Call Me By Your Name(12/22/2017)

Do you need to relate to a coming of age movie to like it?  That would depend on your definition of the word “need.”  There are obviously ways to enjoy movies about the childhoods of characters who live lives pretty far removed from one’s own.  The ultimate coming of age movie is probably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which is based on Trufaut’s own experiences growing up in 1940s Paris, a milieu that would seem to be pretty different from where most modern American viewers would have grown up, and yet that hardly seems to matter because Antoine Doinel is such a well-drawn character and his ennui largely seems removed from his surroundings and on some level you can relate to the way that he responds to teachers and parents and the like.  Then there are examples like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which is set in a small town in Mussolini’s Italy, but in that case the town is in many ways more the protagonist than the young man at its center and the fact that it’s drawn from such specific memories of its director of this time and place makes it so everything that’s foreign about it simply makes it more interesting.  There are, however times when movies do lose some impact when your personal connection to them is a little more tenuous.  For instance, Terrance Malick’s otherwise immaculately made opus The Tree of Life ultimately never quite impacted me as much as I wanted it to, in part because I never quite connected to the nostalgia of its child protagonist and his rather specific experiences in rural 1950s Texas.  Conversely there’s a very good chance that the experiences I shared with the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood really multiplied the enthusiasm I would have had for the film by quite a bit.  I bring this up because the protagonist of the highly acclaimed new film Call Me by Your Name is about as different from me on any level as someone can be and it in many ways puts to the test whether you can connect to audiences in situations like this and how.

The film is set in 1983 in a small town in Northern Italy and focuses on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old son in a Jewish American ex-patriot family that is in Italy because of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed archeologist.  The film begins with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist the father for the summer and will be staying with him at the villa.  Elio has spent much of the summer reading, practicing his skills at the piano, and chasing after his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).  There is, however, something about his relationship with Marzia that leaves Elio unfulfilled and there’s something about this Oliver guy that he finds intruding.

Call Me By Your Name was directed by a guy named Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed a pair of films called I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which were both movies with fairly different tones but the one thing they had in common was that they were both about rich people living decadent lives in Italy.  A Bigger Splash in particular felt almost like “lifestyle porn” with its British and American expat characters frolicking around on a Mediterranean island while decked in expensive fashions and eating expensive food and seemingly not having a care in the world until someone gets murdered.  Call Me By Your Name does not feel as decadent as that movie did but it’s still very much a movie about rich ex-patriots who live cultured European lives.  Because of this I found the first half of Call Me By Your Name to be a bit slow, in part because it mostly just felt like it was painting a portrait of Elio, who seems like the most privileged 17 year old who ever lived.  This is a dude who is living as a citizen of the world in an idyllic Italian countryside with super chill parents who surround him with culture and who has friends and beautiful girls (who he seems fairly receptive to despite future developments) throwing themselves at him.  His life is one that’s so far removed from my own teenage experiences that simply witness it during its more mundane moments was not really giving me that thrill of recognition I often expect from these kind of movies, which isn’t inherently bad but in the absence of story development I wasn’t terribly interested.

The movie does, however, pick up in a big way once Elio and Oliver stop beating around the bush and commence with their affair.  This development has become controversial in some quarters because of the age difference between the two characters.  On paper Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, which is kind of questionable to begin with but it’s confounded by the fact that Timothée Chalamet is 22 but quite convincingly looks 17 while Armie Hammer is 31 and looks 31.  The movie does go out of its way to make it clear that the attraction between these two characters is mutual and that Oliver isn’t acting in a particularly predator manner and the movie does still eventually dig a bit into the reasons why a love affair between a high school student and a post-grad might not be an entirely healthy decision for either.  Still, I get why people would be queasy about this relationship but also why people would be open minded about it under these specific circumstances.  Regardless of the morality of the situation I do think Armie Hammer was a bit miscast here in terms of age and also because he never quite fit as this intellectual grad student and he never made it terribly clear to me why his character would be interested in this scrawny pretentious 17 year old.  The movie is primarily from Elio’s point of view so it’s makes sense that his experience of these events would be clearer, but that half of this romance could have been explored a bit more.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the year’s other high profile coming of age movie: Lady Bird.  Unlike this movie, the protagonist of that movie is incredibly relatable for middle class viewers from mid-size American cities.  That movie also feels a lot more clear eyed about how youthful romances tend to play out, which is to say that it views them as misbegotten superficial things that get literally painted over by the end rather than as grand romances to be remembered forever.  On the other hand this movie is hardly oblivious to the fact that the romance at its center is rare and out of the ordinary and the events of the film do feel increasingly meaningful during its last thirty minutes or so.  That’s the other big difference between this and Lady Bird: Gretta Gerwig’s movie feels highly entertaining pretty much from the beginning but never quite seems sure how it wants to end while Call Me By Your Name has a nearly perfect ending but seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to set it up and that made the film’s first half slow and uneventful.  I’m glad I saw the movie in a theater because I suspect I would have lost patience with it and abused the pause button if I was watching it at home.  It’s certainly a well-made film, one that I respect quite a lot, but it’s not necessarily the film for me or at least not the film that’s going to knock my socks off.

