Last Flag Flying (2017, Richard Linklater)

NYC

Richard Linklater has cultivated a career based on two slightly clashing recurring interests: continual experimentation with the passing of time on film, and a love for the outsider and wanderer. As a result, Last Flag Flying is something of an anomaly because of its deceptively straightforward nature in the context of his oeuvre. A spiritual to Hal Ashby’s seminal The Last Detail co-written by the original novelist, the movie is at first glance a standard Iraq War drama. But this is first-and-foremost a Richard Linklater film, and through the lengthy, considered conversations that form its backbone the catharsis is generated naturally and truthfully.

I should note at this point that I haven’t seen the ostensible predecessor to Last Flag Flying, and while there are many seeming allusions to events that would logically have happened in The Last Detail, most of the references are apparently fashioned for the film or the novel it’s based on, and not the prior sources: the character names have been changed, their military branch has been altered from the Navy to the Marines, etc.

restaurant

Suffice it to say, then, that Last Flag Flying is a film founded upon memory, and indeed the film itself has the semblance of memory. Set in December 2003, at the height of the Iraq War, it follows three former Marines – Sal (Bryan Cranston), Larry (Steve Carell), and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) – as they journey together to bury Larry’s only son, who has been killed in combat. Along the way, Larry Jr.’s death is revealed to be in considerably more ignoble circumstances than officially stated, setting in a strong anti-government, and, indeed, an anti-war streak that characterizes much of the second half, as the men decide to bury the soldier at home rather than at Arlington.

But Last Flag Flying is, first and foremost, a film wholly dedicated to its characters, to the point of being almost hermetically sealed into the bubble of three, maybe four characters. Their personalities, and the performances that guide them, run the gamut: Sal is a hard-drinking bar owner with a plate in his head, constantly provoking and bragging; Larry, slightly younger and less committed to the military than his friends is immensely quiet and recessive; Richard, formerly a legend with the bottle and the women, is now a committed Baptist pastor. The three meld surprisingly well, a testament to both their easy-going, never too insistent lines of patter and Linklater’s ability to juggle a variety of running “subplots” while retaining an essential subject of camaraderie.

Last Flag Flying is what might be called a film for old men, with its frequent evocations of the brotherhood of the military, the obsession with duty, if not a source of rampant jingoism – Larry’s quiet pain is compared with Saddam Hussein’s capture and the death of his own sons, and he holds no small amount of sympathy for the despot. This last detail, in conjunction with the odd fascination that Sal holds with the burgeoning Internet and cellular phones, points to something vital to the film: it couldn’t have been made at the time in which it is set. Much of the sadness and soberness, especially that which is barely masked in Sal’s character, comes from the retrospective look that cools many of the flaming passions that might have engulfed a more hastily made film. These are old men, something which Linklater’s steady, only occasionally energetic camera captures with just the right sense of weariness, and their mission is one done out of love rather than duty.

Advertisements

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)

sheriff

Discussing a film’s “timeliness,” regardless of what cultural and political climate it was conceived and produced under, is typically a foolhardy errand, prone to improperly deconstructing its complexities into a simple, digestible message or moral. And while these issues with the approach are only slightly less problematic when applied to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it’s hard to ignore the litany of long-delayed outrages that have arisen in between the movie’s premiere and release, beginning with the well-judged withdrawal from Fantastic Fest and continuing with the (at least temporary) downfalls of Weinstein, Spacey, etc. With these events in mind, it’s tempting to take the movie as a straightforward condemnation of sexual assault and the indifference with which it was too long received. However, for better and for worse, the film is concerned with a more all-encompassing and thorny critique of American heartland culture, with equal parts finesse and head-thumping obviousness.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri‘s premise is relatively simple, concerning Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) attempts to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter seven months prior. At the moment the film begins, the efforts on the part of the town and the police department have come to a standstill. In a ploy to draw attention to the case, Mildred rents the eponymous billboards that point the finger, in bold black text surrounded by red, at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the head sheriff in a losing battle with pancreatic cancer. This in turn sets off a torrent of outrage directed at Mildred, triggering a shocking spiral of seething hatred and scorn in the small town.

billboards

McDonagh’s tone in his films thus far has lied squarely in the black comedy, and while I can’t speak to the subject and tone of his prior work, the mix of this sober subject matter and black comedy is somewhat uneasy, if not unproductive. Much of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is shockingly angry and nigh self-righteous, and arguably if it were anchored in a less vigorous or forceful presence than McDormand’s it would fall apart. Yet this is her movie, in narrative construction (at least for most of the film) and in general impact, and her indomitable toughness obscuring a more quiet self-doubt smooths over some of the rougher patches.

