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:

 


THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

December 3, 2015

the good dinosaur Greetings again from the darkness. Two Pixar films in one year? Earlier this year, the brilliant Inside Out reminded us just what sets Pixar apart from other animation studios … the film was intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, beautiful, funny and emotional enough to bring tears to the eyes of many parents. In other words, it’s a tough act to follow – even for Pixar!

Of course, 2015 was not intended to be a double-header for Pixar. The Good Dinosaur ran into serious production and story issues at the same time the studio was going through layoffs and reorganization. So the six year project turned into eight, as a new creative team was brought in (led by director Peter Sohn), and the story and characters were re-worked and re-imagined. The finished product is likely the most staggeringly beautiful animation to ever hit the big screen, while at the same time being some of the darkest and bleakest material ever presented by Pixar.

The premise is pretty interesting: What would Earth be like if THE asteroid had missed, and the dinosaurs survived? That’s about as sciency as the story gets, other than it does portray nature as a colossal adversary (what’s with the hallucinogenic berries?). We first meet Momma and Poppa Apatosaurus as they work their corn fields (huh?) and wait for their baby eggs to hatch. The runt of the litter is Arlo, who just can’t keep up with his more active siblings and who feels inadequate in comparison to his majestic father.

Arlo and nature are responsible for the tragedy that sends Arlo off on a journey that features the full spectrum: the importance of family, the sadness of loss, the strength of friendship, and the self-discovery that leads to independence. While there are quite a few laughs along the way, the fear and isolation that Arlo experiences takes up most of the movie, and could leave all but the strongest kids feeling anything but upbeat and happy.

There is a life lesson about making one’s mark, and an oddball friendship between Arlo and young boy (named Spot??) who is wise to nature. But this one lacks the charm of most Pixar outings, while at the same time reaching technical levels that are breathtaking to behold. It’s difficult to imagine many kids wanting to watch this one again and again, but for all you Pixar nerds, you can rest easy … John Ratzenberger does make a vocal appearance.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


GRANDMA (2015)

September 3, 2015

grandma Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps your mental picture of a grandma is the familiar form of a Norman Rockwell painting … a sweet, bespectacled little lady baking pies or knitting booties or kicking back in a rocking chair as the grandkids romp around her. If so, Lily Tomlin will jolt you into reality with her performance in this latest from writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie).

The film kicks off with Elle (Ms. Tomlin) breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (Judy Greer). As with many relationship break-ups, the tone shifts quickly with an increase in ‘let’s talk about it’. Elle tosses out “You’re a footnote” as a zinger that quickly ends any hope of reconciliation. It’s an uncomfortable opening scene that aptly sets the stage for what we are going to witness over the rest of the movie … Elle has lived quite a life, but has been unable to move on since the death of her long time companion – a recurring subject throughout.

The six segments of the film are titled: Endings, Ink, Apes, The Ogre, Kids, Dragonflies. Don’t expect those descriptions to help you guess the direction of the film. Instead, it plays out like a road trip through Elle’s past … albeit with a very contemporary feel. See, her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at the house asking to borrow $600 for an abortion. Despite her career as a poet of some notoriety, Elle is tapped out at the moment. So the two of them set out in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal (Ms. Tomlin’s real life car), and proceed to visit people (and hit them up for cash) who have played a role in Elle’s most interesting life.

During this journey – which all happens during a single day – the ladies cross paths with Sage’s clueless boyfriend (a miscast Nat Woolf), a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox) who owes Elle the money she lent for enhancement, a small business owner (the final appearance of the late Elizabeth Pena) who is a bit more tough-minded than Elle gives her credit for, a long ago ex-husband of Elle’s (the best performance from Sam Elliott in years) who still carries heartbreak , and most bombastic of all, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom – a workaholic, no non-sense, Type A professional (played with vigor by Marcia Gay Harden).

Much will be made of the film treating Sage’s decision so matter-of-factly, but it makes for nice contrast to Juno, where the decision to abort an unwanted pregnancy is abruptly reversed when she’s told the baby has fingernails. This movie even offers a tip of the cap to that scene (bravo Sarah Burns), but is never preachy or heavy-handed in its dealing with Sage. It’s a young girl in a real life situation, and she is depending on her dysfunctional family to provide financial and moral support.

One might describe this as an arthouse movie with wider appeal. Lily Tomlin makes this a must-see, as do Julia Garner and Sam Elliott.  Some will avoid it due to the abortion topic, but this is much more a story of three strong women who are related to each other – even if they don’t always relate to each other.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer:

 


The sun sets on JUSTIFIED

April 21, 2015

 

justified2 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason I don’t typically write about television shows is that very few justify (sorry!) the effort .  However, the series finale of “Justified” aired last week, and it’s a series I will definitely miss.

