“Last Flag Flying:” Yet another reminder that Steve Carrell is more than Michael Scott (though he’ll always be that to me)

Who wouldn’t want to go on a road trip with Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, and Bryan Cranston? Last Flag Flying, the latest film from director Richard Linklater, is a decent enough movie on its own, but its three lead actors, whose resonant performances offer an understated balance of drama and levity, make it a great one.

Last Flag Flying is the “unofficial sequel” to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, which just means that Last Flag Flying is based on the sequel to the book that The Last Detail was based on. There’s no actual continuity, film to film. In The Last Detail, two navy men (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) are tasked with escorting a young seaman (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison where he’ll serve out an eight-year sentence for attempting to steal forty dollars from a polio fund. Along the way, Nicholson’s character insists on giving the young man the good time he won’t experience for the next eight years.

Last Flag Flying, the book, follows the same three men thirty years later, but the movie adapts the characters with new (if similar­) names and backstories. (No surprise a film like this one would come from Linklater, who has previously played with telling stories over a long period of time in projects like Boyhood and the Before trilogy.) Steve Carrell plays Larry “Doc” Shephard, a mousy ex-Marine who did sit out the last years of the Vietnam War in naval prison, but not for trying to steal forty dollars. When he finds out that his son, Larry Jr., has been killed while serving in Iraq with the Marines, he asks his old war buddies Sal (Bryan Cranston, as Nicholson’s spiritual successor) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) to go with him to get the body.

And so Last Flag Flying plays out as a road movie: the three men first drive to the military hanger in Delaware where Larry Jr.’s body has been sent, and then take the train back home after Doc refuses to give his son a military burial at Arlington. This is all to the frustration of the stiff-necked Colonel Willits (Yul Vasquez), who sees Larry Jr. as one of their own.

Where most movies tend to go high, Last Flag Flying goes low. It’s a very quiet movie; most of its scenes are set in places you’d want to use your inside voice, like church or on a train. The choice moments where someone yells are thus pleasantly — or unpleasantly — startling. The moment where the quiet and reserved Richard unleashes a string of shouted expletives at a delighted Sal, for instance. Or when Willits barks at the young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson) tasked with accompanying Sal, Doc, and Richard that he should kill the three men before letting them take Larry Jr.’s body back home for burial (which he’s only sort of kidding about).

Certainly deserving of recognition are the cinematography (Shane Kelly) and the production design (Bruce Curtis). The film is simply shot, but there’s a kind of intimacy to the camerawork that pulls you in. There’s one scene on the train in which Sal and Doc sit next to each other. A good few minutes pass where of the two of them only Sal speaks, but the camera lingers on a medium shot of both men, rather than cutting the silent Doc out of the frame. The camera takes on the perspective of someone sitting in the seat across from them. You’re not just another moviegoer eavesdropping on characters though the barrier of a screen; you’re there on the trip with them. Likewise, Curtis’ design constructs the settings with the kind of meticulous detail that human eyes can zero in on, but cameras usually can’t or won’t: the snarky signage covering the dive bar that Sal runs, for example, or the dirty fingerprints on the train window Doc stares out of while Sal rambles on.

But it’s the performances of Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne that stay with you as you leave the theater. Talented actors can always bring out the best in each other, and the interactions of these three on-screen offer a little something extra: they feel real. Realism isn’t something we always look for in our movies; sometimes they’re going for poetry or comedy or melodrama. Done right, though, realism can strike a deeper chord than any of them. Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne play out an honest interaction between three people who were once brought together by circumstance, formed a bond out of their ghastly situation, and then parted ways expecting to never see each other again. In a different sense, it’s the same kind of feeling you get when you run into somebody who you knew in high school. You never wanted to see them again because that part of your life is over and done, but it’s also the only thing you two have to talk about so that’s where the conversation keeps returning to.

