Last Flag Flying [2017] – A Predictable yet an Endearing Journey of Middle-Aged War Veterans

What makes Richard Linklater’s movies great are the flashes of nuanced, understated & unforeseen truths bestowed upon viewers, which could be easily mistaken as canonical babbling of the grown-ups. The indie film-maker’s latest feature Last Flag Flying (2017) does retain the casually profound reflective mentality and tragicomic tone to instantly forge an emotional connection. At the same time, the final product seems a little heavy-handed and unrestrained, compared to Linklater’s other masterful intimate epics. The problem is more with the familiarity of its subject matter than with Linklater’s intuitive directorial approach. Yet Last Flag Flying is definitely engages us throughout its running time, thanks to superb central performances from Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne.

Last Flag Flying is based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2004 novel of the same name, which is a sort of sequel to the author’s 1970 novel The Last Detail (it was adapted to screen by Hal Ashby in 1973). Set in 2003, the story follows three Vietnam War veterans making an unexpectedly meditative journey across atrophied post-9/11 American landscape. The Last Detail was about two U.S. Navy sailors escorting a shy, young sailor to military prison. Linklater’s movie returns to some of the emotional terrain broached by the 1973 movie, although Ashby’s movie possessed a more profound atmosphere of bleakness. Of course, it isn’t compulsory to watch The Last Detail to understand the emotional dimensions of Linklater’s movie (Linklater has given the characters different names and slightly altered their backstories). Last Flag Flying works perfectly as a stand-alone feature and if I need to point out one area in which it excels like Ashby’s movie, then it must lie in shrewd establishment of emotional dynamics between the three principal characters.

Since the time Darryl Ponicsan wrote this book in 2004, there has been steady stream of films that ingeniously dealt with Iraq war from the home-front perspective. Of course, dangerous propagandist works like American Sniper, Lone Survivor continues to be made for every genuinely painful features like In the Valley of Elah or The Messenger. Linklater’s adaptation is definitely a somber work that addresses agonizing emotions which haunts individuals existing miles apart from the sandy battlefields, without sanitizing or misleading the nature of this particular war.  Nevertheless, despite the director’s minimalist streak, the very familiar narrative makes the movie too simplistic and flaccid. The screen adaptation may have more resonant if it was made a decade or so earlier. Last Flag Flying opens in 2003, in a crowd-less seedy bar, situated in the run-down part of Norfolk, Virginia. Shy widower and former Navy medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) shows up unannounced at the bar owned by happy-go-lucky boozer Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). Sal is Doc’s old Marine buddy and together they go to visit another Marine buddy Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), an erstwhile wild guy who is now a pious pastor.

There’s a reason for Doc reaching out his old buddies after all these years: he needs their company to travel and receive his dead son, Larry Jr.’ coffin.  Doc’s only son was also a marine, killed in action in Iraq. He is to be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. However, after arriving at the destination and confronting the military outfit’s dishonest behavior, Doc has a change of heart and decides to bury his son back home in New Hampshire. The rest of the narrative is about the three middle-aged men’s roundabout journey – who are also accompanied by Charlie Washington (J.Quinton Johnson), a young lance corporal and Larry Jr’s best friend – which is embellished with philosophizing or soliloquizing vignettes. There are also the boisterous, Linklater-esque scenarios of uncynical male bonding.

Last Flag Flying doesn’t exactly feels outdated as its reverential attitude towards the courage & patriotism of troops and ambivalent attitude towards the corrupt establishment that sends citizens into battle is expressed in a solid manner. But compared to the unfeigned, realist works of Linklater, this one feels wholly schematic and awkwardly self-conscious. Themes are overtly spelled out or dissected, and the usually organic Linklater-esque conversational flow mostly ends up as contrived sermons. It may be deliberate and Last Flag Flying might be the most mainstream work after the director’s 2003 comedy The School of Rock (which I very much enjoyed). However, the problem with this film is not just the conventional story-line, but also the lesser developed characters and overtly dramatized conflicts. Barring few powerfully written scenes, the three central characters never hits the transcendent note that turns them into real people (especially the proceedings doesn’t get deep into the head of Doc). It is true that Carrell’s amiable presence, Cranston’s enjoyable hysterics, and Fishburne’s laconic resolve (and their bromance) keeps us engaged throughout, but the characters doesn’t exactly stay with or haunt us after the denouement. The arguments over buying mobile phones or the discussion of generational schema provides some incidental pleasures, although what I earnestly hoped for is quietly shattering drama. On the whole, Last Flag Flying (125 minutes) couldn’t be dismissed as a bad movie, even though it is strictly conventional and slightly bland. While, it’s not the subtlest Richard Linklater movie, it’s still undeniably watchable. 

