Vacation Time


Yes, it’s time for Cinema365 to take some much-needed time off to rest and recharge. It is happening this year in the midst of our beloved Florida Film Festival but that can’t be helped. Places to go, people to see after all.

The site will be taking a hiatus beginning immediately and resuming on May 17th. We may be able to sneak in another review between now and then if we can and internet access allows. Otherwise, we’ll continue coverage of films from the Florida Film Festival when we return.

Therefore, there won’t be a Pick of the Litter feature for May although there may well be one for June if time allows. In any case, we’ll be back up and running on the 17th and looking forward to some great movies coming our way  starting then. Stay safe and see lots of movies until next we meet.

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The Feels


Girls just want to have fun…and talk about their feelings.

(2017) Dramedy (Provenance) Constance Wu, Angela Trimbur, Jenée LaMarque, Ever Mainard, Josh Fadem, Lauren Parks, Kárin Tatoyan, Doug Purdy, Frankie Wass, Luna Wass. Directed by Jenée LaMarque

Ah, the orgasm. One of life’s few pleasures we don’t have to pay through the nose for. Perhaps for that reason, men chase orgasms like they get a sizable gift card at Bass Pro Shops if they catch them. As for women..Well, read on dear reader.

A group of old friends are gathering at a rented home in California’s Wine Country to celebrate the upcoming marriage between Andi (Wu) and Lu (Trimbur). Gathered there ar Andi’s best friend and sole male Josh (Fadem), filterless chef Regular Helen (Mainard), Lu’s sister Nikki (LaMarque) who is straight and enduring marital issues that her sister doesn’t know about, YouTube singing sensation Karin (Tatoyan) and Vivien (Parks) for a weekend of drinking and partying in general.

As it sometimes happens when old friends get plastered things bubble up to the surface. It turns out, Lu has never experienced an orgasm, something that sends Andi’s confidence plummeting. Andi wonders if there’s something wrong with her, if Lu doesn’t find her attractive, if she is truly making Lu happy. As the weekend continues, all of the women will find their own issues coming to the fore but surrounded by friends, what could go wrong? Welllllll…

Very often Hollywood tends to give the lesbian community short shrift, relegating them to supporting roles or comedy relief. Very rarely are any films told from a lesbian point of view even in independent films as this one is. While it may seem to be aimed at the Lesbian filmgoer market at first glance, The Feels actually can and should be assimilated by any audience. This is a very accessible film.

The problem here is that the premise turns into a soap opera by the middle of the film and drama is manufactured rather than earned. While early on there is legitimate conversation going on, characters get to speechifying as the movie progresses. I understand that much of the dialogue was improvised; that may not necessarily be a bad thing but things feel forced in places. I think the film would have benefited from more established dialogue.

Also to the negative side, the movie is interrupted periodically with bizarre interview/confessional sequences as the characters talk about their first orgasms and other milestones in their sexual past. One of them drops the bomb of sexual assault in her confessional but the movie just glosses over it as if it didn’t matter. Now I understand these sequences were completely improvised but ignoring something like sexual assault is the wrong thing to do, particularly given the current atmosphere. Maybe the filmmakers are trying to get across the point that the sexual assaults of women are generally turned a blind eye on by society but I don’t think this is the way to do it. Either it shouldn’t have been mentioned or it should have been discussed. The one thing a film mainly by women shouldn’t do is ignore a mention of sexual assault. Of course, I might be overreacting a tad but I think it’s important.

To the positive side, the cinematography is beautiful and the actresses here seem genuine particularly stand-up comic Mainard who brings most of the comedy here. Her character is so likable and refreshing that I wanted to spend more time with her than any of the other ladies which isn’t to say that the actresses aren’t interesting but their characters don’t feel all that well-developed. One gets the sense that the cast was working with the outline of an idea rather than anything fleshed out. I have some pretty interesting friends and we’ve had some amazing discussions but gathering them for a weekend to talk about life and sex and turning the camera on them wouldn’t make a very good movie. Sadly, this one didn’t either although there were some things worth checking out – just not enough for me to recommend it much.

REASONS TO GO: It’s refreshing to see lesbians given the front and center of a film.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite their best intentions the story turns into a soap opera in the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug use and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ensemble of actresses are close friends in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Florida Film Festival coverage continues

68 Kill


Now here’s a woman who knows how to get what she wants.

