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Durant’s Never Closes Review

Full disclosure: I am personally invested in this film, in a way. I have followed its production history since a friend of mine let me know he was facilitating the primary filming location, and quite accidentally I connected another friend of mine to the filmmakers in a producer role. In light of this my intent is to write the most impartial review of which I am capable.

durants never closes

Phoenix natives and adopted natives alike ought to be familiar with Durant’s restaurant on Central Avenue. It’s an old school, Rat Pack-influenced steakhouse where you enter via the back door, through the kitchen, into a dining and bar area soaked in red leather, dim lighting, and brown liquor. There’s an old-fashioned masculinity to the place that exudes its own special charm. All long-term Phoenix residents owe it to themselves to experience Durant’s at least once.

Maybe you already know this. And maybe you even know a little bit about its history. The founder’s mysterious past, and alleged mob connections, the restaurant’s reputation as a meeting spot for various unseemly characters and their unseemly plots, and the possible connection to the high-profile murder of an investigative reporter in the 70’s. Whatever your familiarity going in, this film is not at all concerned with getting you up to speed. In fact, it couldn’t be bothered to convey any concrete information about the history of Durant’s at all. Instead, its focus is squarely on Jack Durant himself. The man, the myth, etc.

As such, it’s best to go into Durant’s Never Closes with the appropriate expectations in place. On the surface, this is a Goodfellas for the city of Phoenix. But underneath, it’s something entirely different and unexpected. Largely plotless, the events of the film are not just linear, they’re impressionistic. The majority of the film takes place at some undefined point in the late 70’s, inside Durant’s itself, at old Jack’s favorite spot at the bar. Legend has it, Durant designed the acoustics of the bar area specifically so that while guests would have a hard time hearing the conversations in adjacent booths, one could easily eavesdrop on anyone in the place from one specific spot at the bar. Jack’s spot, naturally. So there he sits, sipping beer, listening in, chatting with the regulars, and occasionally flying into fits of violent rage when provoked.

The only times the movie ever leaves the restaurant is during the many Scorcese-esque flashback sequences that don’t so much tell the story about Durant’s life, but fill in various textures of his character. Interludes address details like his beloved English bulldogs, his history with various ex-wives, and in one particularly abstract sequence, his inspiration to conquer the Phoenix dining scene. These sequences range from brief comedy bits to long musings on relationships and character.

As Jack Durant, Tom Sizemore is mesmerizing. Truly. I don’t use that “movie critic” word lightly. He sinks into this character 100%, and never seems like he’s phoning it in. His rage, his ambition, his vulnerability, and his sorrow are all equally believable. Honestly, with a lesser performance at its center this film would have fallen apart. If his IMDb page is any indication Sizemore has been spreading himself pretty thin lately, accepting all manner of typecast “tough guy” roles, and it would be a shame if this performance were overlooked because of it. In fact, the acting all around is solid. Jon Gries of Napoleon Dynamite fame brings a lot of energy and humor to his small role as a fallen baseball star, and as Durant’s “one who got away”, Michelle Stafford lends the film a great deal of its emotional heft. Peter Bogdonovich meanwhile, sort of sleepwalks through his minor role, which is more or less a glorified cameo, but it’s nice to have some old Hollywood around.

Ultimately, Durant’s Never Closes is a film of, I’ll say specific appeal. The decision to leave the history vague in favor of looking deep inside Durant himself puts the spotlight on Sizemore’s performance. The non-linear, abstract approach to a figure virtually unknown outside of Arizona means I have a hard time seeing national audiences embracing the film. How damning that criticism is depends on the feelings of the folks who made it. The director, Travis Mills has been open about his intent to grow Phoenix’s own cinema scene. I know the movie is getting a limited theatrical run in Albuquerque New Mexico after its Phoenix run. I’m interested to see how it plays outside the valley.

Durant’s Never Closes is playing now through the 28th at Harkins Shea 14 theater.

Boyhood Review

Boyhood poster

“Everyone’s always saying seize the moment. I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, like the moment seizes us.”

I don’t want to grant that little line of stoner philosophy dialogue towards the end of Boyhood more poignancy than it’s worth, but it could just be the key to comprehending this movie. Although, more likely a better key phrase comes slightly earlier – “I just thought there’d be more.”

This might sound like the beginning of a bad review. It’s not. I actually loved Boyhood. But make no mistake – this is a boring movie. Long, slow-paced, mundane, light on comedy, light on dramatic moments, lacking a single narrative throughline. And that’s exactly the point. It’s the best boring movie I’ve ever seen. 