And there are a surprising number of rough patches, even when factoring in the general expected trajectory of violence and escalation that does take place. Many of the few and far between comedic moments land, but the complicating factors and figures often come across as messy in a way that distracts from the narrative arc, including Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes). The character transformation that the racist, absentminded police officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) undergoes is drastic, but it points to a more troubling display of the possibility of redemption that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to want to evoke only at the most opportune moments. Oddly, for a film so seemingly focused at the outset, it is the smaller moments, the lingering on certain faces, that feel more effective than the broiling atmosphere of hatred that McDonagh and his collaborators work so hard to create.

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

(Authorship Note: We are pleased to publish this essay, written by Sarah Hunter, a fabulous writer and brilliant student of film. Formerly a student at Whatcom Community College, where she received the discipline award in film in 2016-17, Sarah will be entering the filmmaking program at New York Film Academy Los Angeles in 2018.  ~MT)

Alicia in doorway

To many, famed director Alfred Hitchcock is known fondly as the “Master of Suspense,” whose enduring films have terrified and delighted audiences for decades (and who irreparably tainted the act of showering for an entire generation.) To others still, he is the quintessential auteur, a forefather of modern cinema whose methods have had a lasting impact on the craft of filmmaking – his disciples include the likes of Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. There is, however, another understanding of Hitchcock that, while perhaps possessing less of our collective consciousness, is no less significant or worthy of study: that of the capacity within his oeuvre for provocative and profound feminist analysis. In the words of scholar Tania Modleski, “Feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.” To be sure, feminist opinion of Hitchcock is undeniably split; many consider his persistent depictions of victimized women to be indicative of blatant misogyny. Yet others persuasively advocate for a more nuanced and open-minded examination, one which potentially suggests a richer depth to his representations of both women and men. Feminists, critics, and cinephiles alike would be remiss to ignore the subversive, oftentimes even progressive, approach to gender evident throughout Hitchcock’s body of work.

As Modleski argues in her seminal 1988 anthology The Women Who Knew Too Much, a number of Hitchcock’s films “reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy,” and that “despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in [his] films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.” This indomitable spirit is best exemplified by Notorious’s brave, brazen Alicia; Shadow of a Doubt’s freethinking young Charlie; Rear Window’s daring, multifaceted Lisa; and Marnie’s titular bandit, a survivor of sexual assault. Furthermore, Modleski illustrates Hitchcock’s pattern of “putting the blame on violence against women where it belongs,” that is to say, on the male abusers and, by extension, the patriarchal system which enables them. This sentiment is echoed by biographer Donald Spoto, who points out that Hitchcock “describes the devastating effect of crime on the victim; his real contempt is for the victimizer, in every case a man.” Moreover, the men in his films (Notorious’ Devlin and North by Northwest’s Thornhill, most pointedly) typically can only achieve resolution by identifying with their female peers and gaining a more compassionate understanding of their struggles. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the men to change – first themselves, and then the system.

This dynamic – the persecuted woman who boldly resists the patriarchal structure, and the unenlightened man compelled, both by transparent self-interest and a larger sense of justice, to empathize with her – is at its most distilled in 1946’s surprisingly sincere romantic-thriller Notorious. Unconventional leading lady Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is a binge-drinking Miami playgirl and estranged daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. A covert American agency interrupts her decadent lifestyle to recruit her for a unique mission: infiltrate a Nazi cell by seducing its ringleader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains.) Their established history – Alex had once been in love with Alicia, though his advances were spurned – coupled with Alicia’s promiscuous reputation makes her, in the eyes of the exclusively male agency, the ideal candidate for such an unsavory assignment. “She’s good at making friends with gentlemen,” one operative explains suggestively. Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion, 2017)

Robin on beach

Jane Campion’s most recent project, Top of the Lake: China Girl, a follow-up to Top of the Lake (2013), is a 6-hour, episodic journey that premiered, variously, at Cannes, on the Sundance channel, and, played, most recently, at the Vancouver Film International Festival. It is, as its length and as its screening venues suggest, difficult to pin neatly into a category. Is it a gorgeously shot TV show? A very long film? Campion and her work, as usual, resist tidy classifications of all sorts.

Does her work represent “female annihilation in bonnets,” as BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode once suggested, or is she definitely a feminist director, her work “emphasiz[ing] and almost perverse figuration of female strength” as Professor of Film Studies at University of East Anglia, Yvonne Trasker has said? Campion herself has championed women and women filmmakers, quoted as saying in an 1993 Cahiers du Cinema piece, “I think I know things about women that men cannot express.” And yet she “bridles” Virginia Wright Wexman notes in Jane Campion: Interviews, “at being narrowly identified as a feminist filmmaker,” and Wexman cites Campion as saying, “‘I think it’s quite clear in my work that my orientation isn’t political or doesn’t come out of modern politics.’” Continue reading

VIFF 2017: Sami Blood (Amanda Kernell, 2016)

measuring elle marja

Sami-Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature, Sami Blood, opens on a black screen and the sound of a lonely, whistling wind. Then, we hear a knocking, as the introductory credits, white on black, appear, and a man’s voice speaks: “Mom?” More knocking, then the same man’s voice: “Christina?” The first image appears, an elderly woman, alone, in close-up profile, lighting a cigarette, looking out a window, ignoring the voice.

