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CCFF 2017: The Hero & Dog Years

May 17, 2017

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It wasn’t planned in advance and there were no specific goals in mind, but it turns out there are two new films playing at the Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) that revolve around veteran actors playing veteran actors receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards. One is sincere, looking poignantly at a man in the twilight of his career/life and one is inauthentic, forcing cornball humor and heavy-handed sentimentality onto would could’ve been a nostalgic lament. Both films are from writer/director and both can’t help but play off what the two are already known for, while touching on the regrets and reflection that come with getting older. I always welcome a film that has a senior protagonist to focus on, yet in a little over 24 hours I found myself with two very different responses toward films that had very similar story lines. It’s another reminder that what’s most important is the approach the writer/director is taking. 

THE HERO (2017) 

In his wonderful last film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams“, writer/director Brett Haley had Sam Elliott swoon Blythe Danner and it was a definitely a memorable, scene-stealing role for the mustachioed veteran actor. For his follow-up, Haley has Elliott taking a lead role, playing Lee Hayden, an actor known for his smooth baritone voice and machismo appeal, yet still wondering where the work is. Outside of whatever work comes his way, he spends his days smoking weed and drinking whiskey, often with his former co-star/now dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Already concerned about his lack of work, Lee gets some good and bad news – the good: some Western Appreciation Association wants to present him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his breadth of work, particularly his big hit (and the only film Lee is proud of) called “The Hero”, and the bad: his doctor told him he has pancreatic cancer. He doesn’t tell anyone about the diagnosis and when he initially tries to tell Jeremy or his estranged ex-wife, Valarie (Katherine Ross) and their daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), he tells them the “big news” is that he’s working on a movie. The only person he confides in is Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an acquaintance of Jeremy’s, whom he hesitantly becomes romantically involved (she’s the same age as his daughter) after she escorts him to the awards ceremony.

Haley knows there are cliches in his screenplay, but he comes at them honestly, with heart and sincerity, just like his last film, which makes them not only tolerable, but also endears us to the characters. While his screenplay is authentic and mindful, much of the credit to the film’s success should go to the great cast assembled here – specifically and unsurprisingly Elliott, who shows tremendous emotional range. He plays Lee as a guy who knows he’s messed up and has regrets in life and he’s fantastic in every scene and every one of his co-stars.  It looks like you can expect to see “The Hero” open theatrically (limited release, probably) early next month.

RATING: ***1/2

 

DOG YEARS (2017)

Unfortunately, writer/director Adam Rifkin’s Dog Years” is very similar to last year’s “Max Rose” which revolved around a cranky, old and rude Jerry Lewis. In other words, the veteran actor in Rifkin’s film, Burt Reynolds, is playing basically himself and the result is a film that wallows in self-pity forced sentimentality and relies on meta-nostalgia. Reynolds plays Vic Edwards (not his birth name and you’ll roll your eyes at the reasoning behind it all), a washed-up movie star who’s had more than his share of career ups and downs and can now be seen shrunken, hunched over and ambling around on a cane (much like Reynolds nowadays), hiding his fears and loneliness behind ego and skeevy horniness. Vic gets an invitation sent to his mansion, letting him know he’s been given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nashville International Film Festival and is encouraged by his sole friend (an awkwardly cast Chevy Chase) to accept the award in person. Reluctantly, he flies to Nashville and is picked up in junky car by an abrasive millennial named Lil (Ariel Winter) – hired by her brother (Clark Duke) who programmed the festival with his pal, Shane (Ellar Coltrane), both #1 Vic Edwards fans – who’s busy yelling on her cell to her boyfriend or texting while driving. Already problematic and incredulous, Vic’s arrogant response to the ramshackle festival put on by his die-hard fans in Nashville is terrible and, possibly, too meta for my tastes. Let’s just say things don’t turn out the way any character expected.

I had a hard time with this movie for many reasons, one of which is how Rifkin inserts Reynolds into scenes from “Deliverance” and “Smokey and the Bandit”, as if the young, virile Burt is interacting with his 81-year-old self. These are ripcord moments that feel like Billy Crystal inserting himself into movies at the Oscars. I mush prefer when Rifkin uses old talk show footage of Reynolds, that shows his once vital presence.

Rifkin also tries to give Lil a decent “comes around to the old guy” arc, but he’s already shoved her down our throats with every stereotype about 21st-century kids – she’s wearing next to nothing, hair dyed with piercings and tatts a plenty. – allowing zero nuances or dimensions to her character (or anyone else’s). Eventually there is somewhat of a rapport that gels together between Reynolds and Winter, once he forces upon her a nostalgic road trip to Knoxville, but this is truly shopworn material, much like hangdog Reynolds. Not even looking through Reynold’s rose-tinted glasses could help this movie. It’s starts out with some genuinely moving moments, but those quickly fade away to horny old-fogey cliches.

At this time, “Dog Years”, which premiered last month at Tribeca, hasn’t gotten picked up from a distributor and that’s fine with me.

RATING: *

 

 

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