The Exception – Film Review

 

He was the last German Emperor. And it’s true, as a war time leader during the First World War he was ineffective, lost all support of the army, and was forced to abdicate. He spent the remaining years of his life in exile, in neighboring Holland, and lived in a manor house called Huis Doorn where he was largely forgotten. Having thought that Kaiser Wilhelm ll had passed away several years earlier, many never realized he remained alive for as long as he did. He died at Huis Doorn as late as 1941. He was buried in a small mausoleum in the gardens. Today, Huis Doorn is a Dutch national museum, and that mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage for German monarchists.

In his 2003 novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, author Alan Judd took that setting and wrote a fictional account revolving around the Kaiser’s remaining days in Holland. As with many stories written as ‘faction,’ times and dates are blurred, and events never really occurred quite in the way they do in the story. But while there’s a mixed bag of what is truth and what was invented, the film version adapted from Judd’s book remains a compelling drama that fully engages. And much of what happens and said in the film really did happen, though not quite as you see them, nor were they spoken by characters created for the book.

The new title, The Exception, refers to German soldier Captain Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), sent on orders from Berlin to guard the exiled Kaiser. As events at the mansion unfold, the captain’s perspective of what is right and wrong, the Nazi party, and his role as a German in the war, will change. “They’re the rule,” Mieke, the housemaid (Lily James) will tell him. “You are the exception.”

There’s word that a British spy is in the area, and it’s Captain Brandt’s job to make sure that nothing happens to the Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) or his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer). When viewing the Kaiser from a distance on the mansion grounds, the elderly man calls him out and tells the captain it’s unnecessary to be shadowing him everywhere. “If anything happened to you, I’d be shot,” the young man tells him.

Complications develop the moment the captain begins a secret affair with Mieke. It’s through her eyes he initially sees things in a somewhat different light. He doesn’t quite believe her when she expresses what she knows to be true of the SS, but it gives the young man pause for thought. Maybe some of the things he’d always believed about the work his country was doing weren’t quite as he was taught. Maybe his thoughts on Hitler aren’t quite as he believed, either. It’s when the mansion is visited by one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany that change truly comes.

Heinrich Himmler (an effectively menacing Eddie Marsden) arrives with a personal message from the Fuehrer. Greetings are polite, if awkward, but it’s the man’s dinner table conversation where things become truly uncomfortable. With casual disregard for the horror of what he’s saying, he talks of the elimination of those not useful to the party, particularly children, and how to do it. That’s the moment when the captain has to make the choice between his allegiance to the party and his conscience. By their silence, even the Kaiser and his wife are clearly appalled. Referring to Hitler and the madness of his toady, dedicated followers such as Himmler, the Kaiser will later tell Mieke, “They are not as we are.”

Essentially a romantic war drama, told at a slow but taut pace, as events develop, the identity of the British spy is revealed, and the captain’s loyalty is altered, the film forms into an exciting, though unexpected thriller in the final act as the Kaiser himself becomes instrumental regarding an escape plan. With Holland now occupied and the Nazis closing in, even the Kaiser is aware that things promised him will never occur. True to the title of the book, it’s the Kaiser’s last kiss; he takes it upon himself to do something good.

First time film director David Leveaux is an English theatre director, having worked extensively on both the London and New York stage. In The Exception, he’s succeeded on coaxing the best theatrical performances he can get from his ensemble, most of whom are also from the stage. It’s art-house, but because of its cast, there’s mainstream potential.

In his silences, Eddie Marsden’s Himmler is so threatening, the role actually takes on an almost comical feel that would make you laugh if it wasn’t for the horrific detail he reveals when explaining how to kill children. Lily James as the housemaid with her own secrets, perhaps best remembered on film as Cinderella in the 2015 Disney live-action version, delivers her most impressive screen role to date. Janet McTeer’s Princess Hermine effectively expresses both fear and humiliation in Himmler’s presence by subtle glances and simple hesitation, while Christopher Plummer appears to reinvent the reprehensible Kaiser, turning his character inside out and making him appear somewhat likable as he reflects back on his life with sadness and regret. He even appears to develop a clear vision of current events and his position within them. It’s a great performance.

