Friday, February 2, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: LAST FLAG FLYING (2017) and THE SQUARE (2017)

(US - 2017)

LAST FLAG FLYING, the latest film from director Richard Linklater, is a "spiritual sequel" to Hal Ashby's 1973 classic THE LAST DETAIL, the common denominator between both films being novelist and screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan (whose other credits include CINDERELLA LIBERTY, TAPS, and VISION QUEST). Ponicsan adapted his own 1970 novel The Last Detail for Ashby, and in 2005, published a sequel with Last Flag Flying, showing the same characters 30-plus years later. In adapting Flying for the screen, Ponicsan (his first screenwriting credit since 1999's RANDOM HEARTS) and Linklater changed the names of the characters and switched them from ex-Navy to ex-Marines. As a result, the non-sequel sequel LAST FLAG FLYING functions as a standalone film but anyone who knows the backstory and is a fan of THE LAST DETAIL will clearly recognize the three protagonists as the same guys several decades on. Set in 2003 in an America where the wounds of 9/11 are still open and raw, mild-mannered Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell, formerly Randy Quaid as Lawrence "Larry" Meadows) is a recent widower who's just been informed his son was killed in action in Iraq and will be buried in Arlington. A despondent Doc then seeks out two old Vietnam buddies--crass, crude bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, formerly Jack Nicholson as Billy "Badass" Buddusky) and recovering wildman alcoholic and now-devoutly religious pastor Richard "Mauler" Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, formerly Otis Young as Richard "Mule" Mulhall)--to accompany him to receive his son's body.

Along the way, they argue, bond, reminisce, bust each others' chops, and confront long-suppressed demons from Vietnam that have quietly haunted them. It starts fine but more or less plateaus once they learn that Doc's son's death didn't go down like the Marines claim and they decide to transport his body back home themselves. This results in an uneven mix of gut-wrenching drama and goofy comedy that's equal parts somber character study, GRUMPY OLD MEN, and PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES. Carell does some of his best dramatic work yet and really looks like a guy who's endured just about all he can handle after losing his wife to cancer and his son to war in quick succession, but Linklater really needed to rein in Cranston a little. A little of Cranston goes a long way here, and he's trying way too hard to emulate Jack Nicholson, not by doing a hacky Nicholson impression but by playing most of the film so broadly that his late shift from smartass to serious never rings true. Fishburne provides a nice balance to compensate for Cranston's playing to the cheap seats with his obnoxious behavior and routine invocations of "Hey, I got your (noun) danglin' right here!" bit. Cranston is a national treasure, but his work here is both broken and bad as he turns Badass Buddusky into Dumbass Sal. 93-year-old Cicely Tyson has a nice cameo as the mother of one of their other buddies who was killed in Vietnam, and LAST FLAG FLYING does display some genuine heart on occasion and shows a bit of a cynical streak in terms of the way the government and the military aren't above manufacturing fiction when it comes to telling families that a loved one has paid the ultimate price for their country, but it's kind of all over the place. Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne are great actors, but it doesn't seem like Linklater has them on the same page, and the entire film feels like it's arrived a decade too late, assuming THE LAST DETAIL needed a "spiritual sequel" in the first place. Amazon and Lionsgate gave this a big promotional push in the early fall as an awards season contender but ultimately backed off, canceling its expanded rollout and stalling it on just 110 screens at its widest release, for a gross of $965,000. Obviously they weren't feeling it either. (R, 125 mins)

(Sweden/Germany/France/US/Denmark - 2017)

"The Square" is an exhibit at a renowned Swedish art museum where a plaque declares it "a sanctuary of trust and caring," and adds "Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations." THE SQUARE is writer/director Ruben Ostlund's follow-up to his wildly overpraised FORCE MAJEURE. It was awarded the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival and is currently an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, even though a good chunk of it is in English. There's often a sense of groupthink when it comes to critical praise and it's a problem that's only gotten worse in the era of Rotten Tomatoes. In short, I can't recall the last time I've felt this disconnected from what critics are saying about a film and my reaction to it as it unfolds. The most insufferable Palme d'Or winner since UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, THE SQUARE focuses on museum curator Christian (Claes Bang, whose name is the best thing about this) and a series of distractions that begin with him being conned in the street and having his phone, wallet and cuff links lifted off of him and ends with an ill-advised marketing scheme that shows a little girl being blown up by a bomb while standing at The Square. Christian also has a one-night stand with an American TV news reporter (Elisabeth Moss) that results in a potentially messy tug-of-war with a used condom, and a black-tie museum gala flies off the rails when human exhibit Oleg Rogozjin (Terry Notary) mimics an ape, rampaging through the dining area, attacking an artist (Dominic West) and nearly sexually assaulting a woman while everyone idly watches the "art" unfold.

What does it all mean? Who knows? Who cares? Seen too late to be included on my Worst of 2017 list, THE SQUARE is the kind of movie mainstream subtitle-phobes think of when they hear someone say "It's a subtitled art film." Like the equally overrated and oppressively long TONI ERDMANN, just because something's mostly subtitled and has a couple of mildly transgressive scenes doesn't make it an instant classic. It's allegedly a comedy, though I don't recall laughing once, even at various cringeworthy situations. The much-ballyhooed tug-of-war with the condom was described by hyperventilating critics as nothing short of a brilliant, tour-de-force comedic set piece. Was it a Blake Edwards-esque display of game-changing genius that forever altered our perception of comedy? No, it was over after a couple of tugs in about ten seconds.  After watching, I looked at some reviews to try and understand what it was that I was missing, and a reviewer for Vox wrote "One moment, in which a chef hollers for a stampede of museum donors to stop moving so he can meekly tell them the buffet's offerings, is one of the funniest things I've seen in a movie." Really? Surely, you can't be serious? THE SQUARE lazily takes aim at fish-in-a-barrel targets: pretentious art exhibits (including one that's a room filled with piles of debris and a neon light flashing "You Have Nothing," and a creaking stack of chairs that seems ready to collapse at any moment), vacuous benefactors, unqualified people in charge, the Ice Bucket Challenge, the Comic Sans font, people with Tourette's, and cynical marketing strategies just to name a few. Christian is ultimately in a no-win situation after the public outcry over the terrorism-inspired marketing ploy goes viral, but he's then pilloried by purists for caving to censorship. Also, Moss' character has a large chimpanzee roommate with a moderate level of artistic talent. which is just something we're supposed to roll with because apparently it's clever and not at all stupid when there's subtitles. I'm assuming the joke here is that even a monkey can create the kind of art that's met with enthusiastic accolades by those in the scene--so wait, is Ostlund actually proving that with THE SQUARE?  Maybe the possibility exists that this whole thing is a total stunt but it speaks to Ostlund's stunning lack of focus with this aimless, tedious film that after it screened at Cannes at 142 minutes, he decided to tweak and tighten it and it ended up running nine minutes longer when he was finished. The general message is that while The Square promotes the idea of altruism and empathy among society, everyone around it is a self-absorbed hypocrite. Pretty insightful stuff. Maybe for Ostlund's next film, he can explore and deconstruct the satirical implications of poseur Von Triers and bargain-basement Bunuels and the pitfalls of believing your own hype. (R, 151 mins)

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