The Hero – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Once a famous Western movie star now reduced to doing occasional voiceover work for barbeque sauce commercials, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is lonely, aging, and seriously ill. He’s lost his wife and daughter through divorce, lost his integrity by accepting mediocre acting jobs he doesn’t believe in, and lost his will to live. At age 71 with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he’s ready to give up on life.

Sam Elliott stars in The Hero. Photo copyright 2017 The Orchard.

In a familiar movie cliche, he’s offered a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by an obscure group of Western movie lovers. Naturally, he perceives this as another step toward the grave. One day while smoking pot at his neighborhood dealer’s home, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a much-younger woman who seems attracted to him.

A New Romance Late in Life

Lee and Charlotte meet again by chance, and this time her interest is undeniable. After inviting her to the award ceremony, their romance has officially begun. But she’s a standup comedian who uses his age and infirmity as part of her routine, so her motives for dating him are not entirely clear. Hurt by yet another reminder of his age, Lee angrily walks out of the performance.

Known for his deep voice and thick mustache (like the actor himself), Lee has no trouble communicating with people as the iconic role he played in “The Hero.” As himself, however, he’s far less successful. He tries to tell his ex-wife (Katharine Ross), his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), and his neighbor (Nick Offerman) about his illness, and finds himself unable to be vulnerable.

Dreams Relive Glory Days

He’s more open with Charlotte, but their age differences and her mean streak (balanced with her sensitive love of poetry) make him uncertain of whether or not the relationship is worth the effort of staying alive. His nightly dreams relive his glory days, but offer no hope for the future.

Although the plot sounds grim and is sometimes overly familiar, Sam Elliott embodies Lee so perfectly that each small expression or rumble of his voice seems to hold deep meaning. Sam Elliott fans won’t be disappointed in this stellar performance, and for those just discovering him, why did you wait so long?

The Hero

  • An aging Western iconic actor looks back at some of the choices he’s made in life.
  • Stars: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katherine Ross
  • Director: Brett Haley
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 96 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, language, and some sexual content)
  • Additional Information: The Hero was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival held throughout Central Florida.

The Birth of a Nation – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In this biographical drama, writer-director-producer-actor Nate Parker portrays Nat Turner, a literate slave who transformed from peace-loving preacher to brutal slave revolt leader. Filmed in Savannah, Georgia, (which substituted for 1831 Southampton County, Virginia), The Birth of a Nation follows events preceding the Turner-led slave rebellion that lasted 48 hours and resulted in the death of hundreds – about 60 white slave owners and more than 100 blacks.

Nate Parker wrote, directed, produced, and stars in The Birth of a Nation. Photo copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Nate Parker stars in The Birth of a Nation, a film he directed, co-wrote, and co-produced. Photo copyright 2016 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Growing up as a slave with his parents and grandmother on the Turner plantation, Nat was treated with relative kindness by the family when they realized his intelligence and spirituality. Allowed to play with the family’s son, Samuel (Armie Hammer), get tutored in reading the bible, and briefly live inside the mansion with the family, Nat enjoyed privileges given to very few slaves at that time. After Mr. Turner’s death, however, things changed for the worse.

A Preacher to Other Slaves

The Turner family became strapped for money, which led Samuel (now a young man running the plantation) to sell Nat’s services as a preacher to other slave owners. Nat was forced to preach tolerance and servitude to other slaves living under horrendous conditions under cruel plantation owners. Eventually his preaching changed from being a passion to unite people in love to a passion to unite people in revolt.

After witnessing the deplorable conditions at other plantations, dealing with the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault on his wife, Cherry, (Aja Naomi King), and enduring a merciless whipping for baptizing a white man on Turner’s property (thus making Samuel a laughingstock among other slave owners), Nat experiences a drastic change of heart. This decision is fueled in part by his life-long visions and dreams of his African tribal ancestry, which marked him as the chosen one because of three vertical moles on his chest. These strange visions help inspire his secret plans to violently revolt against the slave owners – a rebellion doomed before it ever began.

Built-In Controversy

Though the acting is excellent all around, the visions are just one of a few clunky directorial elements, which include recurrent Christ symbolism regarding the Nat Turner character. Was he a hero when he promoted peace? Was he a hero when he promoted violence? Was he ever a hero at all or merely an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances?

The movie comes with built-in controversy. Between the brutally violent content, spiritual overtones that promote vengeance, inevitable comparisons to the superior 12 Years a Slave, Parker’s 1999 rape accusation, and the racial injustice and ethnic stereotypes depicted in the film, everyone has something to talk about. As a historical account of one man’s fight to end slavery – by whatever means necessary – it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that shares a story not everyone has heard. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s an excellent launching point for discussion about ideology, morality, and spirituality.

The Birth of a Nation

  • Based on a true story, slave preacher Nat Turner orchestrates a brutal uprising among slaves in Southampton, Virginia in 1831.
  • Stars: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo
  • Director: Nate Parker
  • Genre: Biographical Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity)

 

Life, Animated – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Documentary film lovers are in for a treat with Life, Animated, an inspiring look at how a silent autistic boy found his voice through animated Disney movies.

As a baby, Owen Suskind was especially sensitive to sound and stimulation, but his parents didn’t pay much attention to this somewhat common occurrence. When he stopped talking and responding at age 3, they and the medical community gave the matter significant attention. Doctors repeatedly told the young family that autism is still a mystery and that Owen may never speak again. Desperate for anything to bring their son back to them, Owen’s father, Ron (a journalist and author), and mother, Cornelia, noticed that he seemed to understand the character interactions in Disney movies and once (after years of silence) muttered the movie line: “Just use your words.”

Owen Suskind is the subject of the documentary Life, Animated. Copyright 2016 The Orchard.

Owen Suskind is the subject of the documentary Life, Animated. Copyright 2016 The Orchard.

Understanding the Movies

Was it merely a coincidence that this line from a movie also applied to the situation at hand? Doctors thought so, but the Suskinds thought differently. They believed their son understood the movies and life around him, but was merely having difficulty processing the information and expressing it. Their first real glimpse into Owen’s animated world was the second time he spoke after so many years of keeping his thoughts to himself.

Upon seeing his brother’s sadness on his birthday, Owen spoke again, this time telling his parents that his brother didn’t want to grow up, “just like Mogli or Peter Pan.” This time it was clearly not just memorization. Owen’s observation showed a level of complexity and awareness that was nothing short of a miracle in his parents’ eyes. After so many years of waiting, they finally had a way to communicate with their son again. Ron would imitate animated characters, and they interacted with each other through the voices, characterizations, scenes, and emotions of the Disney movies.

Connecting With the World

To tell its story, Life, Animated uses live action footage, old home movies, Disney movie clips, and animation created specifically for the documentary that depicts Owen’s struggles through a fairy tale story he wrote. In his own words, Owen describes how a villain had injected fog into a little boy’s brain that for a long time made it hard to discern what was really happening, and kept him silent for many years. The animation scenes are excellent; their dreamy quality captures an altered state of consciousness while maintaining a childlike point of view.

In addition to the story of Owen’s childhood and his family’s efforts to help him connect with the world, protect him from bullies, and guide him through his first love, the film’s framework is his slightly delayed coming-of-age at 23. Graduating from his specialized classes, Owen is about to embark on independent living (away from his family for the first time) in a group home with a supervisor. Through brilliant editing that blends the past, the present, and animated imaginings, this transitional time becomes the perfect opportunity for looking back and seeing how the Suskind family arrived at this point.

Filled with love, this film informs, inspires, surprises, and entertains. Don’t miss it!

Life, Animated

  • Based on the book by Ron Suskind, this documentary explores how his autistic son learned to express himself through Disney’s animated movies.
  • Stars: Ron Suskind, Owen Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Gilbert Gottfried, Jonathan Freeman
  • Director: Roger Ross Williams
  • Genre: Documentary, Animation
  • Run Time: 89 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, and language including a suggestive reference)

 

 

Captain Fantastic – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Viggo Mortensen stars as a bereaved hippie father in this off-beat look at modern society.

Fed up with big business, the school system, organized religion, and America’s fast-food culture, Ben (Mortensen), his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller, shown only through flashbacks and dream sequences), and their six kids live independently in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The move away from their families and the rest of civilization was also prompted by Leslie’s mental illness, which instead of improving, results in her suicide early in the film.

Viggo Mortensen stars in Captain Fantastic. Copyright 2016 Bleeker Street Media.

