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REVIEW: 7500

Amazon Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Patrick Vollrath

Watching the trailer for 7500 might leave you somewhat underwhelmed and uninterested, as it did me. Airplane hijacking movies are a dime a dozen; an outdated genre that still lingers on. Even 19 years post 9/11, we seem to revisit this collective trauma annually with the release of new hijacking movies. I have my fair share of hijacking favorites that I enjoy revisiting from time to time: Air Force One (1997), Con Air (1997), Snakes on a Plane (2006), all “turn off your brain” kind of films that are the epitome of popcorn flicks. (Man, 1997 was a great year for hijacking movies!) Physical force and action sequences usually dominate this genre, but I am happy to say that 7500 couldn’t be more different to the typical hijacking movie.

7500 debuted last year at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and was released in the U.S. this June on Amazon Prime Video. It is directed by German born Patrick Vollrath, this being his first full-length feature film. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias, First Officer and co-pilot of a commercial flight from Berlin to Paris; and Omid Memar as Vedat, a young Turkish Islamic Extremist, who is having second thoughts on the morality of this hijacking.

The plot of of the movie is as follows: a commercial airliner is taking 85 passengers from Berlin to Paris. Islamic Extremists attempt to take over the plane using broken bottles of glass as weapons, and taking some of the passengers as hostages. The are unable to break into the cockpit, so they use threats of violence and death on passengers in an attempt to coerce the pilots to let them in. Without giving too much away, this is the basic plot of the film. But what makes this movie so intriguing—and ultimately why I am going to recommend it—is because of how deeply intimate and thought-provoking the story is.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in a scene of 7500 | Amazon Studios.

The entirety of the movie takes place inside the cockpit of this airliner. It felt reminiscent of films like Buried (2010) and Locke (2013), or maybe if you mixed those two together. You get to see in detail the level of complexity that exists within these marvelous machines, and the level of education needed to pilot them. There is no musical score throughout the film, which adds to the authenticity of this small world created on screen. Gordon-Levitt and Memar bring exceptional performances to their roles, and gives me hope that one day Gordon-Levitt will be seen and revered as a highly talented actor, and land the larger roles that he has earned.

I often hear other movie fans say that the most fundamental aspect of a movie its ability to entertain its audience. I have a hard time agreeing with this notion. If entertainment was the goal of every movie, then the value of movies would mean very little to those who do enjoy them. My belief about what makes film so universally loved by humans everywhere is its ability to tell a meaningful story. Stories (specifically stories about the human experience) are what captivates the minds and hearts of the audience. 7500 gets at the heart of humanity in the midst of trial and tribulation. It will make you think about ethical and moral dilemmas that you otherwise might not be thinking about. I love movies that make me ask myself, “What would I do if I were in that same situation?” but without offering a clear path or definition of what that right answer is. Yes, there are specific character and plot sequences that I would have changed up a bit, but there isn’t anything too egregious enough for me to give more attention to.

If you have an Amazon Prime account, go give 7500 a shot. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised on the outcome, and at only 90 minutes, it’s well worth the investment of your time.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Palm Springs

HULU
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Max Barbakow

Let’s go back to my college days, when my roommate and I needed a TV show to watch at night to relax after arduous hours of homework and essay writing.  I remember seeing clips of How I Met Your Mother on occasion and I thought we should give it a try. We ended up loving watching Ted Mosby navigate through his love-life while dealing with shenanigans from his friends. For eight seasons we wondered who the titular mother would end up being. What would she look like, act like, be like? Would it end up being one of Ted’s many romantic conquests, or would it be an original character?

(*Minor spoiler ahead) In the end the Mother (Tracy McConnell) was played by Cristin Milioti, and she was perfect. Her character’s personality beautifully matched with Ted’s. Their relationship was the perfect culmination of the nine-season show. (Then of course, the writers completely destroyed all character development during the last two episodes like Game of Thrones after it); however, Cristin brought a feeling of authentic romance and wholeness to How I Met Your Mother that made up for the backwards last two episodes.

Fast forward to last year. My roommate and I had been watching several documentaries on really heavy subjects, and I was looking for something lighthearted to watch. I was talking to one of my good friends about our favorite TV shows, and I mentioned how much I liked Psych, and so she recommended Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I started watching and fell in love with it—especially the character of Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg). I only knew Andy Samberg from his comedy group, The Lonely Island, and was surprised to see how kind, respectful, and hilarious he was both in and out of the show. Brooklyn Nine-Nine joined How I Met Your Mother as one of my favorite TV shows. So naturally when I saw that Samberg and Milioti were teaming up to star in a Groundhog Day-esque rom-com, I was super excited.

