DeaconsDen Reaction – Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods will certainly be considered as a timely release, however there’s always a time for this type of story to be told. While there are films on the Vietnam war, very few speak on the black perspective. Spike Lee has crafted a compelling human drama and mixing it with a second half that really invokes the vibe of a film like The Wild Bunch.

Four black Vietnam vets reunite to bring home the remains of their fallen comrade and squad leader. The plot is set into motion early, however the journey is one of brotherhood, trauma and heartbreak. Often we talk about how blacks in the military diligently fought for the United States and in Da 5 Bloods we see the aftermath of all these events and how they shape these men going forward. The character we are most attached to for this story is Paul who is played by Delroy Lindo. Lindo gives an amazing performance that deserves every bit of recognition. Paul is the character who is most damaged by these events. The end result you’ll see is the relationship with his son. As the film goes on you’ll see how this trauma can make its down through generations and it be of no fault of anyone but the powers that be. Spike Lee, as always does not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of America being the land of opportunity, but these soldiers who already fought for an unpopular cause, return to be mistreated even more.

My favorite Spike Lee Joint is Malcolm X and it still is, but Da 5 Bloods off one viewing makes its way into my favorites of his films. It’s 2.5 hour runtime coasts along as it continually peels back layer after layer and reminds us of another element of the black experience in America.

DeaconsDen Reaction – Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

I did not expect the shared universe of DC Animated films to come to a conclusion this year. I spent some time revisiting every film in this continuity. Now we’ve reached the end.

Apokolips War follows the surviving superheroes in the wake of a failed assault led by on the tyrant Darksied. We get the heroes charging into battle and then we jump to a desolate planet Earth two years later. There Raven and Superman (now with a kryptonite tattoo of his symbol on his chest) seek out John Constantine and Damian Wayne to help set things right again.

I think what I liked most about Apokolips War was how it brought together all the elements of this universe and moved them to a conclusion. We get a final resolution on the relationship of Bruce and Damian, closure for Raven’s story from the Teen Titans films, we have moments for Constantine from Justice League Dark and even bringing in the Suicide Squad from Hell to Pay. At 90 minutes, it’s longer than most of the films in the franchise, but there is always something interesting.

It is bloody though. Maybe not as bloody as WB Animation’s recent Mortal Kombat film, but it does utilize that R rating. I actually feel it uses this R rating better than it does the usual PG-13 that the films get.

Although this is the end of this particular universe of DC heroes, the film ends in a way that begs the question of what happens next? I’ve enjoyed this journey of animated films and with Apokolips War, it really helps solidify my personal opinion that superhero media works much better animated. Sure this isn’t Into The Spider-Verse, but I always felt the comic medium was best adapted animated. I always pick up these DC animations and I look forward to the future. 

The Invisible Man – DeaconsDen Reaction

A contemporary adaptation of the classic story by H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man is brought into 2020 with a modern sensibility that makes this an early contender for best horror film of 2020. Horror veteran Leigh Whannell writes and directs a film that from the very first frame, oozes suspense.

Elizabeth Moss stars as Cecilia who is trapped in a controlling and violent relationship with optics scientist Adrian Griffin. Celia escapes from his home with the help of her sister and she stays with her childhood friend James. From frame one, Whannell crafts one of the most suspenseful sequences I’ve ever watched. For as much horror as I’ve seen, the opening was pure realism and I can not recall the last time I ever felt so much fear and concern for a character on screen. The opening also serves a purpose for the use of sound and visual cues that Whannell will use throughout the film. There is superb craftsmanship on didplay.

Elizabeth Moss is in sublime form as Cecilia. She puts on display a woman who was victimized and traumatized. You feel her fear, apprehension and paranoia at adapting to the world after leaving a reprehensible individual. The film’s title is also great subtext since people who leave toxic, abusive situations can have that haunting them later. The film deftly balances its thrills while maintaining its point of showing after effects of abuse and trauma. Whannell never makes light of the issue and it’s on full display for discussion and dissection.

I also want to give praise to Aldis Hodge as Cecilia’s friend James and Storm Reid as his daughter Sydney. The two of them provide a structure of safety for Cecilia and even though there isn’t much development for them (there isn’t much character development for anyone), both Hodge and Reid have meaty roles and feel vital to Cecilia and not just window dressing characters.

Earlier I mentioned there wasn’t much in terms of character development during The Invisible Man. However, I do not see this as a negative. Just because we do no necessarily see Cecilia go on a character arc as we are accustomed to, doesn’t mean she is under developed. Just being thrust into her situation worked for me because I don’t need tons of backstory to understand her situation and the nightmare that faces her. Another positive is scoring. It’s easy for a film like this to have strong musical cues, but Whannell uses music for the right moments and silence in many moments does just as mush of an impact. One other area of the film that stood out to me was the use of water. I haven’t come to any conclusion of my own on what it can mean, but it is something I look forward to breaking down in future viewings.