(2017) Action (IFC Midnight) Matthew Gray Gubler, AnnaLynne McCord, Alisha Boe, Sheila Vand, Sam Eidson, Michael Beasley, James Moses Black, David Maldonado, Ajay Mehta, Hallie Grace Bradley, Lucy Faust, Peter Jaymes, Eric Podnar, Carlos Antonio, Walker Babington, Kelly Connolly. Directed by Trent Haaga

This year there’s been a spate of heist action films that have been unusually entertaining. One that’s flown under the radar is this gem that made some waves at South by Southwest and also the Florida Film Festival.

This one is a little bit more graphic than most. Chip (Gubler) is a decent guy who has a problem; he just can’t say no to a pretty girl. His girlfriend Liza (McCord) knows all about it and uses it to her advantage. She’s not a very nice girl in a lot of ways but what she is for whatever its worth is practical. Chip wants to bring in as much cash as he can to support Liza who has lavish lifestyle tastes on a trailer park budget. In fact, they do live in a trailer park and when the couple is short on funds when the rent is due – which occurs pretty often – she makes up for it with blow jobs and other sexual favors.

Liza is pretty much done with this sort of life. She’s learned that the landlord (Jaymes) is keeping a stash of cash in his home safe – to the tune of $68,000. Such a haul, she reasons, would be enough to give her and Chip a brand new life in a much better place than the craphole they live in. It’s an easy, smash and grab job – nobody has to get hurt. However, just in case – a couple of guns might come in handy if they need to defend themselves. Nothing to worry about, honey; I’m sure we won’t need to use them. I’m positive of it, in fact. You can guess how that’s going to go.

Two dead people and a hostage named Violet (Boe) later, a sickened Chip and adrenalized Liza show up at her brother Dwayne’s (Eidson) house to sell him Violet; as it turns out, Dwayne likes to torture and mutilate women for sexual pleasure and Violet is plenty pretty. This is way more than Chip signed on for and he decides to cut his losses and get out with Violet. However, Liza doesn’t take well to breaking up with her boyfriend as you can imagine and as weird as things have been, they are about to get weirder.

Haaga, who has some experience in the Troma factory of low budget genre movies, has a phenomenal sense of pacing; this movie starts off with a shot of a fly caught in honey (a heavy-handed but apt metaphor) and then never lets the foot off the gas. The movie careens – sometimes drunkenly but always sure of its destination – from one set piece to the next. We just hang on for dear life and if we’re smart, enjoy the ride.

AnnaLynne McCord is an absolute revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen any actress play a psychotic bitch quite as ably as McCord in ages. This ranks up there with What’s the Matter with Baby Jane territory in my opinion; she’s that good. One moment she can be tender and loving towards Chip and the next she’s a shrieking banshee with a pump action rifle aimed for your skull. Love hurts, fool.

Gubler who plays the seminal science nerd in Criminal Minds gets to stretch his wings a bit here in a role that is very unlike the one he’s known for. Chip is sweet but spineless and not book smart or street smart. As a result he makes some unwise choices and he is way too naive when it comes to women, particularly in that part of the world which seems to be populated by some mean ones.

I like that the movie just keeps getting better and better as it goes along. It’s not a movie that overstays its welcome in the least nor does it start out so slow that by the time it gets going the viewer has already checked out. Rather by the time the climax is in full gear I was fully invested in the story and characters. That doesn’t happen all the time for both of those elements, so kudos to Haaga.

Now, most of the women in this movie (with the exception of Violet) are stone cold crazy, over-the-top bitches, hookers, double crossers, two timers or some combination thereof. ‘Course, most of the men in the movie (with the exception of Chip) aren’t much better but there seem to be more redeemable men in the film than women. Some might find this anti-woman, although I don’t think it is personally. If anything, it’s anti-low life scumbag and that’s a cause that reaches across both sides of the aisle.

There is plenty of humor here to lighten up the gore and violence; it’s a little on the dry side so those who don’t cotton to that kind of funny might be well-served to stay away. The characters here are also the most misbegotten collection of fever dream psychos ever assembled in an indie film. It’s like David Lynch in charge of Deliverance in a trailer park setting and if that log line intrigues you, this is the kind of film you’ve been waiting for all year. This isn’t for everyone but if you like to have fun at the movies, don’t mind a little gore, get revved up by frenetic action sequences and don’t mind some oddball characters in the mix, your ship has come in.

REASONS TO GO: The film gets better as it goes along. The humor is bone dry in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little misogynistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, just as much violence, some gore and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won the audience award in the Midnighters category at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Win It All

Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

The Commune (Kollektivet)


A communal meal isn’t always a peaceful one.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Ulrich Thomsen, Fares Fares, Trine Dyrholm, Lars Ranthe, Julie Agnete Vang, Helene Reingaard Newmann, Ole Dupont, Lise Koefoed, Magnus Millang, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, Mads Reuther, Anne Gay Henningsen, Jytte Kvinesdal, Morten Rose, Rasmus Lind Rubin, Adam Fischer, Ida Maria Vinterberg. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

When we think of the 70s, what comes to mind is recreational drug use, long hair, bell bottoms, anti-war protests and free love. Although communes still exist, they are more like co-ops these days rather than all of the inhabitants sleeping with each other, although there are some like that to be sure.

Erik (Thomsen) is a somewhat stuffy professor of architecture at a University in Copenhagen. His wife Anna (Dyrholm) is a beautiful news reader working for the national broadcast network. When Erik inherits what is essentially a mansion from his father in a rural suburb of Copenhagen, he initially wants to sell it; their daughter Freja (Hansen) wants to move into it but it is Anna who comes up with the idea they eventually adopt – to invite friends and strangers to move in and create their own commune.

You see, Anna has become somewhat bored in her marriage and wants variety, but as they say, be careful what you wish for. She and Erik invite friends at first like Ole (Ranthe) who has a bit of a temper but soon they are inviting fascinating strangers and before too long there are a dozen or so adults and children living in the commune.

Things go pretty well at first but things begin to lose cohesion. One of the children who has a heart condition (and quite the crush on Freja) is taken to the hospital, scaring the whole community on Christmas Eve. But to make matters worse, Erik falls in love with Emma (Newmann), one of his students and invites her to join the Commune. At first, Anna is pretty sanguine about the whole situation but she begins to crack and soon the tension in the Commune becomes nearly unbearable.

I’m not so sure this is an indictment of free love and the sexual politics of the 70s as it is more or less simply presenting the pros and cons. In all honesty most of the couples in the commune stay fairly faithful to one another with the exception of Erik – and it must be said that Anna paved the way for that in many ways. Judging Erik by standards that are 40 years after the period depicted here isn’t really fair but by our standards he’s quite the jerk.

The performances here are top-notch; most of the actors are not well-known in the U.S. with the exception of Fares and to a lesser extent Thomsen. The prize though goes to Dyrholm who goes from a strong and confident woman to an absolute mess by the end of the film. Badly shaken not so much by Erik’s infidelity – I think she could have handled an affair so long as Erik still loved her but once it became a case where Erik loved Emma and not Anna she was absolutely destroyed.

The director manages to get the era right between the colloquialisms, the products and the overall attitude. The cinematography is a little bit on the washed out side for exterior day shots (and underlit for night shots both inside and out) which also gives the film a look of a film made in that era.

Despite the pathos and drama (and there’s a lot of the latter) there is some comedy as well that comes up at unexpected times. The Danish have a very quirky sense of humor and it shows here when its needed. What’s not needed is some of the pretentious dialogue – and I realize back in that decade people tended to talk like walking manifestos – and especially the soap opera aspects of the film which are also many. That detracts from a film which most of the rest of the way is serious and fascinating.

Still, human relationships are tricky things whether you’re talking about the 70s or the 2010s. We are complicated little monkeys and we do things sometimes that make no logical sense. It is said that being alone is perfection – you make all your decisions and do as you please when you please. Two is a compromise and three is a disaster. The more people you put at the same table, the more complex things get.

Vinterberg has some really great films to his credit including one of my all time Florida Film Festival favorites The Hunt. This is another strong movie on his filmography and he continues to be a director who hasn’t yet really gotten the credit he deserves here in the States. Then again, he hasn’t done a lot of English language films yet and I’m not sure he needs to. Still, he’s one of those directors whose name on the credits means I’m instantly interested in seeing his film. There are not many about whom I can say that.