Meaning and Purpose

I was happy to see that the chemistry and charm that Milioti and Samberg brought to their respective shows were on full display in Palm Springs. Their characters (Sarah and Nyles) sell a truly believable and lovable romance. Just by seeing the trailer, I assumed that the goal of the movie would be for their two characters to end up together and that would be sufficient to end the time loop. As much as I loved watching their romance blossom on screen, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their romance was not the end of the journey they embarked on during the movie.

It seems almost serendipitous that this movie is in wide release during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of us feel we are also in a repetitive loop as we wait for life to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. I related Nyles’s struggle to find out the meaning of our daily struggle. My fears of the film focusing all of its attention on the romance was short-lived as we get to see Nyles overcome his apathy, loneliness, and feelings of inadequacy; Sarah overcoming her sense of low self-esteem and guilt; and J.K. Simmons’ character, Roy, learning how to forgive and appreciate the day he has.

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in a scene of Palm Springs | HULU.

I really appreciate this take, as too often films try to dedicate the entire movie to one lesson, whether it be “love conquers all”, forgiveness, acceptance, or lessons like that. Palm Springs allows the characters to be as complex as humans are in reality. Life and love are messy, and deserves to be shown messy. Our characters feel more human, more like us, and thus more relatable.

Palm Springs almost reminds me of one of my favorite romantic films, About Time, a movie where the main character has the gift of traveling into the past to relive his days. Like Palm Springs, it is a beautiful love story that is more than just romance—it’s about life. Love shouldn’t end when you get together with a person. Love is about finding peace within yourself, your relationship with your partner, and with the world around you. Palm Springs accomplishes this beautifully.

Final Thoughts

Palm Springs is a hilarious and beautiful film that shows us how messy, complicated, imperfect, but also wonderful life can be. All the characters have great chemistry, the comedic beats are hilarious with just the right amount of raunchiness, and it just ends up being such a pleasurable movie to watch. If you have Hulu I recommend it as one of the best movies of 2020.

Palm Springs is streaming exclusively on HULU.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 160 minutes
Director: Thomas Kail

Hamilton is particularly challenging to review as a film since it wasn’t made as a traditional movie, instead being a filmed stage production. If I had to nit pick one thing, it would be that because this ultimately is a staged performance, the cinematography was not the same as it would be an actual movie. They had to make up for the fact that we’ve lost the ability to see the entire stage at once like we would if we were actually attending the Broadway performance. So, in some cases where they could’ve used a more cinematically pleasing shot, they cut to different angles so we could see a different perspective (I’m specifically thinking of the “rewind scene” from “Satisfied”). This is not inherently bad, since if we were a part of the actual audience, our attention would be focused on different things at different times. However, it doesn’t quite translate over to a film as well. But overall, the cinematography is the best we could’ve hoped for from a musical of this caliber.

Another thing that limited Hamilton was its choice of provider–Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda clarified on his Twitter account that in order for Hamilton to keep a PG-13 rating, its three “F-bombs” would have to be censored. While it is understandable (Lin wanted audiences of all ages to be able to enjoy the historically based musical) I personally felt like they should’ve left it uncensored and left Hamitlon unrated. It’s a filmed stage production after all, it shouldn’t be subject to the same weird standards that the MPAA places on normal movies. However, I respect Lin’s and Disney’s choice on the matter.

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for five years now, and I was ready to see the context in which the musical existed and I was blown away by all the performances. The advantage of filming the live production has given us the ability to see all the subtle emotions playing on the actors’ faces. Seeing the fear, anger, disgust, heartbreak, and tenderness made the musical all the more emotionally engaging. Seeing Daveed Diggs bounce around the stage as Lafayette/Jefferson left me grinning from ear to ear. I was particularly surprised by Leslie Odom Jr.’s subtle performance. For nearly the whole musical he kept this fake smile on his face (reflecting Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy), but near the end of the final act it dropped to reveal the buried rage within. Truly a powerful performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and others member of the Hamilton cast perform on stage | Walt Disney Studios.

I was also stunned by how good everyone sounded. I’ve listened to the Original Cast Recording so much I’ve lost count, and I expected it to be the gold standard for the performances. However, I think the live singing was even better! My jaw actually dropped during “One Last Time” and “Satisfied” from the immense power of the vocals. Every solo was like this, so beautiful and powerful and emotional. I was also really surprised by the way Lin handled being the weakest link vocally. (Mind you, he actually held his own in his duet with Leslie in “Dear Theodosia”) Even though he’s not the best vocalist/singer, he portrays his singing with such earnesty and emotion that it overshadows his weaknesses. Honestly, all the cast were absolutely fantastic. Everyone was so good! 

