While Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan helped define the style of a modern day war film it was his HBO mini-series Band of Brothers that truly captured the World War II experience. The multi-part saga dealt with every nook and cranny of the US military's involvement in the war from large scale battles to intimate character details. The new movie Red Tails developed and produced by Spielberg's Indiana Jones collaborator and Star Wars mastermind George Lucas attempts to cover the same ground for the sprawling tale of the Tuskegee Airmen—albeit in a two hour compressed form. The result is a messy handling of a powerful story of heroism. The good intentions make it on to the screen...but the drama never gets off the runway.
Red Tails assembles a talented cast of young actors to portray the brave men of the 332nd Fighter Group a faction of the Tuskegee Airmen. The ensemble is reduced to a jumble of simplistic one-note characterizations: Easy (Nate Parker) the do-gooder with a dark past; Lightning (David Oyelowo) the suave rebel who never listens to orders; Junior (Tristan Wilds) the fresh-faced newbie ready for a good fight; and the rest a nameless group of underwritten yes men all with just enough backstory to make you interested but never satisfied. Thankfully with the little material they have to work with the gentlemen excel. Rapper-turned-actor Ne-Yo is a standout as the quick-witted Smokey overshadowing vets Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who spends most of the movie chomping on a corn cob pipe and grinning).
With the plethora of characters comes too many plot threads and Red Tails stuffs its runtime with everything from epic flyboy dog fights romantic interludes (Lightning finds himself infatuated with a local Italian woman) office politics alcoholism and even a POW camp escape. If there was a true lead character the movie may have succeeded in stringing the events together in a coherent narrative but instead Red Tails is choppy and uneven. The aerial battles for all their CG special effects nastiness are incredibly exhilarating but when the movie's not tackling the intensity of a battle (which it does often) it comes to a near halt. That mostly comes down to history standing in the way—the crux of the story focuses on how segregation caused the military's higher ups to avoid utilizing the Red Tails in true battle. Meaning there's a lot of talk on how the team should be fighting as opposed to actually doing it.Director Anthony Hemingway tries to do this important historical milestone justice but the execution flies too low even under made-for-TV movie standards. Red Tails is a dull history lesson occasionally spruced up with Lucas' eye for action. The charisma of the the main set of actors goes a long way in keeping the film tolerable but they can't fill the gaping hole where the emotional hook belongs. This is a movie about heroes yet not once are the filmmakers able to pull off a moment that feels remotely brave. Which is unfortunate—as it's a story of the utmost importance.
From the moment Hailee Steinfeld enters the frame in Joel and Ethan Coen’s magnificent western True Grit an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (or re-adaptation — John Wayne's 1969 version got to it first) the film belongs to her. This is no easy feat especially for a 13-year-old actress making her feature-film debut but Steinfeld not only holds her own alongside such heavyweights as Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin she often upstages them.
The film which is set in the 1870s stars Steinfeld as Mattie Ross a pigtailed 14-year-old sent to the frontier town of Fort Smith Arkansas to settle the affairs of her deceased father an honorable man murdered for two gold pieces by a monstrous simpleton named Tom Chaney (Brolin). Mattie also comes seeking justice: Chaney is still at large having escaped to the dangerous foreboding expanse of the Indian Territory and she intends to see to it that he is captured and brought to trial.
Frustrated by the local authorities’ ambivalence toward tracking down her father's killer Mattie turns to Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) a slovenly alcoholic U.S. Marshal renowned for his cruelty and itchy trigger finger. Were there a Miranda warning in 1870s Cogburn would have little use for it; chances are few of his perps would understand it through his grouchy guttural slur anyway.
Pleading to join their makeshift posse is LaBoeuf (Damon) a pompous upright and overly chatty Texas Ranger — the Good Cop to Cogburn’s Bad Cop — who covets Chaney’s Texas bounty which holds more value than his Arkansas bounty. Cogburn agrees reluctantly to take him on recognizing that Chaney now likely holed up with his criminal gang a vicious bunch headed by a spittle-spewing snaggletooth named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper) is too formidable to approach alone. Cogburn and LaBoeuf are natural rivals and long rides on the trail of Chaney afford them ample time for dick-measuring contests which invariably necessitate the intervention of their teenage mother hen Mattie.
Mattie may be the most mature member of the posse but she is nonetheless still a child — eventually the job of exacting final vengeance must fall upon the men with guns. Here Mattie’s stout heart has an ennobling effect on Cogburn who after briefly giving up during a booze-fueled bout with self-doubt stiffens his resolve to see things through.
Compared to its predecessor the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit is both funnier and less sentimental. There is little room for tenderness or romance on the Coens’ frontier but opportunities abound for the kind of black humor for which the writer-directors have become so famous. As in Fargo they have a great deal of fun with language; characters speak in a laughably rigid formalized manner almost Shakespearian in its tongue-twisting complexity. The film's ironic conceit that such codes thrive in a land ruled by violence and chaos is best illustrated in Mattie’s constant almost charmingly naive threats of legal action against her adversaries. They react to her threats with a kind of befuddled amusement; the phrase "I'll see you in court" is still several decades away from joining the popular lexicon.
Critics often bemoan the abundance of remakes in modern risk-averse Hollywood. A more productive strategy at least for the cause of quality filmmaking might be to properly exalt the better ones. This True Grit may be the best of them combining the look and feel of a classic western with a distinctly Coens brothers tone. And Ms. Steinfeld is nothing short of a revelation.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Based on Noel Coward’s 1928 play and set in that period Easy Virtue is about John Whittaker a young Englishman who falls madly in love with a flamboyant American woman named Larita whom he immediately marries and brings home to meet his stuffy all-airs English family. What ensues is a battle of wits that turns to war between the visiting yank and her new mother-in-law who is determined to prove to her son that he has made an egregious mistake.
WHO’S IN IT?
Jessica Biel takes a flying thespic leap and holds her own in the middle of a sterling cast of fine British talent as Larita the feisty young wife of a naïve young man who has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and expects his stuffy upper-crust family to fall in line. Biel is a delight as this thoroughly modern miss and shows she can adapt to the witty rhythms of Noel Coward’s rapid-fire repartee with the best of ‘em. And the best of ‘em includes the wonderfully talented and woefully underrated Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as the doubting Mrs. Whittaker who doesn’t quite welcome the American intruder with open arms. Thomas’ performance is reminiscent of the haughty English societal roles she began her career with but she adds a dollop of vinegar to this one and appropriately glams down for full effect. Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is at once smitten and perplexed as the impressionable new groom while the ever-reliable and appealing Colin Firth steals it all as his cynical and dour father the only other family member who sees the spark in Larita.
Shot entirely in some stunning stately mansions in the environs around Berkshire and Cambridgeshire Easy Virtue expertly captures the flavor of a sophisticated late-'20s British romp. The fresh and inspired casting of Biel in her first English foray should also find contemporary audiences responding. Although he occasionally opens things up a bit (including a very funny fox hunt) director Stephen Elliott wisely lets his cast take center stage with Coward’s constant zingers and spicy dialogue.
There’s nothing really new here that will make you go “Wow.” Though it’s all “been there seen that ” Easy Virtue is still done with verve and style. It’s a hoot for those who miss this kind of theatrical experience on the big screen.
When the others have retired to the patio Biel’s character accidentally sits on Mrs. Whittaker’s prized little pooch sadly squashing the poor little bugger to death. Her subsequent Lucy-esque attempts to cover up the crime are slapstick silly fun giving Biel the opportunity to display the kind of comic chops she didn’t get to show opposite Adam Sandler and Kevin James in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Netflix. The widescreen cinematography is nice to look at but this little trifle will play just fine at your own estate.