Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods (2020)


Title: Da 5 Bloods
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Rahway Road | Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production
Summary/Review:

Four African American veterans reunite in Vietnam in order to recover the remains of their inspirational squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played in flashback scenes by Chadwick Boseman, whose death in real life adds gravitas to the character who never lived to see old age).  Their ulterior motive is to also recover a cache of gold bars they hid almost 50 years earlier.  Spike Lee intercuts the narrative with documentary footage of the various injustices of the war in Vietnam and violence against Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the 60s & 70s.  The movie is kind of a bizarre combination of Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Black Power Mixtape. And Lee has some fun by making some very obvious allusions to older films.

The main cast is made up of veteran actors, some who’ve worked with Lee before, but none of them superstars.  It’s good to see them all get a chance to demonstrate their acting chops.  Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who suffers from severe PSTD which contributes to his anger and paranoia, as well as contrariness such as supporting Trump.  Otis (Clarke Peters) is a calmer presence who also uses the trip to Vietnam to reunite with a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tiên (Lê Y Lan).  Eddie (Norm Lewis) is a successful owner of car dealerships and likes to show off his wealth, but is also the most adamant about using the gold for Norman’s vision of supporting Black Liberation. Melvin (Isaih Whitlock Jr.) is the rock of the group who tries to hold the Bloods together when things get strained. Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), is the uninvited guest on the expedition adding additional tension to the movie.

There is a lot going on this movie, so much it feels like it’s bursting out of the film’s 2-1/2 hour length.  It’s impossible for this movie to do justice to so many threads ranging from PTSD to landmine clearance to Black Lives Matter.  The movie is also more brutally violent than I expected and ends up a bummer despite the oddly-victorious tone Lee takes in the finale.  Although it’s a sprawling mess, the Da 5 Bloods still works, something I credit to the great cast. Despite this being a long movie, I still wish I could spend more time with these characters.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978) #AtoZChallenge


#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter D

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

TitleThe Deer Hunter
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: Michael Cimino
Production Company: EMI
Summary/Review:

The Deer Hunter is a movie I’ve long been aware of but only had a vague idea that it was about Vietnam, involved Russian Roulette, and starred Christopher Walken.  I had no idea that the lead actor is actually Robert De Niro, who seems to be in every prestige film of this era, or that it is prominently set in a steel mill town of Western Pennsylvania.  I kind of figured that this movie fit in with films like Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon, which it kind of does, but it’s also very much its own thing.

The movie centers on a trio of young men who decide to enlist in the army to fight in the war in Vietnam – Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Steve (John Savage).  The cast also includes John Cazale in the last of his five films before dying of cancer (all of which were nominated for Best Picture) as their friend Stan, and Meryl Streep in one of her earliest films as Linda, a woman that Mike and Nick are both in love with.  The first part of the film focuses on the group of Russian-American friends who work together in the steel mill in a very busy 24-hour period where they work, go out for drinks, attend Steve’s wedding and reception, and then go hunting (except Steve, of course, who goes to his wedding night with his wife).  Like The Godfather, this film uses an extensive wedding reception setting to establish the characters and the culture they live in.

The first segment goes on so long, in fact, I thought maybe that the Vietnam War may be more of a theme of the movie than actually seeing them go to war. But suddenly the film transitions to battle scenes and we enter the second act.  I kind of wish the movie had focused entirely on that 24-hour period before Mike, Nick, and Steve left for Vietnam.  Not only is it the best part of the movie but it would also be considerably shorter than the 3+ hour slog Cimino gave us.  The movie descends into gratuitous violence, impossible leaks of logic, heavy-handed messaging, and a really racist depiction of Vietnamese as cruel and sadistic.  The Russian roulette sequences in this movie are not based on any reality of how the Vietnamese treated POWs nor were there Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon. For Cimino it’s supposed to be a metaphor but it really strains credulity.

The third act of the movie brings Mike home with considerable PTSD and a need to “save” his friends, Steve from a facility for wounded veterans and Nick from the aforementioned Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon as the city falls in April 1975. This part could’ve have been an affective look at the way the trauma of war changes people, a la The Best Years of Our Lives, but the heavy-handedness and ludicrousness of the plot twists just makes it a slog.  I honestly wonder if the people who decided that this movie deserved a lot of awards and accolades only based it on the first hour or so.  Because it started off so good and I really thought it was going to be a very different film than it ended up being.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Platoon


Title: Platoon
Release Date: December 19, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Production Company: Hemdale Film Corporation
Summary/Review:

Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of Vietnam War films that all came out around the same time, and I couldn’t remember if I’d watched this one. Upon reflection, I had not. The film focuses on the war-time experiences of Chris (Charlie Sheen), a volunteer from a more privileged background than his conscripted cohort in his platoon. The movie is filmed deliberately to make it hard to know what is going on, recreating for the viewer Chris’ experience of the “fog of war.” I think this movie was innovative in that effect although it has been repeated in ensuing films. I’ve read that veterans of the Vietnam War said that Platoon was the most accurate depiction of the war on film.

