The Hero It seems I've written fairly frequently of late — probably too frequently — about the bright possibility of hope dispelling the corrosive recent mists of cinematic mediocrity and failure. Even as we are bombarded with rival comic book adaptations and YA sob-fests and whatever else the ones behind the big desks decide can generate $1 billion, movies from a presumably bygone era keep slipping in.
No need to list examples here, I'd say, but they are all of a type that works to defy type: small to medium sized, with actual stories at the heart of them, made by people who care about their craft. The kind of movies we 1990s children thought we'd see forever. As adulthood brought the horizon ever closer, though, the cinematic world seemed to diminish and recede apace. With some notable exceptions, the intervening decades saw ever-increasing monetization all but grind out the beautiful, ragged impulse of the independent cinema boom; on the face of it, the situation seemed pretty hopeless. (We're not out of the woods yet; there's a wide-release disaster pic about weather coming soon.)
But hope does exist, and although the tide may not exactly be turning, there appears to be more and more room at the multiplex for little movies from an older tradition. The Hero is one of them and is perfect in a quiet, unassuming way.
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is an iconic Western star without much of a back-catalog to support that status. In his words, he made one movie he can be proud of, some 40 years ago. Now he applies his unmistakable voice to the hawking of barbecue sauce, gets high and eats takeout with his buddy/dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman) and regrets the distance he's created between himself and his adult daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). It's a living, as someone once said, but one that invites a fair amount of not altogether constructive introspection, which is, in turn, compounded by a pretty dire cancer diagnosis that Lee can't bring himself to discuss with anyone. Just as life seems to have really started circling the drain, Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an acerbic stand-up comedian, and enters into a tricky, distressing, ultimately vivifying affair that happy-accidentally jump-starts his public profile.
One of my first reactions to The Hero, and especially to Elliott's breathtaking performance, was shock that he hasn't been asked to play more parts like this. Maybe it's fortuitous timing, an actor having lived enough life to bring exactly enough of himself to a beautifully imagined role. Or maybe co-writer/director Brett Haley saw something that everyone else seems to have missed, something that now seems shocking in its clarity. No way to say from this vantage-point, nor does it really matter. Elliott becomes Lee Hayden in such a natural, apparently effortless way that one forgets that he is acting at all. It comes to feel more like watching someone move through difficulties with no artifice whatsoever.
It helps, of course, that Haley directs with a light, languid touch, lending the movie an air of artful authenticity. The Hero is marvelously concise (just over 90 minutes), but never rushed; every shot and line of dialogue contributes to the story, resulting in an immersive, emotional, deeply satisfying experience. R. 93M. BROADWAY.
The Big Sick Judd Apatow, both as a writer-director and producer, has been hard at work in the last 15 years or so, trying to save American comedy. He's doing the good work and, even if he hasn't changed the whole landscape, he has at least contributed some noteworthy features to it. In this case, he shepherded a script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon about the trying circumstances of their real-life early courtship, from its nascent stages to the big screen. In another throwback to a seemingly bygone era, a personal movie by known-but-not-prominent players got made, and we are all richer for it.
Nanjiani plays Kumail Nanjiani, a fledgling stand-up in Chicago making ends meet as an Uber driver (the script plays with the timeline of the real events, I should think). He meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows, and they begin a tentative relationship. She's a graduate student reticent about committing; he's a first-generation Pakistani-American whose parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) still think he will accede to a traditional arranged marriage. As much as they like each other, his subterfuge and their individual neuroses eventually create a blow-up. While they're separated, Emily falls gravely ill, is hospitalized and soon thereafter placed in a medically-induced coma. This brings Kumail running to her bedside, where circumstances force him to quickly become acquainted with Emily's parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).
The defining characteristic of Nanjiani and Gordon's screenplay is its emotional honesty, cutting as it does to the core of a new relationship, to all of the insecurity and doubt that can seem just as big as the excitement and passion that they attend. But they also manage to find the humor in the situation and, with sure-handed help from director Michael Showalter (The Baxter, 2005; Hello, My Name is Doris, 2015), create a lived-in world where deeply funny things happen right on the heels of devastating things, and people do what they can to manage the challenges. The Big Sick is a deceptively simple, unassuming romantic comedy that actually adds something to the language of the genre. R. 120M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
DUNKIRK. Christopher Nolan's harrowing telling of the Dunkirk evacuation, in which 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were pulled by land sea and air from the beaches of Dunkirk under German assault in WWII. PG13. 106M. FORTUNA, BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
GIRLS TRIP. Almost 30 years after "Ladies First" dropped, Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish star in this crass tale of four lifelong friends' trip to the Essence Festival in New Orleans. R. 122M. BROADWAY
NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION (1983). The Griswolds' original Vacation, the quest for Walley World. Nothing to be proud of, son. R. 98M. BROADWAY.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS. Based on the groundbreaking graphic novel and heralded as visually stunning, director Luc Besson tells the story of a vast and diverse metropolis under threat from dark forces. PG13. 137M. FORTUNA, BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BABY DRIVER. What's not to love about Edgar Wright's love letter to 1970s American car chase movies and its wall-to-wall pop soundtrack? With Ansel Elgort as a driving savant/reluctant wheelman and Kevin Spacey as an organized criminal. R. 113m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
BEATRIZ AT DINNER. Salma Hayek and John Lithgow have an uncomfortable evening as an immigrant holistic healer and a blowhard one percenter. R. 142m.
THE BEGUILED. Sophia Coppola's beautifully photographed and impeccably acted remake about a Union soldier in the care of the ladies of a Southern girls' school is rich and disturbing. Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell. R. 94m.
CARS 3. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) goes up against younger, faster cars in the race for the Piston Cup in this Pixar sequel. With Larry the Cable Guy and Cristela Alonzo. G. 109m.
DESPICABLE ME 3. An out of work Gru (Steve Carell) returns to a life of crime, meets his long-lost twin and battles a villain stuck in the '80s (Trey Parker). With Kristen Wiig. PG. 156m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
LETTERS FROM BAGHDAD. Documentary about Gertrude Bell, a powerful British woman in post-World War I Iraq. Starring Ammar Haj Ahmad, Adam Astill and Tom Chadbon. NR. 95m. MINIPLEX.
THE LITTLE HOURS. Quiet life in a medieval covenant turns decidedly lustful when a young male servant fleeing his master takes refuge. The raunchy comedy boasts an all star cast that includes Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Aubrey Plaza and Nick Offerman. R. 90M. MINIPLEX.
Spider-Man: Homecoming. Co-writer/director Jon Watts (Clown, 2014; Cop Car, 2015) makes good on a tremendous opportunity here, utilizing a talented cast to great effect and bringing the franchise back to its sweetspot. PG13. 133M. FORTUNA, BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Caser (Andy Serkis) sets out on a quest of vengeance after the apes are pulled into war with a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson). PG13. 150M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
WISH UPON. Joey King and Ryan Phillippe star in this teen thriller about a girl who finds a magic, wish-granting box that seems to be an uninspired mashup of Heathers, Mean Girls and The Monkey's Paw. PG13. 90M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
WONDER WOMAN. Director Patty Jenkins and company handle the seriousness of justice and love overcoming prejudice and hate without turning pompous, and still entertain with outsized battle sequences in this fine DC adaptation. Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. PG13. 141m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Thadeus Greenson