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.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Trouble Every Day takes nearly an hour to get going but it ultimately tells the very choppy story of afflicted American researcher Shane Brown's journey to Paris to unravel the murky circumstances surrounding a former colleague's experiments which have resulted in blood-soaked cannibalistic tragedies. First though we meet young Parisienne Core who appears stranded on a road. She stops a trucker who later turns up hidden in the high grass off the highway dead and horribly deformed. Later two punks are skulking around back at the boarded up house where Core's husband Leo usually keeps her locked up. The punks will eventually break into Leo's house where one of them will have a sexual encounter with Core who turns the tryst into a cannibalistic bloodbath. Meanwhile in Paris Dr. Shane Brown and his wife June arrive at their hotel to begin their honeymoon. Shane is mysteriously troubled by incidents that might have begun in Guyana and involve his pilfering of Leo's research. Shane embarks upon secretive inquiries into Leo's whereabouts. Shane learns of Leo's whereabouts but has his own messy encounter with the hotel maid who he nibbles to death. An adorable puppy that Shane buys during his wanderings suggests a ray of hope for Shane's marriage although some telltale blood in Shane's shower might arouse June's suspicions. Sound convoluted? It is. The going's rough and murky in this far-from-type-A wannabe horror shockfest of arty pretentiousness erotic content and self-delusion--this latter referring to the filmmakers' notions that Trouble Every Day might provide any appeal to filmgoers.
Vincent Gallo is appropriately creepy and sinister-looking as the twisted tormented Shane and Beatrice Dalle ably carries the burden of lethally lusty captive Core afflicted by unslaked cannibalism. Tricia Vessey isn't given much more to do than be Shane's cute and clueless new wife just as Alex Descas as doctor Leo is hardly challenged. Although his Leo is relatively passive the script or direction should have burdened him with the angst of a conflicted and tormented Dr. Frankenstein whose afflicted wife craves Big Macs dressed in pants not Thousand Island dressing. The supporting cast is fine and everyone in this Paris-based story wins points by delivering most of their lines in English.
Points also go to blood 'n' guts director Claire Denis for guts if not all the icky-drippy blood on display here. The guts have to do with the boldness required to take so much time to get to the story--almost an hour--by first introducing bites er bits and pieces of an array of seemingly unconnected characters and situations. Such frustrating unfolding of plot creates the er appetite for the story and er feeds the question--what is going on here? Denis favors montages slow and sensual pans unusual camera angles and snippets of graphic footage depicting frontal nudity sexual encounters bloodbaths. But as Shakespeare might have put it--the play's the thing not the foreplay.