It’s a haunted space with that blackness, the wind, the disembodied voice, and the woman who is turned away, hiding from both the voice of her son and our public prying eyes. It’s a space that sets the stage for the film to follow, the story of the girl who becomes that woman, a woman who is, indeed, haunted, hiding, and alienated from those closest to her and from the larger world, too, a world, she fears, might stare at her too much and too long.

In the opening scenes, the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi), reluctantly guided by her son and accompanied by her granddaughter, attends the funeral of her long estranged sister. It is a Sámi funeral, following the traditions of that complex and internally diverse people group indigenous to Sweden, and it is clear that Christina, living in Swedish dress and speaking the Swedish language, feels deeply uncomfortable within the Sámi community. She speaks to no one and shields her face with her hand while she sits silently at the post-funeral meal, apart from her son and granddaughter, who are eating and talking with ease with those around them. The intimacy of family-community bonds juxtaposed with the individual isolation of Christina, separate and silent, is what strikes us most immediately. It is one thing to feel alone among strangers, wholly another to be alone among kin.

Christina

Continue reading

I Do . . . Until I Don’t (Lake Bell, 2017)

IDoUntilIDon_t

Lake Bell’s comedy I Do . . . Until I Don’t opens with a God’s eye view of a funeral. Mourners hold oddly colorful umbrellas while a drizzle falls and, in voice-over, a woman with an English accent intones a jeremiad against the “‘til death do us part” prison of marriage. There are several visual and thematic cinematic nods here, from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Four Weddings and a Funeral to, winkingly, Bell’s own In a World . . . (2013), a film about a woman breaking into the male-dominated world of voice-over narration. The tone of I Do . . ., however, is different from any of these—at least at first. Among the funeral-goers are Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser), a married couple who spend most of their time sniping at each other about petty grievances. They are soon to be among the subjects of a documentary by filmmaker Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), whose voice we heard over the opening shot. Prudeck is determined to expose what she sees as the bankruptcy of the institution of marriage by filming unhappy married couples and contrasting them with one happy unmarried couple in an open relationship. And so, as the film gets underway, we watch married people take potshots at each other, make brittle wisecracks at each other’s expense, lie to each other, and generally prove Prudeck’s thesis. We will have to wait for anything like the joy, warmth, or melancholy of Cherbourg or Four Weddings—or even the oddball wit of In a World . . .—until after Vivian’s monomania has nearly wrecked several relationships. Fortunately, the payoff is worth the wait.

Continue reading

Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)

Benihana

Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework. Continue reading

But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

tumblr_mz411aylbs1r8vo7wo1_12801

Equal parts love story, social satire, and broad teen sex comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader has had an enthusiastic following among the LGBTQ+ set (and others) for almost two decades. It’s easy to see why: the actors are full of sweetly winning charm, the satire (of “reparative therapy” camps) is pointed and richly earned, and the story arc is mercifully non-tragic—a rarity for the longest time in queer cinema. For those of us who came of age with mopey, lugubrious lesbian love stories like Desert Hearts (1985), Claire of the Moon (1992), and High Art (1998), it’s impossible to overstate what a blast of fresh air this film was when it first arrived in theaters. (Even today, in fact, a quick Google search of “lesbian movies” gets you hits like “Why are all lesbian movies sad?” and “17 Awesome Lesbian Movies Where No One Dies at the End.”) As we revisit But I’m a Cheerleader well into the new millennium, the film feels every bit as fresh, funny, fun, and necessary as it did when it first came out.

Continue reading

Friday June 9 – Thursday June 15

Featured Film:

The Seattle International Film Festival, Part Four

The never-ending festival finally ends this weekend, as SIFF 2017 comes to a close with a handful of anticipated films, including Nocturama, Mr. Long, A Ghost Story, The Door, Gook, The Feels, and archival presentations of The Witches and Taste of Cherry. Last week, we reviewed Columbus, Have a Nice Day, The Little Hours, Landline, Wind River, and The Dumb Girl of Portici. We’ll have more reviews in the coming week, along with another episode of The Frances Farmer Show.

Playing This Week:

AMC Alderwood:

3 Idiotas (Carlos Bolado) Fri-Thurs
Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) Fri-Thurs

Ark Lodge Cinemas:

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Carlos Bolado) Thurs Only Remixed with DJ NicFit performing a decades-spanning all-Bowie score!

