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: Grandma

6 09 2015

GrandmaPaul Weitz’s “Grandma” gets underway once teenaged Sage (Julia Garner) shows up to humbly solicit funds for an abortion from Lily Tomlin’s Elle Reid, her estranged grandmother.  While Sage might be necessary to kickstart the story, there is no doubt the titular character really drives the engine of this compact road trip.  The journey is for Sage, but it is about Elle.

Weitz wrote the role of Elle for Tomlin, and the part fits like a glove.  Among the many traits of this multifaceted character, Tomlin gets to play up two qualities present in her most memorable performances: intelligence and idiosyncrasy.  Elle is a poet who peaked professionally in the ’60s and never quite found her footing again, scrapping together income to stay afloat from teaching and lecturing.

Now, widowed and still grieving the loss of her beloved partner Violet, the kooky Elle is even more stuck in the past than ever before.  She cuts up her credit cards for fun and tosses around the phrase “pod person” as if “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were as recognizable a cultural touchstone as “X-Men.”  Sage needs the most immediate help to procure her procedure, to be sure, but Elle also requires an attitude adjustment of her own.

As she drives her vintage car around town to solicit funds – and giving Sage a boot camp in Second Wave feminism in the process – Elle has to confront the pains of her past and decide the face of her future.  Decades-old layers of resentment frequently lead to some acerbic interactions, especially with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).  But the brilliance of Tomlin’s performance is that she never loses track of Elle’s raw emotion or her beating heart; she and Weitz nail the balance between sardonic and sincere.  The voyage with Elle proves all too short (only 79 minutes?!), though each moment along the way feels poignant and completely fulfilling.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars





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





REVIEW: The Company You Keep

27 04 2013

There are all sorts of cinematic experiences you can have these days when going to the movies.  Sometimes, as was the case with Robert Redford’s “The Company You Keep,” I felt like I was mostly just following the events unfold as opposed to actively watching the film.  Sure, I was taking it in, but it reminds me of the experience of reading SparkNotes or a Wikipedia summary – not exactly engaging or satisfying, in other words.

Redford appears to be angling to win the SAG ensemble award on paper with this cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and Shia LaBeouf.  Though with this A(ARP)vengers of ’70s and ’80s greats assembled, you’d think the drama would not be so turgid and lifeless.  It’s stiff and uninteresting as both a journalistic crusade as well as a fugitive thriller.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this had all the potential to be “All The President’s Men” meets “The Fugitive.”  Both those movies had tension, though, and Redford can’t even manufacture it synthetically with a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion“) score.  The characters also lacked depth, both in terms of emotional development as well as decent dialogue for them to say.  Everyone speaks in self-righteous platitudes in “The Company You Keep,” making for some rather excruciating confrontations.

With all that’s going on these days, an old home-grown terrorist and a young maverick journalist in the era of print media’s growing obsolescence should be a no-brainer for fascinating conflict and thought-provoking meditations on the world we live in.  But it just goes to show the even with the company Redford keeps – Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Susan Sarandon – you can’t just throw acclaimed actors and actresses in a pot and expect it to boil.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Marmaduke

13 06 2010

You don’t have to read my whole review as long as you take this away from it: “Marmaduke” is one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and you are truly stupid if you choose to waste a perfectly good 90 minutes of your life watching it.

Now that I have that very strong statement out of the way, you can either spend your time listening to me malign every big name involved in this movie or simply take my word for it.  I will be brutal and unsparing; this is the movie that will really bring out the critic in me.  I’ve been waiting to unleash my wrath on something terrible enough to deserve it.  So here it goes.

I have to admire the boldness of Lee Pace, Judy Greer, and William H. Macy who had the guts to show their faces in this movie.  They didn’t hide in the recording studio or inside the potentially lovable body of an animal.  They actually dared to be the human face of the movie, risking association with the movie for the rest of their careers.  These three ought to be sending the marketing people at Fox some very large gift baskets for not advertising “Marmaduke” very much, because the fact that it was such a low-key campaign may save their reputations from being forever tarnished.

You would think that Owen Wilson has enough sense to choose a movie that has some kind of substance.  But even if you don’t have much respect for Owen Wilson, you might think Keifer Sutherland does.  Or Emma Stone (Jules from “Superbad”).  Or George Lopez.  Or Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin).  Or Steve Coogan.  Or Fergie.  Or Marlon Wayans.  Or Sam Elliott.

Like this cavalcade of stars?  Guess what, each and every one of them chose a movie that doesn’t deserve to take a poop in their yards.  Honestly, if any of these big names had shown their faces in “Marmaduke,” they would be firing their agents and calling their real estate agent to find the coziest cave in Beverly Hills.  It’s always a shame to see actors take on material that doesn’t deserve them, and “Marmaduke” is like a tragedy for each of these stars.  None of them put any effort into making this giant heap of poop any better, as if the subtext of every line is, “We feel you; we know this movie sucks.”

And don’t even get me started on the non-existent plot.  My theory is that the director scrounged a bargain bin of kids movies and came to shooting with the idea to rip off any one of them that might have worked.  So for every groan and eye roll you get in “Marmaduke,” you get to say to yourself, “Oh, I liked that better when I saw it in (INSERT ANY KIDS MOVIE TITLE HERE).”  So, by all means, if you want to feel immeasurable frustration with the endless banality Hollywood feeds to children, go right ahead and waste your life watching “Marmaduke.”  As the late Gene Siskel used to say, “It’s your life, and you can’t get that time back.”  D- /