That’s what Last Flag Flying is built on: conversation, rather than action. Carell’s character is generally too preoccupied with his son’s death to talk much, which leaves most of the talking up to Sal and Richard, who may have been friends once but thirty years later don’t have much left in common. Richard views the war as a shameful era in his life, one he’s making up for now by working as a pastor and abstaining from drink. By contrast Sal — rude, alcoholic, cracking inappropriate jokes left and right – misses it, because there he had a sense of belonging. It was there that he had purpose, in contrast to his lonely life back home. Through their conversations, the long train and car rides become brief meditations on war, life, morality: how Richard can believe in God when there are so many horrible things that happen out there; whether Saddam is grieving for his lost children as Doc is grieving for his; on how the United States somehow expects the countries it invades to welcome the occupation with open arms.

If Doc is responsible for moving the plot along, it’s Sal who really seems framed as the main character — in part because that’s how Nicholson’s character was framed in The Last Detail, but mainly because he talks the most. My god, does he not stop talking. Cranston does his job very well, playing a man who always needs to be at the center of attention, and who grows churlish if people ignore him for too long. He’s also primarily the comic relief, though Linklater’s script walks a very fine line between funny and annoying that occasionally trips and falls onto the latter side. A succession of mildly racist comments directed towards Richard grows increasingly tiresome as the film goes on, as when Sal asks Richard why he married a black woman, or whether hip-hop music makes him ashamed to be black.  Still, Cranston — long admired for both his comedic and dramatic abilities — is generally able to pull it off, varying the boorish humor with genuine caring for Doc and stubborn defiance against Richard’s prim new persona.

The movie’s ending undoes it somewhat; it’s almost tangibly saccharine and leaves you searching for reasons why it might have ended that way other than that Linklater couldn’t come up with a better one. It’s unfortunate that the ending has to be the weakest part of it, because that’s what’s freshest in your mind when you leave the theater. But Last Flag Flying is a road movie, after all; it’s really more about the journey than the destination. The plot isn’t so much the point as it is a vehicle for character development. The questions raised aren’t really meant to be answered; they’re just meant to make you think a little. And if the destination ends up being kind of a letdown, at least you made the journey in some pretty great company.

“Last Flag Flying:” Yet another reminder that Steve Carrell is more than Michael Scott (though he’ll always be that to me)

T2 Trainspotting can’t make its own spotlight

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.27.09 AM.pngSo, I just watched T2: Trainspotting.

(Side note: what’s with that title?)

Was it good? Yes. Was it as good as the original Trainspotting? No, of course not. But do we really have to compare the two? Yes, because this is exactly the kind of movie that invites that comparison.

T2 is the most sequelly sequel that ever sequelled. It is not really a movie in its own right, but rather something of an afterword to the original. The first act begins quite independent of its predecessor, and gets progressively more nostalgic as time goes on. And let me be the first to say that I love Trainspotting. If it’s not my absolute favorite movie it’s at least in my top five. So while I was excited to see T2, a movie I’ve been anticipating for years, I also knew not to expect too much lest I be let down. So I will first say that, despite my doubts, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It’s well-written, well-acted, with nice cinematography and editing in the way that makes Danny Boyle’s films distinctive and strong. Where the movie goes wrong is depending too much on its parent.

Everything in the world is different, but nothing much has changed for these men. Twenty years after the events of the first Trainspotting, Mark Renton returns to Edinburgh to visit his father and the old friends he once screwed over. Begbie, Sick Boy (though he goes by Simon now), and Spud have all let their lives stagnate in various ways, and each look to Mark’s act of betrayal at the end of the first movie as the main reason why their lives have gone to shit. This is unfair, of course; what Mark did was an absolute dick move but it can’t really be to blame for everything. Begbie was always going to end up in jail whether or not Mark made him that much angrier; Simon would never have used that money well even if Mark hadn’t stolen it; Spud would have stayed an addict even if he didn’t have the extra money Mark left him. Nevertheless, all three men have refused to move on from an event that took place twenty years ago. Mark, meanwhile, made a valiant attempt at a normal life— moving to Amsterdam, kicking heroin, marrying, getting a real job— but recently all of that’s been falling apart so he moves back to Edinburgh to remember all the good times he spent there. Simon and Mark concoct hair-brained scheme to make money and we’re off to the races.

The strongest moments of the film were the moments that didn’t rely too much on reminding us of what a great movie the first one was.