Viggo Mortensen stars in Captain Fantastic. Copyright 2016 Bleeker Street Media.

Leaving the Safety of the Forest

Now the impoverished, outspoken, socially awkward family must leave the safety of the forest and venture back into the outside world to attend her funeral. This presents far more challenges than one might think. Her will confirms she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes flushed down a toilet. Her very wealthy, traditional parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) insist on a Christian funeral service and burial.

Additional conflicts arise between Ben and his father-in-law regarding his parenting skills when the children’s cuts, bruises, and broken bones from tough physical training in the forest and mountain climbing adventures are discovered. The oldest child, Bo (George MacKay), secretly longs to go to college and lose his virginity, and unbeknownst to his father has been accepted at some of the top schools.

Forced to see things through different eyes during this crisis, Ben begins to question his choices and wonder if his disregard for society has hurt his family as much as it has helped it. Would Leslie have still been alive if they’d stayed close to her family and lived a more structured life, close to the care she needed?

No Easy Answers

This film comes with no easy answers. There’s validity to Ben’s way of thinking, his in-law’s ideas, and Leslie’s sister (Kathryn Hahn) and brother-in-law (Steve Zahn), who live a typical, assimilated suburban life with their two videogame-addicted boys. Written and directed by Matt Ross, the family’s Bohemian ways are manifested in many amusing scenes, such as their unstylish, ill-fitting clothes, which must have been a hoot for the costume department to create. Bo’s inability to understand the opposite sex also provides some humor for us and major discomfort for him.

The story loses its way for a while near the middle with an unsettling robbery, unrealistic graveyard scene, and dismissal of legal ramifications for Ben’s actions, before finding its way again near the ending. Captain Fantastic practically demands discussion afterward. Was Ben a fantastic father, the worst kind of oppressor, or something in between?

Captain Fantastic

  • A tragedy forces an off-the-grid family to re-enter society, which causes the father to examine his parenting skills.
  • Stars: Viggo Mortensen, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Trin Miller
  • Director: Matt Ross
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 118 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and brief graphic nudity)

 

Youth – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

A wealthy group of vacationers experiences various forms of rejuvenation at a luxurious spa in the Swiss Alps in this small film written and directed by Paulo Sorrentino.

Retired orchestra conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) doesn’t feel much of anything these days. The passion for his profession has waned over the years. He’s placed an emotional and physical distance between himself and his wife. Despite employing his daughter, Lena, (Rachel Weisz) as an assistant and bringing her with him to the spa resort, there’s still much left unsaid between them. Even his long-standing relationship with his best friend, Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), seems superficial as they discuss only “good things.”

An Eclectic Mix of Guests

While Fred gets daily massages and doctor visits, Mick uses most of his time at the spa brainstorming with his team of writers about the next film he plans to direct. When Lena’s husband unexpectedly leaves her for another woman, she takes out much of her rage on her father. Mick, whose son happens to be Lena’s philandering husband, apologizes for his progeny, but remains blameless in Lena’s eyes.

Copyright 2015 Gianni Fiorito/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star in Youth.

Meanwhile, she unloads years of disappointment, disgust and anger at Fred, who still manages to hang onto his apathy throughout most of the ordeal. Other characters, a conflicted actor (Paul Dano), a straight-talking older actress (Jane Fonda), and a glamorous beauty queen (Madalina Diana Ghenea) add to the eclectic mix searching for something inside the luxurious resort that they lost in the outside world.

Visual Sophistication

Dream sequences, nature scenes, and gratuitous nudity are presented through artful photographic composition and soaring music that often trump the dialogue. By the end of their visit, most of these characters find whatever they need: new love, new work ethic, or new outlook on life.

Viewers won’t have any trouble figuring out what each guest receives because they very clearly tell us. Although much of the visual sophistication lies in framing and juxtaposition, the dialogue is far more mundane, a curious choice that grounds an otherwise ethereal production.

Youth

Set among an eclectic group of people vacationing at a spa resort in the Swiss Alps, this drama focuses on a retired orchestra conductor with repressed emotions, his daughter whose husband recently abandoned her, and his best friend who’s in pre-production for what may be his final film.

  • Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Diana Ghenea, Paloma Faith, Jane Fonda
  • Writer-Director: Paulo Sorrentino
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 124 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language)