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The Shape of Water(12/17/2017)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending a special 3D screening of the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a movie that’s been lumped in with the canon of Universal Horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula but which in many ways hues closer to 50s science fiction movies like The Blob or The Fly.  At its center is a monster that’s come to be known as the “gil-man”; a half human/half fish hybrid who can breathe both under-water and on the land.  The gil-man never seems entirely feral but the extent to which it has human intelligence is never entirely clear either.  In many ways the gil-man feels a bit like King Kong in that he’s this legendary creature in a remote location who encounters a group of white explorers as they encroach on his territory.  Also like King Kong he becomes infatuated with the one white woman who comes along with these explorers and proceeds to spend much of the movie attempting to kidnap and presumably rape said white woman who spends most of the movie screaming in its presence.  Most people who saw this simply accepted it as the slightly silly B-movie convention that it was, but in the mind of Guillermo del Toro there was a lot more potential here; he’s the one guy who saw this dynamic and thought “if only she was a little more open minded and if only this guy came on a with a little more respect maybe this relationship could have worked.”

Set in 1961, The Shape of Water focuses on a woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives next door to her best friend, a middle aged gay man named Giles (Richard Jenkins).  During the day Elisa works as a janitor with another friend named Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at a secretive government facility called the Occam Aerospace Research Center which is run by a straight laced but often cruel man named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).   I’m not exactly sure what this facility normally does, but early in the movie it’s tasked with the unusual job of housing a rare live specimen: a humanoid amphibian entity capable of both breathing water and air that was found in the Amazon and is known only as The Asset (Doug Jones).  The Asset is being studied by a mild mannered scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who believes it may be a highly intelligent being possibly capable of communication and greater human interaction, but Strickland is offended by its very existence and often mistreats it.  While cleaning the room this creature is being housed in Elisa catches a glimpse of it and is immediately fascinated.  Unlike Strickland she tries being nice to it and giving it food and playing it music.  Soon enough there is a connection there, but Elisa has very little control over The Asset’s fate, at least not without taking matters into her own hands.

The Shape of Water is in some ways a “do or die” movie for Guillermo del Toro given that his supporters have been waiting a long time for him to really live up to the potential he showed in his 2006 triumph Pan’s Labyrinth.  In the decade since making that movie he made one solidly entertaining studio film (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army), one lackluster attempt at studio entertainment (Pacific Rim), and most disappointingly one ambitious horror film that proved to be a misfire (Crimson Peak).  Given that string of disappointments The Shape of Water could be seen as something of a return to the well if looked at cynically as it’s “adult fairy tale” tone feels a lot like a return to what worked for him so well in Pan’s Labyrinth and to some extent The Devil’s Backbone.  That’s in terms of tone anyway; the film’s plot is certainly divergent from that movie and from what people normally expect out of movies in general.  Most notably this is a movie that wants it audience to root for a relationship that is unconventional to say the least and could be called straight up bestiality when looked at in a particularly uncharitable way.

