Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Red Tails

Today I went to see two separate mediocre military movies, one being the remarkable Navy SEALs epic, "Act of Valor".  This is not that movie.

"Red Tails" instead is George Lucas' latest movie that isn't an unnecessary 3D remake of a crappy Star Wars prequel.  Its a hundred million dollar epic based on the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-Black WWII fighter group, made with an all-Black cast and a ton of CG.  Notably it was not directed by George Lucas, nor was it written by him, but he came up with the idea, had all the money, and even personally directed reshoots after the main filming was over.  Yeah, Anthony Hemmingway has the director's seat, but how much of a director was he really?  So what we're seeing is George Lucas' vision brought to the screen.  And if you're a "Boondocks" fan, Aaron McGruder was the co-writer on this thing.  Its not entirely "Star Wars Episode VII: Red Tails", but its about 50% that.

As you might have noticed, I'm about two months behind on "Red Tails", and I truly have no excuse of any kind.  But luckily I live very close to what Hollywood calls the "urban market", so there are theatres near me still playing it.  Also thanks to lots of hindsight, we can conclude that "Red Tails" was a total flop and since then George Lucas has declared that he's done making Blockbusters, which honestly is something I couldn't help but meet with more than a small degree of sadness.  Yeah, George Lucas has been the Internet's punching bag for more than a decade, and really after so many failures the guy could use a nice success.  He was trying something different here than fiddling with Star Wars or Indiana Jones, and that's something worth celebrating*.   This was a labor of love for him, somehow it took him twenty-two years to make this Tuskegee Airmen movie, and I really wish it worked out.  But no... it just didn't.

"Red Tails" is a pretty mundane movie, actually fairly boring.  I guess its better than a Star Wars Prequel, but still, really an unremarkable piece of work that nobody is going to remember in two years.  But for fun, let's see why:

First of all, "Red Tails" is not a total trainwreck, I'll start in the positives.  The cast is decent, at times, even if a lot of the actors have little to do but be one-dimensional war guys.  A lot of the actors were able to pull some pretty good performances out of the hammy script, especially Terrence Howard.  Terrence Howard pulls a full Qui-Gon Jinn in this movie, he's such a great actor with such charisma you forget how awful the lines he's saying actually are - I missed him in "Iron Man 2".  In fact, one or two of these relatively new actors might actually be very good finds, I'd like to see the guy who plays Lightning in more movies.  Some of the dogfights were pretty decent action scenes too, and I liked the sets.  And um... that's really it for positives, time to reverse polarity and give negatives.

First of all, the art style for the air combat is completely wrong.  A lot of people have pointed out that the CG is overdone and everything looks way too "clean" and "computer-y", exactly the same problems a lot of the CG work in the Star Wars Prequels had.  The entire movie is overly crisp and bright, you never get any of the grit or fear of a real war going on.  Like, the skies are always blue, the sun is always shining, the aircraft gleam with factory fresh polish - its ridiculous.  Nothing looks real.  Even when the planes are blowing up, they still look too fine and too pretty.  Sort of the opposite problem of a Transformers movie where instead of there being so much detail and crud and moving parts on the robots that you can't make sense out of what they are or what they're doing, there's so little grit and crud its like a video game.  Sometimes the plane scenes work anyway, just because dogfights in their very nature are exciting scenes.  But its amazing that a movie made in 2012 somehow looks noticeably worse than something like "Pearl Harbor".

After you've noticed the art style, the next thing you're going to notice is the acting and script.  This is where the movie gets incredibly uneven and at times actively perplexing.  Some of the line reads in this movie are among the worst acting I have ever seen in any movie, Star Wars or no.  There are tons of lines read by random White airmen that sound like the poor extras got only one chance to recite their lines before the director, Hemmingway or Lucas, decided to break for coffee and move on.  It is shockingly bad.  "Episode I" is an acting feast in comparison to the side characters here.  The main actors do much better, but even then their lines are often flat and awful.  Cuba Gooding Jr. is supposedly the top billed actor here, but he has nothing at all to work with in this movie, and is left in a miserable supporting role.

The real stars of this movie are the typical pilot movie duo of the "straight-laced by the book guy", Easy and "the Maverick ace pilot wild card guy", Lightning, whose last name is not "McQueen" as much as I want to call him that.  So Easy and Lightning McQueen argue a lot, have a strange mutual respect, and are friends, whatever, you've seen it all before.  If only there was a girl they were fighting over we'd have a shitty live-action remake of "Macross Plus" here, and even that would have been more decent than the actual "Red Tails".  The story of just these two pilots is more or less okay, they make for nice foils to each other with their own failings and successes, unfortunately the rest of the movie is filled with all kinds of other unnecessary crap.  I liked the supporting cast okay too.

The pacing and editing of this movie is all over the place.  There's really no urgency, and no serious problem to overcome other than racism within the army, which isn't really something you can just do with a single basketball game or something.  After two hours pass, the movie just sorta... ends.  The pacing is made a lot worse when there are two totally pointless subplots that just distract from everything.  The first is a cruddy romance between Lightning and some lady who may or may not be Michael Corleone's first wife (who luckily for this movie has a raging case of the Jungle Fever).  The second is a butchered plotline about a POW camp that clearly has been sliced to pieces in editing and probably should have been cut right out of the entire movie.  There's just very little energy driving the movie forward, making the two hour running time a really long sit.

I know for a fact that Aaron McGruder co-wrote this movie, but really, there isn't much to see here in terms of "Boondocks"-ishness.  I know Granddad and "Mo' Guns" were both in the Tuskegee Airmen, how come they're not in this movie?  Couldn't we have had just one blaxploitation kung-fu mix-up action scene?  Also, this movie is never funny.  Well, it is funny, but only when the cornball dialog totally fails or the actors deliver their lines so woodenly that this starts to feel like a SciFi original movie.

And anyway, the morality of this movie isn't all that well-thought either.  Okay, its lovely that Black airmen want to fight for their country, but they're oddly specific that it has to involve killing Germans.  I suspect a lot of what the African American soldiers wanted in WWII was to prove their equality and work for their own rights, not so much the same blindly patriotic goals of White soldiers.  No Tuskegee Airman ever asks how the German conflict is even their war, and this is a question that needs asking.  Why fight for a White-dominated system back home?  What does America really offer them at this time?  There are answers to this problem, but "Red Tails" skirts it completely for a basic "we're patriots too!" situation.  The movie doesn't even bother noting that the integration of the Armed Services in 1948 was the first major victory over Jim Crow and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.  Once again its another story about Black guys proving themselves in a White man's world, we've seen it before a million times.  I'm not saying its not a worthy subject, but its a question long since answered.  If George Lucas wanted to be more relevant for Black issues, he should have had more ambition in this movie.  Or given "Red Tails" to Spike Lee.

By the way, for a movie trying to be so high-minded and moral, its utterly tasteless in its depiction of the German foes, who are pretty much just TIE Fighters with a German accent.  The only German pilot to get any screentime is this ruthless cartoon villain with a scar running across his face that likes to kill for some reason.  The guy actually yells "Achtung!"  He couldn't be more evil if he decorated his cockpit with the skulls of Jewish Holocaust victims.

Ultimately "Red Tails" turns out to be the Black "Captain America", an immature WWII blockbuster, and little else.  George Lucas might have pretentious goals for this movie, but it brilliantly reached none of them.  All he accomplished here was to create yet another argument for fanboys who want him to stop making movies, and it seems like this time he finally started listening.  Its a silly movie, and that's it.

* By the way, I need to comment on George Lucas' comments from last month about changes to Star Wars.  He said "Well, it’s not a religious event. I hate to tell people that. It’s a movie, just a movie." as if that supposedly gives him carte blanche to do whatever he wants.  Okay, that's a valid position to take, that Star Wars isn't very important - somehow callous to all your fans who think it is important, but whatever.  However, if Star Wars isn't important, why are making changes in the first place?  Where is the logic there?  "I have complete and total creative control and can whatever I want with this thing, no compromises EVER, I'M THE GOD... but I don't care and neither should you."  What?  Huh?  You can't reconcile those two things.  George Lucas, if you really don't think its that important, than just give the people who do care what they want.  What kind of artist cannot respect passion?

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