Last Flag Flying

Posted on November 9, 2017 at 9:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcohol abuse, smoking, references to drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of military service in wartime, sad deaths offscreen
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Date Released to DVD: January 29, 2018
Copyright 2017 Amazon Studios

Three of the best actors in the world give immense depth and humanity to characters who might so easily have been caricatures in “Last Flag Flying,” about three veterans on a sad personal mission. It’s got a backstory that might be worth a movie of its own. “The Last Detail,” based on the book by Darryl Ponicsan, starred Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as Marines ordered to escort a naive teenaged sailor (Randy Quaid) to serve an eight-year prison sentence for a trivial offense. It was a critical and commercial success due to Nicholson’s performance and a picaresque tone that suited the era. 4 years later, another Ponicsan book about three military men (now long retired from service) on a sad journey with some comic detours comes to the screen, directed by Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”). It is not a sequel, though some of the characters have the same names and some similar histories.

It is 2003. A man carrying a manilla envelope walks into a dodgy little dive bar and orders a beer. The bartender barely glances at him, in the midst of a one-sided conversation with the bar’s only other customer, a regular. “You don’t remember me, do you?” asks the man with the envelope. The bartender, who is also the owner of the bar, takes a good look. “Doc!” he crows. “No one has called me that in years.” Doc is Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) and the man behind the bar is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). They eat pizza, talk about old times, and fall asleep in a booth. The next day, Larry takes Sal to a church, where the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is conducting services. The men have not seen each other in decades, but they served together in Vietnam, Nealon and Mueller in the Marines and Shepherd in the Navy.

Mueller is not especially happy to see friends from the days when he was known as Mueller the Mauler, but he invites them to dinner at his home with his wife, Ruth (a splendid Deanna Reed-Foster, warm and wise). It is there that Shepherd explains why he wanted to find them. His son has been killed in action and he wants Mueller and Nealon to accompany him to the funeral. Nealon goes because he wants to do something different. Mueller goes, reluctantly, because he wants to be of service. “They represent a dark period in my life,” he tells Ruth, “a very dark period.” “And you represent God,” she replies.

And so the odyssey begins, with many adventures along the way, and, as Linklater does so well (the “Before” trilogy, “Waking Life”), many wide-ranging conversations, here including discussions of the past and present, the newish technology of the cell phone, sex, sleep, race, order, chaos, war, lies, choices, and consequences. Accompanying them for part of the trip is a Marine who was a close friend of Shepherd’s son (J. Quinton Johnson of “Everybody Wants Some!!!” excellent).

Near the end, Linklater gives us two scenes showing that what might have seemed episodic and slight was deliberate, thoughtful, and meaningful. It is his actors’ respect for the flawed characters they play and Linklater’s own respect for their choices, challenges, and regrets, that show us what we ask of the people who go to war on the other side of the planet because someone thought it would keep us safe, and what we owe them as well.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, drinking, smoking, references to drug abuse, references to wartime violence, and very crude sexual references including prostitution.

Family discussion: What should they have told Mrs. Hightower? Why did Larry want to bring his son home? Who would you call for a journey like that one?

If you like this, try: “The Last Detail” and “Taking Chance”

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Win FREE Tickets to Boyhood! Win the Boyhood Soundtrack!

Posted on August 11, 2014 at 10:51 am

eller coltraneRichard Linklater‘s “Boyhood,” filmed over 12 years, is one of the best movies of the year and I have FIVE FREE PASSES to give away. Each admits two. Send me an email at with “Boyhood” in the subject line and tell me your favorite movie of this summer so far. I’ll pick five winners at random on August 15. Good luck! I also have ONE copy of the fabulous soundtrack to give away. To enter, send an email to with “Boyhood soundtrack” in the subject line and tell me your favorite oldie. DON’T FORGET YOUR ADDRESS! (US entries only for both contests.)

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Posted on July 17, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen and adult drinking, teen drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic abuse, guns
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 18, 2014
Date Released to DVD: January 5, 2015 ASIN: B00MEQUNZ0


“A boy’s will is the wind’s will/And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.” (Longfellow)

We first see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lying on the ground, looking up at the sky, and it is clear that his thoughts are very long indeed.  We will stay with Mason and — in an unprecedented longitudinal form of filmmaking from writer/director Richard Linklater — portrayed by Coltrane for twelve years, until he leaves for college at age 18.  This film deservedly appears on most of the year’s top ten lists and has been selected by several critics groups as the best film of the year.

Linklater has followed characters over the years before.  We have seen the romantic relationship of Celine and Jesse in three 24-hour episodes (all involving walking through European cities) in the “Before” films, plus an intriguing segment of the animated “Waking Life.”  That series is an extraordinary, and I hope, continuing undertaking, with stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke working with Linklater to create the storyline and script.

Hawke is in this film, too, as Mason’s father, Mason senior. Patricia Arquette plays his mother and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays his older sister, Samantha. All are superb.  Linklater says that he knew what the last shot would be from the beginning. For the rest, he trusted his stars and the developments of the dozen years ahead of them. As the children got older, they joined Linklater, Hawke, and Arquette in helping to fill in the details.

And it is the details that are the story here, giving it a unhurried yet mesmerizingly enthralling feel and an unexpected power. At first, it seems like time-lapse footage of a flower blooming. Then it feels like watching someone’s home movies. By the end, we are so invested in Mason’s life we feel we are watching our own.

Linklater and his cast met for just a few weeks each year to film a little more.  Unlike a conventional narrative, where, as Chekov put it, economy of storytelling means that a gun over the fireplace in act one has to go off by act three, this story is not linear.  But non-linear does not mean random.  The incidents chosen are not necessarily the high points of Mason’s years, but they are indicators that create a mosaic of the fuller picture. Mason sees his mother, who has gone back to graduate school, talking to one of her professors.  But it is unlikely that he understands the meaning of the look they exchange.  We are not surprised to find them married in a subsequent scene.  And we do not need a slow build-up or full character arc to understand the import of the succeeding conflicts between the stepfather and stepson.

Meanwhile, Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater do something no one has ever done quite this way before on screen.  They grow up.  And Richard Linklater trusts the audience enough to let that in and of itself be the dramatic arc of the story.   There were laughs and hoots in the audience over the antiquated look of the computers at Mason’s school.  There are references to the first Obama Presidential campaign and the release of a new Harry Potter book.  But these are all organic, as much as his first heart-break, his second stepfather, and new stepmother, and tough words from his teacher.  There is no micro-managed re-creation of the past; this is the past, our past as well as Mason’s.  It feels real, it feels lived in, and, as he leaves for college, it feels bittersweet but filled with promise.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse, tense family confrontations, guns, very strong language, sexual references (some crude), and teen drug and alcohol use.

Family discussion:  Do you agree with Mason’s photography teacher about what he should do?  Mason had many different role models for masculinity — which do you think he will follow?

If you like this, try: Richard Linklater’s other films, including “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight” and “Waking Life”

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Interview: Richard Linklater of “Boyhood”

Posted on July 17, 2014 at 8:00 am

Richard Linklater is one of my favorite directors.  Films like “Waking Life,” “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”/”Before Midnight,” “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” “Bernie,” and “Me and Orson Welles” display his restless intelligence and remarkable range.  His latest film, “Boyhood,” was an under-the-radar twelve-year project, filming just a few days each year, so that we watch the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, grow up before our eyes.  It was an honor to have a chance to talk to him about the film.

“This is an odd movie, because it’s a period piece film, but we were filming it in the present tense,” he explained.  “You don’t get that opportunity very often.”  Knowing as you film that what you are shooting won’t be seen for another decade, “you kind of look at that differently.  Film’s a powerful recorder of the present.  If you look at a silent film, even if you don’t like the movie, it’s a great record of how people lived and what fashions were.  I had no agenda, but I thought this would demarcate its era, just by its own existence.”

He said he wanted the film to reflect the way that children process time differently from adults.  “When you’re young, you hear a song and it’s very specific — fifth grade, eighth grade.  When you get older, it gets kind of mushy.  It doesn’t mean as much.  It gets a little more undifferentiated.”

It is an extraordinary, unprecedented form of storytelling but he said he wanted it to be an ordinary family at the heart of the story.  “These are not superheroes.  They’re people trying to maneuver through life like everybody.”

Mason’s parents, played by Ethan Hawke (Mason senior) and Patricia Arquette (just billed as “Mom”) are separated, at in the film’s first scenes, Mason senior returns after an extended time in Alaska, to see his children.  He said he wanted “the off-screen separation to be a little mysterious,” to maintain the point of view of the children, showing us that children “just feel the effects.  I didn’t want to give the audience information that is outside the viewpoint of the kids.”  Because the actors themselves interacted so little in filming, they were each able to develop their own ideas about what had happened in the relationship.  “Both of the parents are admirable and a little triumphant in varying degrees.  He wanted to be a dad and he is.  He is a big figure in their lives.  And she wants to provide for her kids and get an education and she does.  She’s kind of a great woman, flaws and all.  Who doesn’t have that?”

He had the big picture, “the big issues, moving, the end, the last shot” early on.  “I kind of work that way, big structure planned out, and then kind of macro/micro within it a lot of leeway to be inspired.  In most movies, you’re very rushed during production.  It’s great to work like a sculptor.  I’ll work three days, and then edit, and then think for a year.  Film doesn’t give you that and I wanted to take advantage of it!  Watch at home at 2 in the morning, thinking ‘What does the story need?  Is this part working?  Oh, I need to put back in this relationship.  I never made a film that felt like it wanted to be itself so much.  They always say films are like your kids, but I never believed that before. With this one, I actually do.  It’s its own living, breathing person who I’m now sending off to college.  Reluctantly.”

And Linklater’s own living, breathing daughter is in the movie, playing Mason’s older sister, Samantha.  Linklater said that as the younger brother with older sisters in his own family, “it was hard to carve out space for myself.  They have such an impact on you.”  The girls were such a powerful force in his life and he wanted Mason to have a sister who was part thorn in his side, part witness, part support system.  “They have that rivalry, but as they get older they support each other.”

eller coltrane

Mason sees a range of models of masculinity in the film — his father, two stepfathers, even a teacher who really takes him to task in a scene set in the red light of a photographic darkroom.  “It’s a male world.  They’re in your face.  The male world is in your face, compelled to shape the youth and be in your face all the time.  Men want to be mentors.  Moms will still straighten you out, but they’re more accepting.  A step-parent is a fraught relationship anyway.  These guys who are suddenly in his life — no one asked him — they have influence and authority over him that he feels maybe they haven’t earned. That’s his perspective.  They’re probably not as bad as he sees them.”  In what Linklater called “one of the most violent scenes you will see this year,” Mason’s long hair is cut short at the direction of his stepfather.  Linklater told us that Coltrane’s look of mute, impotent, fury was all acting.  Linklater insisted that Coltrane grow his hair for a few months before the shoot so they could do that scene, and the reality was that he was relieved in the hot Texas summer to get it cut off.

Making the film this way meant no opportunity to go back and re-shoot a scene or add in something extra. That was fine with Linklater.  “Work hard and if that’s the best you could do at that moment, you should be okay with it and make your peace with it.  I’ve never done a lot of reshoots.  I believe in making it work.  That’s the good thing about movies and art in general.”

Many thanks to Rebecca Cusey for sharing this interview with me and for her thoughtful questions.

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