“Last Flag Flying” film review

An all-star cast takes audiences on a memory journey of war, loss, friendship, and patriotism as genuine human emotions are dealt with through comedy and grief. Amazon Studios hits a homer again with the release of Last Flag Flying distributed by Lionsgate. Now in select theaters, writer-director Richard Linklater crafts an incredible motion picture that organically deals with the loss of a loved one during a time of war through the stages of grief and irreverent comedy between friends. While this film is currently flying under the radar, don’t allow that to dissuade you from watching this incredible war film. I cannot remember the last time that I saw a film that felt so genuine. Watching this film, I truly felt like a fly on the wall, watching a Vietnam vet deal with the loss of his son and reconnecting with some of the closest friends he ever had in his life. Last Flag Flying is a subgenre of war movies that places the camera at a distance from the characters and allows them to mourn and laugh on screen without interference from censors and other outsiders. While not a conventional war movie, the topic of war is found underlying many diegetic components. Dialogue driven, this film provides social commentary on patriotism, God, and friendship. Bring your listening ear to this movie because the context of the tough subject matter contains subtle yet powerful messages that highlight otherwise unstated emotions. Sometimes the best way to go through the stages of grief is to throw caution to the wind and allow humor to work its powerful remedy.

Three Vietnam war veterans reunite for a different kind of mission that forces them to deal with the present and the past. When Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrel) arrives at the dive bar that belongs to former comrade Sal Nealson (Bryan Cranston), he asks his Marine brother to go with him without naming where. Sal drives Shepherd to a old country church now pastored by their Marine brother Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). When Shepherd doesn’t touch his pale cobbler, the group realizes there is something wrong. It’s then the Shepherd reveals that his son was killed outside of Baghdad, and wants his two Marine brothers to go with him to bury his son at Arlington. Along the journey, the three former military comrades are forced to come to terms with their shared past that continues to shape their present lives by discussing tough topics such as grief, God, war, honesty, and addiction.

The sheer storytelling beauty of Last Flag Flying is found in the solid writing made evident through the excellent direction and A-list cast (and one surprising cameo that I won’t mention because it will detract from the brief but powerful screen presence). While it may appear like a somber tragedy on the surface, beneath that surface of sadness beats the heart of dark but respectful comedy that takes audiences on the memory journey right along side the characters. War movies about the loss of loved ones is not something new; but this film allows the characters to go through the stages of grief in organic ways that paints a motion picture of how human these emotions are. Human. Truly human. At times, there are no holds barred when three very different voices all converge on the same topic. You have the grieving father, a reverend, and foul-mouthed barkeep discussing everything, just as friends in real life often do. In many ways, these three former military comrades could not be any different in their present states; but at one time, they were inseparable and very much alike. While the focus of the film could have been on Shepherd’s loss or the politics of war, the focus is clearly on what makes us human and how one genuinely has to deal with loss due to war. Not that discussions of politics and religion are not found in this film–they are–but the discussions and arguments between these friends are used as tools to comment on the human condition. Because we never see combat footage, the expositional dialogue about war and politics adds incredible weight and a little mystery to the events in the film.

Before you begin to think that Linklater uses flashbacks to connect the present to the past, think again. While that would have been the easy, lazy way of accomplishing that task, he chooses to connect the present to the past through exceptional exposition between characters that prompt the audience to engage their own emotions to connect the pieces of the story together. Because we never shift between the past and present, the main story is always the main story. When constructing strong characters as we have this this film, it is the responsibility of the actors (though proper direction) to not allow the actor to get in the way of the character. Honestly, there are times that I see the individual actors eclipse the respective character, but most of the time, the audience will see the characters themselves throughout the dark comedy. The cinematography is simple, but perfect for the story within this motion picture. Linklater uses no gimmicks to tell this thought provoking story. The movie has an intimate feel to it because you can likely identify with one of the lead or supporting characters, especially when they are talking about “Disneyland” in Vietnam (you’ll just have to watch to understand why that’s in quotes). So incredibly genuine. No pretense about any of the characters in the film.

The content of this film truly reflects the tenor of the times in which we live. Topics of war, politics, and religion seem to be inundating us from all angles. It takes a special film to deal with each of those respectfully, candidly, and effectively. The trifecta of voices in this film allows the thought provoking conversations to transcend the screen and enter the minds of the audience. While working through his grief, there were times that Shepherd could have gone on an anti-military or anti-American rant, but he never speaks a negative word against anyone, though he is sometimes in immense pain. Patriotism, God, and the human condition are shown and discussed in quite unconventional and maybe even controversial ways; yet, the manner in which these topics are discussed, as it relates to Shepherd’s loss, are absolutely perfect. In a seemingly binary world where you are either a red-blooded patriot or you’re anti-American, with no room for nuance or discussion, this film provides the platform to begin to realize that we are first human before we take sides.

