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:

 


ASTHMA (2015)

October 23, 2015

asthma Greetings again from the darkness. So this greasy, heroin-addicted slacker picks up a smartass tattoo artist while driving the Rolls Royce he has just stolen. What sounds like the beginning of a stand-up comedian’s best joke, is actually one of the earliest scenes from writer/director Jake Hoffman’s first feature film.  That’s right, you have seen him many times as an actor (he played shoe mogul Steve Madden in The Wolf of Wall Street), but now Dustin’s son is a full-fledged filmmaker.

When first we meet Gus (Benedict Samuel, “The Walking Dead”), he can’t be bothered to actually paint the wall he was hired to paint … “It’s already white!” Once relieved of his duties, he heads home and white washes his apartment … not just the walls, but his TV, books and Jim Morrison poster. He claims all of his heroes are dead, and that he was unfortunately born in the wrong era … the 70’s were so much more his style. He then proceeds to try and hang himself.  Of course, he fails at that too.

Next we see him car-jack the Rolls and then Ruby (Krysten Ritter) is accepting his offer of driving her to Connecticut. Having previously rebuffed his advances at a local bar, it’s obvious Ruby is intrigued by the banter and energy of Gus. The road trip brings it challenges and high points for Gus, and the two arrive at the communal retreat that features a mystic/yoga instructor (Goran Visnjic, Beginners) and a rock singer (Dov Tiefenbach), amongst others. Logan, the rock singer, and Gus softly battle for Ruby’s attention, but it’s difficult to watch as Gus drugs up and loses any sense of appeal.

It’s not long before Gus is being bailed out of jail by his well-off dad … played by Jerry Zucker, who in real life, directed Ghost and produced numerous Hollywood films. The two share an awkward car ride to the home of Gus’ bedridden mom played by Rosanna Arquette. Perhaps all of this makes more sense when you learn that Gus also takes life advice from his imaginary philosophical talking werewolf (voiced by  ). Maybe this explains what those of us who don’t shoot heroin are really missing.

The cast is strong, and each gives it their best shot. It’s just not very entertaining or enlightening to watch some aimless dude drift through life while higher than a kite. What is clear, and has been to me for quite some time, is that at some point the right role is going to come along for Krysten Ritter, and her career will take off. She has had a solid career up to now, but next level is within her grasp. She has quite a screen presence … way more than the imaginary werewolf. Mr. Hoffman’s feel for directing offers hope for future projects, and he is certainly to be commended for his use of cutting edge music. Next time … please give us a more interesting lead character.

watch the trailer:

 


BIG EYES (2014)

December 22, 2014

big eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.

If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.

That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.

There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.

Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).

The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy.  If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the “truth is stranger than fiction” stories

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the Burton bizarre style

watch the trailer: