REVIEW: “SONGBIRD” (2020) STX Films

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During a pandemic we all might wonder if it’s really a good time for a pandemic film right now – the answer isn’t really definitive as none of us want a something that will instill a probable cause of more anxiety. And considering the staggering amount of cases being reported, the horrible handling of it all and more deaths in one day than 9/11, some might shy away from this one. But yet “SONGBIRD” didn’t instill that in my sometimes anxiety ridden self as it tells an actual story, not a great one, but a story it does have and it wasn’t any worse than the horrible handling that is happening first hand of the actual Covid-19 virus at present.

It’s also essentially the first studio film to be shot in Los Angeles during the pandemic showing us it can be done with all protocols and testing being followed and that is a good thing with the bringing of employment and cash flow back into the city. This one though isn’t dealing with Covid-19 but is set in 2024 with the virus having mutated into another deadlier level aptly called Covid-23 and millions have now died from it. The country is not only under martial law, but has been in complete lockdown for a few years. You must do a viral scan each and every morning and anyone who is infected will be taken by force if necessary and sent into overcrowded quarantine camps again, aptly called ‘Q-Zones’.

There are as with any disease known, people who are immune and these lucky few are given a yellow coded bracelet to wear as proof. Nico (K.J. Apa) is one of these lucky immune people and he is employed by a delivery company owned by Lester (Craig Robinson) which as no one is allowed to step out of their house, an extremely lucrative business. Especially of course to the rich and wealthy as noted by Lester “The rich need their stuff”. Lester monitors all his staff through high tech GPS and an agoraphobic disabled vet Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser) who operates delivery surveillance drones to make sure they get their stuff. The rich here being the Griffin family consisting of William (Bradley Whitford) and Piper (Demi Moore) and daughter with pre-existing conditions Emma (Lia McHugh). William and Emma are not happily married and they are also underground dealers of those special yellow bracelets that can make travel for other rich people possible. Nico is also busy trying to help his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson), with whom he has never had a face to face conversion with as their connection is through phone screens and her front door. Sara lives with her grandma Lita (Elpidia Carrillo) who might be at risk of passing her Covid scan. Lastly is of course our villain Emmett Harland (Peter Stormare) who leads the so-called ‘Department of Sanitation’ crew who take the sick to the Q-Zones.

All of this happens very very quickly as writer/director Adam Mason throws everything at us at a very quick paced 90 minutes of runtime. There is no acting standouts here although it was nice to see Demi Moore still giving it a go – though not a fan of her glasses look, she played the bad/good person here well enough. Apa and Carson have a good chemistry even though their whole relationship is done through screens, it was believable. And credit must be given that someone can make a film at all right now let alone write it, pitch it, get it made and released all during a lockdown. Was there moments where you realize with how badly things have been handled, and where empathy is definitely a lacking trait in realization of how many have passed already, yes and it’s definitely not a hope-filled, joyous look at a future that none of us want to see, but there is a story behind it all.

All in all, giving credit where credit is due and while not the best film of 2020, it’s also not it’s worst.

Grade: C-

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Review screening: Courtesy of STX Films

“SONGBIRD” IS NOW AVAILABLE ON VOD

REVIEW: DA 5 BLOODS (2020) Netflix

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Here we have Spike Lee’s first film since BlacKkKlansman and “Da 5 Bloods” is sure to evoke all kinda of reactions including my very own. While I watched the movie about 10 days ago, I decided to wait till all the fervor regarding it died down some before putting out my own thoughts.

Making a film about the Vietnam War isn’t always on the top of most directors lists as it’s not what one would call a ‘good war’ such as some did for WWII.  And a bit of even the most basic history will tell you the Vietnam War was fought on a soil not many American’s had ever touched let alone wanted to fight for.  Needless to say it was known that it was a tough war because so many opposed it, which was probably the right attitude, but it meant that a lot of returning vets didn’t get the respect they deserved or the help they needed – which is sadly the American way, and actually by no means exclusive to just the Vietnam war. And of course we all had learned about the ‘My Lai Massacre’ in school – where 500 unarmed civilians – men, women, children and yes, even babies – were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers. Women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated, as were children as young as 12. When their cover-up was eventually busted and brought public, 26 soldiers were charged with criminal offenses but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was given a life sentence but served only three and a half years under house arrest. Sound familiar?

