REVIEW: The Hero

24 06 2017

“I know we were hoping to get good news from this biopsy,” begins the doctor of Sam Elliott’s Lee Hayden. “Unfortunately, I don’t have good news.” The scene happens so early in Brett Haley’s “The Hero” that I held out hope this kind of dialogue was not indicative of the rest of the movie and the doctor just had terrible bedside manner.

I was wrong.

“The Hero” is a stale rehash of cliches surrounding estranged fathers, aging Hollywood actors and ailing elderly people coming to terms with illness. Most of the film entails Lee avoiding the disclosure of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis so he can continue chugging away on film sets and toking his marijuana to feel the slightest hint of contentment. He’s moving slightly closer to a younger romantic interest (Laura Prepon’s Charlotte Dylan) and rapidly farther from his daughter (Krysten Ritter’s Lucy).

The one interesting bit of the movie comes when Lee sees his stock rise after a viral lifetime achievement award acceptance speech that’s sincere, thoughtful … and also the result of a Molly trip. It puts the wind back behind his sails for a brief moment, landing him an audition for one of the hottest parts in town. As he prepares, the part inspires at outpouring of feeling and emotion that he hasn’t tapped into in years since he started phoning it in.

What a shocker, life can lead to inspired art, and art can lead to an inspired life! While Elliott chewing on something more than an archetype with his distinctive drawl is a pleasure, it’s a shame that he gets such banal material to work with for his moment in the spotlight. (Haley did such a great job crafting a unique and charming story for the AARP crowd in “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” but he does not recreate that magic here.) Elliott has more to give than welling up with tears by the ocean and spouting bland platitudes of regret. Hopefully someone else lets him. C

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REVIEW: The New Year

12 06 2017

I’ve quoted this line before elsewhere, but Alexander Payne had a very wise remark about debut features. “They say that often a filmmaker’s first film can be his or her best. Why? Because he or she has been waiting 30, 35 years to tell that story. So a lifetime of whatever it is, frustration or observation, that all comes out.”

In some cases from “Citizen Kane” to “Krisha,” that statement holds some validity. But I tend to also abide by another maxim: never judge a director by their first film. It’s not always the best indicator of their full potential. Often times, they are still learning the tools of cinema and refining their voice. Many a great director has kicked off their career with a less than auspicious debut.

Such is the case with Brett Haley’s “The New Year.” This is a film that, had I seen upon its opening in 2010, would not have led me to believe he was capable of directing something as profound and sincere as his sophomore effort, 2015’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” I watched “The New Year” prior to interviewing him when that film made its rounds on the festival circuit since I needed something to talk to him about. I wound up dancing around the fact that I’d even seen it in the first place.

Haley explores mid-20s ennui and boredom through the experiences of Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), a bowling alley employee back in her hometown to care for her ailing father. Her travails have their moments of sincerity, but “The New Year” feels like a largely insular experience. It’s as if Haley filmed his friends having conversations. The intimacy is there, sure, but he leaves the audience on the outside rather than inviting them into it. The good news, courtesy of writing this review in 2017, is that the film is by no means the upper limits of Haley’s abilities. C+





INTERVIEW: Brett Haley, co-writer and director of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”

12 06 2015

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) has produced many a successful alumni from its film program: David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Craig Zobel … and now, Brett Haley.  In the decade since his graduation in 2005, Haley’s had quite the wild ride – making short films, working as assistant to an established director, and cobbling together a debut feature on a few thousand.  Now, he’s garnering serious mainstream attention for his second film, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it found warm audience support as well as a distributor, the upstart new label Bleecker Street.  Prior to its May 15 release, the film hit the regional festival circuit hard; I got the chance to speak to Haley prior to a very special screening at his alma mater back in April.

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Brett Haley (center)

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REVIEW: I’ll See You In My Dreams

25 04 2015

I'll See You In My DreamsRiverRun International Film Festival

I’ll See You In My Dreams” features something increasingly rare in movies these days: an elderly protagonist.  (Writer/director Brett Haley just turned 30, which makes the film even more of a welcome oddity.)  Blythe Danner stars as Carol Petersen, a graying widow who resists moving into a home despite tons of social pressure from her bridge group.  Living in her own house grants her a certain sense of freedom and control that she stubbornly resists ceding to anyone.

But over the course of the film, Carol finds herself opening up in ways she has not in decades thanks to the entry of two men into her life.  The first, Sam Elliott’s Bill, assumes the role of a traditional gentleman suitor, drawing Carol into intimate situations she has avoided for decades.  The second, Martin Starr’s poolboy Lloyd, marks a decidedly more platonic bond; the two simply enjoy each other’s company and conversation.

Carol never gets explicitly romantically courted by Lloyd, although a few sparks definitely fly between them.  Thankfully, Haley resists exploitative territory with their relationship, just allowing it to shed light on what both parties have to gain from intergenerational communication.  Carol and Lloyd share some beautiful, sweet moments together in “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” and their exchanges are the kind of thing that deserve imitation and replication in mainstream cinema.

Since Carol does not technically involve herself in a love triangle, a comparison to “It’s Complicated” seems like a bit of a stretch.  But her dual male companions, the occasional ribald interlude (mostly with her bridge girls played by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place), and the keen emotional insight into one woman’s complex experience recall what writer/director Nancy Meyers does so well.  In its pared-down specificity, Haley’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams” delights and charms to a similar degree as the Streep-starrer.  B+3stars