Just as his music was taking off in 1971, Tilston was written a letter of encouragement from John Lennon and Yoko Ono that he didn't receive until 34 years later, sparking a dramatic change in his life. As a concept, it's an ingenious starting point, made all the more satisfying screenwriter Dan Fogelman's (making his directorial debut) immediate acknowledgment that he'll be taking liberties with it. And they're mostly clever ones. But what's more amazing might be his ability to secure the rights to Lennon's music for the film, as some of his biggest solo hits punctuate key scenes. While I'm not sure it dramatically increases the overall experience and he goes a bit overboard with it, if ever a screenplay screamed out for Lennon's songs, it's this one.    

While Pacino's clearly channeling Diamond, he's also channeling Pacino, as it's impossible not to consider the actor's legendary career while watching and rooting for this character. It's not only a reminder of how long he's been at this, but perhaps some of the choices he's made along the way. Some good, others less so. This is one of those better choices and, as usual, he looks like he's having the time of his life.

Pacino plays Danny Collins, a show-stopping rocker whose fan base now primarily consists of older women singing along with his early 1970's pop hit, "Hey, Baby Doll." Filling up arenas by coasting on the success of that "Sweet Caroline"-like smash, he hasn't written any new material in 30 years and refuses to give up his costly, hard partying rock star lifestyle, which includes a girlfriend (Katarina Čas) half his age. But when his best friend and manager, Frank (Christopher Plummer) gives him a framed, 40-year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon as a birthday gift, he's forced to reexamine his choices and consider how differently his life could have turned out had he gotten it.

Danny's suddenly determined to locate his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who's built a normal life with wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) that emphatically excludes the celebrity father who abandoned him. But an indefinite stay at the local Hilton turns his attention to the hotel's no nonsense manager, Mary (Annette Bening), who he keeps trying to hit on. She keeps his ego in check as he reluctantly begins to write new material and attempts to find redemption with his family.

From the opening flashback scene, it's obvious this is going to be a good time. It shows a twenty-something Danny (Eric Michael Roy, a dead ringer for young Pacino) being interviewed by a music journalist (an unrecognizable Nick Offerman doing his best Lester Bangs) looking like a deer caught in headlights of fame. Scared to death by celebrity harming the artistic purity of his work, a letter from his idol could have provided him with some guidance and encouragement at just the right time. Instead, he became this larger than life showman, who never stopped to consider himself a sell-out until reading Lennon's letter delivers an unexpected jolt.

Danny's far from a failure, but it wouldn't be a stretch to call him somewhat a joke. At this point, he's famous for just being famous, having contributed nothing meaningful in years, yet still riding high with an enjoyable but tired act. Without naming names, we see it all the time, so it's easy to understand why he'd be afraid to step out of his comfort zone to try something artistically different. And it helps that Pacino plays him as this charming, wonderful, one-of-kind guy who just storms into this hotel like a force of nature and wins over everyone in sight, complimenting the staff and even trying to set the desk clerk (Whiplash's Melissa Benoist) up with the parking valet (Josh Peck). Only the seemingly humorless manager, Mary, remains unimpressed, which of course makes her his ideal equal.

Danny even eventually wears Mary down in the film's most successful sequence, with Pacino and Bening at their respective bests playing off each other in a hotel bar as their characters discover they have much more in common than they thought. They share such a natural chemistry (or "patter" as Danny calls it) that would feel entirely contrived with two other actors in the roles. Here, you're just lost in two real people just enjoying each others company. Their interplay is so seamless it's often tough to tell where Al and Annette end and Danny and Mary begin.

A development occurs almost midway through that's best not to talk about other than saying it comes out of the "Screenwriting 101" handbook and would likely get you kicked out of class. It's a credit to Fogelman's expertise, Pacino's convincing work and Bobby Cannavale's realistic, matter-of-fact performance as a working class father justifiably offended by Danny's arrival, that they pull it off. And as questionable as it looks on paper, that I'd have problems coming up with any reasonable alternatives must speak to its success on some level. Without it, we also wouldn't have gotten the unusually observant final scene, which puts a nice bow on the story while not depriving us of the (admittedly remote) possibility that maybe things don't work out.

In hindsight, the direction this goes does kind of make sense in that his son Tom's problems (more severe than expected) would get in the way of Danny's "happy ending" and redemption. After all, as likable a guy as he is, he's also an egomaniac who thinks the world revolves around him. Pacino plays these two sides of him so well that it's a blast seeing him bounce off everyone else.

Aside from Bening, who invests Mary with more depth than anticipated, Christopher Plummer smoothly and sarcastically conveys the experience of a music industry vet who simply tells it like it is. Jennifer Garner also gets some solid scenes opposite Pacino as the spouse more receptive to having Danny in their lives, despite the emotional risks to her husband and daughter. And as Hope, Giselle Eisenberg (no relation) accomplishes the rare child actor feat of being the precocious center of attention without becoming overbearing.

There's an alternate moviegoing universe in which Danny Collins tops the box office and becomes a giant hit for Pacino, possibly even earning him a nomination. That universe is the 1990's, when crowd-pleasing, star-driven adult dramas were still filling multiplexes. Consider the fact that this was released at all, and turned out this well, a victory in itself. And those justifiably lamenting that studios aren't making intelligent mainstream movies about older people anymore will find a lot to appreciate here. It's formulaic in every sense, but proof that in the right hands, the formula still works.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Jurassic World

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Judy Greer, Katie McGrath 
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It always seemed the one lost opportunity in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park trilogy was actually setting the action in a fully functioning amusement park filled with people. You'd think adding that element of unpredictable danger to the plot could only heighten the stakes and danger. The entire amusement park concept has been gestating so long that we figured Spielberg must have been saving it for a sequel. Then 15 years passed. And now after sitting in development hell for almost two decades the franchise is resurrected with Jurassic World and the timing strangely seems just right for that big money storyline. Amidst an overcrowded field full of unnecessary remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, this is the one that feels closest to being necessary because we never really got what we came for.

Despite unleashing a story that was a long time coming and injecting it with a meta subplot that pokes fun at the film's very existence, there were still a number of things that could have gone wrong. Poor casting, the wrong choice of director, bad GCI, a lackluster 3D conversion or an uninspired script could have easily sunk it. Instead, Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow delivers the type of ridiculously fun, pulse-pounding Spielberg-era thrill ride that even Spielberg himself can't seem to make anymore, or at least has chosen to move past after inspiring inferior imitations. This isn't one of them.

Twenty-two years after the horrific incident at Jurassic Park, Jurassic World is open for business and the park's operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) wants it to make as much money as humanly possible. A corporate ice queen, she brushes the park's sordid history under the rug as she unveils her newest attraction: a genetically modified Indominus rex dinosaur sponsored by Verizon. Inconvenienced by the recent arrival of her sister's (Judy Greer) kids, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) to the park, she merely dumps them on her assistant for the day as Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is called in to evaluate the Indominus enclosure before opening. You could probably guess that what unfolds next is a crisis that makes the first three films look like child's play. It's up to Owen and Claire to contain it before lives in the park are lost, including their own.         

There's an early scene where a control room character played by Jake Johnson is showing off the vintage Jurassic Park shirt he won on e-bay, lamenting when the park used to be all about experiencing the wonder of a dinosaur. Now everything has to be bigger and more over-the-top. It's all about the money. While obviously referring to the Indominus attraction, he may as well have been talking about movies, particularly the one we're watching. But Jurassic World fully acknowledging forthcoming criticisms and actively poking fun at itself doesn't make it a good movie, nor should it. What does is the excitement generated on screen, since we're really there to see the dinosaurs wreck havoc.

Trevorrow wastes little time introducing us to the fully functioning theme park, which looks like a Sea World and Disney World hybrid with some surprisingly cool rides and features that seem believable within the confines of the fantasy world Spielberg initially created. As fast as the pace is, there is a considerable amount of time spent building up the first full-on appearance of the Indominus, which doesn't disappoint. It's definitely not Jaws in terms of impactfully limited screen time, but by today's impatient filmmaking standards, Trevorrow's approach is practically restrained.

Much to my relief, the CGI actually looks pretty good, as far as those go, rarely distracting from the action or story. It's also filled with some clever winks and nods throughout the park that let us know this is very much a continuation of the 1993 original and the sequels may as well not exist. Thankfully, John Williams' instantly recognizable, iconic score (the best of his storied career) still does, even if you could quibble with where it lands in the film and how quickly. But at least it's there, which was one of my big worries going in.

With employees clashing over their differing philosophies for the park, it's a given that the uptight Claire and cocky Owen will be brought together by the Indominus escape as she finally learns to care about something other than her job, namely her missing nephews. Her profit-driven approach starkly contrasts with owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), whose chief concerns are the enjoyment and safety of the guests. While both are seriously compromised by Claire's greed, InGen security head Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) is intent on militarizing the dinosaurs as government weapons, crreating an interesting Blackfish-like sub-plot about the humans' control over these creatures. This plays better than expected, with an inexplicably limping, head-tilting D'Onofrio throwing his weight around with the kind of bizarre performance only he could conjure up.

The casting is actually quite creative all-around, avoiding the same four or five names of actors and actresses who usually headline these blockbusters. Chris Pratt will soon likely be one of them, but for now we're still finding out what he can do and what's most surprising about his role is how humorless it is. More Indiana Jones than Han Solo. "Jurassic Parks and Rec" this isn't, as the former Andy Dwyer has to play it mostly straight in order to ground an already far out there plot.

If this is Pratt's Indy audition, he passes with flying colors, and despite being a longtime fan of the actor's work, he quelled most of my concerns that going this route would be a complete misuse of his talents. Instead, the action hero thing seems to suit him just fine and in his scenes opposite Howard he does manage to slide in some of the trademark sarcastic charm and charisma that got him here. He'll probably be cast in everything now, but if it has to be someone, at least it's Pratt, whose sheer likability and presence lifts this kind of material further than it would have otherwise gone.

While Pratt does exactly what's asked of him and surpasses expectations, he is still playing a one-dimensional hero opposite Bryce Dallas Howard's more intriguing character. When was the last time a money hungry, stuck-up corporate suit was the centerpiece of a summer action movie? Howard's always been consistently strong in various projects until disappearing for a while, only to now reemerge four years later in the last movie you'd expect to see her headline. And what a comeback it is, walking right up to that line of playing Claire as an unlikable bitch without ever stepping over it. As a result, the transition she makes to action heroine in the film's second half seems all the more seamless and reasonable, proving her an actress adept at rapidly shifting gears. In an effects driven project that too often relegates performers to window dressing, her performance is remembered. She's really playing two roles, each equally well.

Trevorrow was hired to do a job in which the understanding was he'd be relinquishing a lot of creative freedom. Yet within those parameters, he managed to slide his own vision in there to create something that feels like his rather than a tired retread. One can only hope that similar steps are taken when reviving other dormant franchises ripe for a reimagining or continuation of some kind. This is exactly the story that needed to be told in order to both honor the Spielberg film and move on from it. The final half hour featuring an epic dinosaur confrontation can compete in both scale and thrills with anything from the original. Rarely overstaying its welcome at a brisk two hours, it also features one of the few uses of 3D in recent years that at least seems defensible given the nature of the plot.           

It's funny how some critics have taken Jurassic World to task, making me wonder exactly what they expected or how it could have possibly been improved. It's everything a Summer blockbuster should be and a little more, which may represent the true root of their problem. For all the talk of the film's theme park being nothing more than a cash grab, the movie gets its job done by mocking exactly that, exploiting our fears that the wonder from the original can't be recaptured. The bigger question is why we'd want it to, especially when this sequel is such a worthy successor in its own right.