DA 5 BLOODS (2020)

January 8, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Co-writers Danny Bilson (father of actress Rachel) and Paul De Meo, collaborators on the underrated THE ROCKETEER (1991), originally wrote this story about white veterans returning to Vietnam. That project was never able to move to production. When (Oscar winners for BLACKKKLANSMAN, 2018) Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott got involved, the characters shifted and it became a story about African-American veterans, and the film now carries a distinct message about racism and the effects of war on those who feel unappreciated.

Director Lee opens the movie with a montage of such historic events and influential people as the lunar landing, Angela Davis, LBJ, Kent State, Jackson State, Richard Nixon, Bobby Seale, and Donald Trump, along with statements from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, both vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Lee knows exactly what he’s doing, as this prologue sets such a serious tone upfront that we are maneuvered, or at least urged, into accepting his film as truth-based.

Four war veterans who served together are seen reuniting in the lobby of a hotel in modern day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). As the men warmly greet each other, we quickly grasp the individual personalities. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is the hot-headed, grudge-holding, MAGA hat wearing fellow who bares his emotions on his sleeve (if he were wearing sleeves). Otis (Clarke Peters) is the former medic, and calm mediator, while Eddie (Norm Lewis) is the successful capitalist, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr) is the free-wheeling, party guy. Why are there only 4 ‘bloods’? Well, officially the men are there to exhume the remains of their fallen and revered squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and return him to his family in the United States.

The official mission got the men back to Vietnam, but it’s their ulterior motive that turns this into something akin to a heist movie. The men plan to recover the millions of dollars of gold bars they buried in the jungle all those years ago. Though he has not been invited, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, intent on accompanying dear old dad and his war buddies on their big score. Cashing in on the gold requires the men to trust Tien (Y. Lan), a former local prostitute who had a relationship with Otis during the war, and Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady black market French money man. Director Lee attempts to sustain some suspense regarding the Desroche character, but as the only white man involved, that mystery falls a bit flat.

Additional supporting work is provided by Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen as a trio that inadvertently gets caught up in the bloods’ scheme. A nice touch is Veronica Ngo as Hanoi Hannah, with her lines pulled from actual broadcasts during the war – including the unsettling send off, “Have a good day, gentlemen.” There is little doubt this is meant to be Delroy Lindo’s film. His raging rants and explosive PTSD express the frustrations felt by many Vietnam War veterans, but particularly the African Americans, whom we are told made up 32% of soldiers on the battlefields. Lindo has a scene near the end of the film where he looks directly into the camera and goes off for a few minutes. It’s the kind of scene that garners award recognition. Special notice also goes to Chadwick Boseman, whose final two films were this one and the excellent MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. In Lee’s film, we absolutely accept Boseman as the spiritual and military leader of these men.

Spike Lee seemed to enjoy paying tribute and tipping his Knicks’ cap to many influences throughout the film. Especially notable are the similarities to scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), including the iconic “stinkin’ badges” line. Lee also pokes some fun at Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, and the whole genre of a white man as savior. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t escape unscathed, as he’s referred to as “President Fake Bone Spurs”. On a lighter note, the 5 Bloods plus Paul’s son share their first names of those from the original Motown group, The Temptations, as well as their famed producer (Norman Whitfield). Lee also includes heartfelt tributes to African American war heroes Crispus Attucks and Milton Olive, and then includes some tremendous songs from the late, great Marvin Gaye.

The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is exceptional, and Lee opts to change aspect ratios for the flashback scenes. Yet another interesting choice is that even during those flashbacks, the Bloods look their current age, even though it was 50 years prior. The idea being, in their memories, they see themselves as they are today. One glitch is that, periodically, composer Terence Blanchard’s score overpowers the moment. Not always, but enough to distract. Spike Lee really mixes things up, as at various times, this is a story of friendship, loyalty, history, greed, and camaraderie … and the emotional price paid for war. At 154 minutes, the run time is a bit long, but it’s one of Mr. Lee’s more ambitious films, and perhaps one of his best.

Available now on Netflix

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Once out of our teen years (though some take a bit longer), the vast majority of us accept the obvious truth to the adage “life is not fair”. Despite this, we never outgrow our desire for justice when we feel wronged. Uber-talented playwright/screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh delivers a superb drama blended with a type of dark comedy that allows us to deal with some pretty heavy, and often unpleasant small town happenings.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Mildred, a grieving mother whose daughter was abducted and violently murdered. With the case having gone cold, Mildred is beyond frustrated and now desperate to prevent her daughter from being forgotten. To light the proverbial fire and motivate the local police department to show some urgency in solving her daughter’s case, Mildred uses the titular billboards to make her point and target the Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards cause quite the ruckus as the media brings extra attention, which in turn creates conflict between Mildred and the police department, the town citizens, and even her own son (Lucas Hedges). The film could have been titled ‘The Wrath of Mildred’ if not for so many other facets to the story and characters with their own layers. Her anger is certainly understandable, though some of her actions are impossible to defend. Things can never again be square in the life of a parent who has lost a child, yet vengeance is itself a lost cause.

Mr. McDonagh’s exceptional script utilizes twisted comedy to deal with the full spectrum of dark human emotions: managing the deepest grief, anger, guilt, and need for revenge. As in his Oscar winning script for the contemporary classic IN BRUGES (2008), his dialogue plays as a strange type of poetry, delivering some of the most harsh and profane lines in melodic fashion. In addition to his nonpareil wordsmithing, Mr. McDonagh and casting director Sarah Finn have done a remarkable job at matching many talented performers with the characters – both large roles and small.

Following up her Emmy winning performance in “Olive Kitteridge”, Ms. McDormand is yet again a force of nature on screen. She would likely have dominated the film if not for the effectively understated portrayal by Mr. Harrelson, and especially the best supporting performance of the year courtesy of Sam Rockwell. His Officer Dixon is a racist with out-of-control anger issues who still lives with his mom (a brilliant Sandy Martin, who was also the grandma in NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE). Caleb Landry Jones once again shows his uncanny ability to turn a minor role into a character we can’t take our eyes off (you’ll remember his screen debut as one of the bike riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Here he plays Red, the owner of the billboards with an inner desire to carry some clout. Rounding out the absurdly deep cast are Zeljko Ivanek, Kerry Condon, Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish, and Clarke Peters (the epitome of a new Sheriff in town). Every actor has at least one moment (and monologue) to shine, and one of the best scenes (of the year) involves Nick Searcy as a Priest getting schooled on “culpability” by Mildred.

Cinematographer Ben Davis has a nice blend of “big” movies (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) and small (TAMARA DREWE) in his career, and here he really captures the feel of the small town and interactions of the characters. Also adding to the film’s excellence is the folksy, western score (with a touch of dueling gunfighters) by Carter Burwell. And keeping the streak alive … it’s yet another worth-watching film featuring a Townes Van Zandt song.

Not many films dare tackle the list of topics and issues that are touched on here: church arrogance, police violence, racism, cancer, domestic violence, questioning the existence of God, parental grief with a desire for revenge, the weight of a guilty conscience, and the influence of parents in a rural setting. The film is superbly directed by Mr. McDonagh, who now has delivered two true classics in less than a decade. It’s the uncomfortable laughs that make life in Ebbing tolerable, but it’s the pain and emotions that stick with us long after the credits roll. Sometimes we need a reminder that fairness in the world should not be expected, and likely does not exist. If that’s true, what do we do with our anger? McDonagh offers no easy answers, because there are none. But he does want us to carefully consider our responses.

watch the trailer: