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Indie Focus: Spike Lee explores trauma and legacy in ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Lately it feels so much happens week to week. Now the film industry is preparing to go back to work, and movie theaters will begin to reopen. (Stay safe, everyone.)

The rupture and reckoning that has followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police has spread to reconsiderations of policing, historical monuments and Hollywood history. This week The Times published two opinion pieces on whether “Gone With the Wind” should be included on the recently launched HBO Max — one from John Ridley, an Oscar winner for his “12 Years a Slave” screenplay, and one from Times editorial board member Carla Hall.

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“I know taking down a film — particularly a classic Hollywood film — seems like a big request. But it’s not nearly as big a demand as when your children ask whether they can join protests in the streets against racial intolerance, or when they come to you wanting to know what you did to make the world a better place,” Ridley wrote. “At a moment when we are all considering what more we can do to fight bigotry and intolerance, I would ask that all content providers look at their libraries and make a good-faith effort to separate programming that might be lacking in its representation from that which is blatant in its demonization.”

Hall countered, “Ridley’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a remarkable movie, riveting and hard to watch but a movie everyone should see. ‘Gone with the Wind,’ you can pass on. But it is a piece of Hollywood history, starring some of the most talented actors of that era, and it should be there — for anyone who does want to see it — without annotation.”

(The movie has indeed been removed from HBO Max but will likely be returning soon with historical commentary and context to go with it. It remains readily available on other platforms.)

This week also saw the release of “Her Effortless Brilliance,” a tribute to filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who died last month. The show features performances of music from her work, along with tributes from collaborators including Mark and Jay Duplass, Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Betty Gilpin, Kaitlyn Dever, Joshua Leonard, Michaela Watkins, Marc Maron and Reese Witherspoon. (I’ll be honest with you, I cried through pretty much the whole thing. So be forewarned.)

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‘Da 5 Bloods’

The latest film from Spike Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” is among his boldest and most ambitious and arrives at just the right moment. A mix of genres, the film is about a group of Black Vietnam veterans returning to the country in the present day in part to recover the remains of a fallen friend and also to find a cache of hidden gold. The film is a treatise in trauma and legacy and continues Lee’s recent explorations and ongoing critique of film history. The cast includes Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Chadwick Boseman. The film is available on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Toward the end of ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ Spike Lee’s big, brash and rightly furious sprawl of a movie, a character offers one of those grand summations so obvious that you may wonder why it needs to be said: ‘After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends.’ That much has been clear enough during this sweeping, harrowing adventure saga, which takes place in contemporary Vietnam but is never far removed from the unspeakable traumas of half a century earlier.”

Times pop music critic Mikael Wood wrote about the movie and its connection to the music of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album “What’s Going On.” Wood spoke to Lee, Lindo, singer Mary Wilson, the movie’s composer Terence Blanchard and others. Musician John Legend, who performed a tribute concert to Gaye’s landmark album at the Hollywood Bowl in 2014, said, “Marvin was known for cranking out these wonderful Motown hits — songs about romance — that were the sound of young America. But this was also part of that sound — the voice of Black America speaking out that we couldn’t always smile on cue for you.”

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At the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote of Lee, “His strength as a political filmmaker has always resided in his ability to bring contradictions to chaotic life rather than to resolve them in any ideologically coherent proposition. This is the opposite of a shortcoming. It seems safe to say that America itself has never been an ideologically coherent proposition, and its greatest artists embrace havoc as a kind of birthright, producing not analyses of chaos but indelible embodiments of it.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “‘Da 5 Bloods’ is an action film, a buddy movie and a drama about the conflicted relationship these men have with their country, a nation that asked them to fight and then slammed door after door in their faces upon their return … Lee will never be satisfied with the status quo, and he reminds us we shouldn’t be either. ‘Da 5 Bloods’ gets its energy from that jolt of defiance. Lee is a patriot at heart, and that’s always the most moving thing about his work. His connection to the past — not just to the past of black people, but to the painful past of black and white people co-existing, clashing and sometimes, blessedly, coming together — informs everything he does.”

At rogerebert.com, Odie Henderson wrote, “Lee has always been a master of using the cinematic tropes that have always worked as an okey-doke: The left hand lures you in with the familiar before the right hand blindsides you with the unexpected punching power of the intended point. Yes, the tapestry portrays a simple scene, yet upon closer inspection, one realizes that its threads have been woven with complexity. This director knows the power of captivating an audience so he can goad them into sticking around for his message.”