But among those outstanding turns from a cast of theatre veterans comes an unexpected one; one with no stage experience of which to speak. Australian actor and former model Jai Courtney’s often pit-bull bluster in over-the-top, explosive action thrillers is toned down in The Exception to such an effective level, it’s often hard to imagine that this is the same buffed-up performer seen in Suicide Squad, the anemic Divergent, and as the son of Bruce Willis in the worst of the Die Hard series, A Good Day to Die Hard. During his early scenes, he can’t help but carry the baggage of those previous films, but as The Exception develops, and his character’s moral code is questioned from within, Courtney convinces. Beyond a doubt, he’s never been better.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 107 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Beguiled – Film Review

The studio all but buried the 1971 original. Not knowing quite how to handle it, with poor marketing and a fractured release, there’s a new generation of moviegoers who’re probably unaware there was ever an earlier version. But for those who remember The Beguiled as it was told in the ’71 Clint Eastwood film, they’re the ones who’ll have the most fun with the new Sofia Coppola version. Both are based on the same novel and both have the same arc, but it’s the dreamy, thick-as-molasses, sensual tone where things change, and that makes a big difference.

If you’re among those who never knew there was a previous version, that’s not altogether important; as a stand-alone feature, you should still enjoy what writer/director Coppola has done with the Thomas P. Cullinan novel. But if you are familiar with Eastwood’s movie, making comparisons, recalling earlier events, and seeing where the changes now lay helps enhance things; it simply makes everything more interesting.

It’s the time of Civil War. Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is badly wounded. He’s bleeding and crouched behind a tree in the middle of a Virginian wood, away from his unit and in desperate need of treatment. A young girl, Miss Amy (Broadway’s Matilda, Oona Laurence) from the nearby Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, discovers John and takes pity, even though he’s a soldier from the other side. She helps him to his feet and together they stagger back to the school. “I cant say you’d be welcome, as a yank,” she tells him, “But it’ll be better than here.

For obvious reasons, the headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) shows an initial reluctance to take him in – “They rape everyone they come across,” states one of the young school girls, Jane (Angourie Rice), disturbed by his sight – but the woman’s christian values guide her to a more accepting nature, and she opens her doors, stitches the wounds to his leg, and keeps him locked in the music room while he heals. Amy tells everyone his name is John McBurney, but Miss Farnsworth shows little interest. “He’s not going to be here long enough for his name to make any difference,” she states, but it’s delivered in such a dismissive, lofty tone, you know she’s secretly hoping otherwise. But stay he does, and it’s his presence in a secluded seminary, populated by a small group of girls, one female teacher, and a headmistress, that truly makes all the difference.

The first thing you’ll notice is the look of the film. Shot with a rarely used screen ration of 1:66 (slightly wider than earlier TV screens but not wide enough to fill out a current HD monitor) there’s an intentional appearance of looking hemmed in, just as those young ladies feel, forever restricted within the confines of the seminary while the civil war rages somewhere out there, far away in the distance. The surrounding area of the mansion remains peaceful; the only local sounds heard are the ever-continuing chorus of insects in the woods, but from the horizon, you can hear the distant dull boom of cannon fire. The ‘71 version was letterbox, widescreen.

Director Coppola has also opted for shooting her Beguiled on film, using 35mm rather than the clear, clinically crisp visuals of modern digital. And there’s a visible difference. Not only is it more pleasing to the eye, but it also captures a dreamy feel to the images; there’s a genuine sense of an earlier time, like photographs with depth that come alive. Nighttime interiors are shot with the natural look of candlelight, akin to the technique Kubrick developed for Barry Lyndon. Where the underlining presence of steamy, Gothic horror with a somewhat lurid undertone was always there with Eastwood, Coppola’s version appears far more lyrical.

Curiously, the character of Hallie, the slave, played in the ‘71 version by blues singer Mae Mercer, is absent from Coppola’s adaptation, even though the woman’s presence was of great importance to both the novel and the earlier film. Director Coppola has said she wanted to focus on the women of the school, concerned that the subject of slavery was too important to be featured as a subplot. This change certainly streamlines events considerably, plus it creates it a further sense of isolation for these women from what is happening in the outside world and why it’s occurring, but it’s a jarring absence, all the same.

The major difference, though, is the character of McBurney. Unlike the all-American Eastwood playing a yankee out of his zone, Farrell is Irish and keeps his accent. He’s an immigrant, a mercenary with no allegiance to either side. When some of the young girls refer to him as a Blue-Belly, the reality is it’s not McBurney. His loyalty was there for the buying, and it’s simply unfortunate circumstances that he’s wearing the uniform of the north when lost in Virginia. But it’s the uniform that causes early conflict. “You’re not a guest here,” Miss Farnsworth reminds McBurney. “You’re a most unwelcome visitor.”

The conflicts that later arise due to his presence are the unspoken, sexually-repressed tensions felt by some of the sheltered women. They’re less displayed on the surface by Kidman’s Miss Farnsworth, even though there’s always a sense of suggestive eroticism in everything she says and does when directed at him, but particularly by teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and bored, young Alicia (Elle Fanning), causing a rivalry that will eventually prove a catalyst to something horrendous.

Coppola’s directorial style is slow and deliberate, a welcome change of pace, and it’s here in her remake of The Beguiled where it works to her best advantage. Marketing has gone to lengths to insist this new version is not a remake but a new adaptation of the Cullinan novel. Call it what you will, it’s still the second version. Taste and a choice of style will determine a preference, but personally speaking, Coppola’s approach is the better.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 94 Minutes     Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

Readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle should recognize the title. It comes from a quote spoken by Sherlock Holmes in one of Conan Doyle’s short mysteries, Silver Blaze. In conversation with a Scotland Yard detective, Holmes wants to draw attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. When the Scotland Yard detective tells Holmes that the dog did nothing in the night-time, Holmes replies, “That was the curious incident.”

Transferred from the Royal National Theatre in London to Broadway, and now on its first US national tour, currently performing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, June 25, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tells of young Christopher Boone (Adam Langdon). He’s a fifteen-year-old English boy from Swindon with a series of conditions. Though none of those conditions are specified, his behavioral difficulties range from Asperger’s and high-functioning autism, plus he’s a mathematical savant. There’s also another issue: he can’t be touched. He’s Rain Man as an English teenager from South West England, 78 miles from London.

True to the spirit of the title and its origins, Christopher takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes after the discovery of his own curious incident concerning a dog; an occurrence that presumably really did take place at night. His neighbor’s pet, Wellington, is found murdered, impaled by a garden fork. It’s only when that neighbor, an understandably distraught Mrs. Shears (Kathy McCafferty), finds Christopher standing over the body of her animal and accuses him of the death that the boy decides to find out who really committed the murder.

Based on the Mark Haddon novel of the same name, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time alters the structure of the book. Where the novel was written exclusively from young Christopher’s point-of-view, the play is narrated by Christopher’s school teacher and mentor, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez). She’s reading from a project she encouraged Christopher to write. At one point, she even breaks from the manuscript on her lap, looks up and tells the boy, “It’s very good, Christopher. I like the details. It’s quite realistic.”

Because of Christopher’s autism spectrum, the boy has a unique vision of what is honest and what is not. “I always tell the truth,” he insists. And because of the play’s design – we’re inside Christopher’s mind – we tend to see the same things in the way that Christopher does. When the fifteen-year-old discusses the meaning of a metaphor with his teacher, he concludes that ‘metaphor’ is really a different word for a lie. After all, no one really has skeletons in their cupboard, so when they say it, it’s clearly a lie. Plus, in a theological conversation with Reverend Peters (Geoffrey Wade), the idea that God and heaven is in another kind of place altogether doesn’t make sense to the boy. Aware of the universe, its age, the nature of black holes, and what it would take for people who have died to get to heaven, Christopher concludes, “There isn’t another kind of place altogether.” Unable to compete, the reverend cuts short the conversation.

By the play’s second half, when Siobhan tells the boy they should present a school play of his real-life story based on his project, you realize that everything you’ve seen and will continue to see was always a play-within-a-play. A humorous result of this device occurs when another of Christopher’s school teachers playing herself is continuously put out by having to repeat her brief lines of dialog made redundant by the narrator who has already quoted them.

While Curious Incident is not a musical, the play’s original London director Marianne Elliot, incorporates the aid of choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett to supply the ever-continuing graceful movement of the cast as they assume grouped positions and characterize everyday objects that Christopher encounters. There’s also an extremely funny mime that the young boy employs as he suffers through the trails and tribulations of having to use a public toilet on a speeding train, then negotiating the blower with his wet hands.

However, during a lengthy, heart-breaking moment when the boy’s mother (Felicity Jones Latta) has to explain things to her son, things seem to come to a temporary halt. Narratively, what she’s saying is of great importance, but because of the play’s lightning speed pace, it feels as though brakes were suddenly applied. With a broken rhythm, the result may be a wandering mind for just a few moments.

In the way Christopher’s senses will be overwhelmed, so will ours, in a literal sense. Presented in an electronic variation of a black-box theatre, its floor and walls project a dazzling array of sonic effects. Numbers, words, flashing images and maps appear, floating in all directions as if we’re witnessing the very images flashing through Christopher’s mind, accompanied by an overpowering cacophony of sound.

Occasionally there’s a danger of the light show, with its all-encompassing visual effects, suffocating the moment, often with an accompanying, overly abrasive soundtrack that pierces the senses and continues longer than you want, particularly when it’s not altogether clear why the effects with its shower of ever-flowing red dots are occurring in the way they are. It’s as if the theatrical box of tricks can’t help but show off, and someone forgot to say when. But there’s also much to admire in the way the light show can become the street on which Christopher lives, a train ride from Swindon to London, the information desk at London’s Paddington Station, or the platform at the Paddington underground as Christopher navigates his way through the city on the Bakerloo line. The electronically elaborate, detailed designs are blazing and unceasingly inventive.

The mystery of the murder is cleared halfway through the production, which makes clear that the play isn’t really about the solving of a crime, nor is it exclusively about the boy’s disorders. Rather, like the novel, the play examines routine, customs, separation, honesty, the playing with language and most importantly, the confusion that comes with miscommunication in everyday speech. If everyone was as clear and as direct as Christopher when speaking, there would never be a failure to communicate. The play expresses that with both warmth and humor, along with the drama.

In London, the play won seven of its eight 2013 Laurence Olivier Award nominations, including Best New Play. On Broadway, it won five of its six 2015 Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. Gammage shows why. While Wellington the dog did nothing to deserve its fate, it’s the catalyst that sets a young boy off on a journey of self-discovery, his position in the world, and an awareness of what his future holds. A curious incident indeed, Watson, but a singular one that you should treat yourself to enjoying while it remains in town.

Pictures courtesy of Joan Marcus

Posted in Theatre

Rough Night – Film Review

Taking its cue from a little remembered 1998 black comedy, Very Bad Things, where a stripper is accidentally killed at a bachelor party, the new ‘R’ rated comedy Rough Night covers the same ground, but with role reversals: the party is for the bride, and the stripper is male.

Four women reunite for a wild bachelorette weekend in Florida, celebrating the on-coming wedding of soon-to-be bride, Jess (Scarlett Johansson). Three of those friends are from college, the fourth is an oddball buddy from Jess’s Australian visit, and all five are ready to drink, dance, score some coke, and get as wild as they can. At least, that’s the idea. But when a stripper turns up at their rented Miami beach house, and a too-horny-for-her-own-good Alice (Jillian Bell) jumps his bones, the guy bangs his head on the corner of a fireplace slab and hits the floor.

Does he need CPR?” asks one of the women as they peer over his lifeless body. “I’ll look it up on You Tube,” states the eager Aussie, Pippa (Kate McKinnon). But the pool of blood spilling from the back of his head tells them what they need to know: Alice has killed the stripper.

Naturally, the girls in their drunken and somewhat coked up state, panic and make all the wrong decisions. First, they move the body and hide it in a closet, then one of the women, Blair (Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny) calls the family lawyer (Peter Francis James) and asks him what to do. He advises the next best thing. “As I told Rob Lowe, if there’s no body, there’s no case.” So, that’s what they attempt; to hide the body. But, naturally, the harder they try, the worse things get, and as the night continues, and the more desperate the situation becomes, events naturally spiral way out of control.

Writer/director Lucia Aniello begins Rough Night with an okay premise (even if the Peter Berg written and directed Very Bad Things springs to mind). Plus, that first act of a girls-night-out as we get to know the individual, off-kilter character traits of each friend shows promise. But it soon falls apart once the situation is established, particularly when the death of the stripper and the women’s reaction to it develops into something more alarming than funny. It’s not so much that the moment is a surprise – most will be waiting for it to happen; it’s the film’s major marketing selling plot point – it’s that it comes across so genuinely serious. There’s an adjustment required, and it becomes hard to laugh once the film gets back into the rhythm of comedy. It also doesn’t help that Alice herself has already established herself as the annoying one.

Jillian Bell’s Alice is that clingy, foul-mouthed, best-friend. She’s the one responsible for reuniting everyone for the Miami celebration, though as Jess will later point out in a moment of anger, the whole weekend was really for Alice to party in a desperate attempt to relive college days. The woman is filling the void of an otherwise empty life. “We’re not in college anymore,” Jess will tell her. “And things do change.” Alice is also jealous of Jess’s Australian buddy, Pippa, purposely calling her a Kiwi, interrupting any conversation Pippa might begin with Jess, and even attempting to unbuckle the Aussie’s seatbelt in the car as it speeds through Miami. Seriously, was she actually trying to kill the woman? Plus, let’s not forget; Alice is the one who created the mess. Why Jess has remained friends with such an overbearing annoyance is the film’s biggest mystery. The answer, of course, is probably because Alice won’t let go. There’s a poignant moment later when, through a private greetings card written to Jess, Alice’s feelings are spelled out, but it comes too late; long before that scene arrives you’ve already had enough of her.

As with many raunchy, ‘R’ rated comedies of late, the dialog is not half as funny as it should be, substituting crassness and f-bombs for wit. “I can’t go to jail,” insists Alice. “I couldn’t even get through the first episode of Orange is the New Black.” Funny, perhaps, as a TV sitcom punchline, but not that clever in a film; unless, of course, your sense of what’s funny was raised on TV and you can no longer tell the difference.

The film’s only strength is its cast. Llana Glazer as lesbian activist Frankie, along with Zoe Kravitz, Jillian Bell (who despite her annoying character, plays her convincingly well) and Kate McKinnon are all talented women, particularly McKinnon who, like her TV SNL characters, never gives less than a hundred percent, and then some. Every role she plays comes across as certifiably nuts; a crazy woman somehow existing in the real world. “Singer/songwriter is the dream,” she introduces herself. “Party clown is the reality.”

Paul W. Downs plays bridegroom Peter, whose bachelor party is a sedate wine-tasting evening with friends. Fearing that Jess has dumped him after a buddy states, “Dude, you’re a six and she’s a twenty,” he races down to Florida popping pills and drinking Red Bull to keep awake while wearing man-diapers in order to make time and not have to stop for bathroom breaks along the way. Both the wine-tasting and the race for time sound funny in the telling, but are less so on screen.

There’s also an uncomfortably odd appearance from Ty Burrell and Demi Moore as the unabashedly swinging neighbors whose every piece of dialog is inspired from the groin. When Moore first meets the girls and spies Kravitz, she’s immediately attracted. “She’s delicious,” states Moore. “I want that.”

Then there’s the film’s A-lister, Scarlett Johansson as Jess, the college grad now with the sensible haircut, running for state senate. Just like her appearances as an occasional guest host on SNL, she comes across as a good sport, pitching in with all the mayhem even if it never quite clicks. Watching her makes you wish the film was better.

Historically, the gallows humor of black comedy can be the best, but it needs real wit in addition to several off-beat situations to work. As much as you want to enjoy it, Rough Night takes the easier route. It only has the initial situation, Johansson, and the four supporting talents going for it, and that’s not enough. Both the crass dialog and that one really annoying character are not helping.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 101 Minutes     Overall rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

47 Meters Down – Film Review

It was a smart move. Originally titled In The Deep and set for a straight-to-DVD release in August, at almost the eleventh hour, Entertainment Studios has given its newly acquired shark/horror adventure a theatrical release.

