THE HERO (2017)

June 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s considered bad form to gush over a film or actor during a review, but come on … it’s Sam Elliott, dripping masculinity from his signature mustache – beloved by men and women alike. Writer/director Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) offers up not just a rare lead role for Mr. Elliott, but also one that seems to closely parallel his actual 45+ year career.

Aging western actor Lee Hayden (Elliott) opens and closes the film in a sound booth, progressively more annoyed at each of the director’s requests for just ‘one more’ take on his voiceover for a BBQ commercial. What happens in between will likely be judged by critics as one cliché after another, but it’s also the chance to see an actor north of 70 years old fight through a wide range of emotions and situations, each grounded in struggles many of us will face at some point in our lives.

When the doctor delivers the worst possible news regarding a recent biopsy, Lee has every intention of telling his ex-wife (the rarely seen these days Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real life wife of 30+ years) and estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). Neither attempt goes well, and instead, Lee finds himself on the sofa of child actor-turned-drug dealer Jeremy Frost (an admirable stage name for Nick Offerman’s character) toking on a joint and watching classic silent films. In fact, the recurring themes of beach, blunt, bourbon and Buster (Keaton) are there to solidify the notion that Lee is a creature of habit, and it’s meeting Jeremy’s customer Charlotte (Laura Prepon) that finally jolts him back to life.

Charlotte is a stand-up comedian and would-be poet who has an unusually accelerated attraction to older men. Of course, she can’t resist Lee, and a May-December romance develops in his last chance at happiness (cliché number 7 or 8, I lost track). Charlotte accompanies him to an event where an obscure group of western film lovers is presenting Lee with a Lifetime Achievement award, and she also becomes somewhat of a life adviser – counseling him to come clean with his family. To ensure no viewer misses out on the sentimentality, Charlotte recites the poems of Edna St Vincent Millay and reminds us all that buying more time is usually the right call.

As Lee and Jeremy munch on Chinese food after the cloud of smoke has cleared, Lee has a great rebuttal to Jeremy balking at hearing his story: “A movie is someone else’s dream.” That sentiment is something I try to hold onto whenever reviewing a movie, as it’s important to remember that it’s the artist (writer, director, actor) who is taking the risk by putting their work on display. It also fits in with the theme here of finding one’s place – putting one’s legacy in order. Contemplating morality and softening regrets are natural steps to take, and each of us should make it easier for those trying. So, scoff at the sentimentality and clichés if you must, but the messages here are loud and clear and important.

Although I had previously seen him (oh so briefly, accusing Redford of cheating) in Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid (1969), and then again in the late night cult classic Frogs (1972), it was his breakout role in Lifeguard (1976) that made me a Sam Elliott fan for life. Depending on your age, your introduction to his screen presence might have been as Cher’s biker boyfriend in Mask (1985), Patrick Swayze’s pugilistic partner in Roadhouse (1989), Virgil Earp in Tombstone (1993), the wise stranger at the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski (1998), the Marlboro Man in Thank You for Smoking (2005), delivering a gut-punch as Lily Tomlin’s former lover in Grandma (2015), or as Timothy Olyphant’s nemesis in “Justified”. Elliott is the paradigm for the pregnant pause, and combined with that baritone drawl, ultra cool demeanor, bushy mustache, and head-cocked-at-an-angle glance, he undoubtedly won you over to believe him in whatever role it was … because that’s how icons become icons.

Paraphrasing a line in the film: the Sam Elliott voice can sell anything – pot, bbq, Dodge, clichéd roles – and I happen to be buying (gushing).

watch the trailer:

 


BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) revisited

February 5, 2013

butch Westerns tend to be one of most divisive film genres.  “I hate westerns” is proudly proclaimed by otherwise intelligent and open-minded movie goers.  Ask these anti-western types for specifics on what it is they don’t like and their answers often include:  boring/slow pace, hard to relate to characters, simplistic dialogue, too few women characters and too much machismo.  Western lovers wouldn’t attempt to argue any of those points.  Instead, we prefer to believe that some of those are the BEST features of westerns!

