Friday, September 29, 2017

NYFF Spotlight: Last Flag Flying

I’m thrilled to be covering a number of selections from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, which takes place September 28th-October 15th.

Last Flag Flying
Directed by Richard Linklater
NYFF Opening Night Selection

Cranston, Carell, and Fishburne star in the film

Coming home from war is not an easy thing, and adjusting back to civilian life can be fraught with difficulty. Yet there’s also no point at which things magically return to normal and, even if they do, no point at which they’re not subject to bubble up to the surface again. The enlistment of a child in the military is one example of how everything previously forgotten can be dredged up again, and the unthinkable event of a child being killed in action is a particularly harrowing circumstance where thinking back to what it was like “over there” becomes entirely unavoidable.

Fishburne and Cranston at a press conference for the NYFF premiere

Mild-mannered Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) tracks down his old Marine buddies Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who runs a bar where he basically never stops drinking, and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who has departed from his crazy partying ways and settled down to become a reverend. Larry tells the friends he has not seen in decades that, just months after the death of this wife from cancer, his son has been killed in Iraq. Eager for companionship, especially from those who understand what he has been through, Larry asks Sal and Richard to join him as they escort the body of his son home with the help of his friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), meditating on what they did when they were at war and how it has affected them throughout the journey.

Screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, Fishburne, Cranston, Johnson, and Linklater at a press conference for the NYFF premiere

“Last Flag Flying,” despite its devastating subject matter, is a film laced with a great deal of humor. Much of that is due to the casting of three actors well known for their sitcom work. Director Richard Linklater notes that humor is important because it’s so real, and that every job anyone has ever been in has humor if looked at through the right lens. Johnson explains that humor is what makes the tragedy palatable, a way to preserve your humanity by not letting tragedy take it out of you. Cranston recalls being furious as a child at his grandfather’s wake because people were telling stories and laughing, and he now sees that people grieve in different ways. Carell and Fishburne fit their parts well, and Cranston steals the show as the hard-drinking Sal who never just wants to go with the flow. Though they’re being campaigned for it, these don’t seem much like Oscar-caliber performances, though Cranston’s turn is quite good.

Cranston at a press conference for the NYFF premiere

The quality of the performances is on par with the film as a whole, which proves highly entertaining due to the writing and the execution of the script by the actors, but isn’t an overly memorable or impactful commentary on war and its implications. Fishburne claims that there aren’t a lot of war movies about the people who are left behind after they return from service, but “The Lucky Ones” and “Handsome Harry,” just to name two that immediately come to mind, have covered this territory. Linklater was also asked about whether the American flag that adorns the coffin has special meaning now, to which he replied that his film is “so far from the ridiculousness of what’s happening with that conversation now.” This film was certainly made more quickly than Linklater’s last big hit, the epic “Boyhood,” though it does serve as a sequel of sorts to the 1973 Oscar nominee “The Last Detail” starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. Overall, this is a perfectly good film, and one that is likely do well with audiences.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Movie with Abe: Shot

Directed by Jeremy Kagan
Released September 22, 2017

If there’s one topic that’s sure to rile controversy, it’s the issue of gun control in the United States. Since most people in Hollywood tend to be liberal, films often paint a picture from one side, which is to suggest that guns in general are dangerous and their mere existence and prevalence is cause for enormous concern. This particular film chooses its title carefully, opting for an action executed with a gun rather than naming the weapon itself, and its exploration of the consequences of one simple action serves as a much better metaphor and instrumental example than as a convincing and engaging film.

Mark Newman (Noah Wyle) is a sound mixer who, in the film’s opening moments, is editing an action sequence and amplifying the sounds as each member of the onscreen posse is hit with bullets. Little does Mark know that, just hours later, he himself will be shot, struck by a stray bullet accidentally fired by Miguel (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). After an argumentative meeting with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Phoebe (Sharon Leal), Mark’s relationship with the woman who must now frantically call the police to try to save his life is irreversibly changed, as is his physical future following this unfortunate event that takes mere seconds to happen.

The film employs a split-screen technique as it stays with Mark, on the ground after being hit by a bullet he didn’t even see coming and just heard being fired, and also follows Miguel, who doesn’t know what to do after he mistakenly fires the harrowing shot. Miguel’s first instinct is to make sure that his victim is okay, but the questionable origins of the weapon and peer pressure compel him to flee the scene. It’s hard to know how anyone would react in this situation, and this film’s mission is to examine the way that this split-second transformation affects the shooter, his victim, and the closest witness.

This film’s effectiveness as a movie truly does take a backseat to its importance as a rallying cry against the widespread accessibility of guns, and the way in which even completely innocent interactions can lead to deadly, life-changing consequences. Wyle leads a cast of TV veterans, including Leal from “Supergirl,” Malcolm-Jamal Warner from “Sneaky Pete,” Xander Berkeley from “24,” Elaine Hendrix from “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,” and Joy Osmanski from “The Loop,” all of whom would be better using their talents in more prominent parts that take better advantage of their abilities. This film serves its intended purpose to attempt to inspire social change, but as a movie it’s fairly forgettable.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Movie with Abe: Elizabeth Blue

Elizabeth Blue
Directed by Vincent Sabella
Released September 22, 2017

Mental illness is a difficult struggle that’s extremely difficult to understand and relate to for those who haven’t experienced it. There is a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness, and those who suffer from it are often reluctant to publicize or admit it because of the reactions they know they will receive from others. Schizophrenia is one affliction that can be especially harrowing, since it presents hallucinations that may seem real to the experiencer, creating a distorted perception of reality that those watching it from the outside are hopeless to be able to comprehend.

Elizabeth (Anna Schafer) has been recently released from a psychiatric hospital, and is making a slow and careful reentry into normal life. Her fiancé Grant (Ryan Vincent) is her one constant, there to support her and to be by her side even when he can’t relate to what she is going through, in stark contrast to her mother (Kathleen Quinlan), whose attitude about her daughter’s state of mind has always been dismissive and condescending. Her therapist Dr. Bowman (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje) encourages her to make strides, but stresses the importance of medication and resisting the urge to be swayed by hallucinations, something that Elizabeth has trouble with as she faces her new reality head-on.

This is not the kind of film that glosses over its subject matter and attempts to paint an idyllic portrait of conquering the battle over mental illness. Instead, it is one that deals with the unglamorous and unpleasant state of not being able to have control over one’s mind. Elizabeth still functions as a human being, but she’s held back so much by the way that she knows her mind might play tricks on her, as well as a lingering dread that Grant will one day just disappear.

What makes this film particularly poignant is that director Vincent Sabella based this story on his own experiences as a schizophrenic who went through periods of his medications not working. The film’s partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a tribute to its effectiveness as a strong step in combatting stigma and exposing the way that many without a loud voice experience the world. As a film, it is involving and powerful, if not overly cinematic or especially creative. It serves its purpose well enough and should prove to be a strong and eye-opening educational tool.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Movie with Abe: Red Trees

Head over to Jewcy to read my review of "Red Trees," a new documentary about a Czechoslovakian survivor of the Holocaust out at select theaters in NY and LA today.