That Elisa would find a way to empathize with the creature in the film is logical and speaks to her purity and spirit.  That she would be so stricken as to want to begin a sexual relationship with this thing is a little harder to swallow and in some ways feels like a couple of steps were skipped.  We see early on that the creature is gentle and not the threat that he seems to the people running the facility, but he never really develops a way to converse with Elisa in any comprehensive way to the point where she doesn’t even know his name and there isn’t necessarily a conventional courtship where they come to realize they’re right for each other.  In this sense the fact that she’s drawn to him seems to say more about her own isolation than about how charming he is, and his interest in her seems to have more to do with the fact that she’s the only person who’s been nice to him in quite a while.  Of course that’s perhaps looking at this a little too logically.  This is after all a movie that begins with a voice-over which all but says “once upon a time” and refers to the protagonist as “the princess without voice” and which seems to be set in a particularly heightened world that feels almost like a Lynchian pastiche of the Eisenhower era.  Clearly we’re in the world of fairy tale, much as we were in Pan’s Labyrinth but this time there isn’t such a clear line between the real world and the fantasy.

Of course there can at times be a tension when you set fairy tales in the real world or an approximation thereof simply because the aesthetics of the modern world occasionally demand more modern readings.  That clash is particularly troublesome here when it comes to the film’s villain Richard Strickland, who is described in that voice-over as “the monster who tried to destroy it all.”  Strickland is very reminiscent of Captain Vidal, another authoritarian character who is plainly evil almost from the moment you see him and who becomes oddly fixated on an injury he receives at one point as he descends into madness towards the end.  The over-the-top evilness of Vidal stood out a bit less given that he was a literal fascist within the Franco regime rather than a mid-level American government worker.  One could perhaps view this parallel between Strickland and Vidal as some sort of statement that there may not have been quite as much of a difference between the paranoid and often prejudiced power structure in place in 1961 America and Franco’s Spain, but given that even Strickland’s superior officer seemed a little more reasonable than Strickland, that only goes so far.

It probably doesn’t help that this is something like the hundredth time that Michael Shannon has been chosen to play the role of a dangerously insane villain and in general I feel like the movie makes casting choices that are a little too on the nose like that.  Octavia Spenser’s sassy janitor certainly has shades of what she did in The Help, and Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins are also falling pretty comfortably within their usual ranges.  Granted, complaining that people fit their roles a little too well probably seems like an incredibly odd complaint but it would have made some of these characters resonate just a little more if they were being portrayed by people who were doing something a little more unexpected.  Of course I cannot make this same complaint about the movie’s most important performance, that of Sally Hawkins as the film’s lead.  Hawkins is an actress I primarily know for her work in the film Happy-Go-Lucky, which is a somewhat lesser known Mike Leigh film about a woman who is somewhat annoyingly chipper, but in a very human and interesting way.  This is hardly a copy of that performance but you can see the same persistence of spirit underneath it.  Combine that with the fact that she defines the character as well as she does without being able to speak at all even in voiceover is really impressive.

Ultimately one’s ability to love The Shape of Water is going to come down to how willing you are to go along with its “modern adult fairy tale” tone.  Audiences that don’t pick up on that or aren’t into it will be more bothered by the over the top villain, the unlikeliness of the romance, and certain other elements while those who are into the tone won’t have a problem with these things at all.  That was also what Pan’s Labyrinth was going for and on some level this feels like a very intentional companion piece to that movie some ten years later.  On some level I guess I find it a little disappointing that Del Toro’s first really respectable movie since Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that feels so much like that last success rather than a new and exciting direction for the director.  On the other hand it’s pretty hard to call a movie where a woman bones a fish man who’s being tracked down by American and Soviet agents unoriginal.  I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this review looking a gift horse in the mouth, make no mistake I think The Shape of Water is an exceptionally well made movie that takes a frankly crazy concept and manages to make it work really well on screen in a way that few other movies could.  If I’m hard on it it’s because I feel like this is the movie he should have made in 2010 or so and should be on to the next thing had he not gotten stalled in his evolution, but better late than never.

The Disaster Artist(12/2/2017)

I’ve never really been one to watch movies that are “so bad they’re good.”  I’ll watch the occasional MST3K episode but in general I’m of the belief that it’s almost disrespectful to waste your time on stuff you know is crap when there are so many actual good movies that go unseen.  As such I was a bit late to the party when it came to the most infamous bad movie of the 21st century: The Room.  For the uninitiated, The Room is a film that was made in 2003 by an incredibly weird guy named Tommy Wiseau apparently with his own money which has become infamous for how hilariously bizarre and misguided it is.  It regularly plays to packed midnight screenings where fans engage in Rocky Horror Picture Show style audience participation involving plastic spoons and footballs.  I didn’t see the movie through one of those screenings (watching movies at midnight is not for me) but I did rent it on DVD and it totally lives up to the “hype,” in fact it may well have been worse than I expected.  Most infamously bad movies are genre films that feel like they maybe could have been passable if given a little more time and money and maybe a little tinkering, not this one.  The Room was clearly intended to be this literate indie movie where Wiseau puts his soul onto the screen, but Wiseau seems so oblivious to the basic logic with which most people see the world that nothing about it works at all.  Part of The Room’s appeal comes simply from the way it forces you to ask “What were they thinking? How the hell did something like this come into existence, what were they thinking?”  Fortunately James Franco has come along to answer that question with his new film The Disaster Artist, a comedy which seeks to reenact the events which led to the creation of this incredible oddity.

The film begins in 1998 when an aspiring young actor named Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) attends an acting class in San Francisco where he tanks a line reading in part because he lacked a certain level of confidence.  That did not seem to be a problem for someone else in the class, a mysterious character with what appears to be a thick European accent named Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who proceeds to deliver a wildly over the top recitation of the “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire.”  Realizing that, if nothing else, Wiseau could teach him a thing or two about confidence Sestero decides to meet up with Wiseau and prep a scene.  The two eventually form an odd friendship despite Wiseau’s general Wiseau-ness and the two decide to move to L.A., where Wiseau apparently has an apartment, to pursue their dreams of professional acting.  Two years later they’re both chasing their dreams, not terribly successfully, and Wiseau gets an idea to stop waiting for Hollywood to give them his break and write and finance his own film which he’ll cast himself and Sestero in.

It is perhaps fitting that it would be James Franco who to bring Tommy Wiseau’s story to the screen given that Franco’s own directorial career actually parallels Wiseau’s in some curious ways.  Franco’s directorial career started off real shaky with him making these very low budget movies that few people saw and which were widely labeled “vanity projects.”  At James Franco Comedy Central Roast his friend Jonah Hill alleged that Franco’s philosophy was less “one for them, one for me” and more “one for them, five for nobody.”  Mind you these movies (which I admittedly haven’t seen and only know by reputation) weren’t necessarily said to be poorly made so much as they were said to be movie’s whose ambitions greatly exceeded Franco’s capabilities, especially in the case of his attempts to make adaptations of lofty works of literature by the likes of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.  Given this and his occasional eccentric behavior maybe one can imagine Franco having a certain sympathy for this guy who was also writing, directing, financing, and starring in his own movie, trying to bring a strange vision to the screen even though no one seems to have much confidence in him and almost seems to be humoring him rather than working with him.

Unlike some of James Franco’s more experimental work The Disaster Artist is at its heart a fairly mainstream comedy that isn’t too far removed from some of the movies Franco has made with Seth Rogen (who has a small role here as well).  The humor of course comes from how freaking weird Tommy Wiseau is and the various ways people react to him.  This ultimately comes down to James Franco’s rather impressive ability to replicate Wiseau’s broken English and his strange ticks both in his recreation of scenes from The Room and in his off camera interactions.  Franco doesn’t look just like Wiseau, he seems to be a bit younger than Wiseau and less muscular and he seems to have opted not to use a lot of makeup to correct this, but you aren’t necessarily thinking this when not looking at them side to side and the work he does imitating the voice more than makes up for this.