Many people disregarded it immediately assuming it was just another western – you know, since the lead character wears a hat and holsters his gun. But at its core, it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys … only the good guy had some flaws and the bad guys were anything but the backwoods hillbillies they appeared to be. The three categories that elevated the show above typical TV fluff were: Writing, Characters, and Acting.

WRITING

Let’s start with Elmore Leonard. His novella “Fire in the Hole” is the source material for the show, and provided the emphasis on character and dialogue that was so crucial to its unique feel and style.

Ahh yes … those words. The majestic verbosity was spread across all characters – lawmen, judges, and the hardened criminals. Heck, even the teenage girl, bartender, BBQ pitmaster, and hired gunslinger were loquacious in their ability to turn a phrase.

For those of us who strain and sweat over the use of a particular word or the structure of a sentence, the show humbled us weekly through the apparent ease with which the English language was played like a finely tuned instrument.

As for the story, it was remarkable that the battle of guns and wits between Raylan and Boyd endured for the entire series run; and it was fascinating to see how each season brought a new criminal element and challenge … some tying into current characters, while others were more standalone.

CHARACTERS

justified A few of the characters managed to stick around for the series run … some more regular than others. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder will both go down as iconic TV characters, but it’s important to note the other regulars such as Raylan’s boss and father figure Art Mullens, the other two Deputy U.S. Marshals Tim and Rachel, and of course, Ava Crowder whose character arc was broader and more diverse than any other on the show.

There was also a group of recurring characters who felt like regulars, which speaks again to the sterling writing: Raylan’s on-again-off-again squeeze Winona, the smarmy Wynn Duffy, Boyd’s cousin Johnny, the comical Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett, and the memorable Arlo Givens (Raylan’s shifty father).

The third group of characters to mention includes those that had a dramatic impact on only one or two seasons: the isolated pitmaster Limehouse, Loretta the teenage survivor, the good-hearted hooker Ellen May, smooth talking Ty Walker, the lovable Constable Bob, the not so lovable Bo Crowder (Boyd’s dad) and criminal masterminds such as Robert Quarles from Detroit, Katherine Hale and Avery Markham who sometimes worked together and other times not, and most importantly Mags Bennett – the driving force behind the peak of season two.

Twenty two. That’s how many characters are named in the previous three paragraphs. And it’s pretty easy to name another 15 or more characters that played key roles. It’s not just the sheer quantity of characters, but rather the fact that they were so well written that we felt like we immediately knew them … plus they were fun to watch.

ACTING

Every actor dreams of being cast in a well written show. Take those extraordinary lines of dialogue and really good actors never have to over-do it … in fact, they can let the scenes breathe. As filled with tension as any show you’ve seen, it still managed to have a slow pace that matched what we expected from Harlan County Kentucky.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullins (Nick Searcy), or smarmy Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). All four of these actors embodied their particular characters so completely that we viewers fully accepted them. A similar comparison would be James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. It’s rare for TV shows, but “Justified” had four!

The supporting roles never disappointed, though the survival rate varied immensely. Joelle Carter as Ava saw her screen time grow as the show progressed, though Erica Tazel (Rachel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim) are probably the only two who could offer up any kind of argument that they had to work to get noticed. Natalie Zea as Winona bounced in and out from season to season, and her presence never failed to bring about a change in Raylan just when he most needed one. Raymond J Barry as Arlo Givens was one of the show’s most colorful figures, though Damon Herriman and Jeremy Davies, as Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett respectively, gave him a run for the title.

As each season brought focus to a new criminal lead, the acting was varied and spectacular at times thanks to Neal McDonough, Michael Rappaport, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, and of course, the final season with Garrett Dillahunt, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott. Special mention goes to Margo Martindale for her Emmy Award winning performance as Mags Bennett in Season Two.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Hand-in-hand with the importance of Leonard’s writing is the work of show creator, producer and director, Graham Yost. Wisely working with Leonard those first few seasons (Mr. Leonard passed away in 2013), Yost ensured the weekly scripts were packed with the expected lines of dialogue, and his feel for the material allowed him to never miss with his casting.

The brilliant first scene of the first season introduces us to Raylan as he squares off against a bad guy while poolside in Miami. It’s this quick wit, quick draw and quick trigger that gets Raylan shipped back to the area of his youth, Harlan County Kentucky. The rest of the show taught us never to get comfortable around a hillbilly drawl, bring your own glass if someone offers you their “apple pie”, and the toughest bond to break is when you “dig coal together” with a buddy.

WWED


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