Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reel To Reel: Red Tails

These colors don't run, but they do fly.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Nate Parker
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: World War II aerial combat injuries, mild language

George Lucas modeled the space battle sequences in Star Wars after World War II aerial dogfight footage, so a film paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen -- the Army's elite black flying squadron -- seems like a good fit for his production banner. But that's before I realized the film felt like an extended Star Wars fighter sequence that just so happened to include a plot, characters and a few compulsory clichéd scenes exploring the racial realities of the WWII military.

The Airmen racked up one of the most impressive records of the war, but as we meet them they are relegated to garbage-collector duty, shooting easy targets with patched-up used aircraft. A military report finds them nearly unfit for duty. We can see they are being set up for failure. It's a scenario the Axis would love to brag about through Hitler's propaganda machine.

Major Emanuelle Stance (Gooding, Jr.) is the pipe-smoking leader of what the Army considers an experiment -- a black fighting force that exists solely to placate somebody's call for racial equality in the military. But Bullard is not one to dwell on racial politics. He sees his fighters as recipients of great privilege in getting to fight and possibly to die for their country. As for his scrappy pilots, they are looking for real action beyond blowing up munitions trains. They have a strong ally in Col. A.J. Bullard (Howard), their Pentagon representative who knows how to tread through the combat zone of racial politics in an nearly all-white military.

The Army is dealing with a big problem in the air: bombers aren't getting through to their targets as German squadrons lure cocky pilots into dogfights when they should be sticking beside the heavies. Major Stance offers a deal: get us new planes and a real mission and "we'll light up the board." The Army delivers shiny, brand-new fighters which the squadron adorns with red tails, "to make them stand out."

We spend plenty of time with the Airmen on the ground, enough to make the film a black Top Gun: "Easy," the ace pilot, "Junior," the aspiring ace, along with "Lightning," "Joker," and "Smokey." They live for the fight and the wisecrack, and we see plenty of them. They have their issues, true, and their beef with Uncle Sam and The Man, but all that's secondary to the mission. This and the battle sequences are where Red Tails flies, but at times it sputters with ditzy pedestrian dialogue -- "I hope those Red Tails are with us next time!" The racism in this movie is soft-pedaled, save for a token barfight between one of the Airmen and a white bigot which is discussed in the next scene and then tossed away like a live grenade.

About those air battles: they are nothing short of thrilling, even though most of the action is CGI-based. I read George Lucas went back to studying WWII footage to prepare for this film, and it shows. Lucas also stepped up to fund the movie and its marketing when Hollywood studios shied away. Early box office reports hint he may barely break even, but it's not like he's hurting for cash.

Red Tails is a labor of love and heroism, and it does justice to its subject matter. But it doesn't into the category of epic war film, as much as some of us would desire. If this film has any stereotypes, they're not based on race but on Hollywood laziness and the lack of a good script doctor.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Reel To Reel: War Horse

Riding off to war.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: World War I violence

Do horses know how to act? Do they even know they're in a movie? I'm not sure, but the equine stars of War Horse certainly know how to tug at our emotions, just as in Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. Yet director Steven Spielberg clearly wants to add to his roster of epic war pictures, which includes Empire Of The Sun, Shindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and unfortunately, 1941. So we get a picture that's never completely about either war or a horse but a mixed mash-up of both, incorporating several side stories into the main narrative.

The film parachutes us into Ireland just before World War I, green and beautiful. An alcoholic Irish farmer, Ted Naracott (Peter Mullan), pays out the nose for a thoroughbred horse instead of a work animal. His wife Rose (Watson) despairs, knowing the old fool is putting the family farm on the line. Both Ted and his son Albert (Irvine) sense some sort of greatness in the animal that will be their deliverance. Albert is a natural-born horse whisperer. He knows exactly what to say to his new equine friend Joey (more than a dozen horses played the role), and he's not above putting a collar around his neck to show Joey how it's done. The two of them share a deep resolve and strength. A sequence where Albert and Joey must plow a rocky field to save the farm has a sports-film quality to it, two underdogs banding together to achieve the impossible.

All of Joey's and Albert's work are not enough to keep Ted's finances above water, so the reluctant father sells the horse to the British army as troops march out of town for the Great War. Albert longs to go with Joey, but his age keeps him from enlisting, so an officer pledges Joey will receive great care until horse and rider can be together again. So begins a picaresque journey that takes us from Ireland to France and through the trench-warfare, horror and disillusionment of WWI with a horse who just happens to be along for the ride -- or two horses, actually. Joey finds a companion after shipping off for the front, and the two of them bond like war buddies.

A couple of other war movies entered my mind as this film unspooled. An early battle scene reminded me of the climatic assault in Gods And Generals, and a sequence where soldiers on opposite sides must work together to rescue Joey recalls Joyeux Noel. I'm sure many of you will also make comparisons to National Velvet.

I liked War Horse, but I felt the film needed focus. A recent opinion column in the Los Angeles Times theorized the dearth of WWI movies is due to the war's moral ambiguity, its lack of clearly defined good and bad guys which doesn't make good commercial cinema. Spielberg tries introducing some of that into War Horse, particularly in a subplot involving two German deserters. This is where it detours from Joey's perspective to try to include some larger truths of WWI, and that's where it falters. Black Beauty took us through a journey of several owners, but at least the title character narrated his own story. War Horse is also adapted from a novel and a stage play, but I'm not familiar with the source material to tell you whether the flaws originated there. What isn't flawed is Spielberg's touch for creating emotional bonds and characters we care about, and that ultimately redeems the movie.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Artist

Silence is golden.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: One very brief crude gesture and some potentially disturbing images

It's hard to believe people in the film industry considered "talkies" a passing fad when they arrived in the late 1920's. Motion pictures were works of art, and like their still counterparts, why would anybody on earth want to hear them speak? Oh, but they did. The Artist is a loving and painful tribute to that turning point in movie history where art gave way to innovation and demand.

George Valentin (Dujardin) -- named so we will conjure up the memory of Rudolph Valentino -- is the king of the silent movie swashbucklers in 1927. With the help of his little dog Uggie, he's invincible on the screen and adored off of it, but his home life is suffering. His wife is unhappy with her walk-on role in the marriage, especially when she sees George on the front page of Variety getting a kiss from a mystery girl.

That girl, Peppy Miller (Bejo), idolizes Valentin to the point of sneaking into his dressing room while playing an extra. She shares a dance with him in a wordless sequence of scenes that depicts their blossoming relationship more economically than a Hallmark greeting card. George gives her a valuable piece of advice along with a beauty mark to her face. Miller shoots up the credit list, from extra to star. Is it that fake mole, or is it something else, like hearing her presumably golden voice?

Valentin's career heads in the opposite direction. His studio scraps silent films at the behest of a cigar-smoking topper (Goodman) who can see the future and it talks. George, one of those people who consider silent film an art, sets out to save his career and his own beloved medium while Peppy looks to save George from ruin.

The Artist is faithful to silent films in so many ways, leading off with title and cast cards in addition to the obligatory dialogue cards. It has so much love for its inspiration, we don't need much convincing to see why Valentin considers a talking film noise pollution. A key scene turns the most mundane of sounds into obnoxious intrusions, interrupting a symphony of music and lighted images.

Silent films forced filmmakers to pay more attention to nuance and gestures, and director Michel Hazanavicius doesn't miss a beat. Neither does Ludovic Bource, who composed the film's soundtrack with all the intensity and emotional pull of original silent films, which were designed to play with your emotions.

I enjoyed the world of The Artist. So many films talk so much and say so little. Here's a film that talks little and speaks volumes.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reel To Reel: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

It's all in your head.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth
Rated: R
Red Flags: Some brief language, two violent scenes, and one graphic sex scene shown from a distance

"Watching this movie was like watching paint dry," observed my Queen Mother as we walked out of the theater. But my Royal Father liked it. Your humble servant had mixed feelings. This a movie that deserves a split rating, like grading a figure skating performance: one rating for technical merit, another for artistic impression. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a superbly made movie about its subject matter. But as such, it's disappointing to audiences fed four decades of James Bond. As a cloak and dagger thriller, it's more cloak than dagger.

The film takes place in 1973, in a slightly warmer Cold War, and British Intelligence is trying to find a Soviet mole high in "the Circus," as spooks call it. An operation to learn the double agent's identity ends bloodily in Budapest, and when that happens, a head has to roll at the top. Mr. Smiley (Oldman) is forced out of the Circus, consigned to a life of mediocre post-spy existance. But the mole is still there.

Smiley's former superiors ask him to conduct an under-the-wire investigation to root out the mole. This is the point where a conventional spy movie would be submersing us in danger and beautiful women at exotic locations. Instead, it takes on more of the feel of a detective novel. We see many shots of Smiley walking and carrying a satchel, walking some more, walking again, and asking a few choice questions of a few spook sources.

We learn this mole may or may not have something to do with a top-secret information clearinghouse designed to milk a particular Soviet source who's thought to be providing a gusher of valuable intelligence -- or is it just well-phrased garbage?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ia a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the word, where the action takes place in your brain as you process its endless stream of information and clues trying to figure out what's going on. And yet this film still feels bloated, like something could still be trimmed. No doubt that's due to the involvement of John Le Carre, who serves one of the producers on this adaptation of his novel. You will also hear a lot of praise for Oldman's performance, but it's hard for me to award a laurel to a performance which has only one mode.

I really enjoyed this film's treatment of the 1970's world of intelligence gathering, where people still hacked away at Olympia typewriters and teletypes and used land-line dial phones. Intelligence workers will tell you their jobs are mostly analytical and not exciting. In real life, yes, but most moviegoers will expect something more.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

I Resolve To Make More Predictions

I originally made the following post in response to Tom Prezelski's tounge-in-cheek look at the year to come on And this time, I will take full responsibility for these musings and not lay them onto the staff of The Lightning Round.

* In effort to dispel Tucson’s business-unfriendly image, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild proposes TCC be turned into Arizona’s largest indoor swap meet.

* Unable to come up with congressional and legislative districts to satisfy Arizona Republican demands that every last Democrat be wiped off the map, independent redistricting commitee throws up its hands and outsources work to Peggy from USA Prime Credit.

* Occupy movement, left with no place to occupy, moves into the Tucson Exposition Center. Barely anyone notices.

* Tucson Sports Authority flirts with idea of luring pro curling tournament to town. When that idea fails, it turns its attention to luring Linda Ronstadt back.

* Pirates take over whatever is playing on 92.9 FM, demanding Tucson get a “real” oldies station like the one that once occupied that frequency.

* Russell Pearce mentioned as possible new judge on “American Idol.”

* State GOP left scratching its collective noggins when Clap The Wonder Seal wins Arizona’s Presidential Preference Election.

* Massive haboob hits Tucson for a change. Phonecians laugh. Right-wingers complain about the use of the word “haboob” because it comes from that “durn terror-istic lang-gu-age.”

* Jim Click announces he’s entering the commercial space business. “Hi Folks! Now’s a better time than ever to go into orbit!”

* Monsoon downpour washes away grandstand at Rillito Downs and deposits it in Marana. Debate rages over whether it’s some sort of celestial suggestion.

* Southern Arizona’s state legislative contingent introduces bills regulating the way Phoenix holds elections, renews its downtown and educates its children. When Phoenix-area lawmakers complain, the local contingent presents a rousing rendition of Ugly Kid Joe’s “I Hate Everything About You” on the House floor.

* Fatburger, Humongoburger, Superburger, Wonderburger, Cardiacburger and three other fast-food chains move into town and are greeted with lines out the door from day one.

* As the Wildcat football team struggles to come around, Arizona fans demand the U of A appoint a man as coach who is guaranteed to finally get the team to the Rose Bowl: Lute Olsen.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Finally, The Justification I've Been Waiting For

For the last three years, I've dressed up in my full kilt on New Years' Eve, explaining it as the most festive outfits I have on one of the year's most festive occasions.

But finally, I realized I have a better excuse: "Auld Lang Syne," which so many of us croon at the stroke of high midnight, was penned by Robert Burns -- a Scotsman! Hopefully I can remember this for next New Years' Eve.

As for the one that just happened, it found your humble servant and his family in San Diego's Gaslamp District enjoying dinner at The Field and wandering aimlessly through the revel that comprises the end-of-year frivolity. As usual, my kilt is longer than most of the skirts I see on the ladies.

Of course, the kilt got many looks, and many mentions. Of note are two: one from a proud Basque man who was eager to remind me a Scottish dance step comes from his people.

The other thought I was a pirate. Yes, a pirate. I wasn't even wearing my tricorn, fercryinoutloud.