Now called 47 Meters Down, summer audiences can see on the big screen what they might have missed had it joined the VOD market too early. The film is by no means one of the great shark attack sea-going yarns, and it won’t set the box-office on fire, but it should initially have a tidy return on its small investment. Plus, shot widescreen with good production values, seen on a wide theatrical canvass, the film looks great. From a business perspective, definitely a smart move.

The setup is simple. Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are sisters on vacation in Mexico. Lisa is there to get away from a relationship gone wrong. Kate is there to have fun and make sure her sister has fun, too. To make things exciting, the girls decide to leave the safety of the hotel swimming pool and head for the ocean. A couple of local boys with a boat have enticed them to see underwater life at close-view. Maybe even some sharks. All the girls have to do is put on scuba gear and step into a cage that will lower them no more than five meters into the clear blue ocean. “It’s like going to the zoo, except you’re in the cage,” one of the boys tell them.

Once on board the rinky-dink looking rust-bucket of a boat, a grizzled looking Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) tells the girls, “Trust me, once you’re down there, you’re not gonna want to come up.” And even though the cage looks almost as rusty as the boat itself, down they go. But then, so does the hoist.

After a few minutes of enjoying sights undersea, including two twenty foot sharks attracted by the illegal throwing of chum circling around the cage, it happens; the cable gives, the hoist snaps, and the girls speedily descend to the seafloor below, forty-seven meters down. Now too far out of radio contact with the guys on the boat above, trapped inside the cage with coiled cable and a large wench blocking the opening, not to mention some hungry looking great whites trying to get their snouts through the bars, the girls’ chances of survival are slim to none. Plus, their oxygen is running out.

Running at only a brisk eighty-nine minutes including credits, with this setup, the film is as long as it needs to be. After some unnecessary business concerning Lisa and the guy back home who left her, the film swiftly creates the situation and gets the girls in peril as soon as it can. The rest is told in real time.

The problem with this kind of situation will always be the dialog. Despite the low-rent look of Captain Taylor’s boat and his equipment, not to mention the low-rent look of the captain himself, the scuba-diving gear and the radio-wired masks he loans the divers are first class, which is fortunate for not only the girls to talk to each with the clarity of an HD 4G signal, but fortunate for us; we can hear everything they say, even if radio communications with those above is gone. That means that listening to two terrified young women in a nightmare situation has it fair share of stoopid-sounding dialog. And preview audiences laughed, which is a shame.

They laughed when Kate declares, “I’m really lost and I’m freaking out right now.” They also laughed when Lisa says, “I’m so deep I can’t even see what’s below me.” Plus, when radio contact with the captain above is briefly made, and the captain says slowly, deliberately, “I need you to get back in the cage,” the audience laughed even more. And sadly, it wasn’t the nervous laughter that helps break a tense moment, it was more of an, oh, come on, laugh; the kind that comes when you find something exhausting for its stupidity. In reality, one of the girls declaring, “That shark almost got me!” isn’t funny at all, and neither was most of the other dialog. And, be honest, if you or I were in that same situation, you can bet that our panicked language would be considerably more colorful, filled with obvious statements, and sounding hilarious to those relaxed and seated in the comfort of a movie-theater seat, but for some reason, hearing the girls talk of their fright on film through scuba masks causes laughter, and sadly, it works against the movie.

However, the situations created within those eighty-nine minutes are genuinely tense, and there will be moments that’ll have you adjusting uncomfortably in your seat. (For the amusement of British audiences, all the underwater scenes were filmed in a tank in Basildon, Essex, doubling for off-shore Mexico.) Plus, it really will elicit a shriek or two. You may even jump, causing popcorn to leap from its bag. With a film such as this, with sharks as big as these, and a situation that looks impossible, it does exactly what the poster promises; you can’t expect more. And it never bores. So, go ahead; enjoy. And when you laugh when someone shrieks something obvious, try to imagine what you would be saying in that same position. It’s no Jaws, but it is fun.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 89 Minutes    Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Hero – Film Review

At first glance there appears a thin line between the character Sam Elliot plays in the new drama The Hero and Elliot himself. He’s a Western actor in his seventies with a golden drawl that can sell practically anything; that’s the character, not Elliot.

