Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 21, 2017 9:55 am 
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FISHBURNE, CARREL, AND CRANSTON IN LAST FLAG FLYING

Ritual and repetition

Last Flag Flying, based on a book, is a passionate mulling over of the issues of war and service, death and ritual, but it's a mulling over that goes on a little too long. The quality of the three main performances never flags though, till the symbolic last flag is not flying but folded, triangle by triangle, and handed over to the bereaved. This story is described as a kind of sequel to the Jack NIcholson vehicle The Last Detail, but not really.

Linklater is a listener, A.O. Scott recently wrote, certainly true of his "Before" trilogy with Delpy and Hawke, and of this. In which case he expects us to listen too, and this works very well for those with the patience. Mine flagged, but I never lost respect for the seriousness of the endeavor. The talkers are three men following the coffin of a young marine killed in Iraq, and the three were together in Vietnam. Larry 'Doc' Shepherd (Steve Carell) was only 19 then, and it's his son who joined the Marines and got killed. Doc comes after years and finds two old buddies to keep him company when he seeks his son's body - which, for reasons we will learn, he wants not to allow to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, but next to his late wife in New Hampshire, where he was imprisoned and now lives and works.

The actors have very different styles that match pretty well their very different characters. Doc is recessive, tight-lipped. His opposite is the alcoholic Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who sleeps at his own failing bar. Cranston is a darned good actor when he has the right role, and the over-the-top, loudmouth, in-your-face Sal is such a role. He exaggerates everything, but he gets it all out there. The most complex character, though he gets only limited opportunity to show it, is Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who was as loud and violent and dangerous as Sal back in the day, but now is a staid black preacher whose fire comes out only in his sermons. Sal and Doc first come on Mueller in full voice before his congregation. It's an elegant, restrained display of the gospel style. Off the pulpit Mueller is stiff, clean-living, and godly. Later, when the men start squabbling, the old profane Mueller comes out. But this too is restrained. Fishburne is as well-modulated an actor as Cranston is a broad-brushed one, but both performances work and offset each other.

Carell hardly even seems to be acting, but that of course can be the best acting of all. He has shown his mettle in a variety of unexpected roles in recent years, in films like Foxcatcher, The Big Short, and Battle of the Sexes. He does the job that's thrown at him, and his neutrality provides a sounding board for the more boldly drawn emotions of Sal and Mueller, till you realize Doc has the deepest feelings and most impressively absorbed grievances. But Carrel remains a little too opaque for that to come through as powerfully as it should. Grievances because Doc is the one who spent years in the brig (he was Navy, they Marines) for some misbehavior they were really all three involved in. Their misbehavior included using up morphine needed for the wounded. And so we learn that Mueller's new life began with desperate addiction and alcohol. Then recovery led to unmitigated desperation and church and meeting his wife there, and his new calling - a classic trajectory.

At times this movie, co-written by Linklater with Darryl Ponicsan, adapting his novel, is quite content simply to preach to us or lecture us. Thus it explains that the Iraq war is as futile and based on as flimsy a premise as the war in Vietnam. But, somewhat contradictorily, it also tells us, or the men do, that it's always honorable to serve one's country as a soldier, and the Marine motto, "Semper Fi," means something. Of course things are complicated, very much so. This is all about compromises. Doc must honor his son, without accepting the war he was in. He accepts the honor of seven soldiers accompanying his son's coffin to the grave but insists on a civilian burial place. Arguing over this is the protocol-conscious Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez). Watch Wilits scream at Lance Corporal Washington (the excellent, extremely watchable J. Quinton Johnson) in full Marine profanity not to let the boy's father bury his son in his graduation suit, but properly, in his Marine dress blues. Washington briefly but crucially provides something else to listen to: an inside voice on what happened to Doc's son.

Ritual and formality are things that become crucial in times of most suffering: remember Emily Dickinson's words, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." For its earnest pursuit of these matters and for its committed performances I respect Last Flag Flying immensely. But as a watch and a sit it has its longeurs. There's too much loading and unloading of the coffin, and too much shifting of vehicles and climbing on and off Amtrak by the three men. If Richard Linklater is a listener, he is not a trimmer. We can see that in his celebrated Boyhood, which was made by a process of accretion. Last Flag Flying gets to the end, and just ends. But it's over two hours long, and so many of its points are stated more than once. A filmmaker is never just a listener: he must choose what he, and thus we, are going to listen to, and must give it a theatrically effective shape. That never quite happens here.

Last Flag Flying 124 mins., debuted 28 Sept. 2017 at the New York Film Festival, where it was the Opening Night Film, and showed at 16 other festivals, mainly domestic, but also London, Mumbai, Vienna, and Mar del Plata. US theatrical release 3 Nov. 2017. Metacritic rating 65%, lowered by views of those who think it too labored, stiff, and dreary, despite the good acting, and too lacking, as I've said, in a strong dramatic structure.

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YUL VAZQUEZ AND J. QUINTON JOHNSON IN LAST FLAG FLYING

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