RELATED:

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

Hamilton the movie is everything I wanted from the filmed stage production and more. As getting Hamilton tickets is a struggle, along with the pandemic affecting theaters across the country, this is the closest thing to actually seeing the live show as many people are going to get. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece, and I am so glad he’s sharing it with us.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Old Guard

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 125 minutes
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Old Guard is a superhero film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka. It is adapted from Rucka’s comic book of the same name. The film stars Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The Story & Direction

The Old Guard tells the story of a small group of vigilante warriors who all share a special ability, and attempt to use that ability to make the world a better and safer place. Our “superhero” team is led by the fearless Andy (Charlize Theron), along with three others who are extremely skilled in the art of combat. But what is the one superpower they all share? …Immortality. Almost every time that Andy and her team are shot, blown up, stabbed, fall from great heights, or are injured in any way, they are able to heal and recover—to the surprise of their attackers. This film was advertised as an over-the-top action film, which director Prince-Bythewood definitely delivers. The action is fast, fierce, and isn’t filled with excessive CGI aspects. The film is about the characters and their extended lifelong journey together.

The Characters

Aside from the obvious star aspect, Theron’s Andy is the one in charge because she has been alive the longest. We aren’t given her exact age, but she has been around “long enough” to have more life experience than her teammates. Her team is made up of partners Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who met interestingly on opposite sides of the Crusades. They are joined by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) who found the others during the Napoleonic Wars. They all have died and come back multiple times and lost a lot of people along the way. They have even lost other immortal team members. You may ask, “How is that possible when they are immortal?” The answer is what makes this story very compelling as it adds a very vulnerable aspect to these “superheroes.” To say what it is would be entering spoiler territory; however, it does allow for someone to watch this intriguing film all the way through—even if the story is somewhat familiar. Theron is definitely the standout and continues to show that she is a chameleon in Hollywood. Her acting in The Old Guard shows her character’s age and wisdom. Her experience has shown that the world hasn’t changed very much and any good she has done may have been in vain.

Charlize Theron and other cast members in a scene of The Old Guard | NETFLIX.

The team finds a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), whom they have to convince of their powers and her own. Nile develops a bond with Andy and their relationship is a good one to follow throughout the film. Layne, mostly known for her work in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, provides a funny (at times) and heartfelt performance. However, Theron’s and Layne’s performances aren’t able to fully elevate the movie’s (somewhat) unoriginal story.

The Flaws

This film’s plot is not a unique one, even though it is decent enough to keep most viewers entertained. Each major plot point is fairly predictable and some of its attempted ethical aspects are not executed well. For example, Andy’s team sees themselves as an intervention force similar to that of DC Comics’ League of Shadows. They kill people when it is absolutely needed, but their newest recruit Nile does not approve of their methods. They are “saving” people by killing others. It’s contradictory but because this film’s biggest draw is its action sequences, this ethical dilemma seems glossed over; also there are some parts of the film that feel drawn out and could have been cut. In addition, the villain is fairly cliche, even though it tries to modernize a younger villain within a pharmaceutical company. Merrick is over-the-top at times but Melling does act his part well. It almost feels that this role is Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series who grew up and became successful. 

Cast members appear in a scene of The Old Guard | Netflix.

Overall

Even with these issues, The Old Guard does build a very interesting world, and the characters are intriguing enough to watch… With perhaps future sequels. Theron is an amazing star that continues to shine in this film, even if it is slightly unoriginal. You don’t need to rush to watch it, but it’s definitely worth watching if you have some free time for a decent action film. The Old Guard is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Truth

Le Pacte
Rated: PG
Run Time: 106 minutes
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

One of the great things about Parasite winning best picture is it has inspired moviegoers to dive into the filmographies of great international filmmakers, like Parasite’s director Bong Joon Ho; a director that hopefully doesn’t get missed in this movement is Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His filmography is truly exceptional with such wonderful films as 2018’s Shoplifters, 2015’s Our Little Sister, and 2008’s Still Walking. His films have a humanity to them that leave you with a sense of hope and connection. It also always feels like he has an affection for his characters and by his understanding them we, as viewers, feel more understood. In Kore-eda’s latest film The Truth he is branching out beyond his native Japan to France, making a simple film about a family that anyone can relate to.

