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Sunday
Jan222012

Red Tails (2012)

Historically Blackurate

George Lucas should have taken his name off this movie. Now, if you've settled in for another hatchet-job on a film that's as big a target for critics as German fighter planes were to the Tuskegee Airmen, you should know that I really liked Red Tails.

I loved parts of it and hated others, but in the end I was entertained and educated--hence my mild recommendation. It's mild only because when so many reviewers rally against something, I get very nervous sticking my neck out. For the record, I don't care what other people think, but I do care about the viewing experiences of my readers--and I never like leading people astray (though I'm sure it's happened, and will again).

For the life of me, I can't understand peoples' venomous reaction to this movie--unless it's because of Lucas' "Executive Producer" title. Yes, he ruined Star Wars for several generations; yes, he nuked Indiana Jones' fridge; but neither sin should color peoples' perception of his new projects. In the case of Red Tails, he's assembled a top-notch team of actors and visual effects artists to give us an old-fashioned war movie for the Avatar age.

In fairness, the first fifteen minutes are some of the most unintentionally hilarious that I've seen in years. Beginning with a contender for Worst Title Sequence in History, we open on a US bomber squadron making its way through German airspace. They're attacked by Nazi fighters, who make quick work of several big planes and many of the smaller ones meant to defend them. I figured this out much later in the film, as characters discussed the raid.

Watching the scene itself was futile. Director Anthony Hemingway employs staging and editing tactics that are eerily reminiscent of Lucas' work on Star Wars Episode III's opening space battle. The key difference is that the ships in the Star Wars universe have distinct shapes, so even if you don't know which side is flying which ship, it doesn't look like the same vehicles attacking each other for no discernable reason. Additionally, the title designer splatters giant, red credits directly over the already confusing action--making it impossible to tell what's going on.

Moving on from there, we're introduced to a contingent of the Tuskegee Airmen as they patrol the skies over Italy, hunting Nazi convoys. Like the one-dimensional Nazi pilots and Gee-whiz-golly white Americans we met in the opening battle, we're introduced to our heroes in uncomfortably stereotypical fashion: hotshot fighter pilot Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) lets out a big yawn as he wakes up in the middle of the flight; turns out he'd been up all night, messing around with a local girl. Later, we meet Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the boys' put-upon wrangler whose defining characteristic is chomping down authoritatively on a giant pipe (seriously, this is the stuff of drinking-game legend).

After this rough start, the filmmakers smooth things out by playing to their strengths--namely, a few key performers and gorgeous, CG-simulations of aerial photography. Lightning's bunkmate is squad leader Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), a by-the-numbers military man who wrestles with alcoholism and a creeping fear that his men respect Lightning's daring acrobatics more than his own rank. John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's screenplay (based on John B. Holway's book) balances Lightning's dynamic with Easy, an attractive Italian villager named Sofia (Daniela Ruah), and the Red Tails' chief officer, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard in full-on THIS-IS-AN-IMPORTANT-STORY-THAT-NEEDS-TO-BE-TOLD mode).

There are sub-plots galore, including Bullard's constant head-butting with Washington's bigoted brass (Bryan Cranston shows up for precisely two minutes as the grouchy, opinionated General Ray Syst*), and the boisterous rookie who will do anything for respect--including convincing his superior officer to let him fly following an eye injury that took a quarter of his sight. But the story never feels muddled or meandering. All of the elements bounce nicely off one another, and usher the film to its inevitable conclusion.

The journey to that conclusion involves a lot of CG dog-fighting. And despite my disdain for the one that opens the movie, I absolutely loved those that came after. Hemingway and his VFX team deliver several thrilling moments when the Tails are finally unleashed on the enemy, and despite a few noticeable edge problems, the action seemed real enough. Because this is a Lucas production, it's hard not to think of Star Wars when watching some of these maneuvers; I lack knowledge in physics and historical planes, but nothing stood out to me as being particularly unrealistic.

I knew very little of the Tuskegee Airmen before watching Red Tails, but I learned a lot while watching the movie--and not just about their role in World War II. I discovered that my own perception about the way people are portrayed in movies is partially skewed by race. For example, I was offended by many of the mannerisms and accent choices displayed by the black cast. In particular, Ne-Yo (playing Andrew "Smoky" Salem) sounds like what I imagine hard-core racists hear in their heads when watching Barack Obama on the news. It's the worst kind of ignorant, slurred, non-word communication, and the first time I heard it, I thought I was being put on. But as Smoky--and the rest of the pilots--became full characters, I realized that many of the white-centric war movies I love feature one or two hicks with thick, unintelligible accents; but I've never had a problem with them. I don't know if Smoky's presentation would pass the historical accuracy test, but I can't pin my discomfort with him on anyone but myself.

Much of the criticism I've heard about the movie is that it's unnecessary, thanks to the 1995 film, The Tuskegee Airmen. This is one of the dumbest premises in the history of dumb premises. If there's an unwritten law that only one film is allowed to be made per historical event, then someone needs to have a serious talk with Clint Eastwood (after stringing up Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks). Yes, Red Tails comes off as corny in parts. Some elements feel recycled from other war movies, but mainstream war movies have a discernable shorthand, a language that both their fans and filmmakers speak. Lucas didn't want to put out a Terrence Malick film; he wanted an earnest, mass-appeal movie that more than a hundred people would actually pay to see on the big screen.

I've gone far enough out of my way to defend Red Tails. See it or don't. But if you don't see it, make sure you've seen through the bizarre critical smokescreen first. There are a few things wrong with the movie, but there's nothing wrong with it.

*Okay, that's not really the character's name--but you get the picture.

Saturday
Jan212012

House (1986)

Extreme Home Takeover

I've lost a little respect for Sam Raimi. Until recently, I'd considered 1987's Evil Dead 2 to be the benchmark of horror-comedy. The co-writer/director's story of a man battling evil forces and his own sanity in a remote cabin put a Looney Tunes spin on 80s splatter films. Alternately scary and silly, and brimming with imagination, it changed the way I looked at movies. 

Yesterday, I watched House.

Released in 1986, it stars William Katt as Roger Cobb, a horror novelist and Vietnam Vet battling evil forces and his own sanity in a spooky, old house. It's also a horror-comedy and, for those keeping score, it came out a year Bruce Campbell kicked Deadite ass in the woods. I'm not accusing anyone of theft, and I'm not saying that House is better than Evil Dead 2, but Raimi's novelty and genius are a bit tarnished.

With Harry Manfredini composing the music, Ronn Carroll and Steven Williams popping up in bit rolls, and Steve Miner at the helm of a Sean Cunningham production, House plays like a Who's Who of the Friday the 13th Franchise. But mixed in with traditional jump scares are moments of plain weirdness, such as Roger battling a giant, mounted swordfish and fending off a slimy demon that lives in his closet.* He also imagines his ex-wife, Sandy (Kay Lenz), manifesting as a screeching, gray blob of frizzy hair and razor-teeth--which he chops into pieces and buries in the back yard.

Further complicating the film's tone are the "A" story's serious elements. Following his aunt's apparent suicide, Roger moves into her house to work on a non-fiction book about Viet Nam. War flashbacks coincide with visions of his missing son, Jimmy (Erik and Mark Silver), whose disappearance wrecked his marriage. A good chunk of this movie is pure Stephen King, but those chunks float in a sea of rubber monster limbs, flying gardening tools, and wacky-neighbor gags (George Wendt plays the sports-and-pizza-loving busybody who reluctantly comes to Roger's aid).

You're correct in thinking that this sounds like a mess. But for the most part, it works--largely due to Katt. Whereas Bruce Campbell's Ash character in the Evil Dead movies is basically a cartoon character, Roger Cobb feels like a disturbed and luckless human being. Katt perfectly balances comedy and pathos in ways that transcend Ethan Wiley's screenplay. Even as the movie crumbles around him in the latter part of the third act, the star maintains dignity and believability.

About that crumbling: I would love to visit the alternate universe in which Fred Dekker wrote and directed House. In our world, he merely conceived the story, and it's clear that Miner and Wiley were a bit out of their depth in transitioning from horror to comedy to action. Dekker, you may know, created two overlooked, off-beat genre classics, Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. Both toyed with genre conventions and infused heavier themes with outright silliness. I'd like to believe that Dekker could've straightened out some of House's kinks, but I'm the king of wishful thinking.

The key to appreciating House's relationship to Evil Dead 2, I guess, is realizing that Miner and Wiley beat Raimi to the punch, but Raimi innovated their innovations. Still, House is a cool little Easter egg hunt for horror fans, and a creepy/funny distraction for casual viewers. 

*A demon that, coincidentally, looks and functions almost exactly like the corridor creature from Hellraiser--another film that House pre-dates by about a year.

