Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Half Time 2020 Best of the Year

No one needs to tell you that 2020 has been a strange year – not just for movies, but for, well, everything. Theaters have been closed for months now, and while they should be opening up in some capacity sooner rather than later, we don’t really know what form that will take, what we’ll see, etc. And yet, movies have not gone anywhere – every week it seems I’m seeing something new, sometimes excellent, sometimes not as per normal. It does mean perhaps I’ve missed less of the substantial films than I normally do – as they slowly make their way around the country. The biggest title I have not seen is undeniable Shirley (Josephine Decker), because in Canada we don’t have Hulu, and it hasn’t been on demand yet. There’s also a few 2019 holdovers – eligible for Oscars last year - like animated Weathering with You. There are, of course, other films I’d like to see – like say The Wolf House – but I’ve caught most of what I wanted to so far this year – and it’s been a good year in many ways – proving that the Oscars didn’t need to push their dates back, but it seems like the Academy will do any and everything to avoid giving Oscar nominations and trophies to small films.

Anyway, below is a summary of the top five performances in each Oscar category (going, roughly, from 5-1) and then a list of the 15 best 2020 films I’ve seen so far this year – that’s half of my normal totals, and less thought went into them, but if you see any of these films, you cannot go wrong.

Best Supporting Actress

I’ll start this list with two performances from the same film - Catrinel Marlon and Rodica Lazar in The Whistlers, a film from Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu which I don’t think is quite up his normal high level, but you cannot argue with the performances in his noir – especially by Marlon as the complex femme fatale and Lazar as the corrupt cop’s corrupt, in a different way, boss who are both great. Next is the great Sonia Braga in Bacurau as the aging doctor in the small Brazilian town beset by outsiders which goes in some grisly directions – and Braga goes right along with them. Young Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is pretty much perfect as the main characters best friend – along for support, and the ride, to New York to secure an abortion – and as her character takes some interesting turns, Ryder rolls with it in fascinating ways. The one truly amazing performance in this category though belongs to Vasilisa Perelygina in Beanpole as Russian soldier, returning from WWII to try and get her son back from the friend who she left him with, only to discovery tragedy has struck. Where the film goes from there – and Perelyygina’s character in particular is heartbreaking, but she does an amazing job keeping her performance centered and grounded, no matter how cruel she seems, before the terrific scene late that unlocks what happened. A truly exceptional performance.

Best Supporting Actor

The first of two performances from this film in this category is Jonathan Majors in Da 5 Bloods which confirms the immense talent that was on display in last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco – here playing a man trying to get to know his distant father, while also trying to be his own man in a rather complex performance. Gael Garcia Bernal in Ema delivers one of his best performances as a great artist, but a petulant baby in his relationship with his wife that they kind of have a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf style relationship with. Orion Lee in First Cow is terrific as the outsider in early America – a Chinese man, who fully embraces capitalism, even as he learns that perhaps it wasn’t meant for people like him, as well as an interesting portrait of friendship. Brian Dennhey in Driveways gets the send-off the great character actor deserved with a heartfelt performance, culminating in a five-minute monologue looking back at his life that is absolute perfection. Clarke Peters in Da 5 Bloods is the necessary, calm counterpoint to Delroy Lindo’s fire and rage as he plays the de facto leader of the group, who has buried his emotions for years.

Best Actress

Up first is what should be a star making performance - Mariana Di Girolamo in Ema, who absolutely commands the screen in this film as a dancer, and a complicated person who does some truly awful things, but holds your interest throughout. Riley Keough in The Lodge is able to keep the movie on track, even as there is danger that it’s going to go off the rails with too many plot twists, with a subtle horror movie performance about the effects of childhood and slow psychological deterioration. Julia Garner in The Assistant is terrific, even as she appears to be doing nothing as the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein like Hollywood executive, and the toll it takes on her seeing what she sees. Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is another example of a brilliant subtle performance – playing a teenage girl from Pennsylvania who has to travel to NYC for an abortion and doesn’t want to betray her emotions – although a long scene (that gives the films its title) shows what an amazing talent Flanigan is. Finally, Elisbeth Moss in The Invisible Man further proof that Moss can do just about anything – as one of our great actresses delivers a horror movie performance for the ages, as a woman tormented by her abusive, now invisible ex, but how she comes through it.

Best Actor

Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi is wonderful as the newly released convict who pretends to be a priest in rural Poland – and turns out to be pretty good at it. Ben Affleck in The Way Back bares his soul and elevates what could have been another standard issue sports film with his tortured, but redemptive, performance. Ingvar Sigurdsson in A White, White Day gives a quiet, subtle performance of a man filled with rage quietly imploding and ruining everything around him. Willem Dafoe in Tommaso works with Abel Ferrara once again, and does some of the best work of his career playing a thinly veiled version of the director himself. Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods sets the screen ablaze in his already legendary performance in Spike Lee’s epic – a Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre from the Trump era.

Top 15

A couple runners-up – The Trip to Greece (Michael Winterbottom) is the fourth, and apparently last of these films, which are greater together, than any individual part. Driveways (Andrew Ahn) is such a gentle, heartfelt film. Les Miserables (Ladj Ly) is a modern take on Hugo’s novel, that has simply become more and more relevant as the year progressed. Onward (Dan Scanlon) isn’t quite top notch Pixar, but it’s still wonderful. Bird of Prey (Cathy Yan) was just a pure blast of joy. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Will Becher & Richard Phelan) is further proof that we will never appreciate this series as much on this side of the pond as we should. The Way Back (Gavin O’Connor) really does work as an inspirational sports movie, with a little more going on. Color Out of Space (Richard Stanley) is just pure weirdness. Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan) is a movie of the moment – about a couple trapped in a house with a demon child. Disappearance at Clifton Hill (Albert Shin) is a weird detective story as only Canadians would make. The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin) would probably make my list below, if I could decide it was a 2020 movie – the kind of weird Canadian film that wouldn’t be made anywhere else. Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis) is an odd, kind of horror movie about a kept woman who cannot stop swallowing things she shouldn’t.

15. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

A study in female friendship fraying and breaking over the years, down in deliberately lo-fi, low-key style by critic turned filmmaker Dan Sallitt. It would have been easy – perhaps even trite – to make this a study in millennial malaise and navel gazing, but this film is far more complicated than that as mental illness becomes a factor, as the film skips through time without warning. Two great performances – by Tallie Madel and Norma Kuhling – anchor the movie, and Sallitt remains an expert at this kind of slow, deceptively simple style.

14. The Lodge (Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

My only real complaint about Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s follow-up to Goodnight Mommy (a film I don’t think is as good as this) is that the plot mechanics require you to swallow some huge leaps in logic to get the film where it needs to be. However, once there – with Riley Keough and her two-future step kids, who hate her guts, trapped in an isolated cabin, snowed in, over Christmas break the film becomes a study in atmosphere, psychological warfare, and slowly spiraling out of control. Keough has been doing great work for a few years now – and isn’t about to pass up her chance at this type of rich, complex lead role. In other years, it would be the performance of the year in horror – but not this year.

13. Tommaso (Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara is essentially making a thinly veiled film about himself – an American director, living in Italy with his much younger wife, and toddler daughter, struggling to leave his addiction and violence fueled past behind him – and perhaps not quite succeeding. Willem Dafoe, who has worked with Ferrara often, delivers one of his best performances as the man who wants to be good, and struggles with it. The film looks like it was shot for no money, but that only adds to its charms. Ferrara has always been a hit or miss director – and it’s not surprising to see him make something auto-biographical, as all his films are to one degree or another – but this one is so nakedly vulnerable that it felt surprising. A film not to be slept on.

12. Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach)

Ken Loach has been making his studies in miserabilism for years now – some of them work better than others, as often I think he prioritizes messaging over everything else. Sorry We Missed You though is his best in years (perhaps since The Wind That Shakes the Barley back in 2006). It’s a story of a lower-class British family – the film, a homecare worker, the husband has just started delivering packages for an Amazon-like company. Loach is still very much making a message movie here – but it’s also a deeply humanistic one, genuinely sad and moving. At his best, he approaches the Italian neo-realists – and this is one of his better efforts.

11. Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa) – An Oscar nominee for Best International Film last year (although not released until well into this year), Jan Komasa’s hard hitting drama was probably overlooked during Oscar season, but should gain more attention now. The drama, starring Bartosz Bielenia, as a young man, just released from juvie, who has had a religious conversion – and wants to be a priest, but whose criminal record will never allow it. So, in a small town, he just pretends to be one – and is surprisingly good at it, even if he realizes his ruse will eventually be discovered. It’s a fascinating little film – whose closing scene is haunting, as you wonder just how much, if at all, he really has changed – and perhaps questioning what makes a good priest in the first place.

10. Ema (Pablo Larrain) – I’ve run hot and cold on Chilean director Pablo Larrain over the years, but there has never been a question about how stunning his films often look and sound. His latest, Ema, is one of his best – a stunning visual and aural experience, with what should be a star-making performance by Mariana Di Girolamo as the title character – a talented dancer, who choreographer husband (Gael Garcia Bernal) – who she has akin of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style relationship – believes she’s wasting that talent on street, reggaeton dancing. She is also obsessed with the young boy they adopted – and then gave up, and that may not be the worst thing she does. Is Ema a terrible person? Perhaps – but she’s fascinating, and at the center of this stunning, ambiguous film.

9. A White, White Day (Hlynur Palmason) – A police detective – a stunning Ingvar Sigurdsson – becomes convinced that his wife, recently deceased in a car wreck – was having an affair, and allows the anger that he feels to completely infect everything else in his life – most disturbingly his relationship with his young granddaughter. Hlynur Palmason’s film may sound like a typical revenge film – and it does hit a lot of those expected beats – but it’s also a deeper, darker, more disturbing film than that – with an absolute stunner of a closing scene. It kind of got lost in the shuffle this year – but is well worth seeking out.

8. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles) – This film is a giddy mash-up – a grindhouse exploitation take on The Most Dangerous Game and a political commentary on modern Brazil all rolled into one. The film focuses on a small, isolated Brazilian town – reeling for the death of a prominent citizen, and being pulled apart by various interpersonal conflicts. The mayor of the area doesn’t care for this town – he focuses on the richer areas, further away, which has led to the area being infected with drought. And then, a group of gun-toting American tourists – led by Udo Kier as their “guide” descend on the town to kill them all. A more effective, political relevant (and even more fun, in a down and dirty exploitation way) than the much publicized The Hunt – the movie is further proof that Mendoncz Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius) is the most exciting voice to emerge from Brazil in a while – and whatever Dornelles’ influence here was, it certainly feels different than those other films. This is going to be a cult film for years to come.

7. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson) – Andrew Patterson’s remarkable debut feature is built on familiar elements – small Americana in the 1950s, a possible alien invasion, etc. – that nevertheless feels completely original and new. He accomplishes that through his style – a tracking shot early that goes through the entire town, withholding close-ups of his two leads until they really mean something, etc. Yes, you know where this film is going – and indeed, it gets there – but it’s such a remarkable achievement on almost no money that it announces Patterson as a major new voice in American film.

6. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov) – An absolutely devastating film set in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of WWII – Beanpole focuses on two female soldier – one just returned from the front, and the other who was sent home earlier, and had been caring for her best friends child before tragedy strikes in a scene almost too hard to watch in the early going. The two lead performances – by Viktoria Miroshnichenko and especially Vasilisa Pereygina are absolute knockouts. This is not an easy film to watch to be certain – but it’s one of the very best of the year so far – so you shouldn’t shy away from it.

5. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) – Another excellent film from Kelly Reichardt, who has been making subtle, devastating film, deconstructing American myths, and quietly questioning the economic systems in place. This one, set in a frontier town of the old West – is about the roots of capitalism – with a pair of outsiders building up a business based on stolen milk. It’s a quietly funny film, one about male friendship, economic inequality, done in Reichardt’s trademark, quiet style that builds to quite a climax.

4. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) – Eliza Hittman more than fulfills the promise of her earlier features – It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats – with this story a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania, who travels to NYC along with her cousin in order to get an abortion. Sidney Flanigan is great in the lead role – she never betrays her emotions, no matter how dire things get, but lets them slip in the remarkable scene that gives the film its name. Talia Ryder, as her cousin, is almost as good – in perhaps an even trickier role. Yes, the film has a message – but Hittman isn’t lecturing here, isn’t browbeating you – but rather lets the film play out as it must. Hittman has been a talent to watch for a while now – here she has made her best film to date.

3. The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell) – I would not have guessed that Leigh Whannell’s remark of The Invisible Man would be one of the best films of the year so far – but here we are. Whannell, who got his start as the writer of the Saw series – has become a fine director as well – this one being leaps and bonus above his two previous efforts, Insidious Chapter 3 and Upgrade – as he has learned that less is more. The best decision made here is to not focus on The Invisible Man himself, but rather his victim – his long suffering wife (Elisabeth Moss, once again showing she can do anything) – who he is gaslighting even after his supposed death. Yes, this is mainstream horror – but done with so much style and wit, and legitimately scary, shocking, creepy moments, that is becomes one of the best of its kind in recent years.