The Truth has an excellent cast, led by the great French actor Catherine Deneuve. She plays Fabienne, a star of French cinema who has recently published her memoir which—to her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche)—is full of half-truths and falsehoods. Lumir comes to France with her working American-actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is content with the simple pleasures of life. He does not care about the fact his life does not have the gravitas held in Fabienne’s memories—mostly left out of the memoir and oftentimes quite painful. He’s happy just to eat good food, spend time with his daughter, and act occasionally.

That’s the crux of the movie. What is a happy life? And what in our memories is the truth? Is Lumir’s version true? Is Fabienne’s? What does ambition get you? It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters. It reminded me of lazy weekends with my own family (big personalities and memories included)!

Juliette Binoche, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in a scene of The Truth | Le Pacte.

Fabienne is also acting in a film called Memories of My Mother, about a woman who goes to space when she finds out she only has two years to live because “nobody grows old out there.” As Fabienne reads for the role (including one great scene with Hawke), she is forced to contemplate her own memories even more; in particular her own relationship with her daughter as she deals with her daughter in the film (played by Manon Clavel).

The Truth will not be for everyone. It’s a movie of simple pleasures. Again, if you like spending time with a family and contemplating the bigger questions of life then it will be for you. If that sounds like a super snooze then it won’t. I don’t know if it has quite the emotion of Kore-eda’s great films. It does feel a little easy to digest at times, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies that are also about the ins and outs of a relationship or family group and seeing how everything turns out. I’d be interested to see how this family turns out just like we have been able to do in the Before Sunrise movies. Movies like The Truth make me want to try harder with my own family; and in this crazy world of coronavirus and panic, that’s pretty special.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

8 out of 10

REVIEW: Feel the Beat

NETFLIX
Rated: G
Run Time: 107 minutes
Director: Elissa Down

Feel the Beat is a Netflix original movie directed by Elissa Down about a small town dance company that rises to a national level thanks to the tutelage of a disgraced Broadway dancer. I initially found out about this movie through the Ai-Media page on Facebook—a page celebrating Deaf culture and Sign Language. Shaylee Mansfield is a young, deaf actress who stars in this film playing a deaf character using American Sign Language. As I am Hard of Hearing myself, I will jump at the chance to see almost any film celebrating sign language and deaf characters. What I found is one of the best feel-good family films I’ve seen in a long time. 

My Quibbles

As (almost) no film is perfect, there was one thing about the movie that I had a slight quibble over: the plot is extremely formulaic. It suffers from what some have called the “Cars phenomenon.” It’s a movie about a successful jerk who goes to a small town and rediscovers their love for humanity and rekindles their passion. It’s the kind of movie that if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly how the movie is going to pan out. However, despite being that type of movie, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of it too much.

What I Liked

Like I said in another review, representation in media is super important and will elevate any film when done properly. Sadly, most films end with simply having a POC (person of color), woman, or disabled character in them without doing the proper writing and character development to make the character’s inclusion valuable. Or the film’s creators will parade their progressiveness months before the film’s actual release. Most of the time in that case, those characters get very minimal screen time, hardly worth the positive PR that the studios try to gain.

Sofia Carson instructs dancers in a scene of Feel the Beat | Netflix | Photo credit: Ian Watson.

Incredibly, Feel the Beat manages to check almost all of the diversity boxes without feeling forced at all: the main character is a woman of color; her roommate is a gay Black man. Among the group of young dancers there is a Black girl, a chubby girl, a deaf girl, and a young boy, and not once did I feel like the movie was shoving itself in my face yelling, “See how progressive we are!” Every character felt like they naturally belonged in the narrative. Rather than elevating one demographic above the other to showcase it, the movie allows the characters to exist with each other, creating a more realistic world. I also have a soft spot for any deaf representation in media, so this was a huge plus for me. (Fun fact: the movie is called Feel the Beat because that’s how a lot of deaf people enjoy music, by feeling the vibrations.)

Although the plot is simplistic and predictable, the film actually incorporates a lot of really good messages that I think a lot of young people should be hearing. It shows the hard work the dancers have to do in order to achieve the level of excellence that they do by the end of the movie. They have to be dedicated, hard working, and have a passion for what they do. 

It also shatters gender stereotypes as a young boy eventually joins the dance team and becomes one of its showcase members. The message that boys can participate in “girly things” like dance is a message that young children need to hear. It helps children become more rounded and enjoy many more different kinds of experiences in life.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how many good child actors there were in this movie. They portrayed all the emotional scenes with such sincerity that it was hard not to feel for them. I totally bought all of their performances.