Anchored by a superb leading performance combined with outstanding direction, The Invisible Man is a great update for a classic story and an entertains horror film worthy of the legacy of the Universal Monsters. There is much depth to this film besides the titular character showing that monsters are human as well. Like the 1933 classic film, this will be watched many times by me and it’s already going to be a part of my personal favorites of the horror genre.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – DeaconsDen Reaction

2016’s Suicide Squad, (also reviewed here on DeaconsDen) introduced movie watchers to the cinematic Harley Quinn. No matter your feelings on that film, one thing that was positively mentioned was Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who is manipulated to criminal activity by The Joker. Now Harley is on her own in Birds of Prey, following a breakup with her beloved “Mistah J.” Alone in Gotham City now Harley must pick up the pieces while evading killers from sadistic crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (portrayed by Ewan McGregor). Along the way she will cross paths with Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), songstress Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), junior pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and the crossbow wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The events that follow is a madcap, live action cartoon that is the essence of Harley Quinn.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson. The talents of these women give way to a vibrant yarn that truly encapsulates the vibe of the character. Yan’s direction is frenetic and it is best seen when watching the excellent fight scenes and Hodson’s script hits on all the notes of the theme of emancipation as all our main characters seek some form of freedom from prior circumstances. The plot is nothing complex, but this is all about spending time with Harley and these new characters. The film also incorporates a nonlinear storytelling element that as you look at it, does not really work, but at the same time it does, because it feels like the scattered nature in which Harley would tell a story. With a run time of 1 hour 49 minutes, Birds of Prey moves at a great pace and honestly I wanted to spend just a little more time with these ladies.

On the performance front, Margot Robbie continues her run to superstar status as Harley Quinn. Here we get a larger range of emotions now that she is no longer tied to Joker or to Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad. Happiness, sadness, confidence, confusion are all in play and Robbie juggles all of them. The other standout performance is the scene chewing Roman Sionis. Ewan McGregor relishes in every moment he is on screen and he switches from charismatic to terrifying at the drop of a hat. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a determined edge to Huntress who I wish we got a little bit more time with. Jurnee Smollett-Bell knocks it out of the park as Black Canary, Ella Jay Basco also is admirable as the street smart Cassandra and Chris Messina is unnerving as Victor Zsasz. While I had no issues with Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, I do not think the film did it’s best in portraying her, but she brings veteran energy as a veteran cop.

I very much enjoyed every second of Birds of Prey. It’s a live action cartoon that takes the popular character and basically sets up her future. Great direction and themes combined with kickass action and fight sequences make for a movie that I look forward to revisiting as well as hoping for further adventures with this powerful women of the DC Universe. It is a fun and fanciful time.

If you enjoyed Birds of Prey and haven’t yet, but have an interest in Harley comics, I recommend everything written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, as their work I feel reflects some of the creative decisions made for this film. Also, if you have the DC Universe streaming service, definitely check out the Harley Quinn animated series that also follows her efforts to gain her own footing without the Joker. It’s a great time to be a Harley fan!

 

Bad Boys For Life – DeaconsDen Reaction

2020 kicks off here at DeaconsDen with a reunion of old friends. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return as the hilarious combo of Miami PD detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett. Bad Boys For Life is the 3rd entry in the action-comedy series that began in 1995 with Bad Boys and continued in 2003 with Bad Boys II. This film is directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. They take over the reins from Michael Bay who directed the previous films. The story follows Lowrey and Burnett as they track down an assassin that is taking out people from an old case.

First things first, the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence has not missed a beat. These two were huge in the 90s and even 25 years later you still have that banter and wit that was present in the first film. Add in returning cast members Teresa Randall as Marcus’ wife Theresa and Joe Pantoliano as the long suffering Captain Howard and you have the mix for a great time. The key difference however is the change in direction. Michael Bay, I think it’s safe to say is not a well regarded director. 1995’s Bad Boys was his directorial debut where you could see what he was able to do and what he likes to do. Bad Boys II, is pure Bayhem and while I love both of these films and have blast watching them, they aren’t the best films in terms of character. Bay’s movies have tendencies to be immature and bloated. I put up with it just fine but I know a great deal of movie watchers do not. We love our two leads and it’s mostly their show, but there isn’t much to them in terms of substance. Bad Boys For Life won’t result in Academy Award nominations for acting or screenplay, but what it does that Bay’s entries do not, is attempt to be reflective and earnest. With Smith and Lawrence older actors, the film constantly comments on the passing of time. Marcus contemplates retirement and Mike having difficulty fitting in with a new squad of younger officers, are some of the things that film moves to the forefront. Marcus even talks to Mike about the importance of a positive legacy. (Commentary on the past films?) You’ll never say the film is deep and it’s probably as deep as it can be for a film that is a star driven action piece, but Arbi and Fallah make a darn good effort to give this franchise some meaning and life to a type of film that isn’t as big a deal as it once was in the 80s and 90s. This is a huge positive step in evolving the series.