2. The Assistant (Kitty Green) – Kitty Green’s The Assistant takes its cue from the classic Jeanne Dielman (1975) by Chantal Akerman, as it depicts a young assistant, played with understated precision by Julia Garner (who has built up a great resume of performances at a young age) as the assistant of a Harvey Weinstein like studio boss. She sees what is going on, doesn’t like – even tries to do something about it (the scene with Matthew McFadyen as the HR guy is brilliant) – but just keeps chugging along anyway, unsure of what to do, and whether she can actually do anything about it. It’s a smart decision to never depict the Weinstein character – this is all through her eyes, and he would detract from that. This is a quiet, but devastating film, that confirms what those of us who loved Green’s documentary – Casting JonBenet – suspected. That Green is a major talent.

1. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee) – Nothing makes me happier than Spike Lee becoming a filmmaker, again, that we all reckon with (while at the same time thinking that more people should have been talking about his other recent work. He follows up his brilliant, Oscar-winning BlackKklansman with this Vietnam movie – about four black vets returning to the country for the first time in decades – to recover the body of their fallen friend/mentor, and to get their hands on the gold they thought they lost. Lee’s take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre features a brilliant Delroy Lindo in the Bogart role – paranoid and greedy, which leads to his downfall. But it’s more than that – it is a depiction of fathers and sons, and the toll war takes on the participants – all of whom have never been the same since coming home from the war. Lee had attempted something similar with Miracle at St. Anna – which ended up being a deeply flawed film – but here he pulls it off. It is an electrifying, entertaining and ultimately devastating film – and the easy choice for best of the year so far.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) 
Directed by: Bryan Forbes.
Written by: Bryan Forbes based on the novel by Mark McShane.
Starring: Kim Stanley (Myra Savage), Richard Attenborough (William Henry 'Bill' Savage), Judith Donner (Amanda Clayton - The Child), Mark Eden (Mr. Charles Clayton), Nanette Newman (Mrs. Clayton), Gerald Sim (Det. Sgt. Beedle), Patrick Magee (Superintendent Walsh).
There are a pair of exceptional performances at the heart of Bryan Forbes Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough play a married couple, who have responded to the death of their baby in differing ways – for her, it has deepened whatever mental illness she has already has, and for him, it has stricken him with grief. Stanley plays Myra, who makes her living as a psychic, and she is the domineering and controlling one in the relationship. Attenborough is William, her long-suffering husband, who is better able to interact in the real world, but powerless to stand up to his wife. She has an idea on how to advance her career. All he needs to do is kidnap the child of a wealthy couple – Amanda Clayton (Judith Donner) – and she can step in and “find” her, safe and sound, and become the famous psychic who cracked the case. No one is going to get to hurt – at least, that is what Myra assures William.
The film was directed by Bryan Forbes – not much remembered today, but he certainly has a few gems on his filmography – none better than this. This is a slow-burn thriller – it lacks the kind of action you often get in these sorts of stories, because it doesn’t need them. It is all about the psychology of these two damaged people. It all builds to that title séance – which will, of course, bring everything crashing down.
Stanley received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her role here. Stanley was always a fine actress – but she often got her roles after others turned them down – in this case Deborah Kerr, Anne Bancroft, Shelley Winters and Simone Signoret all passed, before it fell to Stanley. Those are all great actresses – you can argue all had better careers than Stanley – but she was the right choice for this role. It is a role that is chilly, domineering, and yet fragile – Myra is teetering on the edge of her own sanity, any slight push will be too much for her. William knows this, of course, and he goes along with what she wants. He has tried to leave her in the past – but needs her. She is perhaps her only connection to anything. Attenborough was a fine actor – and I’m not sure he’s ever been better than he is here. He is quiet man, one who has mainly been beaten into submission. He will do anything for Myra – but this may just be the push he needs to grow a spine.
Forbes shoots the film is chilly black and white – and the action cuts between the countryside in England, where the couple live, and London – where William travels to kidnap the child, and do other things involved in the ransom, etc. His direction here isn’t flashy – he allows scenes to play out minute by minute, and for Stanley and Attenborough to have stretches of silence. Heightening the realism is the location shooting on the streets of London. The closest thing the film has to an action set piece is the money exchange, and the fallout, in a crowded subway platform.
For the most part, they don’t make thrillers like this anymore. The film deliberately lacks action – there are no shootouts, no murder, no blood, and really only that one chase in the subway. It is a thriller grounded in the reality of its two leading characters – their psychological underpinnings, their perverse attachment to each other – that co-dependence deepening into something dangerous. It’s a movie you cannot look away from, for fear of missing something subtle, dark and disturbing. And it is all the more thrilling because of it.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Movie Review: Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi **** / *****
Directed by: Jan Komasa.
Written by: Mateusz Pacewicz.
Starring: Bartosz Bielenia (Daniel), Aleksandra Konieczna (Lidia), Eliza Rycembel (Marta Sosińska), Leszek Lichota (Mayor), Lukasz Simlat (Priest Tomasz), Tomasz Zietek ('Pinczer'), Barbara Kurzaj (Widow).

Daniel, played in a brilliant performance by Bartosz Bielenia, is a damaged young man just exiting a stint in juvenile detention who may not be quite reformed – but certainly longs to be. We first meet him as he keeps watch as other inmates commit a violent assault, and this is shortly before he’s to be let free. Yet, when talking to the priest he has become close to while inside, he is legitimately disappointed that his criminal record will prevent him from entering seminary. Upon his release, he is supposed to travel to a small town, far away from his friends (which is a good thing, because the night he is released he goes on a bender) to take a menial job in a sawmill. Once there though, he tells an impulsive lie to a pretty girl, Marta (Eliza Rycembel) he meets in church – that he isn’t one of the dead end guys at the sawmill, but actually a priest. Before he knows it, this lie has expanded – and now he is the priest for this small congregation – as the real priest heads off for a stint in rehab.

This small town, like seemingly every small town in movies, is harboring some dark secrets – this time, involving a recent accident that left six teenagers dead when they collided with another car. The driver of that car was also killed – but everyone has agreed it was his fault, and take their anger out on his widow. Daniel takes it upon himself to try and heal this wound – and finds himself surprisingly good at the rest of the job of being a priest. His own brushes with violence and sin – which has damaged him – perhaps offers some insight that other priests lack.

