I consider Richard Linklater one of America’s very best filmmakers, which is why, although its virtues seem undeniable (like all of his work, it’s smart, well-crafted, emotional filmmaking), Last Flag Flying strikes me as something of a dud. I have friends who made the same claim for Everybody Wants Some!! but that raucous college comedy didn’t really aspire to be anything other than a dumb, fun party movie — unless you count John Waters’ pithy observation that it’s also the best “accidentally gay” film ever made. Last Flag Flying, on the other hand, with its Vietnam and Iraq war vet characters and exploration of the themes of loss, grief and brotherhood, clearly aspires to a gravitas that I don’t think it quite achieves. A big part of this failure, I’m sorry to say, stems from the artificiality of Bryan Cranston’s lead performance. The problem isn’t that Cranston is “over the top.” His character, Sal Nealon, is written to be over the top. It’s the same character, after all, that Jack Nicholson played in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (even if his name has been changed here for copyright reasons) and the part cries out to be embodied by a larger-than-life screen presence. No, the problem is that Cranston makes too many actorly “choices.” His performance is simply too busy, the intellectual decision-making behind Sal’s “salt-of-the-earth” qualities too transparent. There’s nothing wrong with many of these choices individually but, scene after scene, they add up to a portrait of a working-class life that ultimately feels synthetic and false. Look at the way Sal wakes up Steve Carell’s “Doc” by literally rubbing a piece of cold pizza against his face. Or the way Sal extinguishes his half-smoked cigar by flicking the cherry with his middle finger then waiting until he’s gone back inside before pocketing the cigar in a leather case. Or, worst of all, the way Sal retrieves a donut from a box by sticking his index finger into the tiny hole in the donut’s center, a moment captured in near-pornographic close-up by Linklater’s camera. Which makes me wonder: did it ever once occur to Linklater to ask, “Bryan, could we try a take where you just pick up the donut like a normal fucking person?”
It has come to my attention that the sublime ending of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has come in for criticism in some quarters, in some cases even by people who otherwise like the movie. The fact that this daringly ambiguous ending has been interpreted as being some kind of sentimental cop-out is shocking. There is obviously a strong “fantasy” quality to this sequence — even without considering the aesthetic shift that occurs from the gorgeous 35mm cinematography of the rest of the film to the iPhone look familiar from Baker’s previous work in Tangerine (an aesthetic apparently necessitated here by the fact that Baker was shooting inside Disney World without permits). But regardless of whether or not the ending is “real,” it has to be seen as the saddest ending possible: The Florida Project is a tragedy about American capitalism as embodied by the characters of a woman, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who live in a cheap motel near an amusement park so they can rip off tourists without ever actually visiting the park themselves. When Halley is arrested on prostitution charges, it inspires Moonee and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to finally take the plunge and try to sneak into the park, allowing them a glimpse of a “normal childhood” and a life they’ve never known. That the scene imparts a feeling of transcendental uplift is undeniable but I would argue that, if we’re watching the movie correctly, this very transcendental quality compounds Baker’s overall sense of tragedy; this will clearly only be a very brief of glimpse of paradise for the girls — before the cops catch up to them and put Moonee in foster care for good.