A scene from Netflix's Spike Lee drama "Da 5 Bloods."
(David Lee / Netflix)
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‘The King of Staten Island’

Directed by Judd Apatow, “The King of Staten Island” stars Pete Davidson in a story loosely based on the performer’s own life. Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a troubled 20-something still living with his beleaguered mother (Marisa Tomei) and unable to move past the death of his firefighter father when he was young. When his mother begins dating a different firefighter (Bill Burr), that sends Scott into a spiral. The cast also includes Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Pamela Adlon and Steve Buscemi. Released by Universal Pictures, the movie is available on premium VOD.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘The King of Staten Island’ works hard to strike its own artful balance of humor and heartache, qualities that both seem permanently etched in Davidson’s face. Part of the movie’s inevitable fascination is the question of how much is made up and how much might be rooted in lived experience: One scene, in which Scott launches into a furious rant about how firefighters shouldn’t be allowed to have children, cuts pretty close to the bone. It’s a scene that points to something else that unites Scott and Davidson: a gift for making their audience squirm, for letting their anguish seep out from behind a big, mirthless smile.”

For the New York Times, Wesley Morris wrote of Apatow’s direction, “He establishes tension between Scott and everybody else, but it’s too loose to build into anything substantial or surprising over its two-plus hours. I’ve seen much stronger movies where less happens in more time. Here, the line between depth and bloat never comes close to fine. Apatow has left everything in. The scenes don’t unfold or reveal personalities. They just pile up; they’re long bits — parties and hangouts and meals. A violent robbery comes out of nowhere and leads to even less.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “‘The King of Staten Island’ shrinks Davidson down a little too much, to the point where his pathos and humor doesn’t blend with but actively gets obscured by his immaturity. By the time Scott takes some faltering steps toward responsibility, the movie feels too much like one we’ve seen before — from Apatow, especially, with his tendency to send his heroes staggering like toddlers toward the long-suffering women in their lives, standing around with their hands on their hips, waiting for them to grow up. It hardly feels like it addresses what’s most interesting about Davidson, who’s playing a character but still mostly playing himself. What’s most interesting about Davidson may just be a sense of promise — the sense that something, eventually, is coming that will fit just right.”

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For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “Over the years, Apatow has become a kind of shepherd for this type of amiable ne’er-do-well, leading them onto the heteronormative track of domesticity and thus, in his rather conservative ideological framework, onto the correct course. He did it to [Seth] Rogen, he managed to do it to Hannah Horvath on ‘Girls,’ and he did it — most glaringly in comparison to ‘Staten Island’ — to Amy Schumer in ‘Trainwreck.’ Apatow is a sneaky moralist. He can appreciate the hang and the fart joke and the gonzo bit of improv-y high comedy, but at the end of the day, he wants everyone to buckle down, get serious, and start building the life for themselves he thinks they should — maybe because it’s what he built for himself.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “It might seem silly to say, but Davidson is really good at playing himself. He never sacrifices honesty in the name of trying to make himself seem cooler or more sympathetic and you end up liking him more because of it … Davidson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and no one knows that better than he does. It’s that self-awareness that elevates this story and makes ‘The King of Staten Island’ worth the watch.”

Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) and Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) in "The King of Staten Island," directed by Judd Apatow.
Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), left, and Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) in “The King of Staten Island,” directed by Judd Apatow.
(Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures)

‘Marona’s Fantastic Tale’

The French animated film “Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” directed by Anca Damian, is a story told from the point of view of a young dog. As she goes from owner to owner, the film’s expressive visuals create a charming portrait of the world. Released by GKids, the film is available via virtual cinemas.

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For The Times, Michael Ordoña wrote, “The film’s message could be called simplistic, turning as it does on a dog’s understanding of happiness: ‘Humans always want what they don’t have. They call it dreaming. I call it not knowing how to be happy.’ But that doesn’t detract from the purity of its moments and the metaphorical value of Marona’s thoughts … ‘Marona’s Fantastic Tale’ delves into a dog’s experience in ways more commercial films wouldn’t attempt, and in that way, it’s also a lesson in empathy. Looking around, that seems a valuable lesson indeed.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “The director Anca Damian has a playful drawing style, and her kinetic frames are always creating something new for the audience to enjoy … Marona is the most plain of all, drawn as she is in inky black and white. Her simplicity in such a vibrant, eclectic frame makes her joys and sorrows all the more touching.”

A scene from the film "Marona's Fantastic Tale," directed by Anca Damian.
(Animation Is Film Festival)


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