Chicago International Film Festival, Day 2: '12 Days' and 'Last Flag Flying'
“12 Days,” a documentary by French filmmaker Raymond Depardon (“Journal de France”), is a bore. Even at under 90 minutes, the film feels like a painful marathon. In “12 Days,” Depardon trains his eye on an odd quirk of the French legal system: When an individual is brought into a psychiatric ward, likely against his or her will, after 12 days the individual is brought before a judge, who determines whether the inmate will stay or will be released. “12 Days” is largely restricted to capturing the proceedings of these semi-trials.
In these interviews, the patients remain closed, or more rarely open up. They may be confessional, they may lie. Each patient is given an anonymity that cloaks his or her true feelings. But this is a psychiatric ward, after all. After we hear one patient ramble about being a part of the holy trinity, the judge mentions that he had murdered his father. Depardon’s documentary invites viewers to question the desirability, let alone legality, of a system that ostensibly lets its captives determine their fate, while allowing a largely removed judge to ultimately make the call. Some cases are open and shut, one or two in particular are heartbreaking. A few have rather grisly and painful details.
But while the film’s subject matter and the questions about civil liberties it raises are vital, Depardon can’t rely on topicality alone to create a compelling film. Each interview session, through editing, lasts around seven minutes, but many feel like an eternity. We hear a modestly made plea, a great deal of incoherence, a summary from a lawyer and a reliably sober judge’s decision. Monotonous and languorous, “12 Days” lays the foundation for critical non-fiction work but forgets to make it interesting. Other direct cinema documentaries of the sort, such as Frederick Wiseman’s latest masterwork, “Ex Libris,” mine a large collection of footage for the best material. It seems Depardon only shot 87 minutes of film and cut nothing.
Though it doesn’t justify sitting down for the full 87 minutes, three almost otherwise silent interludes, scored by Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) are splendid and almost poetic in their minimalism. Depardon, after a number of interviews, looks to the facility’s grounds outdoors to see a man, not quite lost but certainly confused, walking in circles; toward the end he examines the entryway to a store and the rolling grass of the facility’s main square; after the last interview, he captures a gorgeous mist-laden twilight. Desplat’s score, which unfortunately only plays in these scenes, is haunting, composed mostly of despair but with a tinge of hope and uplift, like the facility’s inmates.
The first American film I saw at the Festival, aside from “The Florida Project,” which wasn’t playing at the Festival but was playing at the same theater, was “Last Flag Flying,” a follow-up to “The Last Detail,” a 1973 film directed by Hal Ashby. In “The Last Detail,” two men in the Navy (played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) are tasked with escorting a much younger third (played by Randy Quaid) to a Navy prison to serve an eight-year sentence for petty theft. Given a per diem and seven days to make a four-day trip, the two sailors plan on spending much of their money and time on the way back. But when they start to develop a liking for the young shipman, they decide to, in their parlance, show him a good time.
A follow-up, based on a 2005 novel written by Darryl Ponicsan, the same author as the first film’s source material, makes perfect sense for director Richard Linklater. “The Last Detail” is a sort of proto-Linklater hang movie, akin to “Dazed and Confused” and last year’s “Everybody Wants Some!!,” and who better than Linklater, whose “Before” trilogy and “Boyhood” capture aging and passing time better than any other director, to pick up the trio’s story.
Unfortunately, Linklater’s latest lacks much of the charm of his other movies and the original 1973 film. Granted, “Last Flag Flying” is much more mournful because of its general plot, but its attempts at comedy aren’t nearly as potent. Sure some laughs land, but this a largely sterile film, focused on artificially creating a plot where one perhaps shouldn’t exist.
“Last Flag Flying” takes place in the Northeast U.S., just like its predecessor, this time with the backdrop of another conflict that has since come to be understood as a foolish quagmire. The names have changed, as has their backstory, but a trio reunites. Early in the Iraq War, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell, “Battle of the Sexes”), who continues Quaid’s character, drops in on bartender Sal Nealon (a Jack Nicholson-impersonating Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Otis Young incarnate Laurence Fishburne, “John Wick Vol. 2”). Doc’s son, Larry, was killed in Iraq and he wants Nealon and Mueller, all of whom haven’t seen each other since their days in Vietnam, to accompany him to the funeral.
The Marines plan on burying Larry at Arlington, but Doc has other plans, eyeing to bury his son in Portsmouth, NH, where he lived and where Doc’s recently deceased wife is also buried. The trio conspires to outwit the Marines and, in the process, bump up against each other, reminiscing and arguing as old friends might do.
Where the film stumbles, besides some of its uncharacteristically stale dialogue, is its odd attempt to distance itself from the original film while still holding tightly to its premise. In my recollection, Vietnam is not even mentioned in “The Last Detail,” but the Iraqi undercurrent in “Last Flag Flying” almost necessitates the comparison, but it feels artificial. The name changes and the variation in the backstory are somewhat perplexing and definitely jarring. A crucial emotional moment in the film involving Cicely Tyson (“The Help”) feels very forced.
Cranston and Fishburne appear uncomfortable in their roles and play exaggerated archetypes, but Carell is simply incredible. He’s a defeated man, between his time in the brig and the two deaths in the past year, so when he’s finally able to laugh, it’s an outburst of melancholic catharsis.
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