David’s Watch Diary: June 2020

Thoughts on Da 5 Bloods, The Vast of Night, Space Force, What We Do in the Shadows, and more.

Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)

Somehow, Spike Lee always arrives right on time. 2018’s BlacKkKlansman came to theaters less than a year after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, and the film rode a wave of righteous indignation all the way to an Oscar win for Adapted Screenplay. Now, in this even more tumultuous year, the auteur is back with another electrifying historical drama on Blackness in an unrepentant America. Da 5 Bloods combines themes from two of Lee’s favorite films — The Deer Hunter and Treasure of the Sierra Madre — and drops them into a stew containing copious references to classic cinema*, archive material, and an Oscar-worthy performance from Delroy Lindo.

*At one point Lee cues up “Ride of the Valkryies,” and a character literally says “We ain’t got no badges.” But it doesn’t feel cheap, which is why it works.

Lee has rarely met a lily he couldn’t gild, and his “more is more” approach with regards to historical context and impassioned tangents can be overwhelming to those less familiar with his work. There are enough compelling threads in the story (originally written by Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo, before Lee and Kevin Willmot started over) to each support their own film; it’s a travelogue, a treasure hunt, a history lesson, a meditation on guilt and PTSD, a father-son drama, and — ultimately — a harrowing action film. Lee handles all of these shifts in tone and genre with directness. This isn’t a film that’s not sure what it wants to be; it intends to be everything, and though some aspects work better than others, it demands attention on every front.

The four veterans at the center returned from the war changed men; they had seen terrible things, committed terrible things, and were asked to reintegrate into a society that still viewed Black men as expendable and “less-than.” Decades later, they land back in Vietnam changed again; the mellow Otis (Clarke Peters), who put together the trip to recover the gold they buried, discovers he left a daughter behind; Eddie (Norm Lewis) is hiding his financial troubles; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr. )is just happy to see his buddies again. The wild card is Paul (Lindo), whose unresolved trauma has manifested itself, to the others’s chagrin, in outspoken support of “President Bone Spurs.” He is paranoid and obstinate, with a short fuse that nearly ends their expedition before it can even begin; even so, the men are united in remembrance of their commanding officer, “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman, ruthlessly charismatic). Paul grieved him harder than anyone, claiming to still talk to him every night. Just why that is can be guessed before too long, but the character’s not named “Paul” for nothing.

It’s an astonishing, sweaty, self-annihilating performance from Lindo, working with Lee for the first time in decades. They don’t just find the humanity in this broken man, who could have been an easy caricature, but let us fully inside his mind via direct-to-camera monologues; Lindo tears Paul’s heart out of his chest and holds it up for our interrogation. You don’t realize how heavily the film is tilted in his direction until we’re well into things, and his relationship with tagalong son David (Jonathan Majors) comes to the fore; the centerpiece is an attempted rescue from an old land mine, a mini-masterpiece of tension and raw emotion. Somehow, Da 5 Bloods finds room for all of it even when it veers into more conventional “shoot-em-up” territory, which Lee seems to find necessary but less interesting (and it shows).

The storytelling is fractured, like memory; in the flashbacks, the men play themselves without makeup or de-aging CGI, which Lee claims was because Netflix didn’t give him The Irishman’s budget, but also suggests an “unreliable narrator” effect. As captured by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, Norman practically has a halo, but never lived long enough to be less than an unimpeachable ideal; “He was our Malcolm and our Martin” can only be said of someone you knew for a short time when you were young. Instead, the surviving Bloods are resigned to be themselves, with all of their flaws and and painful histories represented by the lines on their faces. Da 5 Bloods is difficult and messy, as Spike Lee films often are. But it’s also urgent and powerful, vibrantly alive in its contradictions — a bold statement made as only Lee can make it.

The Vast of Night (Amazon)

New Mexico, late 1950s. In a series of low, gliding tracking shots, we are introduced to a motormouthed DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a winsome switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) as they play around with a recording device; it’s the night of a big basketball game at the high school, and nearly the whole town of Cayuga is there. They walk and talk, and talk, and talk, imagining a future of self-driving cars and TV screens on your phone. We don’t even see closeups of their faces until well into the movie; we can only observe from a distance, a meaningful choice.

And then they hear strange noises coming over the airwaves, and Andrew Patterson’s extraordinary debut feature takes off like a rocket. The Vast of Night tells an old story, to be sure; the station’s callsign is the acronym for War of the Worlds, and it even uses a Twilight Zone-style program as a framing device.* But it tells that story in an exhilaratingly fresh way, with jaw-dropping camera work (a single tracking shot midway through made me gasp, and I rarely do that), uncommon intimacy, and what should be breakout performances for its two leads. McCormick in particular is gifted a nine-minute unbroken take at the switchboard, placing calls around town that keep getting cut off as she tries to figure things out with mounting worry; she and Horowitz both are asked to execute quickly overlapping dialogue while demonstrating actual technical proficiency with decades-old props, and that might be the most impressive thing of all.

*If I knock it for anything, it’s the distancing effect these “broadcast-style” scenes have on the story’s momentum, but I can also accept that as an intentional choice or budget limitation.

The Vast of Night’s screenplay (or “teleplay”, as it’s jokingly credited to Craig W. Sanger and Patterson under a pseudonym) is simple enough for the stage, but there’s enough visual inventiveness to make it a truly cinematic experience. I’m reluctant to say more, even though the film isn’t dependent on surprise. But I’ll shout out Patterson’s valiant collaborators, particularly cinematographer Miguel Ioann Litten-Menz, whose work evokes a fine chiaroscuro painting, and composers Erick Alexander & Jared Bulmer, also making their debuts with what ought to be hailed as one of the year’s best scores. The intentions of “the people in the sky” may be left open for discussion, but there is no doubt that The Vast of Night is a micro-budgeted wonder. Take a bow, guys.

Space Force (Netflix)

You can see the star power from orbit. Space Force was created by The Office’s Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell almost on a dare, starting only with the title. They added Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz, Chris Gethard, Patrick Warburton, Kaitlin Olsen, Jimmy O. Yang, Christopher Guest alums (Don Lake, Jane Lynch, Michael Hitchcock, the late Fred Willard), Veep alums (Dan Bakkedahl, Diedrich Bader), Noah Emmerich, and John freaking Malkovich. It is wild how many talented people worked on this thing. It even has Mudbound’s Dee Rees directing a couple of episodes!

So how is Space Force… so deeply, perhaps irredeemably mediocre?

I understand what Daniels and Carrell are trying to do. At first it wants to be a Dr. Strangelove-style satire focusing on the birthing pains of the armed forces’ newest (and, to some, entirely unnecessary) branch. There are thinly-veiled references to tweets from POTUS and running gags about how the Air Force never met a problem it couldn’t drop a bomb on. Carrell himself plays General Mark Naird, whose dreams of a promotion end in exploding rockets and catastrophic chimpanzee spacewalks as he tries to rally his team of misfit scientists (led by Malkovich, who single-handedly saves many scenes, but can’t save the show). Naird’s defining characteristic is that he is tough but loyal; his defining “quirk” is that he sometimes sings pop songs to himself. He can be a boor, and frequently ignorant, but he loves his daughter (Diana Silvers, in a thankless role) and his wife (Kudrow in an even more thankless role, as her character is in prison for reasons the show never gets around to explaining), and that is supposed to make him root-able.

Actually, the fact that he’s played by Steve Carrell, whose Michael Scott was famously sanded down after the first season of The Office, is supposed to make him root-able. And that’s kind of Space Force’s problem in a nutshell: it assumes our investment based on the names and concept alone, and does little to reward it. Netflix spent oodles on the show — the production design is impressive (even if it uses the same lobby as Homecoming’s Geist Group), and it’s CG-heavy. There’s no handheld camera or talking heads, and I can’t help but wonder if it would be better if there were; it would at least feel looser, less hermetically sealed. Its problems are similar to what plagued Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5, a glossy space-set sitcom following a creative watershed (Veep) that didn’t start to pay off until it cranked up the absurdity to lethally cartoonish levels. Space Force, for all its aspirations, insists on keeping one foot on the ground; instead of reveling in its characters’ incompetence and/or loathsomeness, it stumbles blindly towards “warmth” and hits a wall.

