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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EXTRACTION (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The description for this movie labels lead character Tyler Rake “a fearless black market mercenary.” Now I’ve personally never shopped for a mercenary, but my assumption is that every one of them is ‘black market’, and none would likely self-identify as anything other than ‘fearless.’ My Facebook account is inundated with unwanted advertisements, and I’ve yet to see one for any mercenary, much less one that lacks courage. Now you likely find this to be worthless meanderings, but that’s where the first feature length film from director Sam Hargrave took me. Mr. Hargrave is a veteran stunt coordinator and stunt performer (he’s been the stunt double for Chris Evans’ Captain America), and he’s working from a script by Joe Russo (director and producer of the last two Avengers movies and the last two Captain America movies).

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) stars as the aforementioned Tyler Rake. It’s a role that would have just as easily worked for Jason Statham or, in past years, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rake is a live action hero, haunted by visions and dreams of better times. His fighting prowess, shooting skills, and willingness to play roulette with his own life, make him the perfect hire for imprisoned drug lords when their son is kidnapped by a rival drug lord. And that’s exactly what happens.

The film opens with Tyler in a bad spot. He’s injured and trying to shoot his way out of a mess where he’s badly outnumbered. The film then flashes back a couple of days where we witness the kidnapping of Ovi Jr (Rudrhaksh Jaiswal) by Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), the drug lord rival to Ovi Jr’s imprisoned father. We also see Tyler, after a few too many drinks, take a running leap off a 30 meter cliff into an Australian lake. Soon he’s visited by Nik (Golshifteh Farahani, Adam Driver’s wife in PATERSON). She acts as his handler for the dangerous jobs, and few are more risky than extracting Ovi Jr.

What follows are fast-paced car chases through the dusty streets of Dhaka, bone-crunching hand-to-hand combats, and more shootouts than we’ve seen in a while. Tyler’s job is to extract Ovi Jr and deliver him safely home. When things go sideways, the two end up on the run from an entire army, and take cover in a local sewer … with all the sights and smells you might imagine. Supporting roles are covered by David Harbor as Tyler’s old friend, and Randeep Hooda as Ovi Sr’s right-hand man.

As you might expect, there are double-crosses and plenty of opportunities for Tyler to show off his ‘fearless’ Samercenary skills. Ovi Jr is a bit of a nerd, but does offer up some life philosophy for his troubled protector: “You drown not by falling in the water, but by staying submerged in it.” The kill count here is extraordinarily high and literally thousands of rounds get fired. What’s most surprising, however, is that Tyler’s cell phone somehow survives his many falls, gunshots, sewage, and car collisions. It’s much more impressive than the old Timex commercials. Gifted cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (X-MEN movies, DRIVE, THREE KINGS, THE USUAL SUSPECTS) does an admirable job capturing the action sequences; it’s just that this is too similar to many movies we’ve seen before, though it serves as a chance for Hemsworth to be something other than Thor. For those in need of an action flick fix after all this social distancing, EXTRACTION should scratch the itch.

opens Netflix April 24, 2020

watch the trailer:


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of admission … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

watch the trailer: