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 Beguiled – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In Sofia Coppola’s new remake of the 1971 Don Siegel-directed version of The Beguiled starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, sexual tension builds to the breaking point at the Farnsworth Seminary, a nearly deserted boarding school for girls.

Set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, (though actually shot in and around a Louisiana mansion), the battle rages a few miles away from the school with booming cannons frequently heard in the background. One day while picking mushrooms, a student named Amy (Oona Laurence) finds a severely wounded soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who crawled away from battle after receiving multiple gunshots in his leg.

A Handsome Mercenary

Amy brings him back to the school where only five students, the teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the director, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) remain. These students and two administrators have nowhere else to go, so they stay in the dilapidated school with overgrown gardens sitting on the edge of the nearby battlefield. McBurney is met with disapproval from Martha and one of the students, while the other girls seem delighted to have a masculine presence in the girls-only atmosphere.

Nicole Kidman stars in The Beguiled. Photo copyright 2017 Focus Features.

They soon learn the wounded corporal is a mercenary soldier fresh off the boat from Ireland who accepted $300 to take the place of another man who didn’t want to go to war. With no stake in the outcome and no desire for heroism, McBurney deserted his post in an effort to find help for his injuries. The help he receives, however, is a mixed bag. There’s only Miss Martha to heal the gunshot wounds in his leg, give him a sensuous sponge bath, and prepare his meals. Brandy and unconsciousness are his only relief from pain…at first.

Manipulative Techniques Employed

After he shaves off the beard that hides his handsome face, McBurney attracts the attention of all the females at Farnsworth Seminary by combining his good looks with a seemingly earnest charm. The girls and women dress in their best clothes and wear their fanciest jewelry in hopes of catching his eye. Eventually his pain relief comes in the form of pleasure, when teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) and Edwina pay him special attention. Even Miss Martha is not immune to his sensuality. With the building sexual tension (which produces some unexpected comedy), increasing competition among the women, and manipulative techniques employed by all involved, a happy ending seems most improbable.

Coppola presents an artful film with lush scenery, special moments, tense scenes, and interesting characters. Although there’s not much backstory here, the claustrophobic nature of the locked music room where McBurney stays, the feminine pastels inside the mansion, and the iron gate in front of the house signal an in-the-moment story confined to one suffocating space.

Farrell balances calculated beguilement and caged beast, displaying whichever is needed to get McBurney’s needs met. Kidman is especially good as the seminary’s director with extreme emotions barely concealed behind an icy calm. Her duties to her students, her employee, her army, her government, and her patient often conflict with her own needs and desires. Part hero and part villain, Kidman portrays each side of her character equally well, and her cruel controlling scenes at the dining room table are among the most memorable.

 The Beguiled (2017)

  • A wounded Union soldier during the Civil War seeks refuge in a girls’ school in Virginia, which causes tensions among the young women.
  • Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
  • Director: Sofia Coppola
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality)

Beatriz at Dinner – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Psychiatrist Carl G. Jung once said: “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact between two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” The new comedy/drama (actually far more drama than comedy) Beatriz at Dinner is all about the reaction of two personalities, and the transformations that take place are probably not what Jung had in mind.

Beatriz at Dinner. Copyright 2017 Roadside Attractions.

Oh, if life’s choices were as black and white as depicted in Beatriz at Dinner. The beautiful Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a middle-aged holistic healer, a divorced Mexican immigrant living just above poverty level in Los Angeles. She lives in her small house with her dog and goat; her other goat was recently strangled to death by a neighbor. A sensitive empath, Beatriz has visions of the suffering of others, and uses her massaging hands, knowledge of alternative medicine, and intuitive sensibilities to heal anyone in need.

A Billionaire Real Estate Developer

One day after performing massage therapy on an extremely wealthy client in her Newport Beach mansion, Beatriz cannot leave because her rattletrap car refuses to start. The client (Connie Britton) invites her to stay for dinner, even though it’s a special event to celebrate a lucrative business deal arranged by billionaire real estate developer, Douglas Strutt (John Lithgow). Now on his third young glamorous wife, Strutt (obviously a parallel to our current Commander-In-Chief) values all the money, power, possessions, and social connections that Beatriz reviles.

Beatriz’s naturally calm demeanor and tolerance of other people deteriorates into barely concealed hatred as she learns of Strutt’s personal (big game hunting) and professional (hotels displacing animal habitats) exploits during dinner. For his part, Strutt treats her like hired help rather than an invited guest and challenges her on her immigration status. Although at first he judges her as too insignificant to matter, eventually her increasing verbal assaults provoke him, and thoroughly embarrass the hosts. Beatriz gets sent to her room with a bottle of wine to cool off, but the dinner party has already been ruined by the ongoing confrontation.

Transformations Only Partly Revealed

The beautiful scenery and carefully chosen cast (which also includes Amy Landecker as Mrs. Strutt, David Warshofsky as the husband of Beatriz’s client, and Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny as a young couple also invited to the dinner party) make a visually engaging movie. Beatriz’s soft simplicity contrasts with the glittering women in their towering high heels. Her foreign status and heavy accent further set her apart from the others. Beatriz is obviously chosen as the long-suffering heroic figure in this screenplay by Mike White, but her heroism and Strutt’s villainy may not be so well-defined outside of a movie screenplay.

While Beatriz’s transformation (revealed internally and externally) is shown with ever-increasing clarity throughout the film, Strutt’s mixture of reactions – condescension, bemusement, and irritation – shield what’s really going on inside him. As the character is written in this one-dimensional script, Strutt is unlikely to undergo the kind of significant transformation that Beatriz had hoped for, and Jung had described.

Beatriz at Dinner

  • A holistic healer and a real estate tycoon have an uncomfortable confrontation at a posh dinner party.
  • Stars: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Chloe Sevigny, David Warshofsky, John Early
  • Director: Miguel Arteta
  • Screenwriter: Mike White
  • Genre: Drama/Comedy
  • Run Time: 83 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and a scene of violence)

My Cousin Rachel – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The title, My Cousin Rachel, sounds like the latest rom-com where a mysterious long-lost cousin shows up to the perfect wedding and nearly ruins everything as riotous laughs ensue. Actually, that’s not too far from the actual premise, except without the humor. This film, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier (The Birds) with a screenplay adaptation by Roger Michell, is a remake of the 1952 film, a creepy suspense thriller set in 19th Century England.

Sam Claflin as “Philip” and Rachel Weisz as “Rachel Ashley” in My Cousin Rachel. Photo by Nicola Dove. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Cousin Rachel

The story focuses on a naive 24-year-old Englishman named Philip (Sam Claflin), whose cherished guardian leaves for a warmer climate to improve his health. While away, he falls in love with his mysterious cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and they soon wed. Philip then receives increasingly disturbing letters from his guardian suggesting that Rachel is controlling him and poisoning his tea.

In a rage, Philip journeys to the newlyweds’ home and discovers from an attorney that his guardian recently died of a brain tumor – a condition that may have affected his perception. Intent on vengeance, Philip invites the so-called grieving widow to visit his soon-to-be-inherited estate so he can confront her.

Hinted Sexuality

Once there, however, virginal Philip becomes mesmerized by Rachel’s charm (despite his close relationship with the ever-loyal Louise (Holliday Grainger), who clearly hopes to marry him someday. Even dressed in her black widow’s garb, Rachel’s sophistication and hinted sexuality entice Philip enough to protect her from gossip, pain, and poverty. The latter issue is especially problematic because Philip is weeks away from turning age 24 and inheriting a full fortune in jewels and real estate.

His plan to rescue Rachel turn into a desperate attempt to save himself and his wealth as Philip suddenly becomes ill with an unexplained sickness. Is she poisoning him, too? Did she actually murder his guardian? Does she have another husband in Italy to whom she sends money? Sometimes it seems that way and sometimes it doesn’t.

No Concrete Answers

This is not a film that provides concrete answers. Much like its movie poster that features Rachel’s face shrouded by a black widow’s veil, the film’s mysteries are never fully revealed, which leaves the viewer to form his or her own conclusions based on the facts presented, patterns of behavior, and subtle innuendos.

Claflin convincing plays the innocent young man who is easily manipulated by the slightest touch of a feminine hand. Weisz’s fragile beauty seems less suited to her role as the enigmatic cousin, alluring enough to make nearly any man fall in love with her. Even so, production values in this period piece come together nicely. The costumes, landscapes, and candle-lit interiors provide a rich backdrop to the story that intrigues, but never truly thrills.

My Cousin Rachel

  • An Englishman on the brink of inheriting a fortune falls in love with a mysterious woman who may have murdered his guardian.
  • Stars: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Poppy Lee Friar, Andrew Knott, Andrew Havill
  • Director: Roger Michell
  • Genre: Mystery Drama
  • Run Time: 146 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief strong language)

Grand Jury and Audience Awards from 2017 Florida Film Festival

By Leslie C. Halpern

Another exciting Florida Film Festival has come and gone. The 26th annual event, produced by Enzian Theater and held throughout Central Florida each April, was great as always, with more than 180 feature and short films, in addition to celebrity guests, special events, film forums, parties, and lots of wonderful food. Over the final weekend, winners of the American Independent Competition were announced and given prizes at an Awards Bash held at Enzian Theater.

Strad Style. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

I wasn’t able to see all the winning films this year, but one notable documentary winner stood out for me. That was Strad Style, directed by Stefan Avalos, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. In this film, Danny Houck, an impoverished and eccentric music lover, agrees to build a recreation of a 300-year-old violin for world-renown virtuoso violinist Razcan Stoica, despite having no formal training, proper workspace, or professional tools. It’s a process film where audience members follow along with each trial and error up until the final day before Stoica’s concert. It’s also a movie with heart that views its troubled central character with compassion and respect. I’m so glad Avalos (who was in attendance at the Festival) was able to go home with the award. And now for the winners:

SHORTS

  • Special Jury Award for Comic Originality was presented to No Other Way to Say It, directed by Tim Mason
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short was presented to Red Apples, directed George Sikharulidze
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Animated Short was presented to Hot Dog Hands, directed by Matt Reynolds
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Short was presented to The Rabbit Hunt, directed by Patrick Bresnan
  • Audience Award for Best Short Film was presented to Summer Camp Island, directed by Julia Pott
  • Audience Award for Best Midnight Short was presented to Do No Harm, directed by Roseanne Liang

DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

  • Special Jury Award for Vision and Storytelling was presented to The Peacemaker, directed by James Demo
  • Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature was presented to Strad Style, directed by Stefan Avalos
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature was presented to Rat Film, directed by Theo Anthony

NARRATIVE FEATURES

  • Special Jury Award for Acting was presented to Robin Weigert – Pushing Dead, directed by Tom E. Brown
  • Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature was presented to Girl Flu., directed by Dorie Barton
  • Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature was presented to Dave Made a Maze, directed by Bill Watterson

INTERNATIONAL

  • Audience Award for Best International Feature was presented to I Dream in another Language (Mexico/Netherlands), directed by Ernesto Contreras
  • Audience Award for Best International Short was presented to 5 Films About Technology (Canada), directed by Peter Huang

For more information about Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.