Sofia Carson performs a dance routine in Feel the Beat | Netflix.

And let’s talk about the dancing in this film—HOLY COW. I was so impressed by how well done the choreography was, not to mention how impressive the children were dancing. It took some real dedication for them to be able to perform all the dances. They were even doing the Dirty Dancing lift and absolutely nailing it! All in all, there were some incredible performances.

Final Thoughts

Feel the Beat may be a predictable movie, but it’s jam-packed with healthy diversity and representation, great dancing and performances, and good messages for young children. With all of the mindless family movies that are being churned out these days, Feel the Beat is easily one of the best family films of the past few years.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Warner Home Video
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Directors: Matt Peters & Christina Sotta

It’s extremely rare when you watch an animated movie and forget that you’re watching…an animated movie. It’s extremely rare that an animated movie has a production, story and overall quality that takes you out of a normal animated experience and gives you (to a certain extent) the feel of a live-action film. Thus was my experience while watching Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Apokolips War‘ is the fifteenth and final film in the current DC Animated Movie Universe (DCAMU), and the direct sequel to Justice League Dark (2017). It debuted on May 5, 2020 as a direct-to-video release by Warner Bros. Animation. The movie was co-directed by Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, and is loosely based on the graphic novel, “The Darkseid War” by Geoff Johns. ‘Apokolips War‘ tells the story of our DC heroes taking on their arch nemesis, Darkseid, on his home planet of Apokolips in an all-out final battle. Unlike many happy-go-lucky superhero movies of today, ‘Apokolips War‘ does not shy away from showing real world consequences to having these god-like beings duke it out, and the inevitable casualties and collateral damage that ensue.

Apokolips War‘ is going to have wide appeal to any DC fan. Whether you’re a fan of DC Comics, DC movies, or both, you’ll find a lot to like about this movie. Superhero team-ups are abundant; you’ll see most of your favorite DC characters ranging from the Justice League, to the Teen Titans and the Suicide Squad. With so many characters to juggle in one movie, it can be very challenging finding enough screen time to give to each character, while also not feeling overcrowded and bogged down with too much at once. ‘Apokolips War‘ does well in finding enough screen time for the DC superhero favorites to shine, while also allowing the less popular characters to have their own moments and appeal to their own subset of fans.

As first time directors in the DCAMU, Peters and Sotta do well in guiding the movie along a fairly complex storyline, and doing it in just under 90 minutes. Peters and Sotta deliver a dark, bloody, and sometimes shocking film with this animated feature. With the critical and audience reception being very successful, don’t at all be surprised when Peters and Sotta ultimately find themselves back in the director’s chair for future animated movies.

The Justice League listens intently to Superman’s plan on how to defeat Darkseid in a scene of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War | Warner Home Video.

As much as I enjoyed this movie, there are a couple of things that really bothered me on initial watch—something that Superman said that felt…well, just felt very “un-Superman”-like. Here is the quote:

“I want to make this perfectly clear—we are facing an existential threat to the planet. We can’t wait for Darkseid to make the first move. That could mean the end of us. We have to attack!”

Superman in Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020).

The notion that Superman is willing and ready to make an offensive attack on his enemy without his enemy attacking first seems to go against everything that Superman stands for. It’s a statement and sentiment that feels hopeless, and one based on fear. Even after Superman presents this plan to the Justice League and the Teen Titans, neither Batman nor Wonder Woman make any objections. The only voices of reason come from Flash, Cyborg and Lex Luthor—yes, THE Lex Luthor—who offered the only other alternative plan opposed to Superman’s. This plot point felt all too convenient, and just too sloppy for my liking. With an extra 10 minutes of movie time, a backstory sufficient enough could have helped to build up to this point.

Lastly (and not to give any major spoilers away) I’ll be very vague with this critique. Time travel has become an oft used plot convenience for many superhero movies today. I would like to see some writers let go of that crutch and really dig deep in giving audiences something more…permanent.

If you’re an animation fan; if you’re a DC fan; if you’re just a fan of superhero movies in general, I definitely think you should give Justice League Dark: Apokolips War a shot. You might find yourself wanting to go back and start at the beginning of the DCAMU. For those of you who are interested in where to start, the following is the DCAMU in order from beginning to end:

  1. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
  2. Justice League: War (2014)
  3. Son of Batman (2014)
  4. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015)
  5. Batman vs. Robin (2015)
  6. Batman: Bad Blood (2016)
  7. Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)
  8. Justice League Dark (2017)
  9. Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (2017)
  10. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018)
  11. The Death of Superman (2018)
  12. Reign of the Supermen (2019)
  13. Batman: Hush (2019)
  14. Wonder Woman: Bloodlines (2019)
  15. Justice League Dark: Apokolips War (2020)

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 154 minutes
Director: Spike Lee

Da 5 Bloods is a war drama film directed and produced by Spike Lee. The film stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman. The film follows a group of aging Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in search of treasure they buried while stationed there. Otis (Peters), Paul (Lindo), Melvin (Whitlock) and Eddie (Lewis) journey through Vietnam to retrieve their squad commander’s (Boseman) remains for a proper military burial.