What’s fascinating is, despite the haters, westerns have achieved immense popularity through the years.  Some have provided us the strong, quiet hero: High Noon, Tombstone, The Magnificent Seven.  Many have shown us the joy of revenge: True Grit, Django Unchained, The Searchers.  Some provided us with wonderful villains: The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West (nice guy Henry Fonda as a badass).  Still others offered up the conflicted gunslinger: Unforgiven; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  Westerns can even be tearjerkers: Shane; comedies: Blazing Saddles, City Slickers; and animated: Rango.

butch5 The one western which seems to be the exception … it’s even beloved by western haters … is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  It’s a mainstream film with three movie stars, a strong director, a renowned writer, one of the best ever cinematographers, a love story, a #1 charting pop song, enough action (but not too much), and a level of comedy that is witty and quotable.  Released 44 years ago in 1969, it was recently part of Cinemark’s Classic Film series.

Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance Kid) charmed audiences even as they made their way through the west robbing banks and trains.  It’s interesting to note that Steve McQueen was originally cast as the Sundance Kid.  Unfortunately, there was a disagreement over top billing and McQueen dropped out.  Newman and McQueen wouldn’t work together until 1974 in Towering Inferno.  On the bright side, Newman and Redford were terrific together and would team up again in 1973 for The Sting (Oscar winner for Best Picture).  It’s no coincidence that George Roy Hill directed the Newman/Redford duo in both films. He was known as an “actor’s director” and recognized the mass appeal of these two.

butch6 “Much of what follows is true” is our introduction to the film, along with a polychromatic montage of film clips and photographs of Butch and Sundance with The Hole in Wall Gang (renamed from The Wild Bunch, to avoid confusion with Sam Peckinpah’s recent release).  Butch (Robert LeRoy Parker) and Sundance (Harry Longabaugh) were real life outlaws in the early 20th century.  The Wild Bunch is pictured at left.  The real Butch is seated on the right, and the real Sundance is seated on the left.  Of course, many of the facts from the wild west have been displaced by colorful legend and lore.  It’s apparently true that their holdups rarely involved violence and they were in fact pursued by a posse, which in the film is portrayed as the Dream Team of posse’s assembled by Mr. E.H. Harrison of the Union Pacific Railroad.

One of the first real scenes in the movie has Sundance playing poker and being accused of cheating.  And we all know what that means in a saloon card game – it’s time for a gunfight.  The young stud making the accusations is none other than Sam Elliott, making his big screen debut.  Elliott went on to star in many movies and TV shows, and of course used his manly voice for “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner”.  In 1984, Elliott married Katharine Ross (they are still married today).  Ms. Ross became the dream woman of the 1960’s for many after appearing as Elaine in The Graduate and Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

butch2 There are many individual scenes or moments that have become classics over the years: the bicycle scene while BJ Thomas sings “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”; watching the great Strother Martin call Butch and Sundance morons as he spits chewing tobacco while riding a mule; the looks on their faces as Butch, Sundance and Etta arrive in the garden spot of Bolivia.  It also remains one of the most quoted movies with eternal lines such as:  “Who are those guys?” I’m better if I move”  “I’m not crazy.  I’m colorful” “Think you used enough dynamite there Butch”  “Are you crazy?  The fall will probably kill you” and my personal favorite “You just keep thinking Butch.  That’s what you’re good at”.

Although it’s certainly a star vehicle for Newman and Redford, and to a lesser extent, Katharine Ross, the supporting cast is diverse and exceptional.  In addition to Strother Martin and Sam Elliott, Butch has an infamous knife fight with Ted Cassidy (as Harvey Logan).  Cassidy is the 6’9” actor who also played Lurch on TV’s “The Addams Family”.  He is not 7’2” Richard Kiel who played Jaws in two James Bond films, though many people get them confused.  75 year old Percy Helton plays Sweetface.  Mr. Helton had over 200 career screen credits dating back to 1915. Henry Jones plays the opportunistic bicycle salesman, George Furth plays the young and loyal Woodcock, and the still active today (at age 86) Cloris Leachman plays the working girl who is so giddy to see Butch again.

butch3 The movie received 7 Oscar nominations and won 4: Cinematography (Conrad Hall), Original Score (Burt Bacharach), Original Song (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”), and Original Screenplay (William Goldman). It was also nominated for Best Picture, but that award went to the controversial Midnight Cowboy and its director John Schlesinger.  It should also be noted that there was a 1956 movie titled The Three Outlaws that featured Neville Brand as Butch, and Alan Hale, Jr as Sundance.  Mr. Hale is best known as the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”. In 1979 a pre-quel was released, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. It featured Tom Berenger as Butch and William Katt as Sundance.  Mr. Katt is best known as the unfortunate prom date in Carrie.  Most recently, in 2011 Sam Shepard starred in Blackthorn, a film about an aging Butch Cassidy quietly hiding out in Bolivia.

