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Sam Elliott

“THE HERO” My rating: B- 

93 minutes |MPAA rating: R

Some of us would be content to watch Sam Elliott, he of the sonorous voice and luxurious ‘stache, sit in a lawn chair reading the phonebook.

It doesn’t quite come to that in “The Hero,” one of Elliott’s rare starring roles, though Brett Haley’s film recycles plot points that have been picked over so many times there’s not much meat left.

No, the reason to watch “Hero” is, quite simply, Sam Elliott, who at age 72 exudes more raw charisma and sex appeal than actors a fraction of his age.

This is what I want to be when I grow up.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a white-haired actor who back in the ’70s was the star of Westerns. Lee’s career, though, has faded with the popularity of the cinematic oater.  As “The Hero” begins he’s doing commercial voice-over work: “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce: The perfect pardner for your chicken.”

Whoa. Deja vu all over again.  Remember Elliott’s distinctive voice telling us in radio ads: “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner”?  This is only the first time “The Hero” will dip into the meta pool,  drawing on Elliott’s own career to create his on-screen character.

Early on in Haley and co-writer Marc Basch’s screenplay Lee learns that he has pancreatic cancer.  As Samuel Johnson observed, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Slowly, hesitantly, painfully, Lee attempts to reach out to those who have meant something to him but whom he has ignored in recent years…especially his ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross, the real-life Mrs. Elliott) and his embittered grown daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter, star of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”).

In truth, Lee’s only friend appears to be his pot dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former actor who lives in a cannabis haze watching Buster Keaton comedies. Not the worst lifestyle. Continue Reading »

Nicole Kidman, Colin Farreell

“THE BEGUILED” My rating: C+

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Riding a tsunami of high expectations (she’s only the second woman to be named best director at Cannes), Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is poised to become the Second Coming of feminist cinema.

Except that it isn’t. Not even close.

It’s not a bad movie. “The Beguiled” (based on the same novel as the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood version) is fiercely atmospheric and slyly subversive. It’s been well acted and the physical production is impressive.

But it’s emotionally remote and something of a bore.  Don Siegel may have been a pulp filmmaker, but his melodramatic instincts were fun, at least.

Coppola’s screenplay offers some new dialogue but the plot arc is mostly faithful to the earlier movie and the novel.

During the Civil War, a handful of teachers and students at a Virginia boarding school for women discover a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). They sew up his mangled leg, intending to turn him over to the rebel home guard when he’s healed.

But the presence of a potent male sets off yearnings among the residents. Among them is the outwardly formidable headmistress (Nicole Kidman), a lonely teacher (Kirsten Dunst), a spoiled teen on the cusp of sexuality (Elle Fanning), and even a small girl (Oona Laurence) looking for a playmate.

The canny bluebelly works the situation, becoming to each woman or girl just what she requires in this testosterone-starved environment.

Those looking for a fresh feminist twist to the material will be disappointed.  There’s less about women’s theory here than about the dark corners of the human psyche: sexual fear and repression, jealousy, revenge, exploitation. Continue Reading »

Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm

“BABY DRIVER”  My rating: B (Opens wide on June 28)

113 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

At a time when hipness has been reduced to emojis and man buns, filmmaker Edgar Wright dishes the real deal with the uber-stylish “Baby Driver,” a crime caper that melds “Drive”-style action and “American Graffiti” musicality.

The results are both familiar and fresh.

The hero of Wright’s funky tough-guy fantasy is Baby (“The Fault in Our Stars’” Ansel Elgort), a kid (he’s maybe 19) who, as the film begins, has two loves: driving and music.

Baby is an expert wheelman employed by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a shadowy crime king specializing in impossible heists. A few years back the youthful Baby stole and wrecked Doc’s car, and now he’s paying off the debt as a getaway driver.

He’s really, really good, as demonstrated by the hair-raising robbery and chase that opens the film.

Baby is also a world-class music freak who is rarely seen without earbuds firmly in place. Other people walk down the street; Baby bops, propelled by the beats in his head.

Not since John Travolta’s Tony Manero sashayed through Brooklyn to the strains of “Stayin’ Alive” has mortal man turned mere perambulation into such a display of awesomeness.

In fact, Baby keeps a small arsenal of MP3 players in his pockets, each filled with a specific kind of music depending upon his mood and the task at hand. He’s got playlists for cruising, for chilling, for getting pumped up and for settling down.

As a result “Baby Driver” has more great across-the-spectrum pop music than any movie since George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” the film that back in 1973 convinced Hollywood that you don’t need a composer and original score if you can tell your story with familiar radio hits. Continue Reading »

Jai Courtney, Lily James

“THE EXCEPTION” My rating: B-  

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At 88 years of age, Christopher Plummer just keeps getting better.

In “The Exception” he portrays an historic figure — Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany — and pretty much mops up the floor with actors half his age.

The premise of David Leveaux’s directing debut finds a young German officer — Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) — assigned to the thankless task of heading the household guard for Wilhelm II (Plummer), who has lived in exile in the Netherlands since abdicating the German throne two decades earlier after losing World War I.

Though the Nazi hierarchy has little use for the old man, Wilhelm still is regarded by some members of the German public as a beloved figurehead.  It would be a p.r. black eye should he be lost to an assassin or kidnapped by the Allies and spirited off to England. Brandt’s presence is meant to prevent that.

For the young officer — who was wounded in the invasion of Poland — the assignment is a bit of an insult. Wilhelm and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), live as high as they can on the cash Hitler’s henchmen provide, all the while dreaming of restoring the monarchy and once again wearing the crown.  Brandt is expected to tolerate their pretensions without encouraging them.

There’s one bright spot in this assignment. The Kaiser has a new housemaid, Mieke (Lily James), who catches the Captain’s eye.  Before long they are having a grand old time despite Hermine’s rule against copulation among members of the staff.

Continue Reading »

Connie Britton, Salma Hayek

“BEATRIZ AT DINNER” My rating: C+

83 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Beatriz at Dinner” might be called a comedy of discomfort.

Actually, there’s a lot more discomfort than comedy.

Scripted by Mike White (“The Good Girl”) and directed by Miguel Arteta (a veteran of numerous TV seres), “Beatriz” offers a fish-out-of-water scenario brimming over with class, race and political implications.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek, sans makeup and sporting a mildly horrifying set of bangs) is a New Age-y therapist whose skills run from your standard massage to aura readings.  On this particularly day she has schlepped out from her headquarters in Pasadena to see to the needs of one of her richest (and, it seems, most demanding) clients.

Cathy (Connie Britton) lives in a gated community with an ocean view, along with her high-rolling husband Grant (David Warshofsky). She’s preparing to host a dinner that night and feels a desperate need for some hands-on work from the talented Beatriz.  (It says volumes that Cathy is stressed when all she really had to do was decide on a menu. Household servants and a caterer do all the real work.)

With the massage session over, Beatriz prepares to drive home, only to find that her car won’t start.  Cathy — who credits Beatriz’s therapies with getting her daughter through a bout with cancer — graciously suggests that the masseuse join the other guests for the evening.

Continue Reading »

Jaeden Lieberher

“THE BOOK OF HENRY” My rating: C

105 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

All movies are manipulative, but “The Book of Henry” is an emotional mugging.

Colin Trevorrow’s drama  (with comic moments) is an audacious blend of cute and creepy featuring a precocious child, early death, sexual abuse and attempted murder.

Oh, did I mention it’s supposed to be heart-tugging?

The film stars the terrific Jaeden Lieberher (“St. Vincent,” “Midnight Special”) as Henry Carpenter, an 11-year-old with the mind of a middle-aged man.

Henry is, to put it mildly, a genius. He makes amazing Rube Goldberg-ish kinetic constructions in the spectacular forest treehouse he’s fashioned from found parts. He’s a day trader who has managed to wrack up $1 million in cash and securities (how an 11-year-old can get away with this is never explained).  Wherever he goes Henry is the smartest guy in the room.

Which is good for his single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) and  his tremulous little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”). Susan is a bit of  a flake, addicted to violent video games and boozy binges with her bestie (Sarah Silverman). She works as a waitress and drives a beat-up car even though Henry (being the responsible grownup) keeps reminding her that there’s plenty of money.

Continue Reading »

Dan Stevens, Berenice Marlohe

“KILL SWITCH” My rating: C 

91 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Despite the presence of A-list actor (at least after “Beauty and the Beast”) Dan Stevens, there’s no disguising the origins of “Kill Switch.”

It’s basically a first-person shooter video game. The story may have been dreamt up by writers Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, but the execution is right out of your Xbox library.

In the near future a huge energy conglomerate called Alterplex has created technology to supply Earth with unlimited electricity. This involveves building a pair of huge towers that suck energy from an alternate universe that is an exact duplicate of ours (except, we discover, everything is in reverse…like looking into a mirror).

By the way, don’t try to comprehend the “science” behind all this.  It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

Anyway, former astronaut Will Porter (Stevens) has been recruited by Alterplex soley as a troubleshooter who, if things go wrong, will ride a capsule into the alternate universe, hopefully shutting down the towers on the other side and ending the crisis.

Anyway, we see Stevens in flashbacks of Will’s recruitment by the company and interactions with his sister and nephew, but in this alternate universe we only get his point of view.  We see what he sees, and while we hear Will’s voice we can’t look at him because, well, because we’re looking out through his eyes.

Anyway, in this alternative universe Will must contend with a army of eco-terrorists who have sabotaged Alterplex’s big machine and put the whole thing into meltdown. He must dodge airborne drones that shoot at anything that moves.

There’s lots of first-person running, jumping, shooting…you get the picture.

Will is accompanied on this adventure by Abigail (Berenice Marlohe), an Alterplex executive who in the “real” world recruited him but in this one may be trying to stop him from fulfilling his mission which will, after all, bring this alternate world to an end.

Director Tim Smit does an okay job of rendering this alternate universe, but the story is way too complicated and the human beings more or less disposable.

| Robert W. Butler