REASONS TO GO: The sexual politics are captured nicely. The film is very evocative of its era. Thought-provoking, the movie manages to get in a little bit of comedy as well. The performances are strong all around.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, the movie sinks into soap opera a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you’ll find nudity, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a play Vinterberg wrote about his own experiences as a child growing up in a commune.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Overnight
>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lady Macbeth

The Exception


Christopher Plummer is resplendent as Kaiser Wilhelm II

(2016) Historical Drama (A24) Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Aubeline Barbieux, Lois van Wijk, Stephanie Auberghen, Martin Swabey, Lucas Tavernier, Kurt Standaert, Martin Savage, Karen Leclercq, Frederik Lebeer, Stephanie Van Vyve, Daisy Bouliton, Verona Verbakel. Directed by David Leveaux

As the First World War drew to a close, it became painfully obvious to the German people and to those in power that their Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed them as a wartime ruler and he was quietly forced to abdicate and fled the country for a life in rural Holland in a place called Huize Doorn. There he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, surrounded by a few loyal former military men, Dutch servants and his devoted second wife Hermine.

It is 1940 and the Second World War is in full swing. Germany is ruled now by the Nazi party and their military victories have been startling in their speed and ferocity. The former Kaiser (Plummer) keeps abreast of these with keen interest, expressing admiration for Hitler although not for the party. The Nazis get wind that there is a British spy operating in the area so they dispatch Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to take command of the Kaiser’s personal guard.

He is assisted by Dietrich (Dexter), an SS officer who informs Brandt that transmissions had been intercepted by the SS and that all they needed to pin down the location of the transmissions was a truck able to triangulate the signal and pin down its location. He assures Brandt that one is on the way.

Brandt – who was wounded in the invasion of Poland – is something of a ladies’ man and his eye falls on the comely made Mieke (James). The two begin a torrid affair which is forbidden; discovery could get Lily fired and Brandt sent back to combat duty. Both of them are what you’d call damaged goods with horrors in their past; not exactly an easy place to build a relationship from.

When the announcement that Nazi bigwig Heinrich Himmler (Marsan) will be visiting, the entire household is in a tizzy. Hermine is certain that this means her husband will be summoned back to Berlin to take his rightful place in a restored monarchy (delusion can be beautiful in its own way). The Kaiser believes it too – but Himmler has other plans.

As the search for the spy begins to close the noose, Brandt begins to suspect that Mieke might be involved. He will have to choose between his love for her and his duty to his country. Given what his country has become that might not be a very hard choice at all.

This is a fictionalized account of the Kaiser in his final year of life and pretty much the history that it gets right is that there was a man named Wilhelm who was once Kaiser of Germany. Most of the rest is fiction so if you’re going to this movie thinking you’re going to get a history lesson, think again. The saving grace here is that Plummer inhabits the role so well, capturing Wilhelm’s ego and Prussian love for pomp but also the decent fellow that lay just beneath although most accounts of the Kaiser don’t reveal a whole lot of regard for anyone other than himself. Plummer however is just so magnetic that you can’t help but enjoy the performance even knowing it’s a bit of a sham.

Courtney has much of the burden for the film as he’s really the centerpiece (the title refers to him rather than the Kaiser) and that’s maybe not such a good thing. There are some things that Courtney does really well – he was one of the bright spots of Suicide Squad I thought – but this really isn’t the type of role that’s in his comfort zone and you can tell because his performance is far from assured. Part of the issue is that Courtney doesn’t really excel at expressing emotion non-verbally and we don’t get a sense of the struggle going on within the character; we just see him get into a situation where he’s having sex with a beautiful woman and we just assume it blossoms into love but the process is never apparent so when it comes time for him to choose between love and country we never get a sense that it is a struggle for him.

It also must be said that Courtney is far too buff for his role. We see him naked quite a bit and unfortunately Courtney had just finished filming Suicide Squad when he started up with this and he still had an action hero’s body which really doesn’t jive with a German officer’s body during World War II. There wasn’t a lot of pumping iron going on at that time.

There are some other things as well. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and even some of these seasoned performers deliver it like “this isn’t how people talk; how the hell am I supposed to say this?” is bouncing around their brain pan. The movie looks a bit stage-y in places which isn’t surprising since Leveaux has a Broadway background. Be assured though that the pluses outnumber the minuses by a comfortable margin. Plummer alone should be reason enough to make a point of seeing this. And quite frankly, the ending has a kind of grace to it that is all too rare in motion pictures. I won’t give you much detail on that score other than to say the ending does elevate the film.

 

So this is a strong recommend. It’s still playing in a few cities here and there (Orlando is one of them as of this writing) but if it isn’t anywhere near you or it’s been and gone, do check it out on VOD (Amazon Prime subscribers can see it for free). This isn’t going to be one of the best movies of the year but it’s better than the majority have been and will be – even if it is as fake as a three-dollar bill.