Also like those Appatow/Seth Rogen movies there’s actually something of a “bromance” at the core of this thing.  When I first saw The Room I interpreted it as being a two hour kiss-off to some ex-girlfriend that Wiseau wanted to depict as a duplicitous bitch who was tearing apart the life of a wonderful blameless man for no reason.  In retrospect I think I might have been giving that movie a little too much credit in assuming it was saying anything as coherent as that.  The Disaster Artist doesn’t do much of anything to back up the notion that Lisa is based on any real woman.  Instead the movie posits that the movie actually ties into Wiseau’s friendship with Greg Sestero.  The friendship between Wiseau and Sestero is an odd one; one gets the impression that Wiseau’s status as a weirdo makes him lonely and particularly grateful that Sestero and Sestero seems in many ways grateful that Wiseau believes in his dream of becoming an actor and supports this monetarily and otherwise.  The movie even hints that Wiseau may have had a homosexual attraction to Sestero and feels threatened when Sestero gets a girlfriend and starts drifting away from him.  Whether his interest in Sestero was sexual or not The Disaster Artist seems to posit that Wiseau made The Room and wrote a bit of a “bros before hoes” vibe into it in order to reform his bond with Sestero.

The obvious reference point for The Disaster Artist is almost certainly Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood, which was also a semi-loving look at an enthusiastic but wildly misguided maker of infamously terrible movies.  That movie was affectionate about its subject and ultimately celebrated him as a misfit who meant well and did the best he could.  I think Franco sort of feels the same way about Wiseau, but I sense something more akin to fascination than affection from the movie.  It also doesn’t sugarcoat some of Wiseau’s less pleasant characteristics including some of the more dangerous corners he cut in making The Room like refusing to pay for air conditioning during the shoot and his incredibly rude treatment of an actress while shooting a sex scene, which leads to a rather heated debate between him and Sestero about the on set behavior of other better directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock.  One could also see how a lot of what Wiseau does here would be a lot less funny if not for the fact that Wiseau was (for mysterious reasons) extremely wealthy.  He isn’t dropping his entire life savings into this movie and he isn’t wasting other people’s money in making it and because of that the stakes here are kind of low.  One can imagine a version of this story where someone like Wiseau takes the advice of La La Land and follows their dreams, puts everything on the line, and ends up making something like The Room but without the “Springtime for Hitler” reaction.  That story would be a tragedy, but Wiseau could take the hit and ended up with something of a happy ending, so his story is a comedy and a funny one at that.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri(11/23/2017)

It has been almost ten years since Martin McDonagh made his feature film debut with a little crime film called In Bruges and yet he’s still established himself as a pretty strong voice in pop culture just the same.  I wasn’t expecting much from In Bruges, a movie that was basically advertised as a Tarantino riff of modest ambition, and while I didn’t immediately love that movie as much as some people it did certainly exceed my expectations.  It was a movie that managed to easily transition between some legitimate psychological turmoil on the part of its characters and this very biting and subversive sense of humor.  At the end of the day I don’t know that it quite had the substance it needed underneath it all, but it’s a movie that’s improved my memory more than I would have expected.  His sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, on the other hand, went all in on that subversive sense of humor and pushed it into a place of meta-textual anarchy that proved to be a little too messy and too crazy for its own good.  Despite how nutty that movie was it didn’t actually seem to leave much of an impression on the culture and in many ways his newest film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a more direct continuation of what McDonagh started with In Bruges but also feels generally weightier more focused than that movie.

As the title implies the film takes place in and around the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri and follows a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a high school aged son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges).  Mildred is at this point a rather prickly woman who’s done taking crap from anyone and is at this point reeling from the violent death of her daughter Angela (played in flashbacks by Kathryn Newton) seven months prior.  Angry that the town’s chief of police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has yet to make progress on her case she decides to rent three billboards on the outskirts of the town which read “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” respectively.  In town this causes a great controversy, in no small part because Willoughby is a very popular figure in town despite the fact that a lot of his deputies seem to act like dictatorial monsters, especially one named Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dangerously stupid little monster who is alleged to have tortured an African American suspect in a prior incident.  What follows is a standoff of sorts between this determined woman and a police force that is completely unprepared to look itself in the mirror.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has widely been hailed as a remarkably topical movie given that it’s about a strong willed woman trying to make sure a rapist is held accountable.  It’s not too hard to read the film that way, but there are a couple issues with that.  For one, while sexual assaults often aren’t taken as seriously as they should be by law enforcement, it’s usually less extreme cases like date rapes that have trouble getting investigated or rapes that occur in areas that are backed up by bureaucracies.  A white girl being forcibly raped by a stranger and then viciously killed and burned alive in a rural area is not one of those cases, that’s the kind of thing that usually does get significant police and media attention.  The movie does acknowledge this; the first thing that Willoughby does upon hearing about the billboards is try to go to Mildred and explain everything he’s done to investigate the case and the reasons why the trail went cold.  The film’s take on Willoughby himself is a bit complicated.  He doesn’t seem like a “bad” guy exactly but he does allow bad things to happen through a sort of obliviousness.  He willfully employs Dixon even though he’s plainly both a racist and an incompetent officer to boot basically just because he doesn’t have the vision to improve on the town’s status quo.

