“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

Riverdale’s “La Grande Illusion” and the show’s central flaws

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 8.21.14 AMWhat happened in this episode of Riverdale? Well, Archie befriended Cheryl in exchange for certain favors from her parents, then realized the Blossom family is evil (a truth already acknowledged about 500 times before) and pulled away, leaving Cheryl angry and out for revenge; Polly, who has been living at Thorn Hill, reveals to Archie that she believes the Blossoms are responsible for Jason’s death, which is the real reason why she’s still there. That’s the main story. In other news, Archie’s dad discovers the identity of his benefactor and Veronica sees firsthand the effects of her father’s misdeeds.

Look. I will be the first to say that something doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane- level quality for you to be able to watch and enjoy it. Something can still pose interesting questions even if it’s not the most sophisticated work of art or doesn’t project some auteurist philosophy. Thus far I have hand-waved those who criticize Riverdale for its somewhat shallow characterizations and aversion to realistic characters and dialogue. Where I draw the watch/don’t watch line, rather, is the point where such shallowness stops being fun and interesting and becomes boring and annoying.

Let’s compare Riverdale to its contemporary, the Netflix original A Series of Unfortunate Events. In many ways, the two shows are similar. Like Riverdale, the Netflix series prioritizes aesthetic over reality, a complex and multi-layered mystery over character development. But A Series of Unfortunate Events embraces its weird and wholly unrealistic characters with a twinkle in its eye, while Riverdale refuses to admit its characters are anything less than real teenagers. I’ve given the show a pass up till this point because, again, the entertainment value has so far overpowered the shallowness. But for me, last week’s episode crossed that line into boring/annoying territory, and I am thoroughly irritated. I am talking, first and foremost, about Archie, who is both the show’s ostensible main character and its weakest link.

 At best, from the point we’re at now, Archie functions as an object of female desire, yet as we have seen he appears to be a failure even at that. I’m just saying, if Val and Archie had to break up, couldn’t it at least have been a little more interesting than that? Val and Archie have so far been nothing if not absurdly functional, yet now it seems as though Val is going to leave the show and our lives as abruptly and randomly as she entered them. Val accuses Archie of “ignoring her” the whole time they have been together, which I haven’t seen any direct evidence of other than the fact that the show itself periodically forgets she exists.

Riverdale has no sense of object permanence; its writing team seems to have the same problem as Guy Pearce in Memento. Things that happened in one episode are forgotten or unquestionably resolved by the following one. The pedophile cellist, despite being set up as hugely important in the first half of the season, is now gone: out of sight, out of mind. The boorish jock Moose has made a sudden reappearance with no mention of his past relationship with Kevin the Gay Best Friend. Jughead is apparently now such a committed boyfriend as to be compelled to attend Betty’s awkward family gatherings, without any buildup to that whatsoever. And where the hell is Josie? No, the show can’t be expected to write all its recurring characters into every episode, but it’s not just that; it genuinely seems to forget about them when they’re not on screen. It is clear that Riverdale’s biggest weakness is the relationships it forces between its characters, and in no case is this clearer than with Archie.

Archie is the Good Guy, the infallible male protagonist who inevitably becomes the least interesting person in the room. But he lacks Harry Potter’s hero complex, Percy Jackson’s irreverence, Luke Skywalker’s temptations. In short, he lacks anything that could make him a watchable character. When confronted with a problem, he figures out the most moral decision within twenty minutes. The Ms. Grundy storyline, though terrible, at the very least introduced Archie as a slightly interesting personality. Now that that’s over, there’s apparently no moral dilemma that he can’t resolve.

The Archie plotline of this episode had potential, as Archie finds himself in the position of being offered riches and success in exchange for friend-pimping himself out to the Blossoms. As his friends remind him several times, the Blossoms are the enemy and Cheryl has never been a friend to them (in so doing disregarding her development of the last several episodes in which she seemed to be growing, but we’ll come back to that later). Archie responds by pointing out that he has nothing against Cheryl and that she says she just wants an ally there (which literally everyone else recognizes as bullshit), and besides, the Blossoms are offering him the chance of a lifetime. What’s the downside? Archie’s stupidity, though intense, is something we’ve all become accustomed to, and so we know that he’ll figure it out by the end of the episode.

In what way have the experiences of this episode affected Archie? In no way whatsoever, even though in its course we saw him ignoring his friend’s warnings and abandoning his values in pursuit of personal gain, letting Cheryl kiss him a surprisingly long time before pulling away, and losing his girlfriend because he was too wrapped up in everything else. Yet he has been given no time to reflect on his moral compromising, or even to mourn his breakup. Doubtless, he will soon forget about Val just as he forgot he ever liked Veronica and Grundy. Archie is actually dumb enough to let himself get pulled into Cheryl’s life, to let her walk up to him and talk to him with their faces mere inches apart, to stand there while she waxes eloquent about how he’s the only person who really knows her, without figuring out that she’s gearing up for a kiss. And then when it does happen, it takes him a moment to figure it out, letting her kiss him for a few seconds before breaking away and asking, surprised, “Cheryl, what are you doing?” as if nobody could have seen this coming. This is because Archie is simply too good to be tempted, or to even understand what temptation is.

What’s even more irritating than all this is the show’s treatment, or mistreatment, of Cheryl, who is shaping up to be that one character who alternates between good and bad from episode to episode without any actual development. It’s fine for her to feel conflicted about her allegiance to her terrible family who continually rejects her, and I’ll accept her going back and forth on this dilemma for a while. But the way she acts towards Archie’s gang plays out like an insufferable game of ping-pong: at one moment she’s inviting Veronica to a slumber party and laying bare her emotional insecurities; at another she’s back to bullying them all with her Vixens. Again, this kind of inconsistency goes from acceptable when the show is still getting off the ground, to unbearable nearing the end of the season. The final scene of this episode shows her furiously scratching out Archie’s face (and Polly’s too, for some reason) on the photo they all took together, crying and vowing revenge. This is an irritating direction for the character, given the fact that she seemed, in general, to be growing closer with Archie’s group. Can the writers please just pick an end point for Cheryl, and then set her on that path? Her constant vacillation is, like Archie’s kiddie-pool character development, starting to get unwatchable for me.

As usual, the show does a better job with the rest of its characters. We have started to see the horrible Alice Cooper turn over a new leaf, which is some nice development even if it’s presented with Riverdale’s customary lack of buildup. The weekly revelations about the Cooper family are always interesting, though with reveal on top of reveal it’s starting to feel like the show has no idea where it’s going with this and is kind of just making this all up as it goes along. Meanwhile, Veronica is brought face-to-face with a family that has been destroyed through her father’s corruption, suggesting, not for the first time, that she is the only character the writers really put effort into. Veronica, Ethel, and Kevin win the prize for strongest and most consistent storyline this week.

Look, I still have faith in Riverdale. I’m still interested in the story, I still like the characters, I still want to know how it turns out. For the most part, the storyline about the abuse Cheryl receives from her parents and extended family is a good one. It’s when Archie is tasked with carrying a storyline himself that the show’s weakest points become noticeable. And this is a real problem: Riverdale is not an ensemble show. It has a small core of important characters, at the center of which a single person lives, and this stems not only from the show’s treatment of that character but also from the place that he has in our culture. And for the central character of a show to be its weakest link is simply unsustainable. Archie should be able to be the main character while still having an interesting personality, while still encountering struggles and temptations and chances or growth. And just because this is a problem that befalls plenty of other stories (Scott McCall in Teen Wolf, Frodo in Lord of the Rings), that doesn’t excuse Riverdale’s laziness. 

Riverdale’s “La Grande Illusion” and the show’s central flaws