REASONS TO GO: Christopher Plummer is on a hot streak. The final scene is a nice touch.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some nudity and plenty of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming took place at the Kaiser’s actual home at Huize Doorn.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anthropoid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Commune

The Hero


Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott are most definitely amused.

(2017) Dramedy (The Orchard) Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katherine Ross, Doug Cox, Max Gail, Jackie Joyner, Patrika Darbo, Frank Collison, Andy Alio, Ali Wong, Cameron Esposito, Linda Lee McBride, Christopher May, Demetrios Sailes, Sherwin Ace Ross, Ryan Sweeney, Todd Glieberhain, Norman De Buck, Barbara Scolaro. Directed by Brett Haley

In many ways, we use the term “hero” a bit too loosely in our society. A hero can be a first responder rushing into a burning building to rescue those trapped inside, or it can be a dad willing to play catch with his son. It’s a matter of perspective. One person’s hero is another person’s non-entity.

Lee Hayden (Elliott) was once upon a time an actor of Westerns who was one of the best of his time. His film The Hero remains an iconic look at the Old West. However, he didn’t know that was to be his career highlight. Now in his 70s, the actor smokes pot, hangs out with a former co-star and child actor now turned pot dealer Jeremy (Offerman) who ends up introducing him to another client, stand-up comedian Charlotte Dylan (Prepon). Lee’s agent isn’t exactly what you’d call a go-getter; his career has been stalled for some time, having only a barbecue sauce radio commercial to fall back on and a Lifetime Achievement award for a small-time Western Film Appreciation Society. We all know Lifetime Achievement awards are code for “I didn’t know he was still alive.”

This is all taking place about the time that Lee learns he has stage four pancreatic cancer. Lee copes with the news by snapping at his friends and smoking all the pot he can get his hands on. A chance encounter with Charlotte at a taco truck leads to an endearingly awkward invitation to be his date at the award ceremony.

His acceptance speech in which he pays a somewhat heartfelt but molly-addled thanks to his fans goes viral and suddenly he has offers and opportunities that he hasn’t had in decades. His relationship with Charlotte though is going through some rocky patches, his daughter Lucy (Ritter) doesn’t want to see him and Lee is terrified at what his future holds. What truly makes a hero?

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room – Sam Elliott is an iconic actor with a voice that sounds as timeless as the Grand Canyon and a face twice as lined. This folks is arguably the best performance of his storied career. While I admit it’s a bit strange watching Elliott as a pot head, this is as nuanced and as versatile a performance as I can recall him giving. He has moments when he’s funny as hell (as when he tells an adoring fan who loves his moustache “It loves you too, honey” and gives her a sweet peck on the cheek) and others that are pure pathos. My favorite moment in the movie is when he tells his ex-wife (played by his actual real life wife Katherine Ross) that he has cancer. The scene is shot in long shot and we don’t hear what’s actually said. We just see the ex break down and Lee move to comfort her. It’s an amazing moment by two pros who I wouldn’t mind seeing much more of on the silver screen.

And now for the other elephant in the room (this room sure holds a lot of elephants); the cancer-centric plot. It’s not that we haven’t been through hordes of movies that are about aging parents with limited time left trying to reconcile with their angry children and yes, that’s exactly what’s going on here. However, it never feels maudlin under the sure direction of Brett Haley and Elliott and his fine supporting cast make sure that the characters always feel real; never do we feel like Hayden is almost superhuman in his stoic acceptance of his oncoming date with death. Hayden shows moments of terror and at last realizing he can’t do it on his own reaches out to those closest to him.

The movie was a big hit at Sundance and was selected as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. That’s a high bar to live up to but The Hero easily reaches its lofty expectations and exceeds them. While some may think of the movie as being too sugary sweet on paper (and I admit it looks that way but only on paper) the reality is that the emotions felt genuine to me and Elliott’s performance transcends a lot of the fears I’d normally have with a movie like this. You may need a few tissues here and there but in reality this is the portrait of a truly heroic man, the kind of man who has become increasingly rare these days – a man’s man. With the scarcity of that particular species, it makes all sorts of sense to me that a woman Prepon’s age would fall for a man of Elliott’s. As hoary as the Hollywood May/December romance is, it works here. That’s a minor miracle in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this may be the best performance of Elliott’s career. There are some real nice visuals. The film is an interesting take on the nature of heroism.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little bit cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more drug use than you’d expect as well as a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elliott and Ross are married in real life (they play exes here); this is the first cinematic appearance by Ross in ten years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Fall, Winter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Gangster’s Daughter