T2 is all about nostalgia, and in some moments that’s done very well. In others it’s not. There’s a point, late in the film, that leaned so heavily on it I can’t not bring it up. It’s a scene where Mark reminisces about going into the first day of kindergarten and sitting down next to an “older” boy who had been held back a few years, who would turn out to be Begbie and his lifelong friend.

This is a completely ridiculous thing to say on multiple levels. First, Robert Carlyle (Begbie’s actor) is a good ten years older than Ewan McGregor (Mark) so that would make him a fifteen-year-old still in kindergarten. Even if you’re generous and say that the character Carlyle is playing is only five years older than Renton, that still makes him a ten-year-old somehow still in kindergarten which is still an upsettingly stupid idea. I’d be more comfortable if Mark had just said that he and Begbie were the same age.

Second, Mark clearly hated Begbie in the first movie, remaining his friend only out of a fear of what Begbie might do otherwise. An attempt such as this to inject emotional depth into a situation is transparent and painful. True, everyone looks at the past through rosy lenses— a lot of this movie is about that— but it’s hard to imagine either man being able to look back fondly on their relationship. That, my friends, is what we call a retcon and it’s a sure sign of a weak story. The reason I’m talking so much about this part is that in a way it’s representative of the whole movie: sweet and well-filmed but excessively nostalgic, and in some ways just not quite right.

But hey, it was fun. If you’ve seen Danny Boyle’s other movies, he’s got this very characteristic fast and rhythmic style  that I think is just really fun to watch— though sometimes with some of the especially wacky shots you get the feeling that if someone were to ask him, “hey Danny Boyle, why did you make the shot this way?” He’d just be like, “I dunno, I thought it was cool.” But they are fun to watch so whatever, right?

You can tell that it was meant to be made 10 years after the original movie, and not 20. Because I can excuse this group of guys not being able to move on from a thing that happened 10 years ago. But 20? that’s kind of unbelievable. That’s like a whole my lifetime. A whole me has happened and they still can’t move on?

It’s hard to reinvigorate excitement for something that a whole generation of people have now grown up not having seen or talked about, at least in the US. I don’t know what the case is for the UK. It doesn’t help that, except for Ewen McGregor, none of these guys have gone on to have wildly successful careers. It feels like T2 is subconsciously  telling the story of its own cast and crew rather, which just feels kind of sad.

Here’s an example: If you haven’t seen the original Trainspotting, the opening scene is really iconic; it’s got Renton and Spud running down a street, pursued by police, with Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life playing” in the background and there’s this famous monologue that Ewen McGregor gives in voiceover. Unless my memory fails me, T2 made at least four references to that one scene in some way or other, and this feels like too much. It’s time to move one, Danny, and make some new iconic scenes.

T2 Trainspotting rides on the coattails of its predecessor, but there are diminishing returns to that; at some point Boyle and everyone else need to take their own movie’s advice and face the music.

T2 Trainspotting can’t make its own spotlight

Why I kind of like the Star Wars prequels

A couple of nights ago, I got into a loud and vociferous debate with a friend over the Star Wars franchise; specifically our respective orders of the movies from best to worst. Fortunately the subject died before we came to fisticuffs, though not before this friend mentioned his WordPress website in which he rants about movies and television. I was inspired, so I signed up for a WordPress account and started writing. What follows are my incoherent and disorganized thoughts on the Star Wars franchise.

Disclaimer: please understand that I am neither an expert on film, nor on the Star Wars movies. If I get something wrong, please forgive me. If you disagree with my opinion, leave a comment and be nice.

I’m one of those weirdos who never watched Star Wars as a kid; mine is more of a Star Trek family. In fact, I only just finished watching all six movies at the end of my freshman year of college. There are both pros and cons to this childhood deprivation I suffered. The con is that I began my viewing experience already knowing what everyone knows: Luke and Leia are twinsies and Darth Vader is their father. Fortunately, this did not ruin the experience too much. The pro is that, with Star Wars absent from my upbringing, I feel like my viewing experience was a bit more objective. I didn’t have a huge emotional attachment to Star Wars, and thus was able to view them more critically than I think I would have otherwise.

