Movie Reviews: Red Tails and Haywire

Red Tails directed by Anthony Hemingway

The conventional wisdom is that Red Tails is the worst movie of the year. I think that’s being unkind….to the Gregorian Calendar. No mere civilization-spanning system of time measurement could possibly be big enough to handle the monumental epic awfulness of this piece of cinematic dreck.

Making fun of George Lucas’s skills as a filmmaker these days is about as easy as stealing candy from a baby, or even as easy as stealing candy from an adult with a baby’s head (all due apologies to Newt Gingrich). And so I wanted to explain exactly WHY this movie isn’t just bad, but should actually be arrested and tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity.

The Script:

Almost everything that’s wrong with this thing can be found in the script, although to call it a script would be like calling Rick Santorum a rational, compassionate human being.  First of all, there’s no plot, which is a bit of a “must-have” for me. Oh, there’s a group of black WW2 fighter pilots who go on missions….but that’s not a plot. That’s a premise. That’s what gets you in the door, but that shouldn’t be the whole story. In the case of Red Tails, it is. The pilots go on a mission. And then another. And then another. And then the movie is over. There’s no real highs, since the pilots scream and yell almost every time that something happens, and there’s no real lows since Terence Howard scowls with a trembling lip the rest of the time. If the actors don’t know how to react to the farce that they’re reading, how are we supposed to?

The Dialogue:

Cuba Gooding, about 4 minutes before calling his agent to thank him for getting him a gig in Red Tails

Technically dialogue is part of script, but in this case the dialogue is so horrendous that it really deserves its own category. I’m more than a little saddened that the genius who created The Boondocks had a hand in “writing” this, but I’m convinced that Lucas just paid Aaron McGruder to allow his name to be attached. I just can’t see the man who created Huey Freeman to be behind these hackneyed bon mots:

“From the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last-minute, to the last man, we fight “, or, “You get us the mission, we’ll light up the board” or, “The only respect I have is for the uniform.”

Give me strength.

Let me clarify. I have no problem with cliches in filmmaking. There’s a reason why we have cliches, and why we have stereotypes. There is something so satisfyingly familiar about going to a great sports or action movie where you know EXACTLY what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s not the destination, it’s the ride. But in the case of Red Tails, George Lucas seems committed to actually tossing you off the roller coaster in mid-trip.

Worst of all, Lucas and Anthony Hemingway seemed to think that they were filming a radio play. When someone fires a gun, he says, “I’m shooting a gun!” and when someone takes a drink, he says ‘Man, I need a drink’, and when someone says ‘I really want to shoot Cuba Gooding Jr in the face”, they d…..actually, that’s just wishful thinking on my part. The whole reason why we have movie cameras, is so that we can SEE what’s happening. If you TELL us what’s happening at the same time, it kind of defeats the purpose of making a movie in the first place.

The Acting, and the Characters:

It’s not really fair to criticize the actors too much here, as being expected to polish up this rotting turd would be beyond the skills of even the finest thespians, much less the man who brought you Daddy Day Camp. Gooding is baldly terrible in this, but he almost seems glad to have finally found a movie that he’s not the worst part of. He chews up every scene as feverishly as he does the pipe that accompanies him throughout.

Brian Cranston, about 4 minutes before firing his agent for getting him a gig in Red Tails.

I wouldn’t label his performance as a disappointment though, as it’s hard to be disappointed in someone you never had any confidence in the first place. But Terence Howard? He’s a different story, and it’s sad to see someone who once showed so much promise relegated to trembling and shaking like a vibrating bed at a Motel 6. There are other actors in the film of course (namely half the cast of the Wire), but please don’t judge them too harshly. Like another man who had to undergo a terrible experience once said, “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do”.

George Lucas said in the promotional build-up to this that no studio would pay for a big budget action movie built around a black cast, and acted as if he had the next District 9 or Reservoir Dogs under his hat. He didn’t. In fact, we’ve discovered that he didn’t have a hat at all. It’s been easy to apologize for Lucas, as he is the man who brought so many of us so many of our fondest childhood moments. But that Lucas is long gone now, and in his place is a sad, shell of a has-been who has no business ever being near a film camera again.

Rating:

To rate this film would be like asking that girl whose bungee cord broke to rate her experience on Trip Advisor.

Haywire directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Steven Soderbergh said that with Haywire, he wanted to make a Pam Grier movie as directed by Alfred Hitchock. It’s a lofty goal, and one that I desperately wish he had been able to pull off.

In this post-Tarantino age, we have an idealized vision of what a B movie is. Nowadays, the B movie has become a hyper-stylized, over the top arthouse conceit. But back in the day? Back in the day the idea of a B movie playing to arthouse audiences would be laughed at. And to his credit, it’s the un-ironic, grimy take on the B movie that Soderbergh decided to make here.