 Bielenia is electric in the lead role here. Those opening scenes, full of violence, drugs and sex – show Daniel at his worst, and Bielenia uses his wild eyes to great effect. The movie does take the expected path for much of its runtime – with Daniel growing increasingly into the role that he is pretending to fill, but with enough differences to make it interesting. And it’s always fascinating to simply watch Daniel himself, and Bielenia’s great performance, which doesn’t give too much away. His growing relationship with Marta offers some complications of course – and he makes enemies out of the parents whose kids were killed (Aleksandra Konieczna is excellent as one of the mothers, who is also the housekeeper for the priest, who is filled with confusion).

 Of course, ruses like this never last in real life – or the movies – and eventually Daniel will be found out, albeit not quite in the way who may expect him to be. This leads to a violent, ambiguous finale – that makes you question what you’ve seen before it, in interesting ways – and leaves Daniel as a fascinating, unsolvable enigma. It also may make you wonder about the role of priests in the first place. Because while the older priest has earned the job that Daniel has not – both are addicts in their own ways, and with Daniel the people in the congregation are forced to reckon with their own morals far more than the idle, banal piety – easy to tune out – of what came before. Daniel is an imperfect messenger – but perhaps the message actually gets through with him.

Movie Review: 7500

7500 ** / *****
Directed by: Patrick Vollrath.
Written by: Patrick Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tobias Ellis), Passar Hariky (Kalkan), Omid Memar (Veda), Hicham Sebiai (Hopper), Paul Wollin (Daniel), Murathan Muslu (Kenan), Aurélie Thépaut (Nathalie), Aylin Tezel (Gökce), Cornel Nussbaum (Peter), Carlo Kitzlinger (Michael Lutzmann), Denis Schmidt (Ramp Agent Mario), Mario Klischies (Bremen Radar - voice), Simon Schwarz (Alexander Franz - voice).

7500 is another attempt to make a movie in a confined space, with one major character, and still be intense. Basically, the entire movie takes place inside a cockpit of a passenger plane during a high jacking. Its main character is Tobias (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the co-pilot – an American on a German flight to France, a choice made apparently to add to his confusion, as he doesn’t speak the other languages (which is odd, when you consider what little we know about it is that he has a girlfriend, and a child, they are raising in Germany). The film tries to ratchet up the tension after the hijacking commences – when three terrorists try and break into the cockpit, one succeeds, stabs the pilot, before Tobias is able to knock him out cold, and slam the door shut. The other terrorists then start banging on the door – and threatening to kill the passengers one at a time if he doesn’t open the door. Because his girlfriend, the mother of his child, is one of the stewardesses, it, in theory, adds to the tension.

Yet, oddly, 7500 is never all that intense. The darkened cockpit doesn’t offer much room to move around in, and yet never develops the sense of claustrophobia you may be expecting. For such a simple narrative, it’s also somehow too busy at the same time. We are introduced to too many different characters that just aren’t that interesting – the pilot, Tobias’ girlfriend, and eventually two of the terrorists – a true believer, and Veda (Omid Memar), who will eventually become the second part of a two-hander with Gordon-Levitt in the final act – as he starts to question everything that they are to do on that plane.

Gordon-Levitt is a talented performer – and in his first role since 2016’s Snowden, he does what he can with the material. There just isn’t much there to play. The film mainly tries to play out in real time, but there just isn’t much there to make things very interesting or intense. Co-writer and director Patrick Vollrath never quite finds the right notes to play – the right atmosphere, or tension.

Planes can, of course, be great locations for thrillers – from the legendary Twilight Zone episode to Wes Craven’s wonderful Red Eye, to the real life thriller of United 93. Those film use their confined spaces to great effect. Here though, there is simply a bland sameness to every scene – visually the film has nothing to offer, and everything else is so paper thin that 7500 never really gets off the ground.

Movie Review: Wasp Network

Wasp Network ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Olivier Assayas.
Starring: Olivier Assayas Based on the book by Fernando Morais.
Starring: Penélope Cruz (Olga Salanueva), Edgar Ramírez (Rene Gonzalez), Gael García Bernal (Gerardo Hernandez), Ana de Armas (Ana Magarita Martinez), Wagner Moura (Juan Pablo Roque), Leonardo Sbaraglia (Jose Basulto), Nolan Guerra (Cruz León), Osdeymi Pastrana (Irmo), Tony Plana (Luis Posada Carriles).

Olivier Assayas is one of the great directors currently working – and one of the most versatile – seemingly at home during large scale epics – like the five-and-a-half hour Carlos, about the famed terrorist, or a small scale ghost story like Personal Shopper, or a throwback to the European art house films of the 1960s and’70s – albeit with a modern twist – in Clouds of Sils Maria. And that barely scratches the surface of his immense, diverse, brilliant filmography. His last film – Wasp Network – would have benefitted from the same treatment that Carlos received – an epic runtime, maybe a television miniseries – because the events covered are so vast, so intricate and complicated, that they simply overwhelm in the films runtime of just over two hours.

Wasp Network is about Cuban spies – and immigration from Cuba – during the 1990s and quite simply tries to tell too many stories at once. There is Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez), a pilot who pulls off a daring escape – flying from Cuba to Miami where he claims asylum – without bothering to tell his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) or their daughter about it. It isn’t that he doesn’t love them – he does, and he, and they, spend most of the rest of the film trying to (legally) come to America to join him – but he cannot wait for that himself. He gets involved with some different groups of Cuban exiles – some doing humanitarian work, some not so much. This story is mirrored in another – that of Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), another pilot who defects to America. He marries Ana Margarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) – although she is suspicious of their wealth, especially when he won’t answer questions about it, and essentially threatens to leave if she keeps asking questions. There is even more going in Wasp Network than that – I haven’t even mentioned someone like Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) – whose motives may be murkier than we have led to believe. Or its depiction of the Cuban hotel bombings in 1997 – a wonderful set piece in and of itself in the middle of the film. And on and on.

The first hour of the film works best. That is basically when Assayas is focused on the characters – so even if his narrative is zooming along, we do get to know Rene and Olga and Ana and Juan Pablo a little – even if we don’t know how it’s all going to fit together. There are wonderful cinematic moments throughout – a dance floor sequence for instance, that trains its camera on Armas, and doesn’t look away for a few minutes. The hotel bombings are an example of the kind of tension that Assayas can expertly build.

But in the second hour, as the narrative shoots off in all sorts of different directions, everything becomes muddled – the characters feel more like pawns than people, and everything is far too rushed. The film was picked up by Netflix after its premiere on the fall festival circuit – Venice, TIFF – last year, after which Assayas did go back and re-edit the film in time for the New York Film Festival, given the muted reaction it received at the first two festivals. I almost wonder what Wasp Network would look like if Netflix had been involved from the beginning. They have shown a willingness to let auteurs do their own thing there – from letting Scorsese have The Irishman run three-and-a-half hour, to allowing the Coens to turn Buster Scruggs from an anthology series into a feature, to just letting Spike Lee do whatever he wants with Da 5 Bloods. Perhaps if Assayas had that sort of freedom while making Wasp Network, we would have ended up with another epic masterwork like Carlos – there is enough here to suggest an expanded version would be better. What we have is deeply flawed – some great moments, an interesting setup, and rich source material – all crammed into too small a package to do it justice.

Movie Review: A White, White Day

A White, White Day **** / *****
Directed by: Hlynur Palmason.
Written by: Hlynur Palmason.
Starring: Ingvar Sigurdsson (Ingimundur), Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir (Salka), Hilmir Snær Guðnason (Olgeir), Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir (Ingimundur's wife), Björn Ingi Hilmarsson (Trausti), Elma Stefania Agustsdottir (Elín), Haraldur Stefansson (Stefán), Laufey Elíasdóttir (Ingibjörg), Sigurður Sigurjónsson (Bjössi), Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson (Hrafn), Þór Tulinius (Georg - Psychiatrist), Sverrir Þór Sverrisson (Sveppi). 

The main character in A White, White Day discovers that his late wife was having an affair before she died in a single car wreck – memorably portrayed in the hypnotic opening scene. He is already reeling from the death, and now his grief mixes with his anger – and overwhelms everything in his life. He has nowhere to put his rage, no one to confront about the affair – at least at first – and so his anger spills out into every other aspect of his life – most disturbingly into his relationship with his young granddaughter – who he adores, but because he’s around her so much, she will bear the brunt of some of his anger.

But while A White, White Day takes the form of a revenge thriller, it moves at its own pace, and is really more about Ingimundur’s obsession than about revenge. The film takes its cue for its pacing on the harsh, Icelandic environment in which it takes place. It is a small, rural community – one where you know almost everyone else, and seemingly not much happens. Ingimundur is a cop – part time now that he is approaching retirement age – but the police force, such as it is, doesn’t seem overly busy. He spends much of his time fixing up a house for his daughter, son-in-law and beloved granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) – which he does mostly in solitude.

Written and directed by Hlynur Palmason, A White, White Day makes some offbeat choices on what to focus on, and what not to show. Ingimundur, while going through his wife’s things, finds evidence of the affair – but doesn’t do much about it for a while, other than stew about it. He will eventually start to obsess over the other man – but not until we’ve seen how this all infects the rest of his life. Even a seemingly innocent event – liking tucking Salka into bed – becomes fraught with tension as Ingimundur takes the story too far, even when it becomes clear he is scaring Salka – he keeps pushing, subtly, but cruelly.

Ingvar Sigurdsson is terrific in the lead role. He plays his character as someone who has bottled up all of his emotions. He doesn’t talk about his wife very much to anyone – the closest thing we get to his grief in terms of what he says is when he states “She used to cut my hair – I miss that” – which stands in for all the things he misses about her, but cannot, will not talk about. It is a remarkably controlled performance.

Eventually, of course, not everything will stay so bottled up – and Ingimundur will take things too far, and risk ruining everything. So concerned with the past, that he is letting it infect his present – and perhaps ruin his future. It all builds to a stunner of a final shot, which like the rest of this wonderful film, is slow and subtle – but builds to an emotionally overwhelming final moment. A White, White Day is sleeper – but one well worth your time.

Movie Review: Becky

Becky ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion.
Written by: Nick Morris and Ruckus Skye & Lane Skye.
Starring: Lulu Wilson (Becky), Kevin James (Dominick), Joel McHale (Jeff), Robert Maillet (Apex), Amanda Brugel (Kayla), Isaiah Rockcliffe (Ty), Ryan McDonald (Cole), James McDougall (Hammond), Leslie Adlam (Ms. Hancher). 

Sooner or later, every comedic actor wants to try their hand at something more serious – to get people to see them in a different light. If nothing else, Becky has lovable lunk Kevin James attempting to play an evil, violent neo-Nazi, which is about as far away from his King of Queens, Paul Blart, Adam Sandler-supporting player roles that he has done up to now as possible. Or, at least it should be, but I’m not sure James really does have the range to pull it off. He never really comes across as all that menacing here – which is odd given his shaved head, racist rhetoric and tattoos, and the fact that he basically spends the whole movie trying to kill a teenage girl. He always just seems to be lovable Kevin James dressing up as a bad guy.

Luckily for the movie, young Lulu Wilson – who has been quite good in films like Ouija Origin of Evil, Annabelle: Creation and the TV show Sharp Objects, more than makes up for his deficiencies as the title character – a kick ass teenage girl who finds when push comes to shove, she can shove – and hard. So hard in fact that by the end, you may feel like you’ve just witnesses the origin story of a violent psychopath – even if she is the hero of the film.

The film is basically another take on the home invasion genre. Young Becky and her father, Jeff (Joel McHale), head up to their cabin for a vacation – a brief respite for the grief Becky still feels for her mother who passes away. Things are already tense because Jeff didn’t reveal that he was also inviting his fiancé, Kayla (Amanda Brugel) and her young son to join them. And then a group of escaped, neo-Nazi convicts, led by James’ Dominick, show up because they want something from the house. To be honest, I’m still not quite sure what, or how it got there, or how these Nazis knew it was there, etc. – but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a classic MacGuffin – it doesn’t matter what it is, just that everyone wants it. Soon, it’s pretty much just Becky fighting off these men – picking them off one-by-one in increasingly over-the-top, bloody ways.

I liked Wilson quite a bit in this movie – it’s the type of performance that can easily go wrong, because you either take it too seriously, and thus throw off the exploitation vibe of the movie, or you go too far over the top, and look goofy. She straddles that line well though – and even if, at first, you question how a teenage girl as small as Becky pulls it off, you don’t for long. She sells you on Becky’s determination and ruthlessness. She could have just been a grim joke of a little girl committing violence – but the film at least explores the implications of it all – a little anyways.

The film though never really lives up to her performance. Maybe it’s James’ lack of intimidation, maybe it’s McHale, who I have a tough time believing is ever acting sincere, or maybe it’s just the violence itself is a little too goofy to really hurt (except for the very last, sudden killing – which hits the exact note I wish the rest of the film did). The film does shows what Wilson can do – and I cannot wait to see her in something better.