Spike Lee is known as one of Hollywood’s best storytellers and his films are typically referred to as “Spike Lee Joints.” Lee received a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1983, and his first feature-film, She’s Gotta Have It was released three years later. Over the course of his career Lee has directed 23 films and only 6 of them were not written by him. He has also starred in ten of them. His most famous works are She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), Chi-Raq (2015), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). In addition to his filmography, Lee has directed a number of music videos by artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Eminem. His work has won him numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Student Academy Award, a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Cannes Grand Prix. Also interestingly, prior to Da 5 Bloods, Inside Man is his biggest box office hit, and BlacKkKlansman is the only film for which he has won an Academy Award. His films have explored race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other social and political issues.

(From left to right) Director Spike Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX. Photo credit: David Lee.

The Story & Direction

As with many “Spike Lee Joints,” Lee is able to explore his themes and messages in a very compelling way. In Da 5 Bloods he is able to mix a fictional story with real-life imagery flawlessly. One of the most obvious allegories is how this film shows the duality of how war in general deals with the Black community. These men go fight for the United States against an enemy that did nothing directly to them. Then when they return to their home country, they are treated as secondary citizens. This idea can be applied to almost all veterans in general, but it is especially evident toward the Black community. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 and American intervention in the war started only a year later. The country had just started to recognize that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was wrong. Even now, there are still problems in our country involving civil rights—not just people of color, but also women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, different religious groups, and people from different countries.

RELATED:

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

The current social climate adds to Lee’s (mostly) engaging and thought-provoking film. The film highlights the disproportionate nature of the African American sacrifice in Vietnam; African Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone, they comprised 14.1% of total combat deaths when they were 11% of the total U.S. population at the time (1). Furthermore in 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated ‘Project 100,000’ which further lowered military standards which he said would provide valuable training, skills, and opportunity to America’s poor. This allowed many Black men who had previously been ineligible to be drafted along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the US South. This led to increased racial tension in the military (2). Out of all of the newly eligible draftees, 41% were black. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military. 20% of black males were combat soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. At the end of the war, black casualties averaged 12.5% of US combat deaths (1).

The film also feeds into issues of Black patriotism, inequality, and justice. In one flashback, in the Vietnamese jungle, the five comrades learn of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also learn of the rioting back home in response to MLK’s death and the brutal government response to the riots. The broadcaster then asks, “Why you fight against us so far away from where you are needed?” to which Lee overplays footage of the 1968 riots that look unfortunately similar to the past few weeks. The film is partially an attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War historical narrative, but it’s also a terrific heist drama. As the story reaches the completion of getting the gold, the film is only halfway. This makes the second half almost uncertain. Along the journey, there is some great cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and the audience gets to know “Da 5 Bloods.”

Cast members in a scene of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX.

The Characters

This film has some amazing performances by the cast: the typical jester in Otis; grounded medic, Eddie; and the character, Paul, who is still haunted by his experience. They are also joined by Paul’s son, David. Lee is able to show this squad having a camaraderie that only occurs between brothers. The film starts off very similar to films like The Best Man (1999), Bridesmaids (2011), Last Vegas (2013), Going in Style (2017), and Girls Trip (2017)—this genre of films that have a bunch of friends getting back together to do one last big event. Whether you like that genre of film or not, one thing that they always have is chemistry between the stars. This adds an authentic feeling to them, and this film is no different in that aspect. All of the actors have chemistry with each other which makes each scene enjoyable. The standout is Lindo’s character who deals with guilt, greed, and PTSD. Lindo provides one of the best performances of the year so far, and his anti-hero never becomes cliche.

