Last Flag Flying (***) There is a deep sense of camaraderie in this year’s NYFF opening night film. It’s a drama centered on war veterans that is filled with personal history, inner demons, discord and hope. The stirring script, by Darryl Ponicsan (author of the book the film is based on) and director/writer Richard Linklater (Boyhood), knows keenly when to add mystery, conflict and amicable dialogue.
Three Viet Nam vets meet up 30 years after the war: Former Navy Corps medic Doc Shepherd (Steve Carell), a lonely widower, seeks out his old friends looking for help. Sal (Bryan Cranston), an ex-marine and now an alcoholic Virginia bar owner, offers assistance. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a former rabble-rouser marine turned pastor, reluctantly joins in. Each character gives the movie a vitality that never wavers, even when the pacing does.
It’s the year 2003, and Doc’s son, a marine, has been killed in the Iraq War. “Because of my son, I came here and found you guys. He’s coming home tonight to be buried in Arlington. I was wondering if you guys would come with me,” says Doc. It’s a quest the characters and audience can’t dismiss. There are images (cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, Boyhood; production design Bruce Curtis) in this film that are indelible. The most striking may be the sight of six coffins draped in American flags set side-by-side in a desolate airport hanger.
Carell, Cranston and Fishburne convince you that there is a real bond between them. Their shared laughter and grief forms an intangible but strong essence that gives the film its spirit. With his hands on the pulse of blue-collar people, Richard Linklater leads the film to satisfying conclusions and brings the best out in the cast. This thoughtful, dialogue-heavy production is so well written it could easily be turned into a Broadway play.
The Florida Project (**1/2) Sometimes the sun shines on Florida and other times it’s cloudy. Audiences will have a similarly ambivalent experience with this perfectly set up and disappointingly executed story about down-on-their-luck folks who call a motel in Orlando home. A little girl named Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her band of playmates roam the motel and its environs. Her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a dancer in a strip club. Resident manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) likes to keep peace and order, but it isn’t easy. The script by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch creates an atmosphere that is evocative: Blazing sun. Lavender-trimmed building. Glimpses of lower-class life in the shadow of Disneyland. Then nothing of any consequence happens. Works as a character study. Nothing more.
Félicité (***) The streets (dirt roads) are not that kind in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s a fact that a strong-willed café singer Félicité (Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) learns when she discovers her 14-year-old son Samo (Gaetan Claudia), who was in a motorcycle accident, may have to have a leg amputated. To get him proper medical care and save him from that ordeal, she scrounges for money. Her struggle thrusts her into the arms of Tabu (Papi Mpaka) an alcoholic repairman. The script and direction by Alain Gomis (Aujourd’hui) intricately follows the mom’s tribulations, offering little relief. Scenes of a Congolese symphony, classical music choir and an operatic soloist are interspersed in the two hours of despair. Paints a dim picture of Kinshasa, but does it well.
Lady Bird (****) A steady undercurrent of humor and familial love buoys this film for 93 thoroughly entertaining minutes. The energy is courtesy of actress Greta Gerwig (Jackie), who, in just her second writer/directing outing, has the expertise of a seasoned comedy/drama filmmaker. A precocious high-school adolescent, Christine (Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn), goes by the name Lady Bird and is in a constant verbal battle with her pessimistic mother (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s Rosanne). Teen angst colors her relationships with her first boyfriend (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea), a second lover (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) and her abandoned best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). The pacing (editor Nick Houy) is tight. Greta Gerwig’s guidance is assured, her storytelling is infectious and dialogue uniquely glib: Lady Bird, “Sacramento is soul-killing. It’s the Midwest of California.” A hilarious and heartwarming experience.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (*1/2) Standing in the shadow of a famous parent is never easy and can be psychologically scarring. That’s the premise of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s ode to family squabbles. Harold (Dustin Hoffman) is an egotistical and noted sculptor. His adult son from his first marriage, Danny (Adam Sandler), a whiny loser, is couch surfing at his dad’s New York apartment. Danny’s half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) is a successful realtor. As the sons arrange an exhibition for their father, old rivalries fester. The characters aren’t appealing, neither are the actors’ tepid portrayals. Mix mediocre writing with bland neuroses and you get the diet version of a Woody Allen movie.
Wonderstruck (**) Hard to deny the artistry in this film adaptation of what must have been a beguiling book by novelist Brian Selznick, who also wrote the script. Director Todd Haynes (Carol) assembles a talented tech crew: cinematographer Edward Lachman (Carol), editor Affonso Gonçalves (Carol), production designer Mark Friedberg (Selma), and musical composer Carter Burwell (Fargo). The tech efforts overshadow the film’s tiny premise: In 1977 (shot in color), a rural Minnesota boy (Oakes Fegley) runs away to New York to find his long lost dad; he encounters a mysterious woman (Julianne Moore) who may have the key to his past. In 1927 (shot in B&W), a mysterious deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds) escapes from Hoboken to the bright lights of New York City. The kid’s storylines converge in a payoff that is not worth the wait.
For more information about the New York Film Festival go to: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2017/.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.