Tuesday , November 21 2017

In ‘Flying’ anti-war tale told again – ‘Ragnarok’ takes Thor to funny heights

In this era of rampant sequelizing, has any filmmaker more playfully inverted the standard more-of-the-same monotony than Richard Linklater?

His Oscar-nominated “Boyhood” was, if nothing else, a compendium of life’s chapters, filmed — and lived — year after year. His “Before” trilogy reteamed Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, every nine years, for strolling encounters that compressed and marveled at the passage of time. His last film, “Everybody Wants Some!!” was billed as a “spiritual sequel” to Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” — a college movie to bookend a high school one.

In Linklater Land, nothing is ever “rebooted.” The ripples of time are interesting enough, just as they are.

But Linklater’s latest, “Last Flag Flying,” is a still more unorthodox kind of sequel. It’s a kind of follow-up to Hal Ashby’s great 1973 film “The Last Detail,” in which two petty officers (Otis Young and a young, blistering Jack Nicholson) who are transporting a naive 18-year-old soldier (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Virginia, to the brig in New Hampshire, where he’s been sentenced to serve eight years for attempting to steal $40 from a charity box.

Ashby’s film was a real-time odyssey, glorious in its fiery expletives (courtesy of screenwriter Robert Towne) and seething in its outrage. As a film, it’s still alive, and Nicholson’s cackle still echoes.

“Last Flag Flying” is a journey mapped over the same terrain, but the central trio are now well into middle age and their reason for reunion, three decades later, is more melancholy still. Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell, in a version of Quaid’s character) gathers together his old Vietnam War buddies — Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, the Nicholson-esque, anti-authoritarian rabble-rouser of the bunch) and Rev Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, whose character draws partly from Young’s real life) — to bury his son, a Marine killed in Iraq.

The source of the tale is author Darryl Ponicsan’s 2003 novel, which was a direct sequel to his 1970 book, the one Ashby and Towne turned into a film. But Linklater’s film has severed some of those ties, changing the characters names and slightly shifting their background while still maintaining much of the connective tissue to “The Last Detail.” It is, in some sense, another “spiritual sequel.”

Why distance “Last Flag Flying” from “The Last Detail”? Well, not everyone is so familiar with Ashby’s film, and perhaps more to the point: Filling the shoes of Nicholson is a fool’s game, if ever there was one.

But while the film’s gentle, rolling humanism is indeed its own, “The Last Detail” stands like an unspoken island around which the movie flows. The balance of trio is off, too. Cranston, a very gifted performer, is acting like a funny live-wire while Nicholson simply was one. Carell, who can render innocence as well as anyone, gives a performance that feels hollowed out by its grieving solemnity. Fishburne, never one unsure of his footing, alone feels in the right place.

Missing

And while “Last Flag Flying” is missing the edge of Towne’s dialogue, it’s a deeply thoughtful film about how so much changes (in one scene the guys buy cell phones, marveling at the invention) while so much stays the same. It might be 30 years later, but time hasn’t altered the injustice for the foot soldiers enlisted to fight ill-conceived wars. When the guys arrive in Washington to see the body of Doc’s son, they soon find themselves disagreeing with a hardline Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez) who disapproves of Doc’s decision to bury his son at home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, instead of at Arlington National Cemetery. The colonel and his tone are, to Sal, exceedingly familiar.

There are scenes here that pulsate with anti-war passion, sometimes a little too obviously, sometimes effectively. But despite its flaws, the film gathers an honest force as it burrows deeper into its characters as the group (along with a current Marine played by a memorable J. Quinton Johnson) makes its way up the coast. It’s a trip that glimmers with both mournful reflection on the human cost of war and the abiding camaraderie among soldiers.

That “Last Flag Flying” is a sequel, with future installments sure to come, is the point. Times change. New wars are fought. The same kids pay the price.

“Last Flag Flying,” an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout including some sexual references.” Running time: 124 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

 

In the stand-alone films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The Thor films were never as popular as Iron Man, and didn’t gain steam like Captain America. They were perhaps a little too serious and a little too dull — none of which was the fault of star Chris Hemsworth, whose performances in the role have been so seamless and charming that he almost doesn’t get enough credit.

But “Thor: Ragnarok” has been touted as a different take on the Leader of Thunder. Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Co signed up a voice-y director in New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, whose riotous vampire mockumentary “What We Do In The Shadows” displayed a unique comedic sensibility. They took away Thor’s hammer, gave him a haircut, added some Led Zeppelin and told the set designer the more neon rainbows the better.

The results are pretty decent, though perhaps not the total departure that had been hyped.

The bones of the story are preposterous as ever. It turns out Thor has a long lost older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who appears to have shot for about two hours) locked away because she was so dangerous. An event happens that releases Hela to the world. She’s really strong, like stronger than Thor strong, and really angry and basically punches Thor into another dimension and she heads off to Asgard to take the throne.

The movie literally splits in two at this point. Poor Blanchett, who has gone full vamp as Hela, is good as always but how lame it must be to be in the “fun” Thor movie and have to play one of the most blandly written villains ever. While she’s off waging her deathly serious takeover, Thor gets to join an irreverent comedy sideshow on the planet Sakaar — a sort of wasteland at the end of the universe run by a Grade-A weirdo who calls himself Grandmaster, played, fittingly, by Jeff Goldblum.

It’s this section that is pretty amusing and where Waititi’s irreverence really gets to shine with pratfalls and witty writing. It’s no surprise that this is right up Goldblum’s alley, but the real delight is Hemsworth who knows just how to subvert the Thor character without turning him into a total mockery. He’s a real comedic talent, which audiences got a taste of in “Ghostbusters.” And Tessa Thompson is fantastic as Valkyrie, a  fighter with a secret past she’d rather forget. (AP)

I imagine “Thor: Ragnarok” is one that might improve on subsequent viewings, when you have a chance to relax with the jokes divorced from the pressure of juggling the silly/serious plot. But it’s a fairly flawed movie on the whole with egregious tonal shifts. Some of the gags go on too long with the Hulk with too little payoff and sometimes it seems as though there’s a mandate that every 25 minutes there will be a big fight no matter what. One particular army of the dead sequence seemed like it could have been lifted from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — which is not the most flattering comparison.

While Waititi’s energy and wit is apparent in the film, it still feels as though he had to operate from the same Marvel “base flavor” and was allowed on occasion to sprinkle a few of his own original toppings on.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the most fun of the Thor movies by a long shot, but it is still very much a Thor movie for better or worse.

“Thor,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” Running time: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four. (AP)

By Jake Coyle

 

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