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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!

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Climax Still Movie Marker

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and un-tameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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