But in a recording studio, when you hear him deliver the line, “Lone Star Barbecue sauce, the perfect pardner for your chicken,” you swear you’ve heard it before, for real, on TV. Fortunately, for reasons soon to be revealed, Lee Hayden (Elliot) is fictional. His film career is behind him; he supplements what income he has with voice-over work; he smokes a lot of weed while hanging out with his friend and dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman); and he’s just about to hear something from his doctor that will change everything.

I know we were hoping to get good news about this biopsy,” the doctor tells Lee, “But I’m afraid I don’t.” Lee has pancreatic cancer, and according to the survival rate that Lee researches online, it doesn’t look good.

The thing with Lee is, he can’t commit; he wants something else in his life to happen before he deals with the issue of cancer. When he receives a call from the clinic to set an appointment for his first treatment, he delays it, telling the voice on the line he’ll call her back. When he tries to reunite with his grown daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and let her know what’s happened, he begins by saying, “I’ve got something to tell you.” Then, after a moment’s pause, rather than tell the truth, he invents a story about making a new movie. And it’s the same with his ex, Valarie (The Graduate’s Elaine and Elliot’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross) and his dealer/friend Nick. With Nick, he’d rather kick-back, get stoned and watch Buster Keaton DVDs.

There’s something else about Lee. Yes, he was a Western icon, but his resume isn’t altogether prolific. The only film of which he’s proud occurred forty years ago. It was called The Hero, and Lee often dreams of his favorite performance. He wants to make a film again, maybe something in the same vein. Interestingly, director Brett Haley shoots those dreams not as they would haphazardly occur while sleeping, but as widescreen, technicolor movie clips that usually end with the voice of a director yelling, “Cut.”  They’re wish-fulfillment fantasies portrayed as a technicolor movie; Lee would love to complete his career with one last performance to seal his legacy. Then, by channels and opportunities that didn’t exist during his heyday, an opportunity really does comes along.

Because of social media, in the way that Robert De Niro’s character in The Comedian had a career surge because of a You Tube video, so it is with Lee. Accompanied with a young woman, Charlotte (Laura Prepon), with whom he’s begun an unexpected relationship – they both met at the weed dealer’s home – Lee attends a small award ceremony from a western appreciation society to receive a Lifetime Achievement honor. Due to some Ecstasy slipped into his drink by Charlotte, while giving his slow and somewhat meandering acceptance speech, Lee takes the award then hands it to a fan in the audience, telling her to keep it. He’s not deserving of it, he states. Someone records the moment and puts it online. Overnight, the video goes viral with two million hits, and Lee is suddenly, if temporarily, in demand.

The Hero is narrated with a deliberate, slow-paced rhythm, something like Elliot’s voice-over delivery, but even though the film runs at only ninety-three minutes, it’s a story that feels stretched; it could have been told in under an hour and still remained leisurely. But while it may feel like a novella padded with lengthy, reflective pauses to make it something longer, Elliot himself never fails to hold your attention. As with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, Elliot has grown into the role; it’s one that was waiting for him, one he could never have made work in quite the same way at an earlier time.

Because of his craggy though handsome features and that deep, golden-hewed voice, Elliot makes what he does look and sound easy. There must be those who say to themselves, if only I had a voice like that, I could do the same, but they’d be wrong; so much more than just a voice is required.

There’s a desktop picture on best friend Nick’s monitor that portrays an iceberg, both the small peak above the water’s surface and the mass below. It’s an illustration of what we see and what we don’t see when it comes to the craft of acting. What we don’t see are the years of hard work below the surface to get to where an actor needs to be. All we see is the part above, the result. In advance of his new movie audition, when Lee practices lines from the screenplay, it begins with what sounds like a simple read, but then something emotional develops, something that feels real, and something that only experience and a real talent can bring to the surface. That single scene may well be Elliot’s finest moment on film.

The Hero is ultimately minor, but it remains worth seeing for Sam Elliot. He is quite unique.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 93 minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

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