The large ensemble cast includes many actors who went on to greater fame including Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, and Johnny Depp. Outside of Chris, who narrates his thoughts in letters to his grandmother, we don’t get to know the members of the platoon personally (although this movie also avoids the war movie trope of having all the characters represent a stereotype of the regions that they come from). Instead, the platoon is divided into two ideological camps. On one side, the compassionate Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the men who just want to get through the war and relax by smoking pot during down time (knowing what we know of Sheen’s real-life habits, it unintentionally funny that he portrays an innocent being drawn into the drug culture). On the other side are the more hard edge soldiers who revel in machismo and racist dehumanizing of their Vietnam rivals. They are lead by the scarred and sadistic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The movie follows several months of conflict where Chris goes from idealistic to frightened to disillusioned. While clearly an anti-war film and one that dramatizes the traumatic affect of war on the soldiers, it does seem to want to have it both ways by also being an exciting action film with a certain amount of jingoism. This includes a disturbing sequence where the platoon attacks a village with many parallels to the Mỹ Lai massacre. The Vietnam War was very unpopular in the 1970s and early 1980s with many veterans leading the anti-war movement. And yet by 2004, John Kerry could be swift-boated for his opposition to the war as a veteran, partially because the slew of 1980s Vietnam War movies like this one recontextualized the war from an unjustifiable quagmire into a time of great valor.

Platoon is a well-made film and is an influential pioneer in the war movie genre. But I don’t feel the movie holds the courage of its convictions and thus doesn’t hold up all to well over the decades.

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 9th


99% Invisible :: The Nut Behind the Wheel

A history of how the auto industry and road engineers avoided including safety measures in their designs in their cars and highways leading to countless deaths, and how they blamed everything on the driver.  Yes this should make you think of firearms manufacturers.

Fresh Air :: The Golden Age of Comics

An interview with Cullen Murphy who took over writing “Prince Valiant” from his father in the 1980s.  Murphy remembers how special the full-color Sunday comics section was for children, and the community of comic artists in Fairfield County, CT.  Not mentioned in the interview, Murphy and I went to the same high school, albeit he attended well before I did.

Hidden Brain :: What Can A Personality Test Tell Us About Who We Are?

Hidden Brain examines personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs.  Scientific or a glorified form of astrology?  Worse still, how employers are misusing these tests in personnel decisions.

Fresh Air :: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg discusses “The Pentagon Papers” and top secret plans for nuclear war that he discovered as a national security analyst in the 1960s but was not able to reveal to the public at the time.  A chilling look into the United States’ militaristic past and present.

Hub History :: Boston and Halifax, a lasting bond

One hundred years ago, a collision in Halifax Harbor caused a munitions ship to explode, devastating the city and causing thousands of deaths and injuries.  Boston responded by sending a train with medical personnel and supplies to help the survivors.  To this day, Nova Scotia continues to thank Boston by providing a Christmas tree every year.

60 Second Science :: Yeti Claims Don’t Bear Up

Science disappoints us again by showing that evidence of the Yeti is genetically just a bear.  Well, not “just,” because bears are important to, and these studies tell us more about them.

The Bernie Sanders Show :: Our Budget Priorities with Elizabeth Warren

Two of our few remaining sensible Senators discuss important things that make sense.

Decode DC :: The Changing Race of Immigration in America

A history of immigration to America focusing on who was allowed to “become American” and who was excluded, and the government’s role in all of this.

Remembering Pete Seeger


Pete Seeger died on Monday night.  He is perhaps my greatest hero as I’ve long been inspired by his music and activism.  His long life was a tireless effort to right wrongs and to bring people together in peace.  He leaves the world a better place than he found it.  And if you’re pessimistic about the world today, just imagine what it would be like without there ever being a Pete Seeger.  Among the many things he accomplished in his 94 years, Pete:

  • agitated for the rights of the poor and working people by organizing labor
  • stood up for American civil liberties before the House Un-American Activities Committee
  • participated in the Civil Rights movement
  • lead a generation in the Vietnam anti-war movement
  • in the vanguard the environmental efforts to clean up the Hudson River aboard the sloop Clearwater
  • inspired millions that they could change the world by joining together in song
  • continued as an activist through his final years, supporting the Occupy movement

I don’t recall when I first heard of Pete Seeger.  His music was part of my childhood.  He even appeared on Sesame Street.  I remember watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant some time in my teens and not recognizing him until my mom told me who he was.  Probably what really got it started for me was his performance leading a singalong of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Folkways: A Vision Shared tribute album.  Through high school and college and beyond, I picked up some albums, read some books by and about him, and tried to teach myself banjo using his book.  On two occasions, I was fortunate enough to see him perform in person.  Once in 1995 with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap in Virginia, and then again at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in 2002.

It’s kind of the whole point of Pete Seeger that there are no “Pete Seeger songs.”  Sure, he got writing credit on some songs but he was the first to admit that he stole bits and pieces from other songs and cobbled them together to make something new.  And he wanted you to to take pieces of his song and make something else.  And share it with everyone. At his famous Carnegie Hall show, one entire set is Pete promoting the songs of new, young musicians (and Malvina Reynolds who was young at heart).  The other set was the music of the Civil Rights movement.  The whole point of the entire show was other people’s music and the community of music as he got the audience at Carnegie Hall singing along as well as many who’ve listened to that album over the years.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but think of the best Pete Seeger songs on this occasion.  His music is a gift he leaves behind, both through the many recordings he made as well as being a living link between the roots of American music and the many artists he inspired and supported over the years.  I looked in my iTunes and discovered that I have 215 Pete Seeger recordings!  Of those, his most essential albums are We Shall Overcome (a live recording of his historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1963) and Singalong: Sanders Theatre, 1980 (perhaps the quintessential concert recording as summed up in the article “Pete Seeger And The Public Choir “).  I perhaps felt closest to Pete when I performed with the Revels at Sanders Theatre and tried my best to do my part to engage the entire house.

Below are a handful of the most meaningful Pete Seeger songs, followed by rembrances collected all over the net.

“If I Had a Hammer”

“We Shall Overcome”

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”

“Old Devil Time”

“Abiyoyo” from Reading Room

“Sailing Down this Golden River” performed by Sarah Lee Guthrie

“This Land is Your Land”

WBUR: Pete Seeger And The Public Choir 

“Pete Seeger understood something fundamental about humans and music, which is that many people can’t sing on key, but all crowds can. Even without rehearsal, public choirs can be stunning to listen to and thrilling to be part of. And he believed that everyone should do it, that people should retain the ability to get in a room and sing, because it was good for you, and because it taught people to pitch in and be brave.”

WGBH: Pete Seeger Had A ‘Soft Spot For Boston And Cambridge’ by Bob Seay

American Songwriter: American Icons: Pete Seeger

The Nation: Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender

“Pete Seeger outlasted the bastards.

But he did so much more than that. He showed us how to do our time with grace, with a sense of history and honor, with a progressive vision for the ages and a determination to embrace the next great cause because the good fight is never finished. It’s just waiting for a singer to remind usthat “the world would never amount to a hill of beans if people didn’t use their imaginations to think of the impossible.”

Smithsonian Folkways: A Tribute to Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Bill Moyers: Remembering Activist and Folk Singer Pete Seeger

As recently as 2011, Seeger, a veteran of the labor, peace and civil rights movements, led an Occupy Wall Street protest through Manhattan. “Be wary of great leaders,” he said two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Farewell, Pete Seeger

 He told a story about showing up at a PTA meeting in Beacon to talk on some issue, and some local guy told Pete that Beacon didn’t need outsiders telling them what to do.  This hurt Pete, since he’d been living in Beacon at that time for more than 30 years, in the house he built by hand.   Pete told me that he realized a world reputation doesn’t count for much if you can’t use it to make things better in your home town.The “local project?” He said he wanted to get an old sloop, and sail the Hudson River signing to get people to clean it up.

WBUR: Pete Seeger, Folk Music Icon and Activist, Dies at 94

“For all of his social activism, Seeger said more than once that if he had done nothing more than write his slim book How to Play the Five String Banjo, his life’s work would have been complete. …

“If Pete Seeger didn’t save the world, he certainly did change the lives of millions of people by leading them to sing, to take action and to at least consider his dream of what society could be.”

The Atlantic: Pete Seeger and the American Soul

His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.

Feministing: RIP Pete Seeger

Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Remembering Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

On Point with Tom Ashbrook: The World According to Pete Seeger: A Remembrance

The Atlantic‘This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender’

How did Seeger take an instrument—one with no inherent properties of justice, as evidenced by its history—and assign it a new cultural value?

There is no way to answer this but to observe the rarity of a force like Pete Seeger upon the Earth.

Sure, the banjo has a jaunty, inviting sound. Sure, it can be played in a variety of ways, making it suitable for a range of musical genres. But these qualities did not prevent it from being a prop of racist entertainment. They did not make it a symbol of community. They did not transform it into a “machine [that] surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

That was the work of man. One man, really.

Arlo Guthrie’s Facebook status

“Well, of course he passed away!” I’m telling everyone this morning. “But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

Phil Sandifer: Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

Later in the set, it started to rain just a bit. Only a few drops – nothing major. But a couple people had umbrellas and popped them open, at which point Seeger stopped playing and calmly explained that he would not be continuing until the people who were under the tree and thus still dry passed their umbrellas to the people not under the tree so that everybody could be dry.
It remains the only time I am aware of in which an artist has actually created, however momentarily, a socialist utopia.

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