That the season’s best moment features someone I didn’t even name in the first paragraph — Tawny Newsome’s astronaut captain, whose first words on the lunar surface are the Freudian slip “It’s good to be Black on the moon” — is as much an indictment of Space Force’s failure as it is a potential opportunity. If Daniels and Carrell re-tool, and they will (with, God willing, a different POTUS in the background), they can stop trying to be Iannucci and just do what they do best: give us a reason to care.

What We Do in the Shadows, Season 2 (FX)

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Jemaine Clement’s oddball vampire sitcom just delivered a perfect season. What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t aspire to be “of the moment”; it’s not a half-hour drama masquerading as a sitcom; it doesn’t lean on cruelty or cringes; it’s just funny. Effortlessly, sublimely funny, a sorely needed weekly tonic in a broken world.

Every top-flight comedy has at least one character who will make you laugh every time they open their mouths (Jason Mendoza, Tracy Jordan, etc.). Shadows has four, with the principal bloodsucking quartet of Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, and Mark Proksch boasting a higher joke-for-joke batting average than any ensemble in recent memory. And it’s not just about silly voices, but the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that have created the sum of these nincompoops over the course of the show’s first twenty episodes — which were quite a bit more than even fans of the 2014 film thought it could sustain, and now doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

Just a few out of an endless list of things I loved: uproarious guest appearances from Mark Hamill, Haley Joel Osment, Benedict Wong, and Lucy Punch; the entire “Jackie Daytona” plot with the bar and the volleyball team, but especially the stupidly effective toothpick gag; Nadja’s haunted doll; every time Novak says “Guillermo,” and Berry cries “BAT”; the genuinely scary sequence with the hunters at the mansion; energy vampire Colin Robinson casually laying waste to his office; the fear of the “mailer daemon”; the throwaway gag about Elvis living in the basement; Guillermo’s (Harvey Guillén) growing confidence as the emotional heart of this very silly show; Nandor’s obsession with the 1992 Dream Team.

Shadows is extraordinarily good at weaving entire plots out of the most nonsensical ideas, and it did it week after week this season, zigging and zagging and springing new trap doors on its characters like they were marks in a Nathan For You scheme. And it did it while also building inexorably to a genuinely thrilling cliffhanger that we and Guillermo (though not the vampires, of course) know has massive implications for them all. Ten episodes were not enough, and the wait for more will be as unbearable as small talk with Colin Robinson.

Quick hits:

  • I tried to give my mind a rest and rented The Trip to Greece. It didn’t really help my mood, but the impression battles between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon haven’t lost their charm; at any rate, it’s a better film than Italy and Spain, and as the men have gotten older, and their deep melancholy has risen to the surface, Michael Winterbottom’s series has evolved from “improvised jaunt” to a self-conscious and distractible Englishman’s version of Linklater’s Before trilogy.
  • I rented Olympic Dreams based on the concept alone, and in truth, the story of how Jeremy Teicher’s film was made is far more interesting than the film itself. The first independent feature shot entirely in and around the Olympic Games (thanks to an “artist-in-residence” grant from the IOC), it stars real-life track athlete Alexi Pappas (here as a cross-country skier whose Games are over after the first day) and Nick Kroll (as a volunteer dentist at the Village), as they meet, flirt, argue, and explore PyeongChang in 2018. As a backstage look at the event, it’s actually really cool. But as a mumblecore Lost in Translation, it’s a struggle, though Pappas proves herself to be a fine actress.
  • First-time watches: Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso and Ponyo (both delightful); Jean-Pierre Melville’s seminal hitman film Le Samouraï; Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Thanks, HBO Max!

Looking ahead to: Matthew Rhys plays a rumpled Perry Mason for HBO (6/21)… Netflix’s Dark returns to melt brains one more time (6/27)… Sundance hit Palm Springs, with Andy Samberg & Cristin Milioti, hits Hulu (7/10)… an entire trillion-dollar industry seems to hang on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet playing in actual theaters, as of this writing, on July 29th… a week after Disney’s Mulan (7/24).

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