Tuesday
Jan172012

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (2011)

A Terror on Tour

Sometimes, I watch a movie and wonder who it was made for. Rodman Flender's documentary, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, follows the TV host on a forty-four-city tour of the United States, following the humiliating second chapter of the infamous late-night wars. A series of sticky, legally binding clauses prevented O'Brien from appearing on television or discussing the details of his battle with NBC--so he took his case to the people with a lively, celebrity-guest-studded variety show. But instead of a David and Goliath story, Flender reveals that the witty, affable star's biggest fight is against his own petulant narcissism. I wonder how "Coco's" fans will react to seeing their hero behave like such a villain.

Full disclosure: my familiarity with O'Brien as a performer is limited to the last NBC show, which contained a really touching tribute to the out-of-the-box wackiness on which he'd spent nearly twenty years building a loyal, hipster empire.*

I went into Conan O'Brien Can't Stop cold, with no expectations or fandom to color my reaction. What I found was a troubling portrait of a gifted man whose lack of perspective and empathy did nothing to make me want to follow his career. From his persistent whining about doing meet-and-greets with fans to a passive-aggressive, bullying demeanor with his staff that--he admits--is tolerated largely because it's camouflaged with jokes, I couldn't get behind O'Brien's quest to satisfy his desire to be on stage.

That desire is a fascinating through-line. His frustration is palpable, and the speed with which he and his team put together the tour is a testament to O'Brien's need to be seen and adored by as many people as possible, as often as possible. However, judging by the clips of these performances, it's unclear who was entertained more: aside from the live band and drop-ins by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Eddie Vedder, a good deal of the shows' run-time seems to be about O'Brien pacing the stage and railing against everyone who's wronged him. That's his right--and it's his fans' right to pay for that--but the phrase "Get over it" began looping in my mind about twenty minutes in.

I believe that NBC and Jay Leno acted poorly towards O'Brien; most people probably do. But one thing the documentary highlights is O'Brien's ridiculous amount of wealth. That's to say, yes, he got screwed. But he had a multi-million-dollar parachute that guided him safely to, I imagine, a multi-million-dollar safety net surrounded by unlimited choices and opportunities. If his need to perform live were that overwhelming, he was perfectly capable of renting cameras, a crew, and space near (or in) his house and bussing in audience members for as long as the itch persisted. Instead, he charged money for tickets, t-shirts, prints, and posters while delivering a bizarre "woe-is-me" routine to sold-out theatres nationwide.

This might have been forgivable (an afterthought, even) had O'Brien not been so hard to watch. Maybe five of the film's eighty-eight minutes showcase a man who resembles a human being worthy of such praise and devotion. He repeatedly punches his assistant, managers, and writers in the arms and legs while insulting them. And though everyone laughs this off as "Just Conan" behavior, the film offers no indication as to whether or not O'Brien is kidding--and, if so, how much. Particularly painful is a backstage encounter with 30 Rock star Jack McBrayer, whose Southern accent becomes a source of ridicule. The look of shock and hurt on McBrayer's face was obvious to me, an outsider, but not to O'Brien, who just saw him as a living riff-magnet.

Flenders' portrait of O'Brien's fans--who come off as mostly young, white, obnoxious, and entitled (one going so far as to complain that he'd been "Jewed" out of show tickets)--meshes very well with that of O'Brien himself. Their surface admiration quickly turns surly when time runs out for autographs or picture-taking. And O'Brien suffers a love/hate relationship with the people who show up for him, indulging their requests for hugs for hours on end--and then angrily complaining about having to indulge strangers' requests for hours on end.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to put on a show, and a chilling portrait of a guy who's paid a fortune to be silly and witty five nights a week. But the narrative so openly contradicts the film's title that it's hard, as an audience member with no emotional investment in the star, to understand why everyone puts up with all the complaining and harassment. Conan O'Brien could've stopped, whenever he wanted to. And thanks to his landing a new late-night hosting gig at TBS (a station he openly mocks early in the movie), he can finally stop whining.

*Aside from a handful of early Simpsons episodes and a chance encounter in the lobby of Chicago's NBC tower fifteen years ago.

Sunday
Jan152012

Contraband (2012)

Just Another Job

Contraband is the definition of disposable entertainment. Two years from now, a family-friendly version will likely pop up on F/X. Save yourself a few bucks now by watching it then. There's really nothing wrong with the movie; I actually liked it quite a bit. But this is just more of Mark Wahlberg demonstrating his ability to star in forgettable pseudo-blockbusters like The Italian Job and Invincible, when he's not statue-grasping or producing Entourage.*

The premise behind director Baltasar Kormakur's remake of the Icelandic thriller, Reykjavik-Rotterdam (in which he starred), is intriguing: most heist movies feature a gang of thieves setting up a final score that will allow them to retire; Contraband's protagonists did that years ago, and now live quiet, anonymous lives in the suburbs. Chris Farraday (Wahlberg) was the best of the best, but is content to run a home-security start-up and raise two sons with his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale). Unfortunately, her younger brother, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), lands in hot water with some local gangsters and calls on Chris to bail him out.

This involves raising $700,000 in two weeks to pay off a psychotic drug runner named Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), or risk Briggs' gang killing their way through the family until the debt is paid. Chris assembles his old smuggling crew and arranges passage for he and Andy on a boat headed to Panama. His connection there will supply him with millions in counterfeit dollars, which can then be turned around in the states for at least the amount Andy owes to Briggs.

Much of the movie is split between the boat and Kate's home life, which is shaken by a twist that I probably should have seen coming. Early on, it's clear that Contraband is not simply Ocean's Eleven on the Ocean, but a unique Rube Goldberg Machine of a crime drama. Small decisions disrupt plans, which then need to be reconfigured or scrapped altogether, and I love the strange detours the film makes on its way to the end--which is itself much different than what these movies usually have to offer.

Pardon the cryptic synopsis. Despite my belief that there's no reason to see this in theatres, I do think Contraband should be seen. The cast ranges from serviceable (Wahlberg) to revelatory; it's nice to see Beckinsale acting again, rather than whoring for spa money in form-fitting black leather. And Ben Foster blew my mind. I'm so used to seeing him play overtly dangerous weirdos in movies like Alpha Dog and 30 Days of Night that watching him as a reformed hood shakily making his way in legit circles was truly jarring.

I also really appreciate the filmmakers' working-stiff approach to the heist picture. Chris and his gang aren't the suave movers and shakers of the Ocean's films, but they'd give that crew a run for their money in terms of ingenuity and cunning. Their language is also much more colorful, which is another reason I'd wait for TV with this one. I don't have a problem with swearing, but it only takes a few minutes of "the fuckin' guy with the fuckin' thing" to make my ears bleed. Much of screenwriter Aaron Gusikowski's dialogue sounds like it was written by teenagers who've just been dropped off at their first party.**

Contraband has a lot going for it, and is certainly better than its trailer or January release date suggest. But I can't say I'll ever watch it again, or that I'll even remember having seen it six months from now. Just as horror's "torture-porn" sub-genre enjoyed a brief boom a few years back (followed by a prolonged bust), we may now be giving the all-star caper a collective send-off. If Tower Heist was the massive stroke, Contraband is the hand-wringing over whether or not to pull the plug--a tough decision loaded with nostalgia for the good times, but also a necessary last step towards the inevitable.

*In what may be a cosmic nod to Entourage's Johnny Drama character, Wahlberg's older brother, Donnie, appears briefly as a cop.

 **In fairness, Wahlberg makes delicious use of the word "cunt" late in the picture. I haven't enjoyed an unexpected laugh like that in awhile.

Saturday
Jan142012

Aspen Extreme (1993)

Summit Entertainment

Last week, I heard rumblings of an Aspen Extreme sequel. I don't know where they came from, as the latest news I could find on the project is nearly a year old. Whatever the case, I hope the filmmakers understand what makes the original so great and apply its lessons to the new movie.

That's right, I just called Aspen Extreme "great". The lack of snarky emoticons in that sentence indicates sincerity, by the way. But I sense that some of you are growing concerned. Let me clarify: despite its dated fashions; cheesy, off-brand rock music; and blatant theft of Top Gun plot points, I found writer/director Patrick Hasburgh's movie to be a surprisingly heartfelt and spectacle-free drama. Looking at the DVD cover art, I'd expected way more groans and eye-rolls than actually occurred (about five).

The film opens in Detroit, where a frustrated Ford assembly line worker named T.J. Burke (Paul Gross) quits his job after being offered a promotion. He sees his life becoming a corporate routine, and decides to leave town with his best friend, Dexter (Peter Berg). They head to Aspen and land jobs as ski instructors. Though they butt heads with the resort's pompous staff and the town's moneyed-elite clientele, T.J. and Dexter make friends with Robin (Teri Polo), a local DJ who doesn't fit in, either.

