American Animals


These aren’t your father’s Reservoir Dogs although they may look it.

(2018) True Crime (The Orchard) Evan Peters, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, Jared Abrahamson, Drew Starkey, Lara Grice, Jane McNeill, Wayne Duvall, Gary Basaraba, Kevin L. Johnson, Whitney Goin, Jason Caceres, Gretchen Koerner, Elijah Everett, Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, Eric Borsuk, Betty Jean Gooch. Directed by Bart Layton

Everything looks easier in the movies. Real life is significantly harder. In real life, the hero doesn’t get the girl let alone ride off into the sunset with her, luck doesn’t side with the virtuous and crime never ever pays.

In 2004, Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky was rocked by the violent robbery that took place in their rare books section. It was further rocked when it turned out that the perpetrators were students attending the university (and the neighboring University of Kentucky). All of the criminals came from well-to-do or at least comfortably middle class families. None of them had a history of criminal behavior. So what happened?

Layton, a veteran British TV documentarian with one previous feature film (The Imposter) to his credit, fuses comedy and drama along with the documentary in this his first narrative feature film in a startling mash-up that moves at a frenetic pace like the best of Steven Soderbergh’s heist movies. He casts a quartet of talented young actors to play the leads and then utilizes the actual subjects themselves to insert commentary that is often contradictory as human recollection often is, and at times even interact with their fictional selves.

The mastermind is Warren Lipka (Peters), a young man who suspects that he will lead an unremarkable life, a fate worse than death in his opinion. If he doesn’t have the temperament or the skills to do something for the betterment of all, well it’s better to be infamous than un-famous. His childhood best friend is Spencer Reinhard (Keoghan), who while touring his university is shown the John James Audubon first edition Birds of America, one of the most valuable books in the world and one that happens to be housed at Transylvania University. When he remarks upon it to his friend, the wheels begin turning in Lipka’s mind as he sees it as the way to make his mark. He’s seen enough heist movies to know what is needed to make the robbery work.

At first the discussions are all very theoretical but gradually over time these discussions cross the line into planning an actual robbery. The two know they could never pull this off on their own so they rope in fellow students Eric Borsuk (Abrahamson), a mega-organized math whiz, and entitled jock Chas Allen (Jenner) who will drive the getaway car. Their only obstacle; the kindly middle-aged librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Dowd) who is physically present in the library at all times. The boys are confident they can overcome the security measures protecting the book.

While the movie doesn’t have the pizzazz, the flair or the star power of the Oceans franchise, it does have a tone all its own and a unique viewpoint. While the gimmick of conflicting testimony has been used in other movies before (notably and most recently I, Tonya) it is utilized brilliantly here and doesn’t seem gimmicky at all.

This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival; it was also at Sundance where it made a notable splash. There is good reason for both of those facts; this is a wildly entertaining and occasionally poignant film with enough teen hubris to choke a horse. It’s just now completing its theatrical run at the Enzian and will shortly be available on VOD although I would highly recommend that readers in Orlando check it out at the Enzian. While there is one brutal and shocking scene of violence that might be difficult for the sensitive, this is essential viewing and all efforts should be made to see this movie one way or another. The real crime is if you fail to do so.

REASONS TO GO: This is a refreshingly original take on the heist film. Layton mashes up drama, comedy and documentary into a new genre all its own. The pacing is perfect. Fine performances by Keoghan and Jenner.
REASONS TO STAY: There is one scene that may be a little bit too much for those sensitive to violence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and a scene of brutal violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set at Transylvania University in Kentucky where the events actually happened, the movie was filmed in North Carolina at Davidson College.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bank Job
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
A Quiet Place

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The Legend of King Solomon


The 70s called; they want their animation back.

(2017) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Oded Menashe, Ori Pfeffer, Hana Laslo, Ori Laizerouvich, Nitzan Sitzer, Albert Cohen, Eden Har’el. Directed by Albert Hanan Kaminski

 

King Solomon has over the centuries come to symbolize wisdom. However, even the wisest of men were once the most foolish of teens, and getting over ourselves is a hefty dose of what growing up is all about.

Solomon (Menashe) has only recently ascended to the throne of Jerusalem, once held by his father King David. Solomon’s best friend is a fox named Toby (Laizerouvich) whose speech only Solomon can understand. Bilquis (uncredited), the beautiful but somewhat shallow Queen of Sheba has come to Jerusalem ostensibly to marry Solomon. The teen king, chafing in the shadow of his more noteworthy father, needs to find a way to impress the beautiful Queen.

When Hadad (Sitzer), a man whose city was leveled by David comes before Solomon to reclaim his family ring, Solomon arrogantly refuses. In retribution, Hadad frees Asmodeus, one of the most powerful of demons. Seeking to impress Bilquis, Solomon captures the demon and against all advice brings it into the city of Jerusalem where it escapes and enslaves the citizens of Jerusalem, then throws Solomon high into the air. Solomon should have been killed but he and Toby are rescued by a giant eagle who informs him that the only way to defeat Asmodeus is by the use of the Stone Worm, a powerful talisman hidden in the ancient city of Petra.

Solomon, disguising himself as an impoverished beggar so as not to attract attention to himself, gains entry to the city and finds work as a dishwasher working for the Princess Na’ama (Har’el) who finds out his true identity and determines to help the young king. Chased by Hadad and by the enslaved soldiers of Jerusalem as well as Na’ama’s angry father, Solomon must redeem himself and take back his city or lose everything that his father built.

This is definitely a children’s movie. The appeal is mainly going to be for little ones; we’ve got sassy talking animals, love stories on the level of a six-year-old’s crush on a seven-year-old and humor that consists mainly of pratfalls. With the cutesy talking animals and the dialogue that distinctly talks down to the audience, one gets the sense that the writers thought their target audience is much younger than it really is; either that or they don’t hang out with many seven-year-olds.

Although the subject is Biblical, the movie isn’t preachy in the same way it might be if a evangelical Christian group might have made it. This is mostly meant to be a fun look at a Biblical figure who really hasn’t gotten a whole lot of love from Hollywood despite being one of the best-known figures from the history of Israel. It surprises me frankly that there have been more movies about Achilles than there have been about King Solomon. I guess that being a mighty warrior is sexier than being a mighty thinker.

The music, much of it based on folk song forms of the region, is actually quite nice. The really glaring thing about the film though is the animation. Unlike most animated films these days, it’s 2D and it looks like something Don Bluth might have done – that’s not a knock, by the way. The backgrounds are nicely textured but the animators don’t really succeed in giving their creation life. There’s no soul here and for the most part it feels like something that was done not so much out of a passion for the story but because someone was footing the bill.

Parents who are strong in faith, both Christian and Jewish (and I suspect some Muslims as well) will probably delight in this. Those who aren’t religious should be aware that this isn’t a movie that’s trying to indoctrinate anybody; Solomon comes off as human and even though there are demons present there aren’t hosts of angels or any wise old priests telling him to put his faith in God. I just wish the animation was better and that the writers had given the young audience a little more credit.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the songs are pretty nice.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Legend of King Solomon is the first Israeli full-length animated feature that is intended for children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Davey and Goliath
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Bleeding Edge

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story


Glamour was Kevyn Aucoin’s business.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Kevyn Aucoin, Isaac Mizrahi, Christy Turlington Burns, Jeremy Antunes, Brooke Shields, Carol Alt, Cindy Crawford, Cher, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Paula Porizkova, Amy Sidaris, Isabella Rossellini, Tori Amos, Carla Aucoin Hoffkins, Eddie Greene, Garren, Scottie, Sandy Lintner, Keith Aucoin, Todd Oldham, Paul Cavaco, Linda Wells. Directed by Tiffany Bartok

 

Women have worn make-up for largely thousands of years but it is only relatively recently that it has evolved into being an art form. One of the people responsible for that evolution is Kevyn Aucoin (the last name pronounced AH-Kwan).

Kevyn, one of four adopted children, grew up in the less-than-accepting burg of Shreveport, Louisiana. From an early age he had a thing about fashion magazines like Vogue and the musical styling of Barbra Streisand. It was not surprising that he became openly gay which was not exactly looked favorably upon by the citizens and youth of Shreveport. Kevyn was bullied, sometimes brutally, scars which stayed with him all through the rest of his life.

Aucoin went on to New York and through sheer force of will hooked on at Vogue. The rest, as they say, was history. He would grow to be the first celebrity make-up artist, penning books sharing his beauty secrets. He was one of the pioneers of contour make-up – essentially using colors to shape a face – and he revolutionized how women apply make-up in the process.

He was an outspoken activist for LBGTQ+ causes and worked tirelessly for gay rights. Sadly though, he developed a glandular tumor which led to an addiction to opioids and an early grave at the age of 40. Still, while his candle didn’t burn quite as long, it burned much more brightly than perhaps even he had hoped for.

This doc on his life features a plethora of testimonials from family, clients and friends and some of the interviews are absolutely delightful. His sister talks about him using her as a canvas to practice his techniques on when they were in high school, while some of his early models talk about his drive and his absolute fearlessness. He had a vision for what he was going to become and he pursued it as relentlessly as he could.

Aucoin was also an obsessive record keeper; he filled journals with notes and diagrams while he utilized video cameras to document all the fabulous aspects of his life – and let’s face it, he did define fabulous for an entire generation of gay men and women of all persuasions. He was the king of make-up artists during the 1980s, arguably the most make-up heavy era in American history. Because he did so much work on music videos, Aucoin was a heavy influence on how people looked whether they were going out to dance at the clubs or headed out for school.

The perceptions of what beauty was did change over time and Kevyn did change with the times even if he was no longer quite as influential as he was at the height of his career. While the documentary stops just shy of being hagiographic – it does cover his drug addiction and resulting personality change fairly clinically – it does approach fawning territory upon occasion. Perhaps though that makes it more heartbreaking as we see him becoming less easy to work with, less fun to be around. The pain from his cancer and from late growth spurts took its toll and led to his untimely death as the pills he took that basically allowed him to function took over his life.

It bears mentioning that Kevyn was fairly promiscuous but he did find his one true love – Jeremy Antunes whom he married and spent the last years of his life with despite Kevyn’s often difficult behavior. It also bears mentioning – since the film didn’t do it – that after Kevyn passed Jeremy was locked out of the home he shared with his husband by Kevyn’s family. Yeah, it might be water under the bridge and the parties involved might be reluctant to reopen old wounds but it should have been at least mentioned. It was the kind of thing ironically that Kevyn was fighting against.

Still, Aucoin isn’t the household name he perhaps deserves to be. He was a giant in his industry, comparable to Michael Jordan or Meryl Streep. On a strictly human level, this is a story of an outsider who fought his way to the very inside; it’s a story anyone can relate to. This documentary, while unremarkable, does at least a solid job of presenting his life and why he is deserving of a feature film. Bartok could have used a little more editing – it feels like some of the interviews regurgitate the same platitudes – but all in all this is a lot more satisfying a film than I expected it to be.

REASONS TO GO: The film looks at make-up as an art form.
REASONS TO STAY: The run time is way too long and the appeal mainly to a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the clients that Aucoin worked with who weren’t interviewed for the film were Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Halle Berry and Madonna, to name just a few.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Wears Prada
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Okja

Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker

Coming to My Senses


This is the look of a man who lives life on his own terms.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Aaron Baker, Laquita Dian, Arielle Baker, Taylor Kevin Isaacs, Dan Baker, Katie Devine, Igor Fineman, Adam Rice, Adam Zerbe, Pat McMahon, Dominic Gill, Rick Bobbington, Hollyn Thompson. Directed by Dominic Gill

Aaron Baker had his whole life ahead of him. He was one of the up-and-coming stars on the motocross circuit and the sky was the limit.Then in 1999 he suffered a horrific injury during a race, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

The prognosis was grim. Doctors told him that he had a one in a million shot of feeding himself ever again. Walking was just about out of the question. Plenty of people who have the kind of injuries Baker had suffered essentially sit back and wait to die but Aaron Baker wasn’t that kind of person.

He took the negativity as a challenge and swore to himself that he would walk again someday. Through physical therapy and an innovative concept – his sister painted each of his toenails a different color and he visualized his muscles moving to each colored toe. He began to show signs of movement.

Then the rug was literally pulled out from under him; his insurance company refused to continue to pay for physical therapy, essentially telling him that they weren’t willing to throw money into a situation that was medically hopeless. Aaron grew depressed and even his mother Laquita sank into alcoholism to cope with her son’s pain.

But the funny thing was that this only shored up Aaron’s determination. His mother, infected by that determination, found a kinesiologist that not only Aaron could afford but who proposed a radical program of exercise. Soon he indeed was able to walk again but that wasn’t enough for Aaron. An athlete his entire life, he decided to take up bike riding, riding a tandem bike across country and then later a specially built three wheel bicycle. Recently, he decided to walk 19.6 miles from Death Valley to Baker, California to call attention to the hope that all good things are possible even to those with the direst of injuries.

Gill and maybe Baker as well have an affinity with the desert; it seems to be the landscape in nearly every shot. Some of the cinematography (which Gill also provided) is breathtaking but not as much as the story is. You can’t help but admire Aaron Baker’s determination. He is living proof that doctors aren’t always right and that the human spirit can be more powerful even than modern medicine. These are not lessons we should ignore.