The only knock I have with Bad Boys for Life is with the action sequences. They aren’t bad at all, they are very well done, I just felt they lacked a bit a pizazz that’s Bay does best. Bad Boys II was a lot of things and most of those things weren’t positive, but it was amazing on the action front.

Bad Boys for Life believe it or not doesn’t fall victim to the adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It recognizes its past and makes the effort to show it has grown up while still providing thrills and great comic chemistry from Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. I love putting on the Bad Boys movies and just rolling with things and that still hold true with this third entry. Bring on that fourth film.

Joker – DeaconsDen Reaction

JOKER as a film manages to capture the essence of The Joker as a character. Anchored by an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER is a look into a man’s descent to darkness.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a man with issues who lives with and takes care of his sick mother Penny. Arthur works as a clown for hire while suffering from mental health concerns where he takes many different medications. He also has aspirations to become a stand-up comic. From the outset, we are made to sympathize with Arthur’s situation and you do for a time. He’s picked on, he’s ignored, he’s in dire straights. However all of that changes and Arthur begins a transformation that will have lasting consequences for the city of Gotham.

There have been many questions and thoughts about JOKER. One being about its director Todd Phillips. Could the director of THE HANGOVER trilogy handle something so volatile? I would say depending on your read of the film, that could be yes or no. For me it was a yes. The reason going back to my opening line, the way this film is constructed, is similar to that of the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s hard-hitting, it’s chaotic, it’s indecisive. After leaving the theater, I can see this one being discussed for years. The polarization of the film is why I found it a great watch. This isn’t a BATMAN v SUPERMAN type of split, this is something different. And honestly, I love seeing something like this for the comic book movie genre. Even if it was widely disliked, I like that this managed to get released.

The construction of the film is outstanding. Phillips and his team really recreated a decaying urban American city in the 1980s. This isn’t the stylized Gotham of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. This is more like the origin of the decline of Gotham seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Despite the grimy look, there is a beautiful sheen to the look thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Lawrence Sher (who should get awards consideration).

Then there is the haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir. She brings an underlying note of tragedy to the film. The score is strong, but never intrusive. It doesn’t have a distinct theme for the character like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman have in the past. I found that a positive because it really highlights the fact that one of Gotham’s biggest threats came from an ordinary citizen.

Much has been made of the film’s lack of a stance. I felt this was by design since the character of The Joker has no stance. I would not disagree with those whose criticisms see it as shallow and empty, this is true, I however saw it as true to the character. The Joker never commits to anything. Never an ideal, never a purpose except mayhem. Even the use of certain song once Arthur’s transformation is complete feels in line with the character as I can see him doing something like that, just to get the rise out of people. Honestly, the character is empty, which is why his battles with Batman are always intense due to Bruce Wayne’s mission. The Joker’s perspective on the world is always made known by him. To accomplish this. JOKER the film is built entirely on Arthur’s perspective. We descend as he does. You question what you see because you know something isn’t right with Arthur. We don’t get the answers, and I loved that. I love a film intentionally setting itself up for different views. The film is intentionally ambiguous in its leanings which lend credence to the whole “multiple choice” path the character takes when describing his origins. While JOKER definitely feels like a one and done origin, I must say I would love to see a short film, set 10-20 years down the line, that includes a conversation between Phoenix’s Joker and his future nemesis.

JOKER is a fascinating piece of entertainment that I am happy to have taken a moment to experience for myself. Its open ended structure and viewpoints are perfectly aligned with the character it covers. It’s a sad, uncomfortable and when it needs to be, visceral film showing the decline of a man. We may say the movie feels empty, but no matter which side of the fence you fall on the film, you will feel something. Arthur becomes the Joker, and the audience knows definitively that they are not.

Ad Astra – DeaconsDen Reaction

AD ASTRA is the latest in a line of existential, thought provoking science fiction films. It clearly shows its inspirations from movies like, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SOLARIS and even more recent fare like GRAVITY.