Movie Review: Gretel & Hansel

Gretel & Hansel *** / *****
Directed by: Osgood Perkins.
Written by: Rob Hayes.
Starring: Sophia Lillis (Gretel), Samuel Leakey (Hansel), Alice Krige (Witch), Jessica De Gouw (Witch), Fiona O'Shaughnessy (Mother), Donncha Crowley (Master Stripp), Jonathan Gunning (Emaciated Man), Charles Babalola (The Hunter), Giulia Doherty (Beautiful Child), Jonathan Delaney Tynan (Father), Darlene Garr (Widow), Melody Carrillo (Enchantress).

In his first three films, Osgood Perkins has done more than enough to showcase his immense talent – and prove to be a horror movie director to watch. All of the films – The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and now Gretel & Hansel are magnificent visually – layering on atmosphere rather than relying on jump scares and gore for effect. He certainly takes his time building up the mounting dread of in his movies. And yet, other than The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the first film he made, although the second released (and also, undeniably his most conventional), I’m not quite sold that Perkins does anything except build atmosphere. The films look great, but I’m not sure they add up to all that much – and don’t quite creep under your skin the way the best horror films do – they seem at a slight remove. There is evidence here – his biggest film to date – that Perkins isn’t going to change his style to suit what people except in a horror film – and I still think that a great horror film is in his future. He just hasn’t quite got there yet.

You can tell two things about the movie from its title – yes, this will be another take on the famed Grimm (and grim) fairy tale about the pair of siblings being lured to a house by a witch, but that this time, the narrative will focus primarily on Gretel. She is played by the talented young actress Sophia Lillis (It, I Am Not Okay with This, Sharp Objects) – and she is older than Hansel this time. She is becoming a young woman, while Hansel is still a child. Things start ominously with their mentally ill mother through them out of the house – abandoning them for dead, telling them to dig “pretty little graves” – before heading out to the deep, dark woods. They meet a kindly woodcutter – but that won’t last long. When they finally get to the Witch’s house (played in a wonderfully creepy performance by Alice Krige) – Gretel is smart enough to notice that things aren’t right fairly early.

Gretel & Hansel is a triumph of atmosphere to be sure. The cinematography by Galo Olivares is dark and ominous, the score by Robert Coudert, will likely bring to mind some classic 1980s horror movies score. The art direction and production design by Jeremy Reed and Christine McDonagh – is a surreal triumph for the witch’s house alone. The performances by Lillis and Krige in particular get the same sense of foreboding dread to not overtake the narrative. Everything works together to have the exact, hushed tone that Perkins has nailed in his first three films.

Yet, I cannot help but wonder – as I did with I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House – if it’s a bunch of visually greatness at the service of something not altogether that interesting. The screenplay tries for a feminist take on this fairy tale – but it’s a very obvious one. The narrative does offer some surprises along the way – but not quite enough.

In short, Gretel & Hansel is, for the third film in a row from Perkins, a sign of just how talented he is – and continues to make me want to see what he does next. He’s got the hard part – the thing that most directors never get right – already down. At some point though, he needs to use it in service of something greater.

Classic Movie Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) 
Directed by: Orson Welles.
Written by: Orson Welles based on the novel by Sherwood King.
Starring: Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister), Orson Welles (Michael O'Hara), Everett Sloane (Arthur Bannister), Glenn Anders (George Grisby), Ted de Corsia (Sidney Broome), Erskine Sanford (Judge), Gus Schilling (Goldie), Carl Frank (District Attorney Galloway), Louis Merrill (Jake Bjornsen), Evelyn Ellis (Bessie), Harry Shannon (Cab Driver). 
I don’t typically spend a lot of time on extra-textuals of a movie – the how and why it got made, because in the end it is what onscreen that matters. Those making of stories are interesting, but if what is onscreen doesn’t work, then it doesn’t really matter. The one exception though is probably the films of Orson Welles. Welles, of course, made Citizen Kane (1941) – widely considered to be the greatest film ever made as his first film, and it was really the only film of his career he got to make exactly how he wanted to make it. His Hollywood career after that was largely made up of fighting with executives, who would take his films away and recut them, leaving them not quite the films Welles wanted. Even when he escaped Hollywood, he wasn’t immune to that – and he often didn’t have the money to do what he wanted to either. Welles remains one of the great directors in film history – but also one of the greatest “What ifs” in film history. One can only imagine what Welles could have and would have done if left to his own devices.
Take The Lady from Shanghai (1947) as an example. It’s a film Welles didn’t really want to make – he agreed to do it to continue to get funding for his Around the World in 80 Days – which never did. He said he’d adapt a book he never read, and so he ended up with this noir tale. The story is full of double crosses and triple crosses – complicated murder plots and reversals. And yet Welles doesn’t seem to care much about them – leading to the film having almost a slapdash quality to it. Perhaps if we saw the full version, it wouldn’t, but what remains feel like Welles having a lark. That extends to his performance as well – where he plays an Irishman, with a brogue, who isn’t particularly bright and gets himself into trouble when he falls for the beautiful Elsa (Rita Hayworth, who Welles was married to at the time, but wouldn’t be for much longer). Welles seemingly wanted to piss everyone off – which explains some of the decisions he makes, including having Hayworth cut off her famous mane of red hair – which had made her a star in Gilda, for a shorter cut, dyed blonde. And then , of course, there is the most famous sequence in the film – the almost Avant Garde climax set in a funhouse full of mirrors, that Welles had intended to last for 20 minutes, but which is shorn down to 3 minutes here – and yet remains one of the best sequences in all of cinema.
The Lady from Shanghai then probably shouldn’t work. It is a film with a complicated narrative, then the director doesn’t seem interested in, and seems to just skip some connective tissue. How Welles and Hayworth fell in love in the movie is pretty much not there – they just are one scene. Welles also loves a lot of shots of the boat on the water, gliding through paradise, which add nothing really to the narrative. When we get to the courtroom climax – where the main character is on trial for his life, Welles pretty much plays the whole thing as a farce. Welles himself is miscast in the lead – he’d probably be better suited playing Grisby or Bannister – and in a few years, that is exactly who he would have played.
So why, then, does The Lady from Shanghai work – and for the most part wonderfully well. Is it simply because Welles is clearly having so much fun – and so is everyone else – that it rubs off on the audience? Is it because the scenes that Welles leaves out are pretty much the scenes that aren’t really needed anyway, so what you’re left with is what you’d remember anyway? Is it just that amazing climax?
I’m honestly not sure. What I do know is that The Lady from Shanghai isn’t quite like anything else that Welles – or anyone really – has ever made. It’s part of the Columbia Noir collection on the Criterion Channel right now, and I’ve been churning through all of them right now. For the most part, they are fun, fast, B-movie – decent noirs, that hit the notes you expect. And then comes The Lady from Shanghai, and it’s like a noir from a different planet. I love it.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment (1960) 
Directed by: Billy Wilder.
Written by: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.
Starring: Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D. Sheldrake), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Dreyfuss), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Hope Holiday (Mrs. Margie MacDougall), Joan Shawlee (Sylvia), Naomi Stevens (Mrs. Mildred Dreyfuss), Johnny Seven (Karl Matuschka), Joyce Jameson (The Blonde), Willard Waterman (Mr. Vanderhoff), David White (Mr. Eichelberger), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen). 
If I had to recommend a “classic” movie director to someone who was looking to start to get in older Hollywood movies and looking for a place to start, I think that director would be Billy Wilder – and The Apartment may well be the film I suggest they start with. It’s a testament to just how great Wilder is that The Apartment is probably not even his best film – that would be Sunset Blvd. (1950) or even his funniest – that would be Some Like It Hot (1959). And you can go down the line to many great films he made – Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and One, Two, Three (1961) – and even that list is missing some classics. His films don’t seem to age – you could change few details of The Apartment, and pretty much have a film you could set today, probably in some tech company in Northern California, and you wouldn’t have to change much else. This is a comedy – one of the best American comedies of all time – but it sticks with you because of the sense of loneliness and sadness that runs through the entire film. It’s anchored by two of the best performances by two legendary actors – Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine – and yes, it is a romantic comedy. But it’s a romantic comedy about two adults – realists in an imperfect world, and when the credits role, after the perfect closing line, you have no idea whether or not it will work out between them. But you want it to – they seem right for each other. And they take their time making that decision – with their heads, as much as with their hearts.
Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a cog in the machine of a massive insurance company. He’s good at his job and ambitious to boot – part of that ambition has led him to lend out his bachelor apartment to executives in the company, looking for place to take their mistresses before getting on the train at night and returning to their wives. Baxter has a crush of Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), the pretty elevator operator in the building – not knowing that she was once, and will be again, the mistress of the big boss – Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) – who will eventually call on Baxter for use of that famous apartment.
So the famous Wilder cynicism is baked right into the concept of The Apartment. Neither Baxter nor Frank or naïve kids who fall head over heels in love. They are sad, lonely people. Wilder sets the film during Christmas, usually a cheerful time, but also chose to shoot it in black-and-white, which drains all those cheery lights and decorations of their color and sheer. Baxter has no family of any kind – at one point, he shares how he spent last Christmas day, and it’s downright pathetic. Fran does have a sister – she lives with her, and her brother-in-law, but that doesn’t stop the loneliness for sinking in. They are both “company men” in their way – and looking to climb the ladder in their own ways – him by getting promoted, her by marrying the boss. They both love Sheldrake in their own ways – and so much they cannot see what an asshole he is – perfectly played by MacMurray, as the type of guy who always gets what he wants, and seems offended when he doesn’t.
This was a key film for both Lemmon and MacLaine. Lemmon had already won an Oscar at this point – for his manic performance in Mister Roberts (1955), and had become a bigger star with his role in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot the year before. MacLaine had been doing comedies as well – and delivered a great, tragic turn in Vincente Minelli’s Some Came Running (1958) prior to The Apartment – which earned her the first Oscar nomination of her career. They are both brilliant here – both nominated for Oscars (Lemmon lost to Burt Lancaster, who finally won for Elmer Gantry, she to Elizabeth Taylor, who finally won for Butterfield 8) – but the roles propelled towards their future careers, where they would continue to be great. There is some shared DNA for Lemmon here between C.C. Baxter, and his last great performance – as Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) – the once great salesman, now aging and incapable of closing. MacLaine would age into greater roles as well – she wouldn’t win an Oscar until Terms of Endearment (1983), not so much a similar character, except that it’s clear that both of these women had seen some things, been hurt, learned, and then kept going.
The key scenes in The Apartment as far as the romance goes are odd – in that they come in the wake of a Fran’s suicide attempt, in the apartment, that she doesn’t know is Baxter’s (she assumes Sheldrake will find her). They fall in love while she recuperates. And yet, they don’t fall into each other’s arms at the end – they actually both go back to Sheldrake for a while, needing one last kick in the teeth before they are ready for each other. Which brings you to one of the most perfect endings in cinema history. It’s the ending you want, the ending you feel you deserve, and its sweet and funny. But it also somehow manages to fit in as the perfect ending to this cynical, adult romantic comedy. How Wilder and company pulled it off is nothing short of a miracle.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Haunting (1963)

The Haunting (1963) 

Directed by: Robert Wise.

Written by: Nelson Gidding based on the novel by Shirley Jackson.

Starring: Julie Harris (Eleanor Lance), Claire Bloom (Theodora), Richard Johnson (Dr. John Markway), Russ Tamblyn (Luke Sanderson), Fay Compton (Mrs. Sanderson), Rosalie Crutchley (Mrs. Dudley), Lois Maxwell (Grace Markway), Valentine Dyall (Mr. Dudley), Diane Clare (Carrie Fredericks), Ronald Adam (Eldridge Harper). 


I’ve said before that I’ve never been one for ghost stories – I don’t believe in ghosts, and for the most part, ghost story movies don’t much scare me, because it’s the same thing again and again – and unlike the horror movies that really do scare me, I can never project myself into those situations – never really feel that fear, so it all becomes an exercise. That’s probably why it took me so long to watch The Haunting from 1963 – considering my many to be the greatest ghost story movie of all time. And now, having seen it, I can only agree with that assessment – but with a caveat. It’s certainly one of the greatest of its kind ever made – but it works that well because it may not be a ghost story at all.


The movie is based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and is about a group of four people, who go to the damned house to “study” it for a few days. The house is already old, but has been cursed ever since it was built – its owners die mysteriously, or are driven mad, etc. The leader is Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), who is a real doctor, who sometimes indulges his interest in the paranormal, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. He is joined at the house by Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) – who will one day inherit Hill House, and more important two women. Theodora (Claire Bloom) is a psychic. Eleanor (Julie Harris), the real protagonist of the movie, doesn’t have any special skills – but is sensitive herself, believing she has already had contact with ghosts in her childhood.


The movie is about these four people in the house together, as strange things start happening. All of those things feed into Eleanor’s already shaky psyche – so much so that the movie can be read in two very different ways – one that the house is legitimately haunted, and the other being that it is all a projection of Eleanor’s increasing mental breakdown. It is also quite possible that Hill house isn’t haunted – that Eleanor is – and she brings those ghosts along with her.