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The Best Movies Ever – Bad Santa

Bad Santa

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Bad Santa. It was late at night on Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t fall asleep. Even though I was an adult at that time I still had a bit more of that childlike anticipation that keeps you awake on the night before Christmas. I had recently moved out of my parents’ house, and was feeling just a little homesick. I turned on the TV – Comedy Central was playing Bad Santa uncut and uncensored, which meant that in order to compensate for the FCC fines they’d receive for playing such content on basic cable, they had to double down on commercial time. There was 4 minutes of movie followed by 5 minutes of commercials, ad infinitum. It’s a maddening way to watch a movie.

Nevertheless, it was so much better and so much funnier than I expected! When Bad Santa first came out, I had no interest in seeing it. I wasn’t down for the crass debasement of Christmas that it seemed like, and the comedy was marketed as being dumber and more lowbrow than it actually is. Bad Santa is raunchy, make no mistake. But it’s earned raunchiness. All of the explicit content develops naturally from well-written characters.

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The Best Movies Ever – Home Alone

HomeAlone

Kicking off the Christmas edition of Best Movies Ever – the indulgent fantasy of every child of the 90’s, Home Alone.

It’s ingenious how effectively this movie, written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, plays to a kid’s sympathies. The Christmas setting, the notion of complete and utter freedom from your parents, the power to outwit adults, the overcoming of irrational fears, and the feeling of being a confident hero are all at the core of Home Alone. But it’s not the kind of movie you really outgrow – it’s made well enough for adults to enjoy, partly thanks to the superb casting.

Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are brilliant as the burglers, and until the booby traps start going off they even seem like relatively realistic (if cliche) criminals. Of course, once they do start pratfalling on ice and getting burned by rigged blowtorches it’s hysterical to watch Joe Pesci try to act convincingly frustrated without saying “motherfucker”. Imagine how many ruined takes… 

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The Best Movies Ever – Christmas Edition

I’m slightly irritated that I already covered Love, Actually during my first Best Movies Ever Review  marathon, because now I’m feeling obligated to pick the series back up and just do Christmas movies whenever I have time to write between now and the 25th. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.

(Have a look at my Love, Actually review here.)

The bizarrely specific premise I used for the first run of Best Movies Ever applies pretty handily to Christmas movies, actually. Famous movies that everybody enjoys watching but aren’t what you call “high art”. That’s Christmas movies, music, food… hell, that kind of describes Christmas itself when you think about it.

Not sure how many movies I’ll get around to reviewing, but the first one will be coming VERY soon.

Her – Review

Her

The actors in Her are certainly playing against type aren’t they? Joaquin Phoenix plays a brilliant but odd sensitive artist type, Scarlett Johansson plays a smoky-voiced object of desire, Amy Adams is adorable and Rooney Mara is prickly and impenetrable.

Sarcasm aside, the performances in Her are genuinely great across the board. This is the first time I’ve seen Phoenix since the I’m Not Here fiasco, and he is so good I’m genuinely grateful his abandonment of acting in favor of hip hop was (allegedly) a hoax, or some type of performance art.

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Review – X-Men Days of Future Past

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I realize that apart from my Best Movies Ever series, the films I tend to review on this site are always the comic book Summer tentpole releases. It’s strange. I wouldn’t say I have a particular affinity for them or the source material on which they’re based, yet I see almost all of them. Obviously I enjoy them more than I actually realize. But I guess that’s a conversation for another time.

And speaking of time (and of amazing segues), Days of Future Past. Talk about pressure. The latest release in the X-Men film franchise needed to be more than just the seventh(!) entry in an ongoing saga. With its time-hopping narrative and all-star cast, it needed to serve as a sequel to both X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine, a prequel to the original trilogy of X-Men films, and a signpost allowing the franchise to continue indefinitely. Furthermore, the expectation was set early on that this film would paper over all the continuity issues raised by X-Men Origins: Wolverine and First Class, while correcting the biggest grievances audiences had with the maligned X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Still with me? Does that seem like a bit too much responsibility to put on a single movie? Well, Bryan Singer was up to the challenge. He had given us the finest X-Men movie to date (#2, which I refuse to call “X-Men United”), and is essentially responsible for the renaissance of comic book movies that has changed how Hollywood looks at Summer for the past 14 years by directing the very first X-Men movie way back in the year 2000.

Attempting to connect all the threads of the various X-Men spinoffs that we’ve seen since the third film seems to me like utter madness, especially given that First Class was more or less seen as a reboot and wasn’t particularly concerned with maintaining any of the established continuity. Among the many timeline-based complications that movie introduced, we see Professor X sustain the injury that paralyzes him when he is still a young man with a full head of a luxurious hair, even though we see the older Patrick Stewart version walking in both Origins: Wolverine and The Last Stand.

