Month: April, 2018

Last Flag Flying

lastflagflying
Director Richard Linklater is something of an enigma within the independent film fraternity. Although not new on the scene, the American auteur consistently eschews independent cinema’s insistence on reinventing the wheel and applies the philosophy that it is what you shoot, rather than how you shoot, that maketh the movie. He is in a sense, pushing boundaries by not doing so, and his latest film Last Flag Flying epitomises the old adage of less is more. Like his award-winning Boyhood, Linklater has taken complex relationships and layered them over a simple story using a crystal-clear cinematic vocabulary. No arty camera angles, overly contemplative takes or other undue focus on the mise-en-scène. Nope, Linklater’s vision here is uncluttered, transparent, and affecting.

Set in 2002, at the time of the war in Iraq (and the onset of cellphones, which the film amusingly pays homage to), the story centres around three Vietnam veterans. Larry (Steve Carrell), a widower, has recently lost his son in the Iraq war. The internment causes tension between Larry, who wants his son buried at home, and the state who’d “prefer” to have him buried as a war hero at Arlington Cemetery.  Alone and adrift in a sea of grief, he turns to his old war buddies, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne).  The film becomes a road trip of sorts as they travel to collect the body, but it lends them time to reconnect and discover common bonds they still share despite their wildly different post-war paths. 

It is a heart-achingly tender film laced with moments of warmth and humour.  Linklater’s roomy directorial style gives all three actors ample space to spread their wings—Fishburne’s slightly stilted performance perhaps the film’s only let-down. And while Cranston’s charismatic bluster compensates, it is Carrell’s performance as a grieving father that resonates most. 

Last Flag Flying is a fine example of Directorial restraint and is a beacon among a self-indulgent film industry that appears to be losing its ability to tell an authentic story with simple grace. 

See more of my NZME reviews here.

 

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Sweet Country

sweetcountry“What chance has this country got?” So asks Sam Neill in the Sweet Country’s final moments.  Such is the film’s central theme as it examines Australia’s sordid racial past and brings its concerns into the present with a film that is as tragic as it is strikingly beautiful.

Set in the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, Sweet Country tells the story of an aboriginal farm-hand, Sam Kelly.  Working for a kind-hearted farmer Fred Smith (Sam Neill), he is “lent” to a neighbouring farmer who is new to the area and in need of an extra hand. Unfortunately, the neighbourly gesture goes sour when the new farmer proves to be an unhinged war veteran and Sam finds himself unwittingly complicit in a provoked act of deadly violence. As the local authority, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and his posse, set about hunting Sam down, Sweet Country takes the opportunity to play cute with a few western genre tropes; however it never loses sight of its charged racial commentary.

Director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) confidently struts a visual approach that avoids the temptation to use an emotive musical score.  Stylistically informed by the likes of Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) and John Maclean (Slow West), Thornton’s camera slowly, but intently, prowls the landscape with a quiet tension that heightens a sense of dread. Thornton has done a stunning job at capturing Australia’s picturesque outback and pitted its beauty against the ugliness of the denizens who run amok within.  Such is the fine line Thornton treads, that it is perhaps inevitable a few missteps have been made where aesthetics have obstructed narrative concerns; a minor quibble.

Down-under stalwarts Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are typically good, and although they provide the film’s star pulling power, the real heavy lifting is provided by its aboriginal cast, specifically Hamilton Morris who superbly encapsulates Sam Kelly’s heart-breaking anguish, fear and frustration.

Sweet Country provides little in the way of relief to its oppressive tone, but this cautionary tale is skilfully told with a brutal eloquence and should really be considered mandatory viewing. 
See more of my NZME reviews here.

Lost in Paris

 

lostinparisDominique Abel and Fiona Gordon team up once again, opening a kitbag of acting, writing and directing talents that can best be described as an “acquired taste”. Their films feel like an unwieldy blend of Mr Bean and Wes Anderson minus the comic timing or genius, and Lost in Paris is no different, with a gratuitously quirky style that renders it insufferably twee. Despite wanting to be, The Grand Budapest Hotel this is not.

Fiona (Gordon), a librarian in a sleepy Canadian town, receives a distress letter from her elderly Parisian aunt (played by the great Emmanuelle Riva … really, what were you thinking?!). Fearful of being carted off to a retirement village, Aunt Martha does a runner moments prior to Fiona arriving. Much hilarity ensues. New to Paris, Fiona stumbles upon Dom (Abel), a vagrant who falls in love and pursues her, endlessly. Much hilarity continues.  The two continue to look for Aunt Martha and stumble their way through Parisian streets, graveyards, the Eiffel Tower etc; more hilarity etc.

If you can detect a slight hint of sarcasm in my commentary, you’d be right—there is no hilarity to be had here, that is, unless your taste in humour sits within the bounds of the farcically banal. If that’s your bag then fair enough, you’ll be all over this film like a cheap suit. Because here, the inane gags line up like lemmings.

In the film’s most questionable scene, Dom’s predatory behaviour finally abates and they find common ground that leads to possibly the most unintentionally awkward sex scene in cinematic history (ok, perhaps Tommy Wiseau’s The Room takes that honour … but this is close).  The scene appears to want its audience to gush over its deft use of the filmic artifice, and giggle at its alluring charm.  Nope, not even close.

Try as I might to find some redeeming quality to Lost in Paris, a noble allegory or subtext perhaps, all I found was an impenetrable wall of whimsy too difficult to pierce. So I gave up the fight and just drifted along for the ride—that didn’t help either.
 
See more of my NZME reviews here.