The film works better if viewed less as a specific expose of how police handle sexual assault cases and more as a metaphor for the process of what’s needed for citizens to hold their governments accountable.  The dysfunction going on at the Ebbing sheriff’s office plainly runs deeper than their handling of this one case and Mildred makes it clear throughout the movie that in addition to her anger that no arrests have been made in her daughter’s case she also frequently points out that the deputies spend their time harassing African Americans and is in general need of reform but no one seems to do anything simply because the like Willoughby and never seem to think to challenge him either out of some kind of courtesy or fear.  The film suggests that sometimes “good” people need to be exposed in order to make needed change happen and that this kind of protest often involves sacrifice and determination and that there’s no guaranty of accomplishing what you set out to do.  The film is also interested in the possibility of improving certain people and reconciling them to a certain side, which is where it perhaps runs into trouble.  There’s a redemption arc here for one of the characters which is going to be a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people.

This should not, however, be mistaken for some dry take on civil action, it is still a Martin McDonagh film with all of the irreverence that this implies.  Much of the film’s entertainment value comes from it the cleverly biting and often politically incorrect lines that McDonagh puts in Mildred’s mouth as well as Dixon’s shameless incompetence.  If you’ve watched the red band trailer for the film or you’ve seen other movies by McDonagh or his brother John Michael McDonagh you probably know what to expect from the movie’s humor and it’s brought to life very well by the cast, who adeptly manage to strike the right balance between serious naturalism and heightened comedy.  I would caution people that this isn’t necessarily a laugh a minute comedy so much as a dark story with frequent moments of piercing wit.  The film also loses some steam in its second half when the shtick starts to wear off a bit and that somewhat questionable redemption arc starts to kick in.  That McDonagh is a playwright originally becomes clear as the movie goes on.  It’s not that if feels locationally condensed or conspicuously talky but the themes all present themselves and the plotlines all come together in a way that feels self-contained in a way that a stage play would.  Still, it’s a bold piece of work for the most part which finds a unique way to present its themes and is for the most part well worth seeing.

Last Flag Flying(11/19/2017)

The “New Hollywood” era of the late 1960s and 1970s was a marvelous moment in filmmaking, the one by which most serious American films today is judged against, and it’s also a great entry point for budding film buffs to get into movies that are more challenging than the mainstream blockbusters we’re often fed today.  That was certainly true for me and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did a lot to shape my interest in cinema and the deeper I went the more I was able to see the importance in some of the names that never really went on to be major institutions like Arthur Penn and Bob Rafelson.  However, if there was one fairly major figure from that era whose films I was never quite able to get into it was probably Hal Ashby.  I can see some of the boundaries he broke and I can see his influence but he sure made a lot of “classic” film which I don’t actually particularly enjoy watching.  His cult classic Harold and Maude always just sort of struck me as a redo of what made Mike Nichols’ The Graduate work, Shampoo sort of bored me, and while some of his later 70s work like Coming Home and Being There are neat movies that both have their charms they still aren’t really movies that sing to my soul.  The same sort of goes for his 1973 film The Last Detail, a movie I know I’ve seen but which I don’t particularly remember outside of the general plot setup and a few scenes. I had meant to give that film a re-watch in preparation for my viewing of its new unofficial sequel to that movie from director Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying, but I didn’t manage to fit that into my schedule but now I wish I had because Linklater’s film has certainly renewed my interest in these characters.