And I did love them, for the most part. The score is easily my favorite part of the series, and the special effects of the original trilogy were breathtaking too. But nothing I can say on either of these topics will be original, having been said countless times before, so I’ll skip over them to other stuff.

Here is one of the things that I simply cannot understand about Star Wars that everyone else seems to get: the plot. It’s treated like it’s this groundbreaking story that changed film forever. And while that is kind of true–it had an enormous impact on both the sci-fi genre and cinema as a whole– it’s also a pretty unoriginal plot. In fact, it’s the perfect example of something called a monomyth, or a “Hero’s Journey.” I have read in more places than one that George Lucas referred to the monomyth idea when he was writing the first Star Wars film, so he literally did create it from a formula.

The Hero is that protagonist who is called to action from his small, boring hometown and embarks on a most exciting adventure aided by his most likely wizened mentor. He usually faces some personal struggle/temptation and emerges from it the victorious Hero. Luke Skywalker fits this archetype to a T, and so, to a lesser extent, does Anakin. We see this story everywhere. An obvious post-Star Wars example is Harry Potter. Another, much shittier example is Transformers. But this idea existed long before George Lucas learned about it. J.R.R. Tolkein and Ursula K. Le Guin both wrote books of the Hero’s Journey nature. Also, an awful lot of people from Greek myths, like Perseus and Theseus. Also, Jesus.  

heros journey

The Hero’s Journey story is a comforting sort of plotline, because we know that our Hero is going to overcome all the obstacles temptations thrown at him. We can also trust that the people we care about are probably not going to die, and that the Hero’s side– our side– will be victorious. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, there’s action, and overall it’s a satisfying experience. But at its most formulaic (which I would argue the original Star Wars trilogy is), it doesn’t challenge us. We’re not worried for our heroes when they go into battle. We’re not faced with tough questions or asked to think more deeply about anything. When Luke withstands the temptation of the Dark Side, he does so in a way that perfectly fulfills the Hero’s Journey formula. I feel that, despite its God awful execution, Anakin’s story is still more interesting because at least there’s more tension and uncertainty than there is in Luke’s.

Luke Skywalker is the Bella Swan of the franchise. He’s a good guy who thirsts for adventure, and there really isn’t a lot more to him than that. This makes him the perfect Hero/protagonist, because the audience can step into his shoes with little to no effort. Now they are the ones making the choice between good and evil and choosing good. Now they are the ones saving the day. Han and Leia are more richly characterized, but that also makes them less relatable and therefore not Hero material. Meanwhile Anakin is the character we don’t want to relate to, and not merely because of his questionable writing and portrayal. We don’t want to think about whether we would be seduced by the Dark Side, and Anakin, unlike Luke, makes us doubt whether we really would be able to resist the lure of the Sith Lords.

I don’t mean to speak ill of Star Wars by saying all this– I love the Hero’s Journey storyline, and you can add a lot to it to make it more interesting, as Star Wars does. The beauty of the monomyth is that it transcends time period or culture, which why it’s called the monomyth, the one myth. A single myth translatable across time and space, which Star Wars, being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, fits into perfectly. I just think that the series is not as perfect as everyone seems to think it is. (And by that, I mean the original trilogy. People seem to have quite a bit of criticism for the prequels.)

The original trilogy was objectively better. In almost every way. But I do think it needs the prequels, more so than a lot of people would care to admit. Without the prequels, the originals feel to me like a formulaic film about a formulaic man and his formulaic journey. The prequels add another layer to the story (I’m a fan of the “machete” viewing order, by the way: IV, V, II, III, VI, and just toss I), and we get to see both Luke’s and Anakin’s arcs come to a solid conclusion in Episode VI. Their interwoven stories make for a bittersweet, rather than outright happy, ending that I just don’t think would be the same if we didn’t get to see Anakin’s rise and fall.

Don’t get me wrong, the prequels do mess up certain parts of the originals– midichlorians, anyone?– and to be completely honest part of my arguing all this comes from what I imagine the prequels could have been at their highest potential, of which the actual execution is a pale and confused ghost. So, let that be the grain of salt with which you read my order.

