Tag Archives: C

LAST FLAG FLYING

Producer: Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater and John Sloss
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Q. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vasquez, Cicely Tyson,Deanna Reed-Foster, Graham Wolfe, Jeff Monahan, Samuel Davis and Kate Easton
Studio: Lionsgate/Amazon Studios

C

Director Richard Linklater has made conventional movies before, but none quite so anonymous as “Last Flag Flying,” a follow-up of sorts to Hal Ashby’s much-lauded 1973 “The Last Detail.” Like that film, it’s based upon a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater). The book was a direct sequel to “Detail,” featuring the same three characters more than three decades later. The script changes their names, perhaps in an effort to avoid direct comparisons, which are bound to be invidious. But the alteration fails to disguise how inferior this well-meaning but pedestrian picture is to its now-unacknowledged predecessor.

That’s rather surprising since in many respects Linklater would seem a perfect choice to take up Ashby’s mantle. Like the older director, he favors a direct, unostentatious, naturalistic style that can come off as ragged but works when the material is honest. (The homely look of the picture—shot by Shane F. Kelly, with a production design by Bruce Curtis, follows that tendency as well.) Too often here, though, things ring dramatically false, and what is meant to be deeply moving is bathetic instead.

The set-up is a simple one. In 2003 meek Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell)—the successor to Meadows, the character Randy Quaid played in “Detail,” the young guy being transported to the naval prison in Portsmouth—finds his way to the run-down Norfolk, Virginia bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a cynical, sarcastic type who’s the descendent of Jack Nicholson’s Billy Buddusky. Though they haven’t seen one another in decades, Larry, or “Doc” as Sal calls him, asks Sal, who served with him in Vietnam, to accompany him to Dover Air Force Base where he’s to claim the body of his son Larry Jr., a Marine killed in Iraq and scheduled to be buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Not only does Sal agree, but together they travel to a nearby Baptist church to recruit the third member of their old crew, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne)—erstwhile Mulhall—in the mission. Mueller, who was known during his time in the service as “Mauler,” is now a pastor, and reluctant to go along until his wife Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster) insists: the fact that Larry also recently lost his wife to cancer only adds to his pathetic quality.

So the trio set off for Dover, where they meet Larry Jr.’s best friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) and learn the true circumstances of the boy’s death—which are a bit different from the tale of valiant combat offered by attending officer Col. Willits (Yul Vazquez). The news disturbs Doc, and he decides, against Willits’ advice, to transport his son’s coffin back to Portsmouth for a civilian burial. And of course he’ll be accompanied by Sal, Richard and Washington.

So in essence this is a road movie, and an extremely talky one at that. (Actually, it could have been substantially shortened if Sal weren’t constantly introducing a new colloquy with one of the other characters by saying, “Can I ask you a question?” and then doing so. It’s a crutch so frequently resorted to in order to raise a new subject or recollection that you grow very tired of it; too bad editor Sandra Adair was unable to finesse the transitions better.)

That’s especially the case because Cranston offers what is essentially a one-note performance as Nealon. There’s very little shading to his turn, which comes off as particularly weak when compared to Nicholson in “Detail.” Carell, following his extrovert imitation of tennis provocateur Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes,” goes the opposite route here, playing Shepherd as such a shy, recessive guy that he practically disappears. Fishburne exudes his usual stabilizing force, but his character is a pretty pallid one.

And what, ultimately, is “Last Flag Flying” about? It’s about these three old comrades-in-arms finally coming to terms with an episode from their past—involving a recreational use of drugs that made it impossible for them to alleviate the pain of a wounded friend—about which they’ve all felt guilt over the years. That leads to one of the various impromptu detours they undertake during their trip—a visit to the frail mother of their long-dead buddy, played affectingly by Cicely Tyson. There’s an ironic conclusion to the visit in that the story they tell her isn’t unlike what Col. Willits had told Shepherd about the death of his son—both are basically well-intended fabrications. But the screenplay doesn’t do much with the comparison.

That’s surprising, though, since otherwise the script goes pretty consistently for the obvious. The result, despite the starriness of the cast and the presence of Linklater, is an undoubtedly sincere but mediocre paean to military comradeship.

HAPPY DEATH DAY

Producer: Jason Blum
Director: Christopher B. Landon
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Laura Clifton, Jason Bayle and Blaine Kern III
Studio: Universal Pictures

C

The repetitive template of “Groundhog Day” has been used in teen movies before, recently in the maudlin YA thriller “Before I Fall,” where it proved not to work at all. It’s somewhat more successfully employed in this horror comedy, because of the knowing winks it makes toward the audience, from the stop-and-start Universal logo at the beginning to the allusion to the Bill Murray comedy at the end—but the movie is neither scary nor funny enough to survive even to Halloween.

The affected party is Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a hard-as-nails sorority girl who wakes up one morning—her birthday, as it happens—in the dorm room of cute freshman Carter Davis (Israel Broussard). She doesn’t remember how she got there, having had a party night that left her blotto, but all she wants is to get back to the room she shares with sweet Lori (Ruby Modine), a medical student, in the house run by demanding sorority head Danielle (Rachel Matthews). To get there she walks imperially across campus, encountering fellow students along the way engaged in activities designed to reappear, with slight changes, in future iterations.

Once back, Tree rushes off to class with Dr. Butler (Charles Aitken), a married man with whom she’s having an affair. That night Tree is off to another party when she finds a birthday toy in a campus tunnel. More importantly, she’s accosted by someone in silly mask that appears to have some meaning to the students of Bayfield College, who kills her with a knife.

Thereupon, she wakes up in Carter’s room again, and it’s her birthday once more. She goes through the same routine she’s experienced before—with some minor changes—befuddled and a bit scared. And once again she’s killed by that masked figure at the end of it, though in a different place.

That triggers a return to Carter’s room, again on the morning of her birthday. This continues repeatedly, with the day’s scenario getting increasingly confused and Tree’s nasty personality gradually mellowing, especially toward Carter, who believes her crazy story and tries to help. The introduction of mad killer Joseph Tombs (Rob Mellow) to the mix leads to some fast action on Tree’s part not only to elude being killed yet again but also to trying to identify the killer while ensuring that others aren’t hurt.

Scott Lobdell’s script doesn’t follow the “Groundhog” paradigm all that closely, using it merely for a sort of theme-and-variations approach instead, as Tree’s day changes pretty radically from one iteration to the next. And when it finally offers a revelation of who the would-be killer is, it does so with a combination of action and comedy that, unfortunately, falls flatter than the villain’s smash-up on a sidewalk after a fall from a third-story window.

The movie is spiffier than most of today’s teen-based horror flicks—director Christopher Landon keeps things moving for the most part (though Tree’s initial encounter with the masked killer is dragged out overmuch)—and it avoids the excess of blood and gore that is so commonplace nowadays, leaving things to the imagination more often than not (as in the killing of a frat boy named Nick, played by Blaine Kern III, at one point). It also has a couple of agreeable leads in Rothe, who morphs from mean girl to sweet girl pretty well, and Broussard, who’s handsome enough to make his initial dismissal as a dweeb totally implausible. And Matthews proves an adept comedienne, making Danielle a doofus dictator whose attempts to turn every moment to her advantage are only a little less overbearing than what we saw in “Scream Queens.”

The picture is unusually bright and polished for a Blumhouse production, with Toby Oliver’s cinematography and Gregory Plotkin’s editing both solid. “Happy Death Day” is better than most movies of its kind, but better is just not good enough.