LAST FLAG FLYING (2017)

November 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Apprehension and trepidation are the emotions that strike whenever anyone compares a movie to the classic 1973 Hal Ashby/ Jack Nicholson film THE LAST DETAIL. That holds true even if the novel the film is based on was written by the same author (Darryl Ponicsan) who wrote “The Last Detail” (1970), and even if the new film is directed by one of the finest directors working today – Richard Linklater. This latest doesn’t play like a true sequel, but the reuniting of three men who served together in Vietnam does hammer home a couple of interesting statements while also delivering the type of dramedy that 2017 audiences tend to connect with.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a former Navy medic, has had the type of year that no one deserves. It’s 2003 and he has just been notified that his Marine son was killed in action while on duty in the war in Iraq. This comes only a few months after Doc lost his beloved wife to breast cancer. It’s too much for him to handle on his own, so he embarks on a mission to ask his Vietnam buddies from three decades prior to accompany him to claim his son’s body at Arlington National Cemetery.

His two buddies are former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishbourne). Sal is a washed out dive bar owner and Mueller is now the Reverend at a small church. The three men share the burden of a war secret that each has tried to forget, and they begin what’s basically a road trip movie of middle aged men bonding during what is the absolute low point in life for one of them. Simultaneously, it also seems like an opportunity for all three to rejoin the living.

Lost idealism is the shared trait now among the three men, though their levels of cynicism vary. Edwin Starr sang it, and the characters in this movie openly question: War … What is it good for? Doc, Sal and Mueller have separated themselves from memories of war in three distinct ways – family, booze, and God. It’s only by reconnecting with each other that they begin the long overdue process of reflection. TV’s are tuned to the capture of Saddam Hussein from the spider-hole, and the similarities of the Vietnam and Iraq wars are contemplated. These are patriotic men who once trusted the government, but are now so disenchanted they ask “what’s the point?”

Mr. Cranston has the showiest role, but it’s Mr. Carell who shines as the still-in-shock father. J Quinton Johnson also excels as the young Marine charged with accompanying the gentlemen, and the best scene of the film features Cicely Tyson as the mother of a long ago fallen soldier who crossed paths with the three leads. As you might expect in a Linklater movie, the musical choices are unusual and spot on. Bob Dylan (“Not Dark Yet”), Neil Young (“Old Man”), Eminem (“Without Me”), and Levon Helm (“Wide River to Cross”) are all included.

The film is certainly an unusual blend of comedy, tragic drama, and contemporary political commentary. Unfortunately, the contrivances are too many and too frequent to allow the film and characters to breathe and achieve the greatness of a true message movie. It teases us with flashes us brilliance and then pokes us in the ribs with another goofy sidebar as if to say “just kidding”. It seems this would have been better served as an intimate portrayal of these three aging men who were willing to die for their country than as a giant political anti-war statement and an accusation of how evil the government is. The ultimate message Linklater drills home: be a good friend, and be a good person. We can never have enough of those.

watch the trailer:

 


EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (2016)

April 10, 2016

Everybody wants some Greetings again from the darkness. Richard Linklater’s now twenty-five plus years of filmmaking are loosely tied together with his constant desire to explore and observe how, within the confines of society, people connect with each other (or don’t). In what he has termed a “spiritual sequel” to his cult classic Dazed and Confused, the filmmaker takes us down memory lane to a college campus as the 1970’s devolved into the 1980’s.

Many of these characters and moments are undoubtedly snatched from Linklater’s own experiences as a college baseball player at Sam Houston State (after graduating from Bellaire High School). Linklater knows these guys. Heck, he WAS one of these guys! The cinematic kinship goes beyond Dazed and Confused, and influence can be seen as the follow-up to his Boyhood film, with some flavor from Animal House and a dose of Bull Durham.

The film opens with Jake (Blake Jenner) driving his 442 muscle car up to the baseball house while “My Sharona” from The Knack blasts from his car stereo. What follows is a look at the behind the scenes tribal nature of a sports team, and how that blends with the predictable manner in which 18-21 year old boys handle a sudden shot of freedom. Conversation and activities center on three things: baseball, girls, and beer … with priorities shifting given the circumstances of the moment. What’s never missing is the ultra-competitiveness of these individuals raised to be the best. Whether it’s nerf basketball in the living room, foosball at the bar, or flicking knuckles, the goal of that point in time is to be better than the other guy … even a friendly game of ping pong turns hyper-tense as it nears game point.

Linklater has assembled a terrific cast that not only succeeds in capturing the time period, but also the essence of the age group. Some of the faces will be familiar, and each character fits nicely into the profile. Tyler Hoechlin (Tom Hanks’ son in Road To Perdition) is team captain McReynolds, Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt and Goldie) plays elder statesman and team spiritualist Willoughby, Juston Street (former Longhorn player) plays the jacked-up overly intense freshman pitcher, J Quinton Johnson is the sometimes rational second baseman, and Glen Powell is a real standout as the smooth-talking and philosophical Finnegan … also a master of pranks. Despite the ever-present quest for girls, Zoey Deutch’s Beverly is the only female character with much screen time, and she makes the best of it as a smart, ambitious love interest for young Jake.

I’ve always believed that the music of our youth goes a long way in defining each generation. Linklater seems to agree (the soundtrack is spot on) as this group is bounced between the fading days of disco, the sterile and soulless transition to Urban Cowboy Country music, and the desperate pleas of new edge Punk Rock. Within the 3 days we are with the guys, they take their athlete swagger to each venue type, and even mix in a party thrown by Beverly’s “artsy-fartsy” group. Figuring out where one fits is a rite of passage not to be missed.

Linklater ensures that our tight knit teammates fill our ears with an endless stream of quips, wise-cracks and put-downs, each designed to register dominance – if only for the briefest moment. We even get a sequence featuring the ballplayers actually playing ball, and though their tone shits once on the field, the personalities remain evident. In addition to adding “f***withery” to our vocabulary, the production design is brilliant and captivating all by itself. The album and book covers, cars (a Gremlin sighting), stereo equipment and costumes all provide the throwback feel necessary for the film. Though it lacks any real plot, and feels meandering (just like its characters), Linklater provides the best insight yet into the driving forces of young male primates of 1980. It’s not always pretty or something of which to be proud, but … that’s what I’m talking about!

watch the trailer: