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Homegrown Durant Biopic
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Travis Mills, Director And Mastermind Of The Project, Deftly Weaves Plot Angles And The Performances Of Quality Hollywood Talent To Bring A Piece Of Phoenix Lore To Life

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 11, 2016 — Despite being relatively young compared to other major cities, Phoenix has a rich history filled enigmatic characters and many of those ghosts still color the contemporary landscape in the city today.

Jack Durant is one of those ghosts and in the new film Durant’s Never Closes, director/writer/producer Travis Mills of Running Wild Films seeks to unwrap the mysterious restaurateur and give viewers a little insight into the mind of the man behind the famous steakhouse that still bears his name in midtown Phoenix.

Running Wild Films is a production company that seeks to develop local film in Arizona. The company has produced over 100 film projects since 2010, including Durant’s Never Closes, which gained funding using a Kickstarter campaign that earned $101,935.

Spoiler Alert: The next few paragraphs will contain some mild spoilers, and you should probably stop reading right now if you want to watch it with a virginal point of view.

Before I get into the minutiae of the film, let me state that the casting is excellent. Respected character actor Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down plays Durant and truly embodies the character. Sizemore deftly embodies the conflicting aspects of Durant’s personality,from the bravado and uncontrollable anger to his very real vulnerability and crippling self-doubt.

While strong performances by leading actors are important to any film, it is especially key to a film like Durant’s, which is almost a one-man show at points. Based on the book The Saga of Jack Durant by Mabel Leo and play In My Humble Opinion by Terry Earp, the film definitely betrays its roots and comes across more like an modern arthouse take on Waiting for Godot than your typical biopic.

Audiences looking for a standard plot will come away disappointed. Rather than follow a normal timeline through a portion of Durant’s life, the movie dives deep into who the man was by addressing the rumors, headlines and realities that made Jack Durant who he was.

This unorthodox style serves the film well more often than not, focusing on the interesting and furtive aspects of Durant’s character rather than getting pinned down in the concrete details. Occasionally, it can make subplots a bit hard to follow, such as Durant’s tenuous connections to organized crime, but these moments are sparse and easily overlooked.

At first, the film, which mostly takes place within the actual red-tinted walls of Durant’s steakhouse, seems like standard biographical fare, with Sizemore’s Durant sitting at the bar and going through his normal motions. Eat, drink, converse with customers, repeat.

However, little by little, Mills reveals that the timeline in the film is anything but linear. From the seemingly anachronistic bottles of Four Peaks beer (a sponsor of the film) to a steady flow of regulars picked from the multiple decades that Durant ran his restaurant, it quickly becomes clear that the restaurant in the movie functions as a Jack Durant-themed purgatory rather than an actual place.

The “guests” are a particularly nice touch, acting as a Shakespearean chorus of sorts and delivering rumors about Durant through background whispers and private conversations.

The audience is introduced to the varied aspects of Durant’s personality in this space, from his graciousness with regulars to his penchant for flying off the handle at the faintest perceived slight. These moments are also colored with testimony from the actors and actresses portraying Durant’s friends and closest confidents.

These moments in the restaurant, which dominate the film, are juxtaposed with quick asides referencing the headlines of Durant’s life, both good and bad. The result is a fairly full picture of a man who, up until recently, resided predominantly in Phoenix lore.

At times, the film risks falling off the arthouse deep-end. For instance, intercalary scenes referencing developmental moments in Durant’s life staged in the middle of the Arizona desert are ambitious but risk losing viewers’ interest and removing them from what is otherwise an engaging character study.

Sizemore’s presence dominates the film, but the supporting cast does an admirable job keeping up with him. Michelle Stafford (The Young and the Restless) as Durant’s ex-wife Suzie and Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) as baseball hall of famer and Durant’s regular Dizzy Dean deliver particularly noteworthy performances.

All in all, this is a solid film that benefits from dynamite performances and compelling subject matter. While it may error towards the high-falutin’ at times, audiences could do much worse at the cinema this year as Durant’s Never Closes is compelling fare to spell viewers exhausted by the glut of heartless blockbusters churned out by Hollywood every year.

Durant’s Never Closes will premiere on Jan. 21 at Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, 50 E. Adams St., Phoenix. It will begin its theatrical run at Harkins Shea 14, 7354 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, on Jan. 22.
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