The film was directed by Robert Wise – who made it between two films for which he’d win Best Director Oscars – West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965) – although this film couldn’t be more different than those big budget, all singing, all dancing epics. This is a pared down horror movie, shot in beautiful, spooky black-and-white, almost all in that house, with just these four people. The “ghosts” in the film are nothing but sounds – persistent knocking, perhaps a door handle jiggling, and cold spots in rooms. The film could easily have been made on the cheap.


All of those tricks that Wise and his crew work – and wonderfully so, even if they have become a cliché in the decades since. They work in part because they are at the service of a story that is less concerned with ghosts, than in its characters. Russ Tamblyn is in fine form as the cynical, rich playboy who wants to dismiss everything. Johnson gives off the right air of fatherly concern and intelligence. But it’s Bloom and Harris are particularly great. Bloom barely tries to hide the fact that she is playing Theodora as a lesbian – it is what drew her to role in the first place, and it’s perhaps another example of people not taking horror films seriously, so you can sneak in things you wouldn’t get away with elsewhere. It isn’t a judgmental performance either – but one in which Bloom is very in tune with her character. All of these characters, and how they act though, end up feeding into Harris’ increasing breakdown – sneaking up on her. Harris and Bloom are truly great in the film.


That is what I will remember about The Haunting. Yes, Wise and company devise brilliant strategies to keep the tension up, and to scare you with nothing more than some clanging pipes. But like all great horror films, there is more here than that – it digs deep into Eleanor’s fractured, repressed psyche – which may be worse than the ghosts.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020) **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee.
Starring: Delroy Lindo (Paul), Jonathan Majors (David), Clarke Peters (Otis), Norm Lewis (Eddie), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Melvin), Mélanie Thierry (Hedy), Paul Walter Hauser (Simon), Jasper Pääkkönen (Seppo), Johnny Nguyen (Vinh Tran), Lê Y. Lan (Tiên Luu), Lam Nguyen (Quân), Sandy Huong Pham (Michon), Jean Reno (Desroche), Chadwick Boseman (Stormin' Norman), Van Veronica Ngo (Hanoi Hannah), Anh Tuan Nguyen (Chavy), Duc Luong (Bao), Quoc Tuan (Tam).

The re-emergence of Spike Lee as a filmmaker who inspires such fierce debate – debate that goes outside of the typical film press – has been welcome over the past few years, even as I feel the need the point out that Lee never really went anywhere, and his films were always worthy of those debates whether or not they happened. We didn’t get the kind of cultural debates about Lee’s films like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Red Hook Summer, Chi-Raq, Pass Over and others deserved – but perhaps those conversations are just lying dormant for now – it took years for people to catch on to the fact that his Bamboozled (2000) was one of his masterpieces, deserving of the kind of introspection that films like Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X always inspired. Yes, Lee’s films are messy – and that leads to a somewhat inconsistent filmography – and often to inconsistent films. But few filmmakers ever are as worthy as a deep dive as Lee is.

His latest film, Da 5 Bloods, is, like his last film, BlackKklansman, one of his best. It’s a film about four black Vietnam vets, returning to the country they fought in 50 years ago on a dual mission. The first is they want to recover the body of their leader – Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who died there in 1971, and the second is to get their hands on a giant cache of gold bars they hid there all those years ago – both of which they thought was lost. It’s better not to think about the ages of the four men played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis – which would be at minimum 70 (an age none of them have reached yet – and Lewis isn’t even 60), kind of like you just had to except that Christopher Plummer’s character in Inside Man was probably a couple decades too young. You go with it though – just like you go with the fact that when Lee does flashback to Vietnam, he simply keeps the same four actors playing the same roles, and doesn’t even bother with The Irishman style de-aging. It’s not really the point.

Da 5 Bloods is many things all at once. Lee has never been one to hide his influences – and something like Apocalypse Now gets a massive shout-out that is undeniable. But he’s really making a riff on John Huston’s masterful The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – about a trip of prospectors, one of whom, played by Humphrey Bogart in one of his greatest performances, goes mad from paranoia and greed (in the wake of Da 5 Bloods, I revisited Huston’s masterpiece – and it’s as powerful as ever). It is also a film about the hidden trauma of black veterans like these men – a story that is too often not told, even in America, which loves nothing more than valorizing the men who fought for their country. Lee tried something similar, with far lesser results, with Miracle at St. Anna – about black WWII soldiers. Here though, he’s perfected it.

The best performance in the movie is by Delroy Lindo as Paul – who is essentially taking on the Bogart role from Sierra Madre. He’s a man whose time in Vietnam has warped and shaped his entire life. His son David (Jonathan Majors) comes along for the ride, and it’s safe to say that their relationship has never been anything close to good. Lindo has become a Trump supporter – he sports a MAGA hat, and the other four mock him a little for supporting “President Bone Spurs”, and say they thought they saw him at one of the Trump rallies playing Step N’ Fetch in the front row. But while Lee uses this to take some cheap (if accurate) shots at Trump – he, and Lindo, certainly don’t make Paul into a one-dimensional villain or idiot. Lindo has always been one of our great character actors – he’s been great in Lee films like Malcolm X, Crooklyn and especially Clockers – and he makes the most out his first collaboration with Lee in 25 years – and one of the few leads of his career. The whole performance is brilliant – paranoia, violent, pained, intense – and he takes it up another notch as the film heads down the homestretch. He doesn’t get Lee’s patented Dolly shot – but he does get another Lee staple, probably most memorably used before now by Edward Norton in 25th Hour – and it results in the best acting you’re likely to see this year. Perhaps sensing that they cannot outdo Lindo in terms of intensity the two other most prominent performances – by Peters and Majors – go for more subtly. Peters is in particularly great as Otis – his time in Vietnam marked him as much as anyone – but he has become more inward, and introspective. It’s a fascinating performance by Peters – last seen in a Lee film as the preacher with a dark secret in Red Hook Summer. And the performance confirms the massive talent of Majors – who was excellent in last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

As with many Lee films, Da 5 Bloods does shoot off in all sorts of directions over its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Like often with Lee, you could say that a shorter, tighter film may have been a better film – and yet, it also would have been less of a Spike Lee film. To me, the digressions in Lee’s films are part of what makes them so special. Here, he has made an entertaining genre, that also lashes out in pain and anger, then connects Vietnam to today, that can begin with Muhammed Ali, end with Martin Luther King Jr., and include so much else. It is classic Spike Lee.