The Hero a Classic Middling Film

THE HERO (2017)
Directed by Brett Haley
The Orchard, 93 minutes, R (language, drug use, sexual content)

The Hero is the very essence of a middling movie: not great, but not bad; not funny enough to be a comedy, or serious enough to be a drama; very well acted in places, and halfheartedly so in others; a summer movie, but with more potential depth than most; and at turns clichéd and surprising. If you can put aside the desire for it to be more than it is, The Hero is a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half inside an air-conditioned theater.

It follows the waning days of a has-been cowboy TV and matinee idol, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott). Hayden's coming up on his 72nd birthday and is a divorcé living alone in the hills above Los Angeles. He supports himself by using his stentorian voice to do commercials and spends his time contemplating his dire medical prognosis, lamenting his estrangement from his daughter Lucy (Kyrsten Ritter), and smoking dope with Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), his dealer and former co-star. Basically he's just waiting to ride off into the sunset.

Two things put a damper in that non-plan. First, Lee reluctantly agrees to accept a lifetime achievement award from an obscure group devoted to Western classics. Second, a younger woman, Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), shows up to buy some dope from Jeremy, and Lee is intrigued enough by her sparkling repartee to invite her to go with him to the awards banquet. Suffice it to say that something happens at that ceremony to make Lee a hot commodity once again. Call it the age of celluloid meets the age of Twitter. Things with Charlotte are a bit more complicated. Is she a daughter substitute? Are we on the cusp of a May-December romance? Or is Charlotte, a stand-up comic, using broken-down Lee as raw material for her act?

Elliott and Prepon are terrific as an odd couple—he of the resonant voice, push-broom moustache, and a demeanor somewhere between the cowboy code of honor and that expected of a brothel bouncer; she of the arched eyebrows, snarky attitude, third-wave feminism, and world of e-communication. Ritter is less successful as daughter Lucy. She is best known as a model and a TV actress, and her overall lack of emotional range is rather evident. Alas, the same must be said of Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) as Lee's ex, Valerie. I had a serious crush of Ms. Ross when I was younger but, truth be told, she's never been a great actress. She doesn't have much to do in The Hero, and she doesn't do it very well. (Excuse the syntactical mess, but you know what I mean!)

The Hero is ultimately a ping-pong film that is alternatively exactly what you expect one moment (ping), but then not-so-obvious the next (pong). I suppose one could argue that Elliott has been living off laconic cowboy stereotypes since The Big Lebowski (1998), but I see him as another ping-pong factor in this film. At times, he is nearly silent—other than a few F-bombs—but when he speaks, his words are spare, but choice. On the flip side, this movie could use a whole lot more script polishing. There is too much padding and not enough background development, especially of Prepon's character. I can see the benefits of making her tough and mysterious overall, but when we she isn't, we wonder where her softness was residing. I suspect that director Brett Haley wanted to keep her cloaked to deflect attention from the creepiness factor in the room: Elliott is 72 and Prepon is 37. In essence, it's safer to dwell on the two getting high than getting jiggy. Yet for all of the pulled punches, The Hero at least suggests more important stuff, mortality and morality for starters. Who gets to tell anyone else how to live, for another.

Rob Weir



Music Clean-Out Time!

Music: Summer Clean Out Time

Every year I get inundated with new releases in the spring and by mid-summer they've backed up like Friday afternoon on I-95. Here's a roundup of some things I want to let you all know about before mold grows and the leaves drop.