Although I did not care for Linklater’s Boyhood, I can honestly tell you that this film is one that you don’t want to miss. Whether you are in a military family or not, this film offers a glimpse into a world that many people have to face on a daily basis. The genuine, organic approach to the hard topics in this film allows the humanity to shine through. Not speaking for ALL veterans, but the vets that were in the screening last night had high praise for the film. And the rest of us had many positive remarks and feedback for the screener hosts.

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“Passengers” movie review

passengersAn intriguing journey with lots of potential but ultimately fails to pull into the space dock. The highly anticipated visually stunning science-fiction film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt proves one thing: Pratt and Lawrence have excellent on screen chemistry and play off each other very well. With films like this one, it’s hard to know where the fault lies. Typically, a film with such potential and a powerful cast is weakened by either the writing or directing. Since the director principally works with the cast, it can be concluded that the writing lacked the drive that this film needed. On a more positive note, this film depicts deep space travel how it could likely be in the not-so-distant future. From the centrifugal force created by the rotating space craft to simulate how artificial gravity could be generated to the onboard technology to the sickbay, this film does a fantastic job of providing audiences with a science-fiction that is almost tangible. Having such a limited cast in one location can spell disaster for cinematic storytelling; but, the film is quite interesting to watch and sufficiently keeps the audience’s attention. Furthermore, the audience mostly connects with Aurora (Lawrence) and Jim (Pratt) well enough. But, the film fails to truly provide audiences with a new adventure because it amounts to a glorified Castaway set in the Disney Springs of shopping malls in outer space–just completely empty of scooters, strollers, and other park guests. Lack of surprise pretty well sums it up.

Welcome aboard The Avalon on the Homestead Company’s routine transport to Homestead II, a new earth colony. All is going well until two passengers find themselves awakened from suspended animation about 90 years too early during a cascade of ship wide malfunctions. Faced with living the rest of their respective lives on board and only the company of an AI bartender (Michael Sheen), Jim and Aurora must cope with the challenges of living together in a world that is merely 1000 meters from stem to stern. When the ship begins to increasingly malfunction and life support at risk, Jim and Aurora much solve the mystery of what originally caused the problem that began the cascade. Just as the ship is keeping a secret, there are other dark secrets on board the ship as well. Meeting with psychological, emotional, and engineering challenges, Jim and Aurora have 5000 other passengers and crew to save while maintaining their own sanity and psycho-social health.

As the movie faded to black, I began discussing it with the friends who accompanied me to the cinema last night. And we shared a mutual reaction of hmm, not exactly sure what this was or how to read it but it had some interesting components. And that pretty well covers it. The film will likely keep you entertained but with few surprises, it lacks anything to make it memorable in a positive way. Forgettable is what this movie will become in the no-so-distant future. Essentially, Passengers is what you would get if Gravity and Titanic were to have a baby. Star-crossed lovers on a ship that is self-destructing in the vacuum of space. One of the most intriguing components in the plot of the film is also highly disturbing. While love and infatuation causes many to go to great lengths in order to see desire become reality, it is a double-edged sword that can cause one to behave selfishly if not displaying signs of sociopathy. While Pratt’s performance is what is to be expected from one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood who is equally a dedicated family man, his performance is never quite on par with his Castaway counterpart. However, Lawrence delivers an intense performance as she plays off Pratt,the bartender, and The Avalon itself.

The cinematography and editing are excellent. In fact, the technical elements of the film are impressive! Not quite as groundbreaking as Gravity or Interstellar but still outstanding. There is one scene in particular that still has me puzzled as to how it was able to be achieved so flawlessly. The set design, albeit spartan, is beautifully sleek and functional. As film is a visually driven medium of storytelling, the camera often pulls in close to characters to establish intimacy but juxtaposes that against pulling back to reveal the oppressive loneliness of being alone on a massive ship in space. For a brief moment, I experienced the dread that is created in Kubrick’s The Shining when Jim meets Arthur the bartender. Interestingly, the music (composed by Thomas Newman), camera direction, dialog, blocking, an set design all work together seamlessly to establish that unparalleled sense of dread, loneliness, and self-destructive despair that are so iconic to The Shining. Unfortunately, that powerful sense of dread is lost in weak writing. Had the film embraced the potential to channel The Shining, it may have played out more memorably. But, this is a love story so the horror plot devices that could have helped the film were not integrated into the plot. Although there are may significant contributors to a film’s success, the success of a film often relies upon the direction, writing, and cast. As briefly mentioned in my opening paragraph, the director (Morten Tyldum) of a film principally works with the cast and is responsible for blocking, delivery of dialog, and perception; so, it is likely the screenplay by Jon Spaihts that is responsible for the weak story. A director and cast can work hard to makeup for a weak screenplay, but in this case, the lack of developed story showed through.

Despite sharing the screen with Aurora, this truly is Jim’s movie and others simply happen to appear in it when necessary. As a side note, I could easily see how this film could be translated into a stage production. Perhaps on stage, the story could evolve to leave more of an impact on the audience.