So whether you “like” westerns or not, if you have never taken in the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I would encourage you to do so.  If, after that, you still don’t like westerns, all I can say is “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

here is one of the short original trailers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X41Ylp02NRs


THE GRADUATE (1967) revisited

August 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the 45th anniversary of this film’s release and it was awarded a limited theatrical re-release, which I took advantage of last evening. Unlike so many films, the big screen doesn’t really bring anything special here, but then, it really doesn’t require any assistance. I fall into the category of those who consider this one of the all-time best films. Not only is it off-the-charts entertaining, the dialogue is brilliant, the performances are pitch perfect, and the camera work and soundtrack are highly complimentary.

 As my number of viewings have increased over the years, I have become a true admirer of the performance of Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. It is heart-breaking and emotional. The first glimpse of her always makes me smile … she is in the background as Ben (Dustin Hoffman) pinballs through the party trying to avoid the clutches of his parents’ friends. In her scene in bed when she tells Ben about her college background in art and how her dreams came crashing down, her voice and facial features are filled with pain. Watch the movie from Mrs. Robinson’s point of view and my guess is you too will have a renewed understanding.

Of course, the age differences of the lead actors breaks all of my “movie pet peeve” rules. Dustin Hoffman was 30 at the time and he is playing a soon to turn 21 year old Ben. Anne Bancroft has a line to Ben where she says she is “twice your age“. Actually, she was only 36 at the time, and Katharine Ross (Elaine) was 27. Also, William Daniels who plays Ben’s dad, was only 10 years older than Hoffman.

 The movie is based on the Charles Webb novel and the screenplay was written by Buck Henry, who also plays the hotel clerk with whom Ben has an ongoing dialogue. Calder Willingham is also credited thanks to a lawsuit brought after the fact. The director, Mike Nichols has had a terrific career, and was also a co-founder of Chicago’s Second City Improv. He is also one of only 12 EGOT’s: winners of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. One of Mr. Nichols’ most famous collaborators is Elaine May, who plays the roommate delivering the note to Ben … and is the target of a most interesting camera angle.

There are so many iconic moments and shots from the film. Everyone is aware of Mr. McGuire’s “Plastics” advice to Ben, and we see Norman Fell as Ben’s landlord who has no appreciation for “agitators“. It’s also fun to note that we see a glimpse of a young Richard Dreyfuss who says he’ll “get the cops“, and Mike Farrell (from “MASH”) makes his film debut as a bellhop at the hotel. It’s also the final screen performance for Alice Ghostley, who many know from “Bewitched”. One of the most famous film posters in history shows Dustin Hoffman photographed through the leg of Mrs. Robinson. Actually, that leg belongs to Linda Gray, who went on to fame as Sue Ellen Ewing in the “Dallas” TV series. It should also be noted that the pivotal Taft Hotel in the film is actually the very famous Ambassador Hotel, which of course, is where Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. The hotel was later demolished in 2005.

 On a personal note, some of my favorite moments in the film include the shot of Mrs Robinson reflected in the glass top table as she arrives for her first night with Ben. Also, director Nichols allows the camera to linger on a furious and disgusted Bancroft as Hoffman shows up for his date with Elaine. And yes, it should be mentioned that Katharine Ross became the “dream girl” of the 1960’s thanks to this role and her role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As for the Simon and Garfunkel music, the most interesting piece is the unfinished “Mrs. Robinson” song that Nichols selected, even though Paul Simon presented it to him as “Mrs. Roosevelt” (as in Eleanor). Singing only the chorus and relying on acoustic guitar and an endless supply of Di-di-di’s, the unfinished version is a perfect fit for Ben’s pursuit of Elaine. One of my guilty pleasures from the film is courtesy of Murray Hamilton who seems to just choke on his lines as he spits them out to Ben – in both of their key scenes together. Hamilton went on to be Mayor of Amity in Jaws, but his career peak was in not shaking hands with Ben.

Though it’s not technically the final shot, the faces of Elaine and Ben on the bus is one of the most memorable endings in movie history … the cherry on top for one of my absolute favorite films.

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Robinson opening up her personal life for Benjamin: