Saturday, January 28, 2012

Movie Reviews- Red Tails, Kill List and more

Red Tails

Ok, first things first about Red Tails, because this has been going around the blog-o-sphere a bit. There are no black women in Red Tails. A few are shown in photographs. One man has a relationship with a local white (actually more olive) woman. They kiss and apparently (it is after all a PG-13 film not R) do the do. Imagine that!! A man away from home and a woman with no men around actually find each other attractive. If that bothers you enough to make you clutch your pearls in shock and not want to see the movie then that's that. To each their own.  Keep your race pure, fight the power, skip the movie.

Red Tails is not a great movie. It has some rather serious pacing and script problems. This was the director's (Anthony Hemingway) big screen debut. It's not overly surprising that the dialogue is stilted with a decidedly small screen feel. Many actors are people you will recognize from The Wire, which is where the director was from.
As you already know from the hype, reaction and criticism Red Tails tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, African American fighter pilots of the WW2 AAF who had to battle segregation, an intensely hostile officer brass and media scorn to be able to make a contribution to the war effort.

Fighter pilot movies come with built in limitations. As the men are wearing flight masks and/or helmets during battles, there's not any room there for deep expressive acting, nor is the target audience for these movies generally interested in such. The time for acting is when they are on the ground. Usually such movies have to paint the actors in very broad strokes very quickly so that they can get back to the action. Red Tails tries to do this but fails with all but two or three of the actors.

There's Easy (Nate Parker) the conflicted and self-pitying flight leader who is measuring himself against his father; Lightning (David Oyelowo) his hot tempered second-in-command who is the best fighter pilot in the squadron but who constantly questions orders and rages against segregation; Deacon (Marcus Paulk) a simple minded country dude who thinks religion will get him through the war unscathed; Ray-Gun (Tristan Wilds) a mild mannered young man who REALLY hates being called Junior and a few others who kind of blend together. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terence Howard portray the unit's top leaders. Andre Royo (best known as Bubbles on The Wire) shows up as a caustic and demanding mechanic. Royo's role is small but he brings gravitas. But with a great many actors in the film, it was obvious they were "acting". That's never a good thing. I blame the script.

Oyelowo was a dead ringer for either my Dad or Uncle as younger men. So I was already positively disposed to him. He also had the best role and did the most with what he had. He can definitely point to this film as good work. The others, ehhhh. Again, the director made this movie feel too much like TV. Scenes ended much too quickly. I was halfway expecting "Tune in next week" or " Lysol works best on tough dirt" after some transitions.
The action was pretty good, if very obviously CGI. It would have been nice to focus more on that. It was exciting to imagine flying in a wedge formation and needing to be aware of your surroundings at all times, while all the while both your enemies and your friends are blasting away at each other with .50 caliber machine guns and 30mm cannon. That took skills, nerve, and dedication. Lucas delivers on that-not as much as Star Wars but enough. For a few glorious moments you are in the cockpit of a P-51: young, brash and deadly, challenging a German destroyer all by yourself. Rumble young man, rumble

Because this was largely aimed at a younger audience, Lucas and Hemingway simplify things too much. The racists are largely cartoonish. The movie does not explain that at this time the racists had the full force of military and civilian law behind them. Where as Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna spent a bit too much time on flashback, Red Tails could have used a flashback or two of some romance, a family memory or some experience of the Jim Crow South.
All in all this movie was fun but not super high quality. I would say a solid 5 out of 10. I am glad the story was told again. I hope this film does well financially. Positive portrayals of black heroics are rare. Seems like this should have been a summer movie. If you like war movies this is just an ok film. If you don't like war movies you won't care for this. Again the primary audience for this movie is teen boys or people who used to be teen boys. And that's fine.

Kill List
Movies like Kill List are often called a thinking man's horror movie with the implicit suggestion that the more intelligent people will like this movie while the bovine masses will wander off in search of the latest Saw or Final Destination installment. Well there is something to be said for movies that make you think, no doubt about that. But movies also do better with a clear theme. Kill List stands right at the intersection of those two descriptions.
The director had something to say but I'm not sure he really got his message across. In some ways this film was reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby or some other more artistic horror films. It's very weirdly atmospheric and interspersed with brutal violence. If you're in the mood for something definitely outre, this could work for you.

A former British soldier who is now a contract killer, Jay (Neil Maskell) ekes out a hand to mouth existence with his beautiful but argumentative Swedish wife Shel (Myanna Buring) and their son. Shel will go upside Jay's head quicker than Elin Nordegren with a nine iron. Money is low. Evidently something went really wrong on a job in Kiev. Jay doesn't like to talk about it. Jay's former Army buddy Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up for dinner with his odd new girlfriend. He has a new job-one that's supposed to be pretty easy and pays well. After some more disputes with Shel, Jay agrees to take the job. There is a list of people who Jay and Gal must kill. Things get odd as these people seem to know Jay and don't resist their murders.

Jay starts to get more and more violent as the murders go from quick eliminations to very brutal and bloody messes. And why is Gal's enigmatic girlfriend talking to Shel? And what's up with the strange symbols popping up in some of their victims' effects and Jay's house? And who killed Jay's cat?
This really was a throwback to some of the best of Hammer movies, before they declined. However the film was in part based on the director's nightmares and it shows. Also the English and Irish accents are very strong which is usually not a problem for me but the dialogue and ambient sound are not mixed properly. The conversation among characters is exceedingly hard to follow. As a result this is probably a movie you'd have to watch a few times to really understand the strange ending. The problem is you might not care enough to do that.

I'm through with white girls(The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks)
Although Tyler Perry has become for better or worse the only commercially (albeit not critically) successful black filmmaker who regularly examines relationships, it didn't have to be that way. Perhaps if more people had seen this film recent black film history might be very different.

Jennifer Sharp directed this deliberately quirky independent movie. It is worth checking out. Sharp created this film in a very short period of time for a very small budget but it really doesn't feel cheap.

Jay Brooks (Anthony Montgomery) is a Black American graphics novel artist/writer -DON'T call his work comic books as he will cut you- who exclusively dates Caucasian American or European women. He seems to view this as fitting in with his non-stereotypical lifestyle. He has a white roommate. Jay does not march to the drum of what is considered popular within mainstream black culture. He's a horrible dancer, is not into rap and is certainly no one's idea of a tall dark and handsome Mandingo warrior stereotype.

Although Jay claims indifference that some people (including some of his white paramours ) question his essential blackness, in truth he is somewhat worried about/insulted by this. Jay is however, more concerned that every single relationship he has doesn't last. Sometimes he's the dumpee but mostly he's the dumper. Wondering if he has gone over to the white side too much Jay decides to give black women the benefit of his company. This doesn't go well until he meets Catherine Williamson (Lia Johnson-who was also a producer of the film), a beautiful black bohemian author who doesn't like to do public readings of her work because of her stereotypically Caucasian "Valley Girl" sounding voice. 

As stories of this type usually do, the movie follows a theme of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy must change and grow and face either a happy ending or tragic parting. I enjoyed this movie. It showed what you can do with a little bit of money, a good script and a lot of determination.

Things Behind the Sun
Everyone has bad things in their past. Some are worse than others. It is a cliche that some of us are so damaged that we're frozen or stunted while others seemingly let the most horrific events roll off of them like water off a duck's back. Everyone is different. Certain folks need a kick in the butt and a stern reminder to drop the self-pity. Others simply have to work through things at a slower pace that may take years. It is true though that we are all the sum of our experiences and for better or worse those experiences shape how we view the world and engage it.

Things behind the Sun is a raw powerful movie despite dipping into or even wallowing in some of these cliches. I wouldn't even call them cliches at this point; they're more tropes. The movie starts out detailing the messed up life of rock singer/songwriter Sherry McGrale (Kim Dickens) who, despite the fact that her hit song is moving up the charts at warp speed, spends a great deal of time engaging in self-destructive boozing and partying. This behavior always comes to a crescendo at the same time every year, when she normally can be found passed out drunk at the exact same Florida house. This time Sherry is ordered to attend AA meetings and so it makes national news.

Her song (it's about rape) comes to the attention of a music magazine editor (Rosanna Arquette) who dispatches young writer Owen (Gabriel Mann) to interview Sherry and get some background info on where/how she grew up and who her inspirations were-the usual music stuff. Owen has to get past Sherry's protective manager/on-again and off-again boyfriend Chuck, a harried and paranoid Don Cheadle.

But Owen is not really looking forward to this assignment because he and Sherry grew up together. He already knows all too well what inspired her song. You can probably guess where this is going-the writer and director Allison Anders based it in part upon events in her life.

This film was extremely hard to watch at times but that was the point I guess. This is NOT a film for kids or for anyone who can't watch events depicting extreme brutality and betrayal. Unlike The Accused, this doesn't come across as overtly political or shrill. This is a much more personal story. The predominant emotion is sadness. Evil is shown not only to have negative impacts on the object but also on the actor(s) and those who encounter the victim later in life. And if we run across people that are pure evil, even as we strive to remove them from our life or remove them from the planet there can still be a twinge of regret for wasted talent.

This was another independent film with limited budget and short schedule but it matches up in both looks and story with any big budget movie. Eric Stoltz, Elizabeth Pena, Patsy Kensit, and CCH Pounder also star. If people really want to understand what evil is, this movie shows it without flinching.
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