Because T.J. and Robin are the two most attractive people on the mountain, the screenplay calls for a by-the-numbers, cat-and-mouse courtship. Complicating matters is wealthy businesswoman Bryce Kellogg (Finola Hughes), whose desire for a new boy-toy nudges Aspen Extreme out of Top Gun territory into something resembling Hot Dog: The Movie. You're damn right there'll be misunderstandings, betrayals, and a long-overdue kiss following the climactic Big Competition (in which our heroes score a history-making 40 of a possible 30 points).

Very little in the film's love triangle is surprising,* but Hasburgh keeps things interesting by focusing more on T.J. and Dexter's bromance. On paper, and as performed by Gross and Berg, these characters pop with a warm, good-guy energy that I rarely see in movies. Typically, the handsome lead is followed around by his big-hearted, doofus buddy. But T.J. and Dexter are both goofy, down-to-Earth guys who have no greater ambitions than to make money skiing and enjoy their off hours.

T.J. kicks around the idea of being a writer, but doesn't take it seriously until Bryce encourages him as a way of getting into his snow pants. Motives aside, T.J. aspires to something for the first time in his life as Bryce opens him up to new possibilities and classic literature. I love that Bryce isn't evil in the stock, catty-villain sense. She uses and ditches men, but becomes fully invested during her brief period of interest; she's an emotional venture capitalist.

It's also refreshing to see Robin take a platonic interest in Dexter. As movie best friends always do, the guys have a mid-picture falling-out, fueled by Dexter's bungling of a cocaine deal (more on this in a minute). Sitting alone, drunk, high, and hopeless in his now-vacant shack (actually, an old caboose), Robin knocks on Dexter's door one morning; she bursts in, throws out all his drugs and booze, and forces him to clean up and get back in shape. The scene is touching and funny, and helps round out two characters that would typically serve at the pleasure of whichever beefcake's name appears above the film's title.

Keep in mind, my tolerance for awful movies is pretty high. It's very possible (likely, even) that you'll have a hard time appreciating the nuances here, and spend much of the movie squirming in embarrassment. There's a lot to squirm at.

Aspen Extreme's first issue is its timeline. The film takes place over the course of two years, but far too much is glossed over in the span of seconds. One shot establishes a "Close of Season" sign. It's followed by a snow-free shot of Robin's cabin, and then Robin and T.J. hiking, talking about how quickly the new ski season is approaching. The story feels like it should max out at a couple of months, tops.

Next, we have the uncharacteristically silly drug-paranoia montage of Dexter waiting for a connection at a bar. Drenched in sweat and anxiously eyeballing everyone that walks into the place, he finally gives up and flushes the whole stash down the toilet. The scene is a necessary script catalyst, but it plays like Hasburgh uncomfortably cutting and pasting Ray Liotta's Goodfellas freakout into his buds-and-bunnies flick. Which, I suppose he is, and it doesn't work--except as comedy.

The last problem I'll mention (though it's not the last you'll find, I'm sure) is the ski resort's ubiquitous promo poster. It features an alleged action shot of T.J. roaring down a mountain, but the face was obviously doctored. T.J. makes a quip about the photographer catching the one shot where he had his eyes open, but that doesn't cut it. Plus, it further underscores Aspen Extreme's tricky relationship to Top Gun: not only are the stories very similar, Gross looks like the result of a science project involving Tom Cruise and Chris Noth's DNA. Luckily, there's more to his acting than just a weirdly pretty face.**

This is a really odd movie and, I imagine, an impossible one to market. It's low on adrenaline (the skiing sequences are uniformly boring, with the exception of one in which T.J. falls down a hole--which made me gasp). It's quiet where others are bombastic. It has no easily defined or defeated villain. This is a warm and fuzzy relationship film about two best friends and the nice girl they meet on a journey of self-discovery. The only thing "extreme" about it was my surprise at the size of its considerable heart.

So, yes, I'm very curious about the sequel. It'll probably be a generic, action-packed CG extravaganza.

But, who knows? I've been wrong before.

*I'd expected Bryce and Robin to have at least one scene together. These movies always include a penultimate showdown between the two women vying for the heroe's heart--often denoted by some variation of, "I've got money/power/influence and a smokin' hot body--what do you have to offer him?" Hasburgh earns major points for skipping this nonsense.

**A face, incidentally, that we're meant to believe is only 25 years old, even though Gross was 34 when the movie came out. It's not a big deal, but I involuntarily snort-laughed pretty hard when T.J. mentioned his age.