Last Flag Flying is not a direct sequel to Ashby’s The Last Detail, but it is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan which was published in 2005 to be a follow-up to his previous novel which was the basis for Ashby’s film.  The character names are different here, possibly for legal reasons (hence “unofficial sequel”) and they’re being played by different actors but it’s very clear that the people here are meant to be echoes of the characters from The Last Detail plus thirty years of aging.  It begins with Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) walking into a bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and re-introducing himself.  He tells Nealon that he spent two years in the brig after having been escorted by him and his fellow soldier, but that since then he’s settled into civilian life and actually has a military-adjacent job in New Hampshire.  Deciding to catch up Shepard drives Nealon out over to a nearby Baptist church, where Nealon comes to realize that the reverend speaking is none other than Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburn), the other soldier who escorted him to the brig thirty years prior.  After catching up with Mueller Shepard explains his reasons for re-uniting the three men: his wife had recently died of breast cancer and his son had apparently enlisted in the marines the prior year and was killed in action two days prior in Bagdad.  The three then decide to go with him to Arlington cemetery to oversee the funeral and provide support.

Though the names and actors have changed it isn’t hard to tell what each character’s counterpart from The Last Detail is supposed to be.  Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepard despite having matured into a rather plain suburbanite is plainly based on Randy Quaid’s Laurence “Larry” Meadows, the young and possibly disturbed young man being escorted to the brig for stealing $40 from a collection plate.  Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon is plainly meant to be Jack Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky, and he remains an aimless hedonist who has spent the last thirty years running a dive bar and chasing women.  And Laurence Fishburn’s Richard Mueller is meant to be a vision of what became of Otis Young’s Richard Mulhall, who unlike Nealon has left his hard drinking ways behind and found a new life as a respected reverend and family man.

These characters have changed in a number of ways since their time in Vietnam but also stayed the same in certain notable ways which is probably the main tension of the film.  Linklater has said that he was inspired to make the film after he caught up with some of his old college baseball friends while researching his last movie Everybody Wants Some!! and making certain observations about what these reunions of old friends are like.  At a certain point it becomes, in typical Linklater fashion, a bit of a hangout movie in which these men just talk to each other, catch up and think back on the Vietnam experience and its similarities and differences from the war in Iraq.  Here Mueller and Nealon take on a perhaps more obvious role as the sort of angel and devil over Shepard’s shoulder with Mueller suggesting he follow the usual process of military decorum and mourning while Nealon encourages him to rebel against the marine corps who killed his son and conduct a funeral devoid of the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral.  Added to the mix is the character of Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), one of the deceased son’s fellow soldiers who accompanies the men on part of their journey and adds the perspective of a younger generation of marines in some interesting discussions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Amazon and Lionsgate have opted to release Last Flag Flying in late November when it is likely to get lost in the shuffle of flashier prestige films with hookier premises because it’s certainly another very solid entry in the Richard Linklater filmography.  The connection to The Last Detail is ultimately something that shouldn’t distract the viewer too much as the movie stands alone and is ultimately a film more in line with Linklater’s usual style than that of Hal Ashby.  Like Linklater’s other movies Last Flag Flying does a great job of placing its audience into the shoes of a certain kind of people and allowing them to observe their interactions like a fly on a wall.  The characters here are a bit more blue-collar than some of his usual characters and there’s no obvious Linklater analogue here like there are in some of his other movies but that doesn’t seem to hold him back from presenting interesting and three dimensional characters and he proves to have unexpected insights (possibly Darryl Ponicsan’s contribution) into the meaning of military service.  It doesn’t have the entertainment value of something like Dazed and Confused (though parts of it are funny), or the audacity of something like Boyhood, or the universality of the Before trilogy, but it does still work in much the way some of his other movies do and continues this little win streak he’s suddenly amassed.