Barry [2018--] – A Pitch-Black Comedy about a Self-Deluded Hitman

Bill Hader plays Barry Berkman, a professional hitman, who in the series’ opening scene stands over a corpse, lying in the bed with a bullet to the head. But, make no mistake this splendid new HBO series has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, the comedy being mostly wry and dark. HBO’s half-hour eight episode series Barry (2018--) commits to a bold, if not a very familiar, premise: an anti-hero desiring to renew his identity. The catch is he seeks the change out of boredom, not wholly due to feelings of remorse or fear. Hence, similar to all the anti-heroes of good TV, Barry’s self-deception and malevolence only escalates alongside the manner he impetuously clings to his newfound dreams and passion.

Bill Hader with his slack face and big lifeless eyes (who co-created the series with Alec Berg) is a perfect fit for Barry, a former Marine now working as a contract killer. Under his handler/father figure Fuches’ (Stephen Root) orders, Barry expertly does each hit. He has numbed himself to do the job, but lately Barry is depressed. Despite insisting upon the irreparable damage he does, in the name of killing, show creators Hader and Berg primarily makes us sympathize with the guy. If we could brush aside Barry’s choice of profession, then his effort to overcome depression, to find new purpose and passion in life would resonant with us directionless souls seeking respite anywhere. But of course, it’s hard to avert the focus from his life of crime and accordingly our slight affection for the anti-hero is constantly put to test.

Fuches sends Barry to L.A. to decompress as well as make an easy hit for the Chechen mob. Once in L.A., Barry pursues his mark Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore) to an acting class, helmed by an old failed-actor/acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). Barry the fish-out-of-water is easily swept away by Cousineau’s extolment of live theater and his starry-eyed wanna-be actors. Post-class, Barry drinks with Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a flighty woman striving to catch her break, who ostensibly becomes Barry’s love interest. Barry’s an awful actor, but he sees the medium as a better way to channel his anxiety, rage, and love, feelings he didn’t know he still has. The assassin hopes to balance his criminal life with the burgeoning love for Sally and acting. But when Ryan’s hit goes wrong, Barry finds himself at odds with Chechen crime boss Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) and his sidekick Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a criminal outfit full of oddballs. Meanwhile, the series of gang-related murders attracts the attention of the police, particularly the no-nonsense Detective Moss (Paula Newsome), who traces back the leads to Cousineau’s acting class.

Hader and Berg’s writing is marked by a style of absurdist comedy. They initially frame many of the characters as goofy or buffoonish. Gene Cousineau, Fuches, and Sally in the earlier episodes simply come across as eccentrics, but gradually the characters become distinct personalities as their own desperation and desire comes to the surface. “Do not fucking tell me what I am”, a character screams, which forebodes the different facets of the supporting characters. Each of them reveals real emotions unanticipated for their roles, placing them away from conventionality (Sally, played with gusto by Goldberg, is equally heartbreaking and annoying when she’s single-mindedly driven by her ambition). Even Gene and detective Moss’ hilarious courtship begins in a farcical note, but the creators slowly squeeze out genuine warm feelings. Both the members of Chechen and Bolivian gang pretty much remain as caricatures, but their ability to play for laughs without understating their characters’ cutthroat attitude keeps those portions deliciously entertaining . Carrigan and Fleschler are exceptionally good as they keep on bumbling through comedy of errors.

In spite of the quirky, dreamlike quality 'Barry' is punctuated with extreme violence. And the violence become less sporadic and more horrific as our awkward hit man gets entrapped within his self-delusion. What the decidedly unambitious Barry dreams of is being a family man, leading a boring life in the suburbs. He wants the perfectly banal American dream with all its idealized version of happiness. In the couple of early episodes, Barry’s shared humanity, loneliness, and passion took him close to an appealing figure; where he almost convinces us that the past is just ‘water under the bridge’. The intriguing narrative through line is Barry’s longing to leave his past reprehensible actions behind. However, the later episodes crisply present the unraveling although Barry, embracing the delusional beliefs, still thinks of himself as the good, decent guy. In fact, he is most dangerous than the villainous alpha-males portrayed on-screen. The manner with which Barry sees himself in the character of Macbeth (without ever feeling the guilt or remorse of Shakespearean characters) tells a lot about his line of thoughts. Unlike the lone assassin who killed for money, the allegedly reborn Barry doesn’t want to hurt people. At the same time, he doesn’t want his unsavory past to catch up and hurt him. Hence his current sociopathic exploits are loaded with new sets of reason.

‘Barry’ also balances the satire on the vapid, narcissistic life-style of Hollywood or L.A. theater culture with the noir tendencies. I loved the way the first season ended. Half-way into the final episode, we feel it’s all too good to be true. Then the fascinating twist arrives. As the visibly-shaken Barry finally crawls into bed next to his girlfriend Sally, and says to himself, “Starting n….”, before the screen fades to black, it felt like a perfect, dark ending. But since HBO has picked it for another season, it would be interesting to see Hader and Berg’s long-term vision for the character. The direction by Bill Hader is unshowy but impactful and efficient. The couple of episodes directed by Hiro Murai (‘Atlanta’) brings up the series most imaginatively rendered set-pieces (particularly the ‘bum rush’ sequence). ‘Barry’ isn’t without flaws. A good number of plot developments repeatedly defy logic (especially the unbelievably uncompetitive investigation of the police). Some of the characters are cooked-up to serve the series’ convoluted narrative mechanisms: for example, the inclusion of Barry’s military friend Chris. The acting class members are defined by their quirkiness and as the show progresses they are simply treated as props (D’Arcy Carden of ‘The Good Place’ fame is wasted in a thankless role). 



Barry (2018--) assuredly walks a tightrope between absurd flourishes of dark comedy and deepening sense of tragedy. It takes our unwavering fixation for TV bad guys to entirely new levels. 

A Fantastic Woman [2017] – A Well-Intentioned yet a Slightly Superficial Take on the Tribulations of a Transgender Woman

It is no wonder considering the awkward politics of Oscars that Chilean film-maker Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman ('Una Mujer Fantastica', 2017) won the ‘Best Foreign Film’ award. Its victory has got much to do with it being considered as a ‘narrative about a trans woman’. That is particularly ironic, considering the movie’s underlying themes. However, it would only be shocking to expect something different from the maddeningly politically correct Academy Awards. By making us and the movie’s protagonist see her image in mirrors at different occasions in the narrative, Mr. Lelio repeatedly insists on how the society’s definition of a person is often at odds with one’s own self-definition. It tries to say, ‘she is who she is’, and any methods to pigeon-hole her in the name of identity is an unnecessary infliction. Of course, few narrative decisions itself somehow reduces the complex individual qualities to pave way for transgender feminist flag-bearing. Moreover, the plotting isn’t its superior quality and despite the vibrant, indelible performance from Daniela Vega, the scripting never makes it a richer, profound exploration of the trans experience. A Fantastic Woman does boast a lot of gratifying qualities, but personally, I felt the other films in the Oscar shortlist were more deserving of the award.  

A Fantastic Woman opens in an elegant and tender manner. It starts with an intriguing misdirection, as we witness the routine activities of a sophisticated middle-aged man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Lelio’s camera traces the guy’s movements from a sauna to a hotel, office, and then a night club. At the club, Orlando fixes his gaze upon a singer named Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), and later we see the two celebrating her birthday with a musical cake at a Chinese restaurant. He is in his 50s, and she in her late 20s, but it’s clear they are enchanted by each other, the latest encounter is just part of long succession of loving get-togethers. After dinner, they are together in his apartment, with Marina looking forward to move in soon. Alas, Orlando collapses, falls down long flight of stairs, and dies soon after entering the hospital with the doctor clearly pronouncing ‘aneurysm’ as the cause. Up to this point, we have simply perceived committed relationship between two caring individuals. But it changes with Orlando’s death.

Now Marina’s trans identity is called into question. After announcing the fate of Orlando to his gentle brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), Marina tries to make herself scarce. She knows the attitudes of deceased man’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) and her eldest son, Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra), and their combined disgust for Orlando’s new relationship. Director Lelio doesn’t cook a mystery out of Orlando’s death. But Marina’s gender identity and sudden disappearance from the hospital instantly attracts the attention of local authorities, who are alleged to have been provoked by the scornful family members of Orlando. A police officer asks for her name, and when she says ‘Marina’, he asks again for her ‘real name’. The acts of misgendering or misidentifying her continues in both overt, aggressive ways or in very subtle manner. A female detective reassures Marina that she has sympathy for battered, humiliated individuals like her, but remains suspicious about the bruises Orlando got from falling down the stairs. Just to rule out the possibility of foul play, Marina is subjugated to consent to a humiliating examination. While all Marina wants is to process her grief and figure out life, her body and identity becomes an object of intrigue for others. Although she is often stripped off her dignity, Marina refuses to quietly relegate herself to a corner. She quietly exercises defiance to say final goodbye to her loved one.

A Fantastic Woman mostly comes across as a marriage in themes and styles of prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Spanish auteur Pedro Almodvar. Be it the symbolical mirror compositions or the striking moment of fantasies (especially the shot of Marina trudging through a windy street), Lelio tries to embeds tasteful melodrama and sentimentalism of those two legendary directors (even though Lelio’s film lacks the edgy, intricate structure found in the works of Fassbinder). Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza’s script fixates on protagonist at her most intimate moments, but never really gets into her consciousness. By pitting her almost as a lone crusader in the later portions, the complexities of Marina vanishes and is simply turned into a impassive conduit for exhibiting idealistic intentions. Focusing on the marginalized or ostracized character is really not same as deeply offering a portrait of her character. It becomes a character-driven narrative, where the character is just watched, accompanied by certain on-the-nose symbolism. Even if the narrative is only about social stigmatization of Marina, the series of troubles she encounters doesn’t seem complex on the whole. Leilo and Maza’s writing does hit stronger tones in the confrontational scene between Marina and Orlando’s ex-wife. She tries to make sense out of her deceased, ex-husband’s relationship, but little into the conversation, we see her brutal honesty making itself visible. “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” she tells Marina, further adding that she thought Orlando was just ‘perverted’ to choose Marina. Lelio brings out the general contempt trans people are subjected to without overly villianizing or caricaturing the ex-wife character.

Since Marina’s body is oft prodded or commented upon as if it’s an object, Lelio focuses on how she navigates through the consciously gendered spaces. There aren’t many dramatic visual flourishes, but there’s quiet power in the way camera conveys her looks of loss and challenge. I specifically the visually seductive scene, set in the sauna, when Marina expects to discover some missing link to duly process her grief. Finally, if there’s a reason that makes A Fantastic Woman, a must watch it is Daniela Vega’s ultra-nuanced approach in playing Marina. By making a trans actor like Vega enact the central role, we are spared from the irritating details of how so & so famous male or female actor mentally and physically prepared themselves to assume the role. Vega doesn’t go for big emotions. Her restraint and casual dismissal of other’s disdain looks very natural, as if the life time of ostracism and wrongful sort of attention has imprinted such qualities. Even when the narrative feels like a rhetoric, designed to superficially promote blunt social messages of tolerance, Vega’s towering presence makes it inherently worthwhile to watch. Moreover, one could hope that the actor’s intensity would open the possibility for making of more profound features on transgender experience than Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. 

The Sun in a Net [1962] – An Unconventional & Ingenious Character and Social Study

The 1960s was truly the golden era of Czechoslovakian cinema. Slovak film-makers and their counterparts from Czech worked in tandem to create a unique, artistically evolved aesthetics that well rivaled the novelty of French New Wave cinema.  Stirred by the then Czechoslovak communist government’s mild relaxation on the mandated censorship rules, the film-makers produced unflinchingly honest and stylistically radical works that meticulously captured the country’s social and political turmoil. While the Czechoslovak New Wave (although most often ‘Slovak’ is truncated while mentioning this cinematic movement, making it ‘Czech New Wave’) was officially dated from the feature-film debuts of Vera Chytilova, Milos Forman, Jaromil Jires, and Jan Nemec, it should be acknowledged that a pivotal Slovak film have served at the vanguard of Czechoslovak cinematic maturation. The film is Stefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net aka Sunshine Caught in a Net (Slnko v sieti, 1962), which is considered as one of the ten best films made in former Czechoslovakia. Stefan Uher’s formal innovations and themes scrutinizing conformity and liberation were reflected in many of the later well-known works of the Czechoslovak New Wave (all the Czech and Slovak directors of the era were united by their strong emphasis on inventive visuals).

Based on Slovak author/screenwriter Alfonz Bednar’s short stories (which he himself adapted), The Sun in a Net unfurls over one long hot summer, and follows the troubled lives of two Bratislavian teenagers. Although the plot-line may sound like a typical coming-of-age story, its visual poetry repleted with dazzling camera angles makes it a deep and universally apprehensible contemplation of memory, entrapment, freedom, and identity. Of course, like many of the Czechoslovak movies of the 60s, there are layers of social edginess in the narrative which could be better interpreted by discerning the repressive nature of the Czechoslovak state. Nevertheless, the narrative’s inherent truthfulness in observing the teenagers’ emotions and its existential chatter provides a pleasurable movie experience even for those uninitiated with this particular film movement.

Up until the DVD release in 2013, The Sun in a Net was long ignored in the aftermath of the snuffed-out Prague Spring of 1968. Now its social realist themes attract comparisons with Neorealist movement (for employing on-location shooting and non-actors). The subtle emotional layers plus the gorgeous monochrome cinematography (by Stanislav Szomolanyi) are associated with Truffaut’s masterpiece ‘400 Blows’ (1959). Furthermore, Stefan Uher’s treatment of the landscape, layered sound design, and accumulation of the metaphors are frequently compared with Michelangelo Antonoini’s earlier works (particularly ‘L’Avventura’).  The narrative centers on the 15 year old teenager Oldrich Fajtak, nicknamed Fajolo (Marian Bielik), and his relationship with blonde-haired girlfriend Bela (Jana Belakova). Listening to the transistor radio hanging by one of the densely situated TV aerials, the couple meets on the rooftop of their drab apartment block in Bratislava. When their relationship is stymied by a mild crisis, Fajolo enrolls in a work brigade (on his father’s insistence) on a rural collective farm. During this separation, both Fajolo and Bela find new partners.

Bela connects with pesky womanizer Peto (Lubon Roman), to whom she reads Fajolo’s lyrical letters. Fajolo undergoes sexual initiation at the badly run collectivized farm after meeting promiscuous fellow worker Jana (Olga Salagova). Besides this story of teenage love, Bednar and Uher also examine their parents’ world.  Fajolo’s mother and father are largely unseen. His mother is always at work, often providing (off-screen) instructions about the meals she leaves in the fridge. Fajolo’s father talks (off-screen) about securing ‘reputation’ through the enrollment in summer farm camp. Bela’s visually-challenged mother (Eliska Nosalova) however features a pivotal role, who is seen as a burden on her family. The mother, who is said to be blinded by food poisoning, solely depends on her children (Bela has a younger brother) to construct her new world view. But they deliberately mislead her, out of frustration and love. Bela’s father is a philanderer, who like Fajolo’s parents is never seen interacting with the younger generation.

The film’s foremost strength lies in its singular poetic approach. Stefan Uher opens the narrative with characters anticipating a rare solar eclipse. The sun and the eclipse easily signals the narrative’s range of polarizing themes: sight (light) and blindness (dark); life and death; serene rural atmospherics and dismal urban streets; love and feelings of entrapment. Throughout the story, Stefan Uher offers rich, complex layers of symbols and metaphors, which naturally couldn’t be fully interpreted in single viewing. Fajolo is characterized as a talented amateur photographer, who is obsessively interested in capturing the expressive power of one’s hands. Fajolo’s quest to photograph the hands mirrors the director’s own investment to meditate upon the truth of his world through the lens of a camera. The most alluring characterization aspect is that of Bela’s mother, whose blindness offers complex interpretative symbols for the viewers to contemplate (she is often framed within mirror reflections, showcasing her entrapped self). The mother marked by her solitude, helplessness, depression, and living in a world she can no more understand stands as the movie’s most tragic figure.

While Bela’s blind mother forms a wrong picture of the world by seeing it through others’ false vision, the whole narrative suggests the myriad of ways each character sees the world. The panes of smoked glass used to view the solar eclipse, the camera Fajolo uses to gratify his artistic pursuit, and even the glimpse of white sun caught in a fisherman’s wide net fascinatingly riffs on the means that obstructs and enlightens our view of the world. Alfonz Bednar’s script is an amalgamation of his three short stories. Hence the narrative is full of formally splendid vignettes that cross-cuts parallel themes through ambiguous use of symbolism. However, the movie never feels disjointed due to director Uher’s use of impressionistic effects and also because of the firmly established sense of time and place. The deft geometrical compositions of post-war Bratislava, the poetic imagery of fisherman’s pontoon at the Danube River, and the free-flowing shots of rural Melanany serve as key location in this land of contrasts, which over the narrative length remains as fascinating as the human characters.

Uher exhibits a keen eye in exploring the joys & sorrows of coming-of-age as well as in dealing with social problems sans old-fashioned didacticism. The film embraces the troubles and complaints of teenagers in 60s Bratislava that’s still universally relevant. When it comes to observing the problems of collective farm and constructive aspect of the ‘voluntary’ work camp, Uher does it in a very objective and mature manner. The tension between elderly peasants and disdained work brigades is treated in a nuanced fashion. Altogether, The Sun in a Net (90 minutes) was unique for its time (and still feels surprisingly fresh) which undoubtedly set the standard for the extraordinary Czech and Slovak films of the 1960s. Like the subsequent classics of Czechoslovak New Wave, it works on multiple levels: spiritual, physical, ideological, and moral.