At times this feels a bit heavy on the bro-ness. Maybe extreme sports bring out that reaction in me but the guys and gals who practice these types of sports have a surfeit of testosterone running through their veins. Maybe it’s because they drink far more Mountain Dew than human beings should be allowed to but I found it off-putting in places

That aside, the inter-cutting of Baker’s desert journey with his rehabilitation is mostly effective although there isn’t always a lot of context provided; things like this cost money and while sponsors are vaguely alluded to, we don’t really get a sense of how fundraising was accomplished. There’s also almost no comments from any of Aaron’s peers in motocross or among the paraplegic community. We really see this almost entirely out of Aaron’s and Gill’s eyes and that gives the movie a bit of a hagiographic feel that it would have done better without.

REASONS TO GO: This is an inspiring journey, literally and figuratively.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the movie feels a bit heavy on the “bro.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing there are more than 1.46 million Americans afflicted with spinal cord injuries of varying degrees.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

Love & Saucers


David Huggins does his best Nosferatu impression.

(2017) Documentary (Curator/The Orchard) David Huggins, Michael Huggins, Harold Egeln, Anthony Lisa, Nitten Patel, Doug Auld, Jeffrey Kripel, Andrzej Nowicki.  Directed by Brad Abrahams

 

There are those who insist that we are not alone in the universe. Certainly the law of averages agrees with them; there are so many habitable planets in this galaxy alone that the odds are that life has evolved on at least some of them and of those that life evolved on, the odds are that intelligent life has evolved on at least some of those. Some perhaps even intelligent enough to invent faster-than-light space travel; some perhaps curious enough to explore this big blue marble.

David Huggins at first glance seems like an ordinary 72-year-old man in Hoboken, New Jersey. He works part time at a deli; he’s quiet but personable and radiates a grandfatherly kindness. He spends most of his time painting, a passion of his that at one time he wanted to turn into a career but that never materialized, alas.

David has a strange story to tell; as an 8-year-old living in rural Georgia he began to receive visits from creatures not of this world. As a 17-year-old, he lost his virginity to an alien woman he called Crescent; for six years she would be what he termed his “girlfriend” and they had regular…er, conjugal visits.

He largely forgot about his bizarre past until the episodes began showing up as paintings that he felt compelled to create. He had gone on to marry a fellow artist and had a son (Michael) by her but Michael was apparently not his only child. David recalls a hybrid alien child who Crescent informed him was his child and it was dying. Clearly he was distraught about the situation but it eventually ends with the child surviving; and as it turns out, the hybrid had many brothers and sisters.

Skeptics are going to have a field day with this; Abraham doesn’t do much to argue with any of David’s claims. I can understand why; David certainly seems pretty sincere in his beliefs and while there may be alternate explanations for what David has experienced, they aren’t explored and one gets the sense that Abrahams is giving David the benefit of the doubt and accepting his story at face value. Not every filmmaker would have the objectivity to do that.

One of the things that annoyed me about the documentary was the music. Derk Reneman alternates between Korla Pandit-like organ noodling to electronic burbling. It’s very repetitive and very noticeable which is not what you want out of your soundtrack. However, it’s offset by the visuals of the paintings themselves which Huggins himself admits are heavily influenced by impressionism but aren’t quite in that genre. They are quite interesting albeit a little on the fantastic side. Some won’t connect to them much but art is always – always – in the eye of the beholder.

There aren’t a lot of talking heads in this (other than David himself) until the end of the barely an hour long film and for the most part they all agree that David is a very nice guy and sincere in his beliefs. His son Michael appears and is very diplomatic; one suspects that while he loves his dad he finds his beliefs somewhat eccentric. In any case, Michael has moved to Thailand with his family and seems well-adjusted enough. Conspicuous by her absence is David’s wife Janice who declined to be interviewed for the film. One wonders if the marriage itself is on stable ground or if Janice just finds her husband’s stories annoying. I can imagine it’s a very different experience living with someone who has these tales to tell.

This isn’t an essential movie by any means but it is entertaining and while it is unlikely to change your mind about the existence of extra-terrestrials, it will at least fill up your hour with an unusual take on them. The movie is widely available on VOD (see below) and if you enjoy biographical documentaries about unusual people or if you’re just reasonably interested in alien abductions, this might be something new for you to consider.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer gets the sense that Huggins is absolutely truthful or at least believes himself to be. The paintings have their own strange beauty.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is often annoying and cheesy. The narrative bounces all over the place without a lot of flow to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much sexuality and some nudity in paintings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Abrahams’ first feature-length documentary as a solo director (he also co-directed last year’s On the Back of a Tiger.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Boss Baby

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