Brad Pitt is Roy McBride. After an accident that is the result of powerful surges that threaten the safety of the earth, McBride is recruited to search for the source of the surges. It is believed that they are the result of experiments performed by his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a mission to search for intelligent life called the Lima Project.

To understand what AD ASTRA is, you need to understand what it is not. This film is slow burning personal odyssey despite the huge stakes presented at the opening. Action sequences are lightly peppered in the film. As these sequences occur, more individuals who are part of the mission Roy has to accomplish are removed resulting in each instance, Roy having to compete the objective on his own. As I mentioned earlier, this is more along the lines of a film like SOLARIS and not STAR TREK.

Brad Pitt gives another great performance in 2019. In AD ASTRA, he portrays Roy as far more reserved and somewhat conflicted about his demeanor and its influence on those around him. Throughout the film, Roy is subjected to psychological evaluations that he must prove he has shed emotion and will accomplish his mission objectives pragmatically and logically. The organization Roy works for SpaceCom what’s all emotion she and Roy has to dig into those emotions so that he can do what needs to be done. In a way, it sort of presents an effort to fight back against the coldness of a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. My only issue is that the film brings up questions about the search for life outside of the Earth and it actually answers that question. However, I don’t feel that was needed as the main text of the film was very prominent and that was just a secondary plot device in retrospect.

AD ASTRA begins with a mission to discover life beyond our solar system, yet what it manages is to ask another question. What good does it do to explore outside our space, if we’ve not yet understood ourselves and the reasons why we choose to explore? AD ASTRA reminds us that we have to carry these things with us. There is no future without them.

Rambo: Last Blood – DeaconsDen Reaction

Sylvester Stallone returns to screen as Vietnam veteran John Rambo in the fifth installment of the Rambo series of action films that began in 1982 with the thriller FIRST BLOOD. This is the first film in the franchise since 2008’s RAMBO which was directed by Stallone. This go around, he is directed by Adrian Grunberg with Stallone sharing script duties with Matthew Cirulnick. How does LAST BLOOD fare?

LAST BLOOD involves Rambo traveling to Mexico to rescue his niece from a sex trafficking cartel. From there the story moves to a bloody version of HOME ALONE.

There really isn’t much to discuss about LAST BLOOD. It’s said to be a send off for the character of John Rambo, but this film doesn’t do that at all. It’s a competently made action-revenge thriller but it never felt like it was in the world of Rambo. Even with the often parodied action of FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III you always managed to remember the man who was harassed in FIRST BLOOD. In this film, the character may be named Rambo and you may have flashbacks to prior films, but this easily could have have a different title and character name without changing a thing. That’s how standard it is. Now I like standard, I love seeing stuff blow up, but I really thought this was going to close the story of the Rambo and it never was that. In all honesty, the 2008 film does a better job of that and it’s not even a swan song.

As far as the action goes, it’s brutal and bloody just like the 2008 film. It definitely showcases the the effect these various weapons have on the human body. That violence is a criticism I slightly disagree with only because it’s something that was already present in a prior film. Another talking point is the portrayal of the Mexican antagonists in the film. Now I’m someone who grew up watching action films with all sort of nationalities used as villains. I’m not saying to ignore it, more so that it’s something I was already familiar with, however in the current sociopolitical climate, it’s something that is to be noted. So for that mileage may vary with the viewer, but I fully understand the apprehension with the choice.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is not the send off it claims to be. Despite its pretty cool end credits (which it did not earn) and well staged action, it’s does nothing to close out the story of John Rambo. It’s passable action at best and maybe loathsome at worst depending on the viewer. Would I watch it again? Sure. Yet I’m also sure nothing will ever revisit the broken man from FIRST BLOOD.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” A DeaconsDen Reaction

Director Quentin Tarantino has entertained audiences as well as polarized them since bursting onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. His work has mixed and matched a range of genres that show the man’s love for movies and movie history. So how does he fare when he jumps in a time machine and recreate 1969 Hollywood? It is here that Tarantino crafts a historical fairy tale with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” stars Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth respectively. Rick is an aging television who starred on the series “Bounty Law” and Cliff is his longtime friend and stunt double. The film focuses on the two men as they navigate the changing landscape of the entertainment industry. Simultaneously, a young actress whose career is on the rise arrives named Sharon Tate, played by Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie. Lastly, in the background creeping its way to the forefront is a cult with a powerful following that may play an integral role in shaping events to come.

My initial reaction to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that it felt like the nexus of Tarantino’s career. Everything that made the man who he is cinematically, from the dialogue to the references, the music choices and yes even the violence seemed to meld to a perfection where no one of these elements overtook the others. It feels like Tarantino’s most humane and mature film. 1997’s Jackie Brown would also fit into those categories, but part of that I attribute to it being an adaptation. There is a thoughtfulness and dare I say, sweetness that permeates the film. This is due to the strength of the three lead performers and their characters. First let’s look at Rick and Cliff.