Lindo’s character, Paul, represents how so many veterans suffer from mental health issues after returning home from war. The film says people need counseling which some veterans can get and some cannot. It is said early on in the film that Paul doesn’t have a lot of money, so it is possible he cannot afford it. He is shown to be very proud, so even if he had money, he probably wouldn’t admit that he needed it. Plus, the older generation as a whole do not embrace therapy, especially minority populations (3). Lindo gives this character a very special performance. It’s very touching to see his friends rally around him when he is struggling. When his PTSD panic attack hits he thinks he’s all alone and that none of his friends will understand. This isn’t the case; they all have the same struggles and are in this together, adding to the realism of their brotherhood. The other actors are good, but Lindo definitely outshines them. The notion of Black servicemen fighting overseas for a country that disenfranchised them isn’t new but the way this film approaches it feels fresh. Boseman is not in the film too much but his charisma still finds a way to show itself.  His last scene in the film is very emotional and powerful. There’s also a small subplot dealing with one of the men and a local Vietnamese woman that touches on the many Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam after the war.

The Flaws

Unfortunately, some of the characters do feel awkward as not much is given to their backstory aside from a few one-liners here and there. Boseman isn’t in the film that much even though he has been shown to be a really good actor, e.g. 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), and Marshall (2017). This is not to say his acting is poor in any way; in fact, it is really good, but his ability sadly feels wasted. He has proven to be a starring actor. Additionally, Lee’s writing has a lot going on in this film that does not use it’s 2.5 hour run time efficiently. He could have cut a few scenes here and there to make the story feel more fluid. The film’s pacing has some problems at the beginning that can feel rushed; the film switches that up and then slows down. The editing is also choppy at times and is very noticeable. There also appears to be no age disparity between the flashbacks and “present” day. Some of the actors look the exact same and also the “camera” footage that one of the characters was filming seemed very dated in comparison to the time period the film takes place in. (Maybe that’s the only working tech they have?) It’s never explained, though it is a cool aesthetic. One potential flaw for people could be how obvious Lee’s political views are in this film, which makes sense as he has always been outspoken on that matter.

Overall

Even with the odd pacing and not always efficient storytelling, this film has a good message that it is trying to get across. Spike Lee is one of the few directors that is able to tackle messages in both good and bad ways. In films like Da 5 Bloods, he is able do it with a great amount of brilliance. This film is extremely thrilling at times, and uses genre cliches in unique ways to reclaim a historical narrative. It works on pretty much every level. It will work as a conversation piece, an action movie, and a comedy. It gives the audience superb performances, especially by Lindo, and is able to bring back Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as one of the best anti-war songs of all time. Spike Lee has made a movie that not only speaks about the past but also feel very relevant for today. Even if the obvious political opinions are taken out, Da 5 Bloods is one of the best movies of the year and is definitely recommendable to anyone.

Citations:

  1. Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War; New York University Press; 1997; pp. 11–16
  2. Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press; 2003; pp. 31–33.
  3. Murry, V.M., Heflinger, C.A., Suiter, S.V. et al. Examining Perceptions About Mental Health Care and Help-Seeking Among Rural African American Families of Adolescents. J Youth Adolescence 40, 1118–1131 (2011).

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: My Hindu Friend

Rock Salt Releasing
Rated: Unrated
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Hector Babenco

My Hindu Friend is Brazilian drama film, directed and written by Hector Babenco, starring Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello and Reynaldo Gianecchini.

This film was made back in 2015, but due to the director’s passing directly after the premiere, it is only now being released this year. The reason why is likely due to the film being based on the director’s personal experiences. His stand-in character is Diego played by Dafoe who is diagnosed with cancer. While he is hospitalized, he meets and befriends another patient, a Hindu 8-year-old boy who is also battling his own sickness.

Brazilian filmmaker Babenco directed many films over the course of 40+ years. His most famous film is Kiss of the Spider Woman for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director—the first Latin American to be nominated in that category. This film is meant to be his swan song, and for that this film is fairly poetic. The film documents his real-life battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his subsequent bone marrow transplant.

The Characters

At the beginning of the movie, Diego learns that his cancer has spread to his lungs and his doctor advises that he gets a bone marrow transplant. Undoubtedly, the shared sentiment with most cancer patients, Diego wants to live. The film then becomes an autobiographical series of snapshots including a wedding between Diego and his supporting partner, Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido). The film then goes through every grueling step of treating Diego’s cancer: chemotherapy, removal of bone marrow samples, comatose nights that include visions of a mysterious otherworldly character. In an extremely meta way, Diego lets his passion for cinema and his friendship with the young Hindu boy (Rio Adlakha) give him a reason to live again, but it ends up being more difficult than he thought.

Willem Dafoe and Maria Fernanda Cândido in a scene of My Hindu Friend | Rock Salt Releasing.

Dafoe as Diego is mesmerizing as he is able to make the audience care for him and hate him at the same time. Diego is indifferent to the world and is miserable to his wife. He constantly accuses her of having affairs but expects her to be there for him when he can’t handle the pain anymore; however, because of the circumstances and Dafoe’s brilliant acting, audience members never hate him too much. Viewers understand that he’s in mortal fear of his life and he’s angry. Each scene feels very natural and realistic, and any viewer can feel the despair happening in this movie. Candido, as his dutiful partner, is also quite good, and her character’s relationship with Diego is the powerhouse point of the film.

The Flaws

The film really struggles with its balance between the serious aspects and outrageous aspects; the latter can really affect the viewing experience as they are so odd that they feel completely different from the prior scenes. They are there to be Diego’s hallucinations, but the transitions between them and real life feel really abrupt. The title of the film feels a little off since the interactions between Diego and the little Hindu boy are limited in comparison to those outside of the hospital. This may have been purposefully done; however, given the amount of hallucinations and the title of the film, it is not too clear on why it was done. The film does drag on a little bit which may dissuade some viewers.

Willem Dafoe in a scene of My Hindu Friend | Rock Salt Releasing.

Overall

It is fairly interesting to see how this film essentially had Babenco analyzing himself and (given this film is his last) it ends up giving more sympathy to the man’s career. The beauty of this film is in the small moments of this procedure where the audience gets to see the feelings of the characters. That is where Dafoe is perhaps at his best. This is another film in his resume that shows he is one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actors. This film may not be perfect and it is odd at times but it is very touching when it tackles themes of mortality and rediscovering life. This film is definitely worth checking out as it is a rather surreal experience that allows the viewer to see how Babenco confronts death. It is now on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Lovebirds

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 87 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter

Did you know that lovebirds are actually a species of parrot? I accidentally discovered this while doing research for this review, and I am fascinated. I learned that if you want one as a pet, it’s recommended that you only get one rather than a pair. Why just one lovebird, you ask? Because they will breed you out of house and home if you have two. Like it or not, the loving will never stop; it’s like a lifelong “honeymoon stage” that can spread parrots faster than handshaking can spread coronavirus (*not a real medical fact; please wash your hands). Also, lovebirds usually don’t talk like other parrots do; just as the humans we refer to as lovebirds don’t spend much time talking either, as their mouths are usually occupied with other activities. Also, their scientific name is “Agapornis.” So many facts, so many jokes, so little time… The good news is that The Lovebirds is funnier than I am.

The Lovebirds follows Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae), a couple traversing the highs and lows of love-life when they are carjacked and become witnesses (and sort-of abettors) to a murder. As they try to exonerate themselves by solving the ensuing mystery and simultaneously avoiding the authorities, they end up in some pretty wild and hilarious situations, my favorite of which includes a unicorn hoodie. Much of the humor is due to the couple’s dynamics and their inexperience in crime-fighting/crime-solving, which was reminiscent of Date Night (2010) with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. The Lovebirds is raunchier and targets a younger audience and features the cult from Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but it’s still difficult not to compare the two. Suffice it to say that if you enjoyed one then you’ll probably enjoy the other, as the same sort of shenanigans take place.

The reason you should see this movie is the hilarious duo that is Rae and Nanjiani; though both are comedic stars in their own right, whoever teamed them up deserves brownie points. Their chemistry is near perfection, as is their comedic give-and-take as their characters embark on their hilarious misadventure. In addition to their comedic chops, both Rae and Nanjiani nail the ups and downs of real relationships, complete with brutal honesty; you can feel the burn from your couch. Also, I have to add that the Amazing Race scene is absolutely hilarious. I love the tie-in so much and would actually love to see the couple team up on my favorite reality TV show.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in a scene of The Lovebirds | NETFLIX

There’s not too much to complain about; the movie started out strong, with timely jokes and excellent performances. It did become less entertaining after the halfway point, but I can’t decide if outrageousness fatigue or predictable plot points is the culprit. Despite a slower third act that lost the spark a bit, the movie is only 90 minutes, so it’s not likely you’ll get bored amidst interrogations, glass-smashings, and the bickering banter of talented leads.

Paramount was supposed to release The Lovebirds to theaters back in April, so you may have seen the trailer for it in February (as I did). But thanks to the pandemic it was pulled from the schedule and sold to Netflix, who released it on their streaming service just this weekend. I would have gone to see this in theaters just from watching the trailer, but I was glad to see it on Netflix with family and happy Huskies. It’s funny and fresh, so barring sensitivities to profanity, there is little reason not to give this comedy a gander very soon. It is almost certain to make you laugh.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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