Many leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., were opposed to the war as black men were being essentially told (as was everyone as we, the U.S., had initiated the draft) to serve their country, and there weren’t any colleges or doctors writing bone spur deferrals for them. They were asked to protect the freedoms of people in other countries when they still didn’t have real freedom in their own homes. So of course this means POC – and even more specifically black men – were called up in much greater numbers than their white fellow citizens of course, and therefore were also a higher proportion of POC/black men combat casualties in Vietnam. To put the cherry on top of the cake, African American soldiers encountered racists bigots amongst their own ranks, huge discrimination and many disadvantages when it came to promotions/decorations, and lastly,  few to no services if and when they returned home. So yes, there is a lot of history of this war and none of it is good.

Now we’ve seen the Vietnam War done many times, and some of the very well, but Spike, well Spike has got his own tale to tell of this war and in Da 5 Bloods he does just this. The film follows a platoon of four Vietnam vets, headed by level-headed Otis (Clarke Peters) and erratic, Trump-supporting Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) as they travel along with Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who has his own backstory with his dad, back to their former battleground to recover the remains of their celebrated leader and 5th Blood, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman)…and also the pile of gold they stashed along with him.

From there the film zips from thriller to hang-out comedy, action to drama and here is sadly where the film falters some as it’s all over the place with tone as the plot almost changes completely. The mood of a scene can change on a whim, some of them are ridiculous and so far over the top we almost lose the entire sense of the film itself. It’s as if it almost becomes a reflection of the turbulence of the battle they once fought in – where, as we see in superb retro-inflected flashbacks of so much of the controversy of which the 60’s entailed as Lee also puts in a bunch of videos and stills of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, The Kent State Massacre and the Fall of Saigon are among the many notable figures and events from the time of the Vietnam War, along with the dramatic events of the present unfolding in the blink of an eye in front of us. Their quest to find Norman’s remains – wanting to give him the hero’s funeral he is painted as deserving – is an arduous one, but is one that is allowing for some truly brilliant character studies of these guys to emerge as well. Of course, to smuggle something to the tune of $7 million of gold back into the United States, the Bloods have to involve Tiên (Lê Y Lan), Otis’ old flame, and a Frenchman named Desroche (Jean Reno). Desroche promises he will get the money to various off-shore accounts that the Bloods will be free to draw from, which truly is up for debate throughout the entire film.

So as not to tell you the entire plot line and give away everything as the film is something you should take the time to watch, delving a little into character study is needed. While all the characters play key roles in this plot, none quite do it like Delroy Lindo does. Lindo, always a great supporting actor, has never really had to really carry the entire weight of a film on his back alone, and here he does a remarkable job of giving us his all. The reflections monologue as he ventures into the jungle is unparalleled by anything he’s ever given us before. Paul is ravaged by PTSD, he is by far and away the most complex and entrancing character on screen, and Lindo brings him to life. You hate Paul – you love Paul – you want Paul to leave – it’s all that and so much more. Almost indescribable. Again this is not about diminishing the other performances in the slightest. Everyone does an incredible job, especially Majors as David. However, it would be remiss not to point out Lindo’s all out one that put’s an incredible hold on you throughout the film.

To summarize it up, after Lee’s last film was there maybe more to be expected, sure there was, and while the message is clear and strong, the sometimes ridiculous plot is saved by the brilliant acting all the way around. For that reason alone my grading goes up a notch.

Grade: B-

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DA 5 BLOODS IS AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON NETFLIX

 

 

REVIEW: “RICHARD JEWELL” (2019) Warner Bros.

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The title of this film “RICHARD JEWELL” is our subject matter as well. Jewell is a security guard who was hailed as a hero for finding a pipe bomb and thus preventing a bigger tragedy in 1996 during the time of the Atlanta Olympics. The film focuses on the events of the bombing itself and what takes place in the life of Richard Jewell post-bombing.

Imagine being falsely accused of a terrorist act that killed and injured people. Imagine that you are the FBI’s primary suspect. Imagine your name and face are spread across every possible media outlet. Imagine your belongings have been searched and seized as evidence – right down to your mom’s underwear. Lastly, imagine all of this occurs mere days after your actions actually saved lives and you were hailed as a hero across all of those same media outlets.  Well that imaginary man is actually Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a humble but rather over-zealous security guard whom yes, imagines himself a law enforcement officer as he never fails to tell us.

We first meet Richard as a supply clerk at a law firm in 1986. His awkward ways and surprising efficiency catches the eye of attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a quasi-connection that comes into play a big part in both of their lives a decade later. We then jump ahead 10 years to find Richard being fired from his campus security job at a college due to not only his odd behaviour, but his escalating over-zealous focus on following protocol to a point of pulling people over off-campus as a police officer would. Fortunately for Richard, the Olympics are coming to Atlanta, so finding work as a security guard is pretty easy.

Pan to Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. Crowds of people are dancing at a Kenny Rogers concert and two days later we have Sly & The Family Stone and people dancing the Macarena. As one of the on-site security guards, Richard spots a suspicious backpack that turns out to be holding the pipe bomb that detonates minutes later, creating turmoil and tragedy at the site.  In hindsight we see that thanks to Richard, it wasn’t worse and as the viewing audience, we know that Richard’s actions saved lives and he definitely is not responsible for planting the bomb. And it’s because of knowing this, that we have the feeling of being in Richard’s shoes – thanks in part because of the Oscar-worthy performance here by Hauser as well.  Every time we hear Richard say “I’m law enforcement too”, it’s heart-breaking to us and gives an opening for the FBI to try and manipulate him. The scenario of a single white male living at home with his mom, carrying his gung-ho dreams of a career in law enforcement while collecting guns, knowledge on bombs and police procedure, makes Richard Jewell the perfect patsy.

Two key supporting roles come courtesy of Oscar winner Kathy Bates as Richard’s mother Bobi, and Nina Arianda as Bryant’s paralegal Nadya. Bates starts out as a loving and simple mother to Richard, but her press conference captures the character in a new light. It’s a strong and heartfelt performance. Arianda on the other hand, brings some warmth sprinkled with welcome sarcasm to her role. Once again, Hauser is spot-on in every scene, and when the four are all together, it’s a pleasure to watch. Hauser and Rockwell are especially good in their scenes together as the ‘wronged man’ contrast with the take-no-bull attorney and somehow actually gives a touch a humour in this otherwise not so humourous story.

With Jon Hamm having perfected the role of the cocksure agent-man and this one being no different as he plays FBI Agent Tom Shaw, the man totally focused on proving Richard Jewell was the perpetrator. The depiction of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is a bit curious, being that the uproar is over what some interpret as a reporter trading intimate relations for a scoop, yet the contempt here seems focused more on the idea of trying this case in the public eye while lacking any real evidence outside of a profile. Perhaps the viewer reaction to this is just a sign of the times we are now in.

Leading me into the fact that with four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood directing yet another story of a working-class hero, or essentially as he would like us all to see it. While the film deserves to be commended, the story being true as it is, as well as the wonderful performances by the entire cast, it was not lost on me on or many I saw the film with-of the political propaganda side of this film in the times facing us in our present situation. Staunch Republican that he is, Mr. Eastwood was sure to make note at what could be construed to believe to be perfect timing of the fact of the FBI made a huge error is their assessment of Richard Jewell and as such are not to be trusted. Same point being made with the media – aka ‘fake media’. Perfect timing Mr. Eastwood for more political rhetoric to keep in tune with the division of this country. Taking the hero story to the next level as we all know human beings make mistakes – and while there is cause to find total fault with the mishandling of this case, it goes without saying that they are not always wrong. No one would want to find themselves in Richard Jewell’s shoes, hence this story does deserve to be told even if it feels like a two-headed coin spin by Eastwood here.

Both Richard Jewell and Kathy Scruggs have passed, him in 2007, her in 2001, so we will never know their take on all this today.

Grade: B

Follow me on twitter: @pegsatthemovies and Instagram: peggyatthemovies

 

Media Screening: Tuesday, December 10, 2019 ~ Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

“RICHARD JEWELL” IS OUT IN U.S. THEATERS NOW // WORLDWIDE TO FOLLOW JANUARY 2020