Lady Bird(11/18/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The thing about coming of age movies is that they’re written by people who have already come of age looking back at their youths.  This means that they’re generally set in the past, often about ten or twenty years ago, which just so happens to be the peak period for an entire generation’s nostalgia interest.  That’s why George Lucas set American Graffiti in the early 60s, why Richard Linklater set Dazed and Confused in the late 70s, why Noah Baumbach set The Squid and the Whale in the 80s, and why… I actually can’t think of too many set in the 90s (The Wackness, I guess) but you get the point.  Well, after years and years of watching other people’s memories of bygone eras things have finally come around: I’m finally old enough that they’re making nostalgic coming of age movies about the era when I was actually in high school.  The new film Lady Bird, directed by 34 year old Greta Gerwig, is about the high school experience of someone from the class of 2003 and while that is still technically about three years older than me (class of 2006) it’s still basically the era I knew compete with watching news about the Iraq War, seeing people talk on non-ubiquitous flip phones, and hearing Justin Timberlake songs get played at parties.  It’s kind of freaking me out, but I won’t hold that against the movie, which is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed.

The film is set in 2002 and 2003 and takes place over the course of the senior year of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on going by the self-applied nickname “Lady Bird” for some teenagery reason.  Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, a city she does not have much appreciation for, and goes to a catholic school despite her parents only barely being able to afford it.  Lady Bird is a character who could be called “quirky” but she’s not quirky in an unbelievable indie-movie sort of way, she’s more quirky in the way that brainy high school students actually behave when trying to find their own identity.  She wears red hair dye and occasionally rebels (though not too wildly) against the rigidity of the nuns and priests who run her school.  Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf ) can be a bit much to handle and her father Larry (Tracy Letts) often struggles financially and otherwise while acting as something of a “good guy” when dealing with Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is kind of a hard movie to talk about.  Many of its qualities are readily apparent but sound kind of mundane if not cliché when their described on the page.  Much of its appeal comes down to little details that make it feel very true to life and just generally make its central character a bit more… I don’t know that lovable is the word (at the end of the day she is still a dumb teenager) but certainly more fully realized and human.  Saoirse Ronan’s performance is one of the movie’s biggest assets.  I had assumed that Ronan was done playing teenagers after having played someone in their early twenties or thereabouts in Brooklyn but she seems able to slide right back into playing an 18 year old despite being 23.  Lady Bird, the character, is in some ways less a real person than the self-image that people construct of a sort of ideal of what they would have been in high school if they could live it all over again.  Fun and arty, cool but not necessarily part of the unpleasant “in-crowd” for the most part, extremely self-confident and rebellious but not is a way that’s really dangerous.  Much of the film focuses on Lady Bird going through typical teenage stuff over the course of her senior year like making new friends and going through boyfriends, but what the movie ultimately comes down to is her relationship with her parents and especially her mother.

This is actually where the film both gets interesting and also kind of falls short for me.  It’s not unusual for these coming of age films to feature conflicts between teenagers and their parents but usually the films implicitly side with the parents and view the teenager’s rage against them to be the result of a youthful failure to appreciate legitimate parental concerns, and if they don’t it’s because the parents are straight up abusive or something.  Here Lady Bird’s mother doesn’t exactly seem like a terrible person but she does kind of suck.  She’s someone who constantly nagging her daughter over goofy little things like how quickly she washes her school uniforms while being seemingly uninterested in helping her with the bigger problems in her life.  The mother’s key flaw seems to be the gigantic chip she has on her shoulder about money and class.  She’s constantly going on about how the family is “poor” even though they really only appear to be, at worst, lower middle class and this also leads her to have an incredibly snobby attitude about public schools and anyone who’s actually poor.  This manifests itself in its worst way when she actively discourages her daughter in her ambitions and begins acting like a petulant child herself when Lady Bird ends up surpassing expectations.

The fact that I was actually on the side of the rebellious teenager by the end of the film is a big part of why the film’s ending didn’t quite work for me.  In some ways I feel like the movie should have just ended with Lady Bird getting on the airplane and left the conflict between her and her mother as this messy thing that simply isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon and will probably linger with the characters for years.  On some levels I do think Gerwig wanted that but for whatever reason she added on this little post false-ending coda about her first few days in college leading up to an attempt at reconciliation that frankly felt unearned.  If anything it was the mother who owed the daughter an apology and the notion of a college student who frankly has nothing to apologize for having some epiphany to be the bigger person and end the conflict just because she had a wild night or two.  Whether or not the movie sticks the landing though, this is plainly the best look at adolescence since Linklater’s Boyhood and is in many ways a joy to watch.