Central Cinema:

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) Fri-Tues
Tommy Boy (Peter Segal, 1995) Fri-Tues

SIFF Egyptian:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Century Federal Way:

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

Grand Cinema:

Obit (Vanessa Gould) Fri-Thurs
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs) Fri-Thurs
Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky) Fri-Thurs
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920) Fri Only
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Sat Only
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi) Mon Only Our Review
Heal the Living (Katell Quillevere) Tues Only

Grand Illusion Cinema:

The Survivalist (Stephen Fingleton) Fri-Thurs
Resist, Rebel, Survive (Various) Tues Only

Cinemark Lincoln Square:

Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola) Fri-Thurs
Ami Tumi (Mohan Krishna Indraganti) Fri-Thurs
Raabta (Dinesh Vijan) Fri-Thurs
The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage
Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

Regal Meridian:

God of War (Gordon Chan) Fri-Thurs Our Review
Didi’s Dreams (Kevin Tsai) Fri-Thurs
Sachin: A Billion Dreams (James Erskine) Fri-Thurs

Northwest Film Forum:

Violet (Bas Devos) Fri-Sun
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back (Maura Axelrod) Fri-Sun Only
The Maury Island Incident (Scott Schaefer) Sun Only Filmmakers in Attendance
The Short Films of Toshio Matsumoto Weds, Thurs & Next Sun Only
Last Men in Aleppo (Feras Fayyad) Starts Thurs
Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969) Starts Thurs

AMC Oak Tree:

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Joseph Cedar) Fri-Thurs

AMC Pacific Place:

Beautiful Accident (Wi Ding Ho) Fri-Thurs
Paris Can Wait (Eleanor Coppola) Fri-Thurs
The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Regal Parkway Plaza:

Lowriders (Ricardo de Montreuil) Fri-Thurs
Raabta (Dinesh Vijan) Fri-Thurs
Hindi Medium (Saket Chaudhary) Fri-Thurs
3 Idiotas (Carlos Bolado) Fri-Thurs

AMC Seattle:

Middle Man (Ned Crowley) Fri-Thurs

SIFF Film Center:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

SIFF Uptown:

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival Full Program Our Coverage

Varsity Theatre:

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies) Fri-Thurs Our Review Our Podcast
Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) Weds Only

In Wide Release:

Alien Covenant (Ridley Scott) Our Review
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (James Gunn) Our Review

SIFF 2017: The Dumb Girl of Portici (Lois Weber, 1916)

Anna_Pavlova_in_The_Dumb_Girl_of_Portici

Few things wipe the sleep away from bleary festival eyes quite like a retrospective screening which, regardless of provenance or even quality, helps to restore the cinematic senses. Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici is not exactly a forgotten masterpiece awaiting rediscovery, but even in the context of revival screenings it’s a bit of rarity: pre-20s cinema mostly lives on the small screen these days. See Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers blu ray set for a recent and relevant example of the curatorial work being done in the home video format, even as streaming continues its march towards total domination. Lois Weber is well-represented in that set, and by programming The Dumb Girl of Portici (which Flicker Alley did not include) SIFF takes part in the same push to move women’s contributions to early cinema from the historical footnotes, where they’ve frequently been resigned, and into the mainstream canon. If it accomplishes nothing else, The Dumb Girl of Portici at least testifies to the clout and studio resources Weber had accrued by the mid-teens, less than a full decade into her career.

Though more than studio scale (it was something of a mega-production), it’s Weber’s stylistic coups that count. The film opens with a little cinema-of-attractions amuse bouche: ballerina turned temporary movie star Anna Pavlova floats onto the screen in dissolve, dancing against the void. Abstraction soon gives way to rather banal plotting. Something about a nobleman donning oppressed peasant clothing and making nice with the eponymous mute. I imagine this felt as rote in 1916 as it does today, though Weber finds flourishes: choreographed dances that prefigure, in primitive form, the geometric patterns of golden age musicals or the cascade of energy unleashed when the vox populi storm the castle perched above their beachside hovels. These crowd scenes in particular serve Weber’s skills well; she has a proto-Langian eye for the way that mobs move as if controlled by a single nervous system and the late film revolt ignites her visual sense. She hacks away at the proscenium staging by hurtling her camera down diagonal axes, typically against the movement of the players. The effect, coming so suddenly after an hour of flat planes, is practically three dimensional. Another dance closes the film, again manipulated with optical printing, though instead of a black vacuum Weber superimposes Pavlova dancing over a series of backlit clouds, Maya Deren’s spirit born a few decades early. As a whole it’s inarguably minor. As festival fatigue sets in, the buried treasures contained within are more than enough.