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

The Graduate


So here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

(1967) Comedy (AVCO Embassy) Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry, Brian Avery, Walter Brooke, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Eddra Gale, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, Kevin Tighe, Ben Murphy, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Elisabeth Fraser, Lainie Miller. Directed by Mike Nichols

With Mike Nichols, one of the more acclaimed directors of the 60s and 70s, passing away recently it behooves the critic to look back at some of his best films and this one, his second feature, is considered by many to be his best which is a difficult choice to make when you consider you also have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Carnal Knowledge and Silkwood to choose from.

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated from a prestigious Northeastern university and like many 21-year-olds then (and now) has not a clue where to go from here. After a party thrown by his parents to celebrate his graduation, he drives the wife of his father’s law partner, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) home where she tries to seduce him. A little unnerved, he turns her down and scurries home.

Afterwards, he reconsiders and awkwardly arranges a hook-up at a local hotel. The affair continues on through the summer; Mrs. Robinson just in it for the sex. Mostly though Benjamin just drifts in the pool at home, not able to make a decision on graduate school or heading directly into the workforce. He’s not even looking to date anyone, although Mr. Robinson (Hamilton) and Ben’s dad (Daniels) push him into dating Elaine (Ross), the daughter of the Robinsons. Benjamin is at first reluctant and does everything possible to sabotage the date but realizes that he was unkind to the poor girl who ran out of the strip club he took her to in tears. He tries to make it up to her and the two end up connecting and Benjamin feels like he might be falling in love.

Mrs. Robinson is NOT pleased and wants him to cut things off with her daughter. Benjamin has no intention of doing so, even though Mrs. Robinson threatens to come out with their affair so Benjamin heads this threat off at the pass and tells Elaine about it. This does not go well and she ends up fleeing back to Berkeley in the fall.

Benjamin, thoroughly besotted at this point follows her there and tries to explain what happened. That’s when Mr. Robinson gets involved, letting Benjamin know that their relationship is over and he will press charges if he continues. He also lets him know he is pulling Elaine out of Berkeley and marrying her off to Carl (Avery), a high school sweetheart leaving Benjamin at a crossroads.

The American Film Institute lists this as the 17th best movie ever made which is pretty impressive when you consider that well more than 100,000 films have been made all time just in the United States alone. Nichols established himself as one of the finest film directors of all time with his first two movies (Virginia Woolf was his first) after making his name as a theatrical director, which he returned to regularly over his long career.

In many ways this was a counterculture film in the sense that it looked at the hypocrisy of American culture and examined the angst of the younger generation which was at the time beginning to rise up and rebel against the norm. When placed in the context of its time, this was a monumental touchstone to the film industry who began to break away from the strictures of the studio system and were making movies that reflected the growing unrest and taking artistic and creative risks that would redefine the medium in the 70s and set the stage for a new golden age of movies.

Hoffman was not well known when he was cast for the part; his audition consisted of a love scene with Katherine Ross which Hoffman, who had never done one, felt awkward about. It was that awkwardness that convinced Nichols to cast Hoffman, as he was looking for a kind of underdog quality to Benjamin. Hoffman’s performance was a career-maker; it established him as a major new talent and led to one of the more interesting acting careers in the history of Hollywood. Bancroft also turbo-charged her own career, playing an older woman even though she was merely 35 at the time. Her performance here is considered one of the finest of her career.

And we can’t discuss The Graduate without talking about the soundtrack. “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel was one of the greatest songs ever written for a movie and plenty of other Simon and Garfunkel songs pepper the soundtrack, most notably “The Sounds of Silence.” Few films have ever utilized the songs of a single artist the way this one did and as well.

This is definitely a movie of the 60s and while some of the visual and dialogue references are somewhat dated, the movie stands up surprisingly well. Even today the affair between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin can seem a little bit daring. One wonders how the movie would have fared if it had been made in 2014 and released now (as a matter of fact this Tuesday is the anniversary of the movie’s release). Something tells me that modern audiences would have taken to it as much as the audiences of its time did (see the Box Office Performance if you don’t believe me).

The Graduate is a bona fide classic and should be required viewing for all film students and film buffs alike. There are many transcendent moments in the movie – the climactic scene in the church is one that I can watch over and over again, for example. While the movie may feel a bit too sophisticated for some, it nonetheless remains a movie whose greatness cannot be denied.

WHY RENT THIS: Bancroft and Hoffman both set the bar high. One of the best films about sexual politics ever. One of the greatest soundtracks ever. Holds up pretty well approaching 50 years later.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little dated in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and situations, sexual situations and a bit of mild foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Faye Dunaway was offered the part of Elaine but turned it down in favor of Bonnie and Clyde.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a one-on-one interview with Dustin Hoffman and an extensive six-page booklet with notes and photos from the film. The 40th Anniversary edition (from 2007) includes the Hoffman interview but oddly not the booklet. It does contain a featurette on how the movie influences modern directors, a four-song CD with the Simon and Garfunkel songs from the movie and finally, a featurette on the seduction scene and what prompted the characters to do it.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Stream), Amazon (Stream only), Vudu (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye, Columbus
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: From Russia With Love