white haired man with moustache standing outside hair blowing in wind

Former movie star Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) faces a late-life crisis in The Hero.

It’s so nice when a movie gives you more than you expect. That’s the case with The Hero, a gentle tale that continually surprises us.

The biggest surprise involves the relationship that develops between 71-year-old actor Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) and 30-something Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon). Romances between young women and older men are so common in Hollywood flicks that you expect this one to be treated as no big deal. Instead, Lee himself questions Charlotte’s obvious interest, only to be told she has a thing for old guys.

A smaller surprise occurs when Lee tries to mend fences with estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) after a lifetime of disappointing her. We suspect he’ll end up disappointing her yet again—and, actually, he does, but not in a way we could have foreseen.

Lee—a role director and co-writer Brett Haley created especially for the gravelly voiced Elliott—is a movie star whose best days are behind him. Forty years behind him, to be precise, because that’s how long ago he made an iconic Western called The Hero. Now, he spends his days smoking weed with former co-star Jeremy (Nick Offerman) and waiting for roles that never come.

Then he learns he has pancreatic cancer, a disease that seldom has a happy ending. The news is so unsettling that when he tries to tell Jeremy and ex-wife Valarie (Elliott’s real-life spouse, Katharine Ross), he loses his nerve and pretends he’s finally going to make another movie.

Director Haley, who also edited the film, avoids telling the story in a straightforward way. Every so often, he throws in a dreamlike scene in which Lee is shown wandering around in cowboy gear and running into a hanging corpse or a gun-toting desperado. But even when Haley sticks to Lee’s everyday reality, events seldom turn out in predictable ways.

As you might expect, Elliott is perfect in the role he was born to play. His laid-back style allows the tale’s most heartfelt scenes to sneak up on you before you have time to whip out a handkerchief. Prepon is slightly less convincing as an oldster-chaser whose actions don’t always match her words, but the rest of the cast is on target. Ritter is particularly affecting as the hurt-once-too-often Lucy.

What makes a hero? Maybe it’s nothing more than showing up each day and doing your best. That’s one lesson that can be taken away from this wise and well-told film.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Hero (rated R) opens Friday (July 7) at the Gateway Film Center.

Low-key histrionics and high-speed chases

If The Hero gives us more than we expect, Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled gives us less. Particularly if we compare it to the 1971 original, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier who finds sanctuary in a Virginia school for girls during the latter days of the Civil War.

Siegel’s tale was a gothic thriller whose chief antagonists were Eastwood’s charming opportunist and Geraldine Page’s schoolmistress, a repressed woman with a perverted past. In Coppola’s retelling, the tale comes off as an atmospheric tone poem peopled by relative straight arrows.

Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is now a poor immigrant who was paid to take another man’s place on the battlefield. As for schoolmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman), she seems to be guarded about her past, but we never find out why.

As in the original, the soldier’s appearance reawakens libidos among the staff and students, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and teenaged vamp Alicia (Elle Fanning). And as in the original, things turn out badly, but they do so in a stately way that robs the tale of its previous thrills. The flick is pretty and well-acted, but also rather bland.

If you want thrills in a flick that gives you more than you expect, try Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort as Baby, a young man forced to put his precocious driving skills to use in robberies masterminded by the ruthless Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby’s desire to go straight is compounded after he falls for a sympathetic waitress named Debora (Lily James).

Written and directed by Edgar Wright, the flick is full of exciting chase scenes set to pounding rock tunes, lyrical and overheated dialogue, over-the-top (though largely un-graphic) violence, and playing-against-type performances by Jon Hamm and Jamie Fox. It all adds up to a high-octane blast.


The Beguiled: 3 stars (out of 5)

Baby Driver: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Beguiled and Baby Driver (both rated R) opened last week at local theaters.

Cpl. McBurney (Colin Farrell) flirts with teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) in The Beguiled. (Ben Rothstein photo/Focus Features)