 My favorite among the bunch is the debut solo effort of Hugh Masterson, Lost and Found. Masterson' no neophyte; he's been a guy in the band with The Lone Bellow, Nikki Lane, Margo Price, and others. This taut six-song EP suggests he's spent his spare time productively. Masterson uses his whiskey-soaked voice to good effect and is more than capable of fronting a kick-ass band. But what really makes him stand out is his ability to take what life deals and turn it a really good country rock line. He got hit with a tire iron in a Milwaukee mugging and parlayed his wired-jaw downtime into the titletrack—a musing on how things turn on a dime. What's not to admire about tight prose like, I'm somewhere in the middle of lost and found? Or, From now on I'm living like I'm dying. There are Springsteen-like echoes in the pathos of "Small Town" and in his command of the band in "Show Me the Road." ★★★★      #HughBob

Think of a more pop version of Kate Rusby crossed with a younger version of Jewel, and you are in the right ballpark for Ellen Thweatt, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who has sung backup for Carrie Underwood. As we hear on her debut EP Halfway in the Clouds, all she needs is a bit of seasoning and her backup days are over. "Airplane" has a catchy country feel. Also try "Butterflies," a bluegrass/pop mash. The latter shows her great promise and what's needed next: a bit of maturity to add depth that will give edge to the little girl tones. There is a lot of potential waiting to be unleashed. ★★★★

It's Country is the debut album from Levi Petree but it's only a partly descriptive title (and derives from a semi-ironic remark made by a friend). He's a Louisiana native, so he comes by his twang naturally. "The Rapture" is badass country, but of the frenzied kind that makes you understand why some have called him Johnny Cash combined with The Clash. Yet "Rockaway" captures that "small tune" essence that The Beatles used to great effect on the White Album. There's even a little torchy/slightly corny "Lover's Cove," which is analogous to those sensitive not-quite-ballads rockabilly artists used to cool the room temperature. This is a skillful debut.★★★★   

Cory Branan is a gravely-voiced singer whose observation is things aren't so good in the US of A for quite a few folks. His Adios explores discomfort as measured by the spectrum between screwed up and everyone dies. Try "Another Nightmare in America" (with Rodney Crowell and Dave Hause), with its gritty lyric: Ain't no use praying/There's no soul there to save/Boy you're just the difference/'tween a hole and a grave. You might want to check out "I Only Know" as well, which is about as close to happy as it gets on this album. ★★★   #corybranan

The Wild Reeds are an LA-based band anchored by three women (Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva, Mackenzie Howe). They sometimes get saddled with female Crosby, Stills, and Nash analogies, but who wants to carry that kid of baggage? Their sophomore release is titled The World We Built. Their music is a mix of soft and hard—soft when the vocals are in play with an uptick in volume and instrumentation in the seams. "Only Songs" opens with a nostalgic look back at their youth (in the 1990s!), but leavened with experience born of bad decisions that left behind songs that contain as much truth as easy promises of earthly salvation. Cleverly, the song hints of a girl group pop 90s style. Moving on is also the theme of "Everything LooksBetter (In Hindsight)," which is based on a tried-and-true theme: love that didn't last and what, if anything, survives. Forget the CSN comparisons and just call this folk rock with harmonies and hard edges. ★★★ ½  #thewildreeds

Nathaniel Braddock comes to Cambridge, Massachusetts via Chicago and now teaches guitar at Passim School of Music. He has played with numerous groups, but has recently released a solo acoustic album titled Quadrille and Collapse. His sound is on the dreamy/contemplative end of the spectrum. Delicate tunes tend to be heavier on high notes with bass and low notes assuming drone-like qualities. Check out "The Desert Within," which is typical of the atmospherics contained on this recording. Its only downside is that it could use more diversity. ★★★

Speaking of atmosphere, Palm Ghosts is a project and debut record headed by Philadelphian Joseph Lekkas. It's a blend of pop, electronica, folk, and ethereal rock in which Lekkas' breathy vocals act as delicate ornaments within the mix. "Seasons" uses thumping bass and a repetitive keyboard groove to set a gauzy mood somewhat at odds with the song's flirtatious lyrics. "I Know You Won't Break My Heart" is similar in content and in hypnotic feel. Enjoyable and relaxing stuff, though some may find it more yogic than intoxicating. ★★★

If all this innovation makes you want to take a step back in time, try Going Home by Joe Newberry and April Verch, he of North Carolina via Missouri, and she of Canada's Ottawa Valley. They title track is a Si Kahn song, but it sounds like something that's been kicking around the backwoods forever. Ditto "WillYou Wait For Me," which Newberry and Verch co-wrote. If Newberry sounds familiar to you, you've probably heard him weave his old-time magic on an episode or two of Garrison Keillor's show. And when it comes to kick-up-you-heels fiddling, it's hard to top Ms. Verch. ★★★★

Rob Weir


If You've Not Seen Wonder Woman, Do So!