The crux of the story is Rick’s path to recapturing his former stardom. He senses his entertainment mortality where he wants an opportunity but isn’t keen on just any opportunity. Once he finally takes on a job, we witness his struggles and insecurities and take joy in once things begin to turn up for him. DiCaprio’s performance is outstanding as a man who is uncertain of his future. Then there is Cliff. Cliff’s present and future are tied to Rick as he is Rick’s gofer and driver. He is a character I’m sure folks will deep dive into in subsequent writings. Cliff also has issue with getting work, but that could be due to the possibility that he may or may not be a criminal who got away with something with nary a consequence. There is an ambiguity that Tarantino plays with Cliff’s character that leaves it up to you. Pitt is so charismatic in the role and presents Cliff where you might or might not actually be able to trust what he says. I love when the interpretation is left to us. As far as Rick and Cliff’s relationship, it is described in the film as more than a brother, but less than a wife. Tarantino presents a very mature friendship between two men where they speak on their highs and lows and there is a level of openness that I don’t believe we are used to in a Tarantino film.

Then there is the third part of this trifecta, Sharon Tate. The story of Sharon Tate is well known as she was tragically murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. This has made Sharon a tragic character and at times it takes away from the potential she possessed and would never get to share with the world.

The moment the film was announced along with its subject matter, there was concern over how Tarantino would handle the events on screen. Another issue arose when the question of Margot Robbie’s screen time was brought up. I won’t speak on the handling of the historical events due to spoiler potential, however even though Robbie may not get the screen time as equal to DiCaprio and Pitt, her impact might be the strongest in the entire film. It was one of the most expressive and physical cases of acting I’ve seen. There is a scene about halfway through where we basically spend the day with Sharon while she is out. She spends the day surrounded by people and you know what? It worked. We know what the history is, but I felt Tarantino did something special with Margot Robbie and that was to give Sharon her story back. For the duration of the film, I felt close to Sharon. I felt I got to know her dreams and ambitions and not see her through the lens of infamy. It’s a touching performance. If Rick and Cliff are the fading past, Sharon is the light leading the way for the new generation of superstar.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” instantly made a spot in the top 3 of Quentin Tarantino films for me. It’s a patient and reflective piece. You do not have to be an actor to relate to its themes. Time passes, and things will change for us all, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the end. There is still an opportunity, there is always still time.

Us – DeaconsDen Reaction

“Us” is the second film from director Jordan Peele. After a very successful career in comedy, Peele dropped the mic on his debut film, “Get Out.” That film won Peele his first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was also nominated for Best Picture. Now will he continue his fantastic directorial start with “Us,” or does he hit a sophomore slump?

“Us” is the story of the Wilson family who is terrorized throughout one night by what appears to be their doppelgängers. The family is led by matriarch Adelaide, portrayed by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Her husband Gabe is played by Winston Duke, giving us a reunion of two actors from 2018’s “Black Panther.” Their two children, daughter Zora and son Jason are played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex respectively. All four actors give great performances, with Nyong’o in particular showing all emotional ranges with some of the best work of her career.

Peele’s direction continues to amaze with some great shots and keeping things very well paced. I was asked, “will it scare me?” I don’t think it’s a jump scare sort of movie, but with a movie like this it’s all about the atmosphere for me. It’s the situation that’s terrifying. To help highlight the horror is the score by Michael Abels, returning from scoring “Get Out.” Abels operatic orchestral sounds permeate the film with a haunted vibe that really underscores the beauty and horror of the people and their twins.

One question you will ask about “Us” is if Jordan Peele creates another “Get Out?” This film is different animal from its predecessor. With “Get Out,” Peele was making a specific point within the bounds of the horror genre. “Us” can be interpreted multiple ways. I will not speculate so as not to spoil anything, but the end of the film really brings home (at least for me) what sets in motion the events of the film. I’m not one for calling an up and coming filmmaker “the next” anyone because I find it unfair. However, as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, “Us” really reminds me of his film “The Birds.” In that film birds attack the people with no explanation at all and it’s a masterclass in suspense while offering the viewer to make their own choice on what the events represent. “Us” works in that same regard.

Jordan Peele definitely continues this hot streak with the mind bending “Us.” It’s just as layered as his prior film while allowing us (pun not intended) the opportunity to see how we view it and view ourselves as well. I look forward to getting this on blu-ray for back to back views with “Get Out” and breakdown more of Peele’s commentary on society.