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Last Flag Flying (Review 2)

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Richard Linklater

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Cicely Tyson, J. Quinton Johnson, Kate Easton, Laurence Fishburne,Lee Harrington, Samuel Davis, Steve Carell, Yul Vazquez

Released: January 26th, 2018

It’s 2003 and the memory of 9/11 is still fresh in the minds of most people. It’s a time when men of a certain age found the noble thing to do to be to stand up and volunteer to fight for their country, to hunt down the Taliban, and rid the world of this evil that dared to disrupt the previous decade of peace America had experienced with the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. This marked the first opportunity for those that were just old enough to remember hints of the conflict in the Gulf War that presented a cause of their own to fight for. One of those who decided to take it upon themselves to do so was Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd’s son, Larry Jr., a Marine who we learn at the onset of the latest film from director Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused, the Before trilogy) has been killed in action. It is in this tragedy and the context of these events that Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the book this film is based on (and is something of a spiritual sequel to his 1970 novel, The Last Detail, which was also turned into a movie starring Jack Nicholson), come to examine the toll taken, the treatment versus the empty appreciation, and if the ultimate sacrifice would have been an easier route to take than the price most veterans pay for the rest of their lives. Last Flag Flying was initially published in 2004 and so it is very much a product of this great national tragedy itself where there was this immediate unification and call to action that lasted until many soldiers seemed to realize that such action wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. That said, Linklater doesn’t seem to be interested in making a political film, but rather one about the particular personalities of his three subjects and the necessary appreciation of their perspectives. It just so happens the military and the military lifestyle play a major role in who each of these men were and still are due to the fact this all-powerful entity is still dictating the way in which their lives and the lives of their loved ones do or do not play out. Like many Linklater films, there is more to Last Flag Flying than initially meets the eye as, on the surface, this largely looks to be a road trip movie that documents the rekindling of friendships with the power to work as a healing process for a single parties recent tragedy, but while the film serves this obvious purpose it also means to be a meditation on identity as well as who and/or how we allow that identity to be defined after we’re gone.

The line that Last Flag Flying walks so well is that of dispelling the mind that believes there are one of two ways to be. In the case of this film specifically, it’s this line of thought that if you are against the war you are unpatriotic. For such complex and layered conflicts to be broken down into such a simpleminded idea makes sense given man’s nature to ignore the complicated in favor of the clean and simple (I’m guilty of this as much as the next guy), but when it comes to subjects and circumstances that deal in actual lives of individuals or actions that put the lives of individuals at risk we can’t afford to be clean, we have to look at every angle, consider every perspective, and evaluate every possible outcome in order to make a well-informed and sound decision on a topic and war certainly seems to be one that should be addressed as such, but is often reduced to the bad guys needing to be stopped and America being the good guys who are going to go in at all costs and stop them. Within the context of Last Flag Flyingthis point is made best through the audience getting to know Bryan Cranston’s character, Sal Nealon, who is the only member of this trio we follow-up with that never settled down, that never found a way to feel like he belonged to society after returning from the war, and who ultimately only felt he’d found his place when he was in the core. To a certain extent it is a given then that Sal believes in the strength of the military and believes in the code and culture he abided by in his formative years unable to give into the thought that this thing he was a part of and this thing that lent him so much purpose could turn out to be a complete falsity or little more than a machine for the powerful to recruit the lost and willing to fight their wars for them. Still, it is evident throughout the course of the actions Sal takes in Last Flag Flying that Sal is just as hesitant to embrace anything or anyone having to deal with the present representation of the military as he is to stand up for it. Moments when Sal has to step in for the broken Doc (Steve Carell) where domineering Colonel’s insist that Doc’s son be laid to rest in Arlington in his blue’s rather than in a way that Doc sees fit given his current state of resentment for the government. In one of the more powerful lines in the film Doc states that, “I’m not going to bury a marine. I’m just going to bury my son.” and while Sal likely would choose to be buried in his uniform and with full military honors when he passes he understands and is sympathetic to where Doc is coming from. In short, Sal and Cranston’s performance as Sal (while a bit too Cranston-y at times) is what allows both the films ideas and the film itself to walk this line between the sullen and the uplifting.

Sal being the only one of the group eager to re-live the past and test the limits of both Doc and Laurence Fishburne’s Mueller is also what drives the plot to be consistently engaging rather than what it might have been without the character-a road trip with a grieving parent who retreats back into himself and his stoic demeanor and a man of the cloth who is hesitant to even go along on this trip for fear of slipping back into the habits of his younger years. This is why there is never a scene without Sal and why, whenever the trio is broken up we, the viewers, always stay with whatever group Sal is in. That isn’t to say the other two performers aren’t good or are not entertaining enough to hold the audience’s interest, but while the performances are solid all-around it’s true one wouldn’t want to spend an entire movie with either of the other two guys. To their credit though, both Carell and Fishburne make their characters-if not necessarily barrels of laughs-still intriguing people we become interested in and care about. Carell is the perfect vehicle for empathy. The guy’s face and everything about him make him so endearing and he uses that ability here to great advantage. Doc is the youngest of the group and was a young guy who just wanted to hang out with the older, cooler kids in his unit where there is history between the three of them that largely goes unspoken that has to do with actions involving the stealing of morphine, the loss of a comrade they then couldn’t medicate because of this addiction, and Doc taking the fall for it all and spending a fair amount of time in a military prison. Doc doesn’t bring it up and the whisperings between Sal and Mueller are typically stifled by Mueller while Sal seems to be building himself up to be a big enough man to finally face the consequences of what he once did. As Doc, Carell explores a side of himself we haven’t seen on screen before. Granted, there is one scene where our three leads along with their military escort and friend of Larry Jr.’s, Washington (Everybody Wants Some!!‘s J. Quinton Johnson), recount old war stories where we get a glimpse of the Carell we all know and love, but Doc is largely a guy who doesn’t like to talk about how he’s feeling and would rather deal with his grief on his own terms, but who is foreword thinking enough to know that to accomplish what we wants with his son, to take his child back from those who took him away he’s going to need help and he’s going to need help from guys who understand which leads him back to Sal and Mueller and their remorseful hearts. And thus, the road trip movie is born, but of course Last Flag Flying becomes more than this as it is a Linklater film and inherently has more on its mind than standard plot devices and obvious old man jokes.

Conflicted about everything because it is trying to always better understand everything, a Richard Linklater film is something that always has something to say if not necessarily a particular point of view to say it from. This isn’t because Linklater himself doesn’t have a point of view, of course he does, but more the idea that when putting such perspectives down on celluloid there is a willingness to better understand whatever it is that’s on the characters minds to as broad an extent as possible. For instance, Last Flag Flying could be about taking a stand against the military and America’s frequent inclinations to become involved in conflicts where we don’t belong and there would be plenty of material within the film to support as much while there is seemingly the same amount of material that would support Last Flag Flying actually being about the unbreakable bond formed between fellow soldiers and brothers no matter the lack of respect they might have for the powers that be that sent them to that God-forsaken jungle. Going back to dispelling the mindset that there is only one of two ways to be these contradicting ideas that the film and its characters sway back and forth between are Linklater’s way of attempting to paint as well-rounded and as realistic a picture as possible The same could be said for Fishburne’s character as this is a man who has reformed his soul and gone all the way over to the light becoming a loving husband, a father, now a grandfather, and a pastor with his own congregation. Mueller is a man who has come to fear his actions in Vietnam so much that he has essentially done everything he can do to make up for those actions to ensure he gets a ticket into heaven when all is said and done. That isn’t to say Mueller’s actions aren’t genuine-at this point in his life I’m sure they’ve become so even if they didn’t start out as much-but the film makes a case for Mueller’s noble life and this sense of purpose he has found through the respect he has gathered, but that doesn’t mean Linklater and Ponicsan aren’t going to challenge this acceptable train of thought. No, instead of letting Mueller have his way and keep his serene and simple existence intact Sal shows up to present this opposing view that rather than submit fully to God that he would rather be as real as he can under any set of circumstances and in any given moment (and, in all fairness, lives a little too much in each moment) while believing that, if there is a higher power, they will realize these are the type of people best suited for heaven; not the ones who let it be known time and time again that they go to church every week, but those that lead by example and try to do the best for themselves and for those around them. Last Flag Flying handles this difference and the many differences in perspective it addresses so skillfully that we hardly come to notice this supposed road trip movie isn’t about three old men trying to re-live their past or re-kindle their youth as we might expect, but rather it is a film about these guys looking toward the future and better defining who they are and how they want their identity to be remembered and live-on.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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