Danny Collins (2015)

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In synopsis, Danny Collins sounds like it could go very wrong indeed. It’s basically a small-scale version of Crazy Heart, built around a legendarily larger-than-life actor (who can’t actually sing), playing a version of himself struggling with irrelevance and late-career regret. Despite the potential for disaster, I enjoyed this film far more than I expected to.

There’s no doubt this is Pacino’s movie—and the best performance I’ve seen him give in well over a decade—but it’s much more of an ensemble cast than the one-man show (or Pacino/Bening two-hander) I’d assumed it would be. Bobby Cannavale in particular is interesting enough to make me idly wonder what the film would have looked like if it had been built around him, with Pacino in the supporting role. Likewise, I thought Jennifer Garner did better work in her first scene here than in the entirety of Dallas Buyers Club, but that may be a matter of the aforementioned low expectations (and my general indifference to Garner).

The script isn’t nearly as sentimental as I’d feared, which is a big plus, particularly given how frequently the film’s overall approach crosses over from straightforward to on-the-nose. (The constant John Lennon tracks are more distracting than illuminating.) I never really believed the “patter” between Pacino and Bening, but I wanted to, and with a movie like this that surely has to count for something.

Run All Night (2015)

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Run All Night (2015) poster

Taken meets A Walk Among The Tombstones, by way of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Often generic, sometimes absurd, and occasionally aggressively stupid, but still enjoyable. (It probably helps that I’ve avoided most of Neeson’s post-Taken output, so the formula isn’t stale for me yet.)

Unlike, say, some of Denzel Washington’s entries in the Tough Old Guy genre—and I presume most of the Neeson flicks I’ve skipped—Neeson’s character isn’t quite an unstoppable badass here, just a guy with greater-than-expected stamina who’s had lots of practice shooting people. He’s less a force of nature plowing through obstacles, and more of a survivor type who has long since pissed away most of his reasons to keep living, but whaddaya gonna do.

The number of great character actors turning in solid performances in tiny roles in this dopey little genre film—some of them single-scene cameos—puts even John Wick to shame. The action choreography emphatically does not, although it’s mostly pretty good until (as so often in these sorts of films) the final action set-piece just goes on too long to maintain tension.

The major reason I saw this movie theatrically is that it features two actors I really wish were already much bigger stars than they are: Joel Kinnaman and Common. Alas, both display the talent and charisma their earlier roles have showcased, but neither actor has much new material to work with here. At this point Kinnaman can do Working-Class Man With Ambition And A Chip On His Shoulder in his sleep. A few scenes in Run All Night made me idly wonder if Kinnaman would be a better Agent 47 than Rupert Friend—the trailer for the second Hitman movie was attached to this one—but I wouldn’t really want his career to go in that direction. Common actually does play a professional hitman in this film, and acquits himself as well as possible, considering the script requires him to engage in fisticuffs with a man decades older than himself, and to consistently display worse marksmanship than your average Star Wars Stormtrooper.

Birdman (2014)

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Birdman (2014) poster

You know, I’m a total sucker for this sort of thing. I prefer Opening Night to A Woman Under The Influence, Brewster McCloud to Nashville, and even Friz Freleng’s β€œShow Biz Bugs” to Chuck Jones’ β€œDuck Amuck.” I liked much of Birdman, and think that it’s more self-aware than a lot of people acknowledge. But even I wouldn’t have given it four Oscars. (Or at least, not the ones it received.)

Selma (2014)

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Selma (2014) poster

Selma is an occasionally clunky morality play, featuring numerous recognizable actors in a self-congratulatory parade. It is also, by far, the most visceral, moving, and important film of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture of 2014. It’s a travesty that the Academy didn’t recognize any of the performances in this film, particularly David Oyelowo’s or Carmen Ejogo’s.

Like all movies β€œabout race” and the American civil rights movement, Selma serves as a Rorschach test. For some, it’s a simplistic fable about how bad those evil southern racists used to be, and how we’re all so much better than that now. For others, it’s a reminder of how little fundamental attitudes have actually changed in the half century since the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

In a more reasonable world, Selmaβ€˜s relatively mild caricature of LBJ wouldn’t attract the same level of controversy as Oliver Stone’s insinuation that LBJ was involved in a conspiracy to murder the President of the United States. (Or more pushback than Oscar-bait Frost/Nixonβ€˜s insinuation that a cartoonishly venal Nixon was aware of the Watergate burglary in advance.)

In a fairer world, Selma would at least spark conversations the way The China Syndrome did after Three Mile Island, with the often striking parallels to the events in Ferguson, MO and beyond in 2014.

In a better world, Selmaβ€˜s painful and occasionally brutal reminders of continued systematic racism in America would be unnecessary.