In his final In Your Living Room column, Lynden Barber reviews Da 5 Bloods, 13th, and Feel the Beat on Neftlix as well as a host of treasures across Stan and SBS On Demand.
Increasingly Netflix has been acting not only as a TV streaming service but also as a film studio. Where the Hollywood’s old movie guard has become increasingly safe, the new kid on the corporate block has on occasion been prepared to throw money at established directors like Alfonso Cuaron (Roma) and Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) for projects that couldn’t get made elsewhere.
This week it’s the turn of veteran director Spike Lee, whose Netflix-backed Vietnam War-themed feature Da 5 Bloods is about four African American veterans (the fifth is one of their adult sons) revisiting the scene of what the locals call “the American war.”
Ostensibly, they are there to search for the remains of their unit commander, nickname of Stormin’ Norman, to give him a decent send-off. But underlying this mission is a more venal motive. Having buried a crate of gold bars near the battle site, they have come to get it back. Shades here of John Huston’s 1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and David O’Russell’s 1999 Desert Storm adventure, Three Kings.
Apart from a few flashbacks, the story is rather oddly set in the present day; Paul (the great Delroy Lindo) is a Trump supporter. This no doubt was intended to strengthen parallels between racial injustice then and now, but it raises the question: why would these veterans wait until the late 2010s, when they’re in their creaky-knee 70s, to retrieve the gold? It’s clear that travel costs have not been prohibitive as the group’s wealthiest member is happy to front up their costs.
This inattention to timing finds a match in the flashbacks. While their late comrade Norman is played by the appropriately young Chadwick Boseman, his compatriots are all played by the same mature actors we’ve seen in the present-day scenes, with no attempt to make them look younger.
This casual inattention to realistic detail bugged me at first, but it wasn’t too hard to push aside and be swept up by the film regardless. There’s plenty of verbal energy in the first half as the old compatriots joke, tease, squabble and spar for attention. Added to that are a soundtrack of Marvin Gaye songs (and a Terence Blanchard orchestral score), and richly designed and beautifully photographed sets and outdoor locations that give a sense of how much Vietnam has changed (and in some cases, not changed at all) in the intervening 45-50 years.
Around the half-way point, the tone becomes much darker and more dramatic as the comrades, now in the countryside, find themselves in a fight for survival that mirrors their horrific experiences as young soldiers. It’s a relatively long film at 154 minutes, but Lee and his screenwriters keep the pressure up so the time passes surprisingly fast.
Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (a reference to the US’s 13th Amendment, under which slavery was abolished) first aired on Netflix in 2016 and went onto gain an Oscar nomination. Thanks to the upheavals we’ve been seeing in the US streets it’s being given a fresh push to subscribers.
This is a dense, deeply researched, passionately argued and often shocking investigation into the American prison system from a race perspective, what DuVernay calls part of a pattern of systemic oppression of African Americans since slavery. The film starts with a quote from ex-President Obama that “the United States is home to home to five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.” Within that inflated jail population, African Americans form a clearly disproportionate percentage.
While enormously stimulating and often angering, the film is not without its flaws. DuVernay has a habit of employing distracting music and bizarre camera angles, and overall this may have made more sense as a documentary mini-series (which in fairness was probably not a financial option). At times it feels over-packed with black studies jargon and ideology. And while acknowledging the role of the profit motive in the nation’s corporate-owned prisons, it downplays or ignores other crucial areas such as the failed war on drugs (bar one surprising admission from right-wing Republican Newt Gingrich); the militarisation of the police; and the nation’s gun culture. But in 100 minutes there is only so much that can be squeezed in.
After these two films I needed some light relief so turned to another feature making its debut on Netflix, Feel the Beat – an American feel-good dance story from Australian director, Elissa Down, who made the terrific, autism-themed The Black Balloon. Her new film might be loosely described as a mash-up of Fame and Little Miss Sunshine, in which a struggling dancer on Broadway gets sucked into the small-town world of competitive children’s dance. I laughed at the comedy, warmed to newcomer Sofia Carson in the lead role, and loved the dance sequences. The sentimental ending? Not so much, but then I’m not in the young female target audience.
For more in a lighter vein, no less than 11 Woody Allen films are available at Stan, including some of his best titles including Hannah and Her Sisters and Annie Hall, both of which stand up magnificently well. Others up at the platform include Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo and the hilarious earlier comedies Love and Death and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
I’d rather have his comic masterpiece Sleeper (absent) than the so-so Stardust Memories, Allen’s attempt at emulating Fellini’s 8 ½ – but that great Italian film about filmmaking is also on Stan, so enough with the complaining.
While we’re on movies worth re-seeing (or viewing for the first time), there’s rich pickings at SBS On Demand: Taika Waititi’s deliciously deadpan Kiwi tale Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the charming Jacques Tati-scripted animation The Illusionist, and Tati’s own Jour de Fete, Monsieur’s Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, Traffic and Parade.
Other strong older titles to look out for at SBS include Gillian Armstrong’s Australian classic My Brilliant Career, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (with one of Al Pacino’s greatest performances as a cop fighting police corruption), Coppola’s The Conversation, John Carpenter’s nail-biting original Assault on Precinct 13, and Ridley Scott’s impressive yet rarely seen first film, The Duellists.
Finally, I hugely recommend two from the last 10 years that sadly few have heard of, let alone seen: Icelandic drama-comedy Woman at War and Israeli drama Footnote. They’re both absolute gems. Happy viewing.