Haywire stars Gina Carano, a charismatic newbie who is apparently  a big star in the world of something called “mixed martial-arts”. Apparently that exists. In short, she can beat you up. Yes, even you. In Haywire, she plays a mercenary, who eventually gets hunted down by the very firm that once hired her. It’s a classic action chase film, and one that doesn’t disappoint IF you don’t walk in the door expecting Soderbergh to ply his art house charms on this fairly generic actioner. In short, it’s JUST a moderately well-done,  realistic action movie that reminded me of some of Steve McQueens stronger films. But I wanted more. I wanted something hyper-stylized, with a script as smart as the one that Soderbergh wrote for Contagion last year. But that’s not this film.

What this film is, is about watching an extremely talented human being pounding the pulp out of other human beings. Gina Cerano will never be chosen to be in Woody Allen’s newest Parisian romp, but as a martial artist she’s a goddamn poet. Her fight scenes are sporadic, and  sadly short,  but they’re absolutely brilliant, and they’re what bumps up this film from a decent action movie to a good one.

Rating: B

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The 25 Best Movies Of 2011

Not a lot of rules here, except that the movie had to have been released in 2011. I should also note that for a few of these films I used some of the original review I wrote when they came out. I obviously haven’t seen every movie that came out in 2011, but I have seen most of the films that seem to end up on lists like these, so I think I’ve got a good cross-section of what came out this year. There’s a healthy mix of populist mind-numbing and pretentious douchebaggery, so hopefully everyone will be happy.

25. Beginners directed by Mike Mills

The first of many relationship movies on my list this year, and one deserving of far more attention that it got, both critically and commercially. Like its name suggests, Beginners is about fresh starts, from Ewan McGregor learning how to be in a committed relationship for the first time, to his father (in an award-deserving turn by Christopher Plummer) coming out as a gay man in his late 70s. It’s a movie that explores what it means to truly start over, but it also tries to teach us to appreciate what we’ve got. It’s a quiet movie, but one that you’ll leave with a smile on your face.

24. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol directed by Brad Bird

MI4 is the movie that people talk about when they say they just want to go to the theatre to turn their brain off. As a straight-ahead Hollywood blockbuster, it’s easily the very best of 2011. The stunts and action sequences here defy simple description, and Tom Cruise sweats and bleeds for two solid hours to remind us why he’s still the greatest action star in the business, and maybe of all time. While it isn’t the best in the franchise (MI3 still holds that rank, easily), Brad Bird’s first live action movie more than holds its own, and the Dubai action sequences are already assured of a place in the stunt history books. If Brad Bird had brought the same attention to plotting and character development to this that he does to his animated films, we would have had a classic.

23. Like Crazy directed by Drake Doremus

Like Crazy is a wonderful love story, in pretty much every way. It’s script is so realistic, and so effortless, that it feels not so much like a script as it does a Google doc, that is constantly being updated by the cast. And in fact it’s not surprising to find that many lines of dialogue were actually improvised by this excellent group of actors. In Anna and Jacob, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones have created one of the most charming, likeable, and heartbreaking couples you’ll see in a modern movie. If you like your love stories monumental, but doused with a minor dose of reality, this movie is for you.

22.  Rise of the Planet Of The Apes directed by Rupert Wyatt

Rise is a near-pefect science fiction action film, but that “near” is a VERY big “near”, and its name is James Franco. Usually, one can overlook one or two issues with a film, but when that issue is the star, who doesn’t show half the charisma that the computer generated monkeys he’s working with do, its a pretty big problem. Thankfully, the rest of this well-directed thriller delivers, and is that rare prequel that is better than it’s source material.

21. The Adventures Of Tintin directed by Stephen Spielberg

Rarely does one word describe an entire movie, but that’s the case here, and that word is “rollicking”. Tintin moves along at a breakneck pace, sometimes so fast that it forgets to breathe. It’s an adventure movie based one of the most popular comic books of all time, and works on several levels: Emotionally, technically, and visually. Although you might occasionally wish that the characters were as well-rounded as the 3D visuals (the best I’ve seen in modern movies to date), Tintin is easily Spielberg’s best film in a decade.

20.  Here, There directed by Sheng Lu

If we needed more proof that great cinematographers often make great directors, Here, There is it. This is a visually beautiful Chinese film, but it’s one that focuses on character development as much as it does on imagery. There are three stories here, each set in a different locale, and tied together in only the most tangential ways. And that’s kind of the point of the movie. Every story is big to the person it’s happening to. Every place is home to someone. And every person has a family that loves them. These are not huge revelations, but it’s nice to be reminded of them sometimes, and this film does so admirably.