Days of Future Past fully explains some of these errors, partly explains others, and leaves a few completely unaddressed (A biggie – how is Old Professor X still alive after being disintegrated by Jean Grey in The Last Stand?). But let’s face it – coming up with ad hoc excuses for the many timeline glitches this series has created is not why we go to see a new X-Men movie. The basic formula of a great X-Men film is and always has been a diverse cast of characters that we care about, with their own strengths and flaws, their own desires, and of course their powers. We need to see them join forces in a way that makes the best possible use of their individual strengths, battling a credible enemy through well-shot action sequences.

So maybe it’s not such a basic formula.

But still, the blueprint was laid out in X-Men 2, back in 2003 (and used to great effect in The Avengers). And I’m pleased to say Bryan Singer still has it in him. Days of Future Past has some of the best action sequences of the entire franchise, as well as many of the most genuine character moments. Inevitably, with such an enourmous cast, certain characters are bound to feel short-changed, particularly many of the “original” mutants seen only in the future sequences. It’s interesting that Halle Berry would agree to reprise her role as Storm, given that the character is reduced to no more than a single “hero” moment and almost no dialogue. Likewise, Iceman, Rogue, Collossus, and even Old Magneto are given little to do besides look concerned and occasionally turn into fighting special effects.

Yet, after 6 X-Men movies it’s amazing that there is still so much creative juice left over with regard to how certain mutant powers are weilded. Quite simply, I’ve never seen superpowers used in such interesting and creative ways in any comic book movie. New character Blink can open portals in space – which, if you’re a fan of the Portal video games will make you go apeshit to see those physics principles applied in a live action setting. Young Magneto takes his metal controlling powers to unheard of (and shockingly brutal) heights.

But the real revelation here, at least in terms of pure spectacle, is Quicksilver. You wouldn’t expect a relatively mundane power like super speed to be so amazing, but take note, producers of the upcoming Flash TV series – this is how you do it. I won’t spoil the sequence in question, but suffice to say you will wish the character stuck around longer (that’s NOT a spoiler, BTW).

And then there’s the only character to appear in every single X-Men movie to date – that old hand Wolverine – around whom most of the plot revolves. He’s never been better (or more physically astonishing – the dude is beyond ripped). It really makes you wish Bryan Singer had directed at least one of his standalone movies. I noted that even though the character is not supposed to “age” in the traditional sense, Hugh Jackman is looking a little long in the tooth, with just a few more wrinkles and an extra layer of grit. Luckily, this only makes him look even more like the Wolverine from the comics.

HughJackmanYoungWolverineXMenDaysofFuturePast

 

The other major players are, of course, Young Professor X and Magneto (or Charles and Eric among friends) and Mystique. Jennifer Lawrence seems much more at ease in this role than she did in First Class, and has also slimmed down considerably, making her look closer to the Rebecca Romijn version. She is so integral to the plot of Days of Future Past that I think we can all agree the character is hers now.

James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender provide the vast majority of the emotional content of the film. Their complicated friendship/rivarly is fleshed out greatly here – much more than even First Class, a film that essentially revolved around that one concept. While their performances don’t remind you of Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan on a surface level, it’s possible to see how their paths might eventually bring them there.

Man, even reviewing this film is demanding. I haven’t even touched on Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, or Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde – all pivotal and well-realized characters. There’s just so much content crammed into these two hours.

I’ve intentionally avoided discussing the mechanics of the plot in this review – and if you wish to avoid spoilers, I’d recommend you skip the rest of this paragraph. Time travel plots inherently open up a lot of unresolvable logic problems, and this movie has a slew of them. Quite simply, it doesn’t make a lick of logical sense. Sending someone into the past to prevent undesireable conditions in the future has been done plenty of times before, except here we get to see the past and the future play out simultaneously, with the future being completely unaffected by changes in the past until one pre-determined event is successfully altered, at which point everything “takes”. Apparently the space-time continuum takes individual preferences into account.

That being said, if you are the kind of person who goes into a movie hoping to enjoy yourself, and not to criticize, the strongest recommendation I can make is not to let yourself get too wrapped up in the logic of the plot. Suspend your disbelief, and focus on the things this movie gets right – which, frankly, is most of the really important stuff. It’s the best X-Men movie since X-Men 2, without a doubt. In some ways it even tops that film.

Post Script: The MPAA dictates that films are allowed one use of the word “fuck” and still be rated PG-13, as long as the word is not used in a sexual context. Days of Future Past makes glorious use of their one “fuck”, and I firmly believe every PG-13 movie should do the same.

The Best Movies Ever – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Austin-Powers

Only two things scare me, and one is nuclear war.

What is the other?

‘Scuse me?

What’s the other thing that scares you?

… Carnies.

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The Best Movies Ever – Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up 

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The Best Movies Ever – Groundhog Day

groundhog-day

Maybe God’s not omnipotent. Maybe he’s just been around so long he knows everything. 

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