From best to worst (not counting Rogue One or The Force Awakens because it’s still hard for me to rank them alongside what I see as the original six):

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: This is just objectively the best movie and I think most people won’t dispute that too much. The sets and scenery (Hoth is gorgeous), the special effects, the music. Some of my favorite scenes in the series are in this film. Anything that features Leia and Han’s extreme sexual tension. Luke’s training with Yoda back before he was ruined by every movie in the prequel trilogy. Luke’s confrontation with Vader and the Big Reveal. Empire Strikes Back is wonderfully grand and operatic. It accomplishes what most second parts of a trilogy fail to do and succeeds as its own movie, rather than just as a build-up to the final one.

Episode IV: A New Hope: This one is really more tied for first with Episode V for because it’s my personal favorite, even if I acknowledge that the former is objectively better. It’s the one I’ve rewatched the most; it’s the one that for whatever reason stirs up the deep emotions for me. That stunning shot of Luke watching the binary sunset while the Force Theme plays is my favorite part of the whole saga. I also love Obi-Wan in both incarnations, and the final battle of him and Darth Vader always brings a tear to my eye.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: This one is probably a surprise. Yes, I preferred Revenge of the Sith over Return of the Jedi. This is partly because my expectations were absurdly high for Return of the Jedi  and absurdly low for Revenge of the Sith. I do recognize that Return of the Jedi is in most ways a better film, but that was overshadowed by just how much more I enjoyed watching Revenge of the Sith. I really loved Obi-Wan and Anakin’s bromance and banter in this one; hell, I didn’t even mind Hayden’s acting that much. The final battles of Yoda/Sidious and Anakin/Obi-Wan were fun to watch because of their drama, if not because of their execution. And like I said before, Anakin’s story provides a lot more dramatic tension than Luke’s does. We may already know what will happen to the characters, but how they get there is just as interesting. Anakin finally succumbing to the Dark Side wasn’t a happy moment, and neither was when all the Jedi are killed off. Those were sad moments. I felt sad. Which is really not an emotion that I felt watching the original trilogy, except at Obi-Wan’s death. Revenge of the Sith was a good movie in many ways. For me, watching Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader was in many ways more interesting and entertaining than most anything Luke did, although part of that entertainment value does come from how sloppy/cheesy the former was in its execution. (and I will say that Luke’s stupid “no” beats out Vader’s much, much stupider “no.”)

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi: I really don’t like watching long battle scenes, It’s just not my thing. Especially when I A) know the characters aren’t going to die or B) don’t care. This is a big problem for me watching Lord of the Rings, and it’s a big problem for a lot of the Star Wars films as well. Return of the Jedi features some of the most prolonged, boring starship battles I have ever zoned out to. I was never worried for anyone’s life except for maybe Lando Calrissian for obvious token race-related reasons. It’s stupidly unrealistic that everyone you care about would come out the other side of a massive, decisive battle unscathed. A lot of other parts this movie felt prolonged and pointless to me, such as the scene at Jabba’s lair and anything having to do with the Ewoks. Nevertheless, it is not without its awesome bits: Luke’s final battle with Vader and Palpatine, followed by Luke and Vader’s one father/son moment. Also Leia is always perfect and I love her and I want to be her. Return of the Jedi, I would say, beats Revenge of the Sith on a lot of points: acting, dialogue, effects. But Revenge of the Sith wins on storyline and entertainment value, and that’s why I put it first.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones: There’s not a whole lot to say about these final two movies that hasn’t already been said before. To me, Attack of the Clones is good-bad: It is a bad movie, and entertaining in its badness. Not unlike Sharknado. I laughed out loud quite a few times during the Anakin/Padmé scenes. I’d probably watch it again if I were heavily under the influence of something.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Jar-Jar. Little Anakin. Excruciatingly long pod races. Padmé’s weird doppelganger. Qui-Gon. Phantom Menace is bad-bad: it is a bad movie, and not at all entertaining in its badness. Not unlike The Last Airbender. I hate this movie.

Why I kind of like the Star Wars prequels