19. Hanna directed by Joe Wright

This hyper-stylized Euro thriller came and went this spring, but is hopefully getting enough end-of-year attention that it will motivate some film lovers to give it a second look. Although the premise of a young girl being trained to become the ultimate assassin isn’t a new one (see The Professional, the Cassie Cain version of Batgirl, John Wagner’s fourth Button Man series for 2000AD, etc ), it’s done so boldly here that Hanna more than stands on its own two feet. Although there is a visual verbosity to the film that could be seen as distracting by some, it only serves to solidify this as one of the most unusual action films of the year.

18. Moneyball directed by Bennett Miller

This one was an old-fashioned crowd pleaser, and one that’s all the more surprising when you realize that the entire movie is about math. In a way, Moneyball is the perfect companion piece to The Artist, in that both films are about the inevitability of change. But while The Artist’s George Valentin spends most of his film rebelling against change, Billy Beane embraces his obstacles head on, and Brad Pitt shows why he’s among the most likable movie stars in Hollywood.

17. Captain America: The First Avenger directed by Joe Johnston / Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh

After years of trying, Marvel Studios has finally perfected the exact formula that makes up a successful superhero movie, and to no-ones surprise it involves spending as much time on dialogue and character development as they do on action and cool costumes. Although these two films are tonally different, they have enough in common from a pacing and character perspective to justify lumping them together. Both are credits to their source material, but Thor in particular did a great job of blending story and action. Bring on The Avengers!!!

16. The Trip directed by Michael Winterbottom

Steve Coogan plays such a great asshole, that he makes bad movies good, and good movies great. In The Trip, he plays a tremendous asshole named Steve Coogan, who enlists his friend Rob Brydon (played by the real Rob Brydon) to help his travel throughout the English countryside reviewing restaurants together. It’s a largely improvised throw down of witticisms between two brilliant comedians, and their dueling Michael Caine impressions might be the funniest scene I’ve seen in a film this year.

15. Super 8 directed by J. J. Abrams

The first hour of this heartfelt tribute to the family friendly creature films of my youth might be my very favourite period of time spent at the theatre this year. That the second half is “just” a fine, though generic, monster movie should by no means stop anyone from enjoying this as a total package. This is a film about youth, and as such is engaging, charming, and often messy. It’s also a beautiful (though perhaps,simplistic) look at why we love the things (and people) we love.

14. Melancholia directed by Lars Von Trier

If looked at through a typical science fiction lens, Melancholia isn’t going to set anyone’s house on fire. The premise? A newly discovered planet is hurtling  towards earth, and it seems almost inevitable that things aren’t going to end well as a result. But this isn’t a movie about a disaster; it’s a movie about how two sisters deal with said disaster in disparate, yet connected ways. It’s two character pieces for the price of one, and while the high quality of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s emotionally overwrought performance won’t surprise anyone, Kristen Dunst’s challenging turn as the sister who seemingly has it all, but really has nothing, is easily the performance of her career.

13. Martha Marcy May Marlene directed by Sean Durkin

If there is a theme running between the movies on my list this year, it’s that I favored films that emphasized strong characters over strong plot, and in Martha, Elizabeth Olsen has created a character so charming, yet so feckless that one instantly forgives this film it’s slightly meandering feel. After years of being thought missing, a young woman reaches out to the sister she had previously shut out. We drift between this new reality, and her previous one as the den mother to a group of cultists so effortlessly that it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between the two. In a year filled with great character studies, Martha Marcy has an edge and sense of tension that sets it apart.

12. Source Code directed by Duncan Jones

After only two films, Duncan Jones has become one of the strongest voices in science fiction film making, and this perfectly balanced thriller is easily one of the best genre movies of this year. It’s a big budget action movie, and as such Source Code provides all of the chills and spills one would expect. But it also has something that’s missing from the lions share of Hollywood blockbusters these days: a heart. That, combined with a fully realized premise of alternate realities and time travel (of a sort) made this a surprising winner for me.

11. Bill Cunningham New York directed by Richard Press

The word artist is one that gets applied to people liberally, and often for very good reason. But Bill Cunningham is a capital A artist, to the extent that by the end of this touching , uplifting, and sad documentary, you actually feel bad for enjoying his brilliant photography over the decades. The sacrifices in his personal life that Cunningham has made for his art makes Jesus’ look superficial, and this film makes you rethink everything you know about commitment to ones craft.