Directed by Patty Jenkins
Warner Brothers, 141 minutes, PG-13

Summer blockbusters and I are usually not on the best of terms, but I'll make an exception for Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins is the first woman to direct a superhero film. It's a travesty that it has taken this long, but welcome to the club, Ms. Jenkins. May it never again be a fraternity.

One of the things that makes Wonder Woman work on the screen is that it's based on a comic book character. Unlike biographies, textbook myths, or reworked fantasy novels, comic books long ago abandoned official single narratives. These are not your grandmother's super heroes—at least not entirely. It's a multiverse out there, folks, so don't expect this Diana Prince to be like the William Moulton Marston original. (As those who've read Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman can attest, that's a good thing—Marston was a sick puppy!) Nor are the Amazons faithful to Greek mythology; DC Comics put its first spin on the Amazons in 1941 and it's been a gyroscope ever since.

Before I go one sentence deeper, let me utter the two words that assure you'll keep your eyes glued to the front: Gal Gadot. She is utterly riveting as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince and in ways that go well beyond her astonishing beauty. She plays with a full deck of emotions: steely, impulsive, moral, conflicted, fearless, vulnerable, calm, angry, determined, frustrated…. In other words, she has too much depth for us to see her as just a comic book character.

The story opens in Themyscyra, the island home of the Amazons—some of whom are mortal and some of whom are demigoddesses. It is a magical CGI-created Herland paradise of hills, greenery, waterfalls, and fantastical architecture ruled by Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Most Amazons are born through asexual parthenogenesis, but a god fathered Hippolyta. Even Zeus is gone now, though, as he used the last of his power to bind Ares, the god of war. Only a select few know of Hippolyta's parentage, including General Antiope (Robin Wright), who relentlessly trains the Amazons in case Ares is ever unshackled. From an early age, Diana wishes to become a warrior, but her mother does not want her to know that she is a demigoddess. Diana has a mind of her own, however, and chooses to leave Themyscyra when the Amazon world is rocked by the appearance of Steve Trevor's plane bursting through its cloaking fog with a hot pursuit of Germans at his tail. The "war to end all war" (World War One) is underway and, though the Amazons have never heard of it, Diana's sense of justice is aroused and she's off the see what she can do, with shield, tiara, magic bracelets, and the lasso of Hestia in hand.

There are nice flashes of humor as Diana tries to learn human ways and Steve (Chris Pine) attempts to teach her, but this is a save-the-world action film that ranges from London, to Paris, and to Belgium. Along the way, Diana and Steve gather companions, Wizard of Oz style: Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), a Moroccan spy; Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock), who has secrets of his own; a Scot named Charlie (Ewen Bremmer), who'd be a sharpshooter if he didn't drink so much; and a British MP (David Thewlis), who clandestinely bankrolls their mission. You'd not think such a motley assortment would be much of a match against the pure evil of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), poison maven Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), and the entire German military, but may I remind you that Wonder Woman is a super heroine?

Want to enjoy this film? Let go of your logic. Just do it. Let this big spectacle suck you in it. There is a lot of money on the screen. The credits roll forever and even if you only glance at them, you'll notice a veritable who's who of CGI, f/x, and animation worked on the film. I imagine that cinematographer Matthew Jensen and costume designer Linda Hemming submitted large invoices of their own. I even liked Rupert Gregson-Williams' grandiose score, though I'd like it even more if a future director's cut lost the god-awful Sia "To Be Human" track. But, really, this film has everything you could hope for in a summer blockbuster: lots of action, creepy villains, solid acting, characters with dimension, and a fabulous performance from Gadot. Did I mention that, at long last, we have a female who kicks butt? If you forget, millions of little girls across the globe are poised to remind you.

Rob Weir