10. The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius

There is so much populist love being directed at The Artist, that I find myself  doubting whether or not I actually liked it in the first place. It’s a black and white film that manages to be both silent and french at the same time, and quite frankly, it’s a film that’s impossible not to love. This piece is about the inevitability of change, and as such should be embraced by anyone struggling with the difficulties that said change often brings. While it wouldn’t be my personal pick, it’s the movie I think is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

 9. The Muppets directed by James Bobin

I pride myself on my objectivity when it comes to films, and on (usually) being able to differentiate between a film’s subject matter, and its  inherent qualities. The Muppets tested my impartiality like no other film has those year, as I loved the Muppet Show the way Stephen Harper loves putting poor people into prison. This movie is what you get when you inject pure joy directly into your brain, and if I were judging on pure emotional response, this movie might have actually captured the top spot.

8. Attack The Block directed by Joe Cornish

There were a lot of fun genre movies this year, but none of them came close to matching the emotional intensity of Attack The Block. It’s a formula movie: aliens attack earth, earthlings defend themselves. The monsters are cool, the action thrilling, but It’s the 3 dimensional characters, so rare in films like this, that really sets this movie apart. In Moses, John Cornish and John Boyega have created the first truly original action hero of this still relatively new decade.

7. Drive directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

You know how I know that people are dumb? A woman sued the producers of this finely crafted dramatic portrait of a sociopath because it wasn’t the mindless action blow-off that she felt that she was promised. That’s right. She sued because the movie was too good. It’s things like this, that make me wish I believed in the Rapture. Drive is one part David Lynch, one part John Carpenter, one Stanley Kubrik, and all parts “I can’t believe they’re still making movies like this”. It’s also a movie that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and while it’s influences are obvious, they also don’t overshadow what Nicolas Refn is trying to do here. Audiences who come because “Ryan Gosling is SOOO good-looking and I love the Notebook so much OMG!” will be disappointed by Drive’s art house trappings, but those who open their mind to a brilliantly paced crime story will (should) leave happy.

 6. Midnight In Paris directed by Woody Allen

There seems to be an increasing divide in film, specifically between movies that critics deem to be “good”, and movies that people actually like. Thankfully there were a few movies that actually straddled both sides of that particular fence this year, and Woody Allen’s latest charmer manages to bring casual film goers and elitist film snobs together like no other movie this year. Except for maybe The Muppets. And The Artist. And maybe Moneyball. Those that say that this is Allen’s best film in decades do nothing but show their woeful ignorance at how strong his recent back catalogue really is. What will be remembered as this films true accomplishment is that it might be the first film in which Owen Wilson did something that very few people thought he could do: act.

5. Margin Call directed by J.C. Chandor

While the idea of a fictional adaptation of the events that led to the 2008 financial crisis doesn’t exactly inspire one to race to the multiplex, this confident debut film by J.C. Chandor realizes that the exact details aren’t what matters here. What matters, is what always matters when it comes to movies about crime: motivation, and opportunity, both of which are captured in this film in spades. There are strong influences shown in this ensemble driven drama, Glengarry Glen Ross being only the most obvious of them. It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite from the multitude of stellar acting performances we have here, but at the end of the day seeing Kevin Spacey work harder than he has on-screen in a decade has to be the deciding factor.

4. Tyrannosaur directed by Paddy Considine

Take one abused Christian woman, put her with an alcoholic widower with rage issues, and you’ve got one the most unlikely relationships we’ve seen at the cinema this year. Although our two heroes aren’t very heroic, Considine has built a convincing empathy into each of them that allows us to forgive them their foibles, and to root for their attempts at a fresh start. Although this may get overlooked n favour of sexier, flashier works, in my mind this film should be a strong contender for at least 5 Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture) this year. Paddy Considine never makes us believe that his characters are beyond redemption, and in fact has given each of them a huge lifeline that almost guarantees further happiness: each other.

3. Play directed by Ruben Östlund

This Swedish film about immigrants and bullies works on two levels: 1) it’s a technical master piece, that uses stationary shots the way a painter uses a brush, and 2) it’s a film that tackles extremely difficult issues head on, and isn’t shy about bringing up subjects like race, and class, and poverty, that are often just easier to ignore. While none of these issues are “solved” by the film, the way Ruben Östlund objectively discusses them through his simple script should be studied, and hopefully copied.

2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy directed by Tomas Alfredson

A meticulously crafted thriller,  so precise in its language, it’s characters, and it’s motivations, that it threatens to actually withhold the secrets it’s supposed  to impart. Although it’s a somewhat dense film, the perfect pacing, sparse dialogue, and award-deserving performance by Gary Oldman more than make up for the extra effort you have to put into this film. Alfredson shows that Let The Right One In wasnt a fluke, and that he’s well on his way towards becoming an upper echelon filmmaker.

1. Carnage directed by Roman Polanski

After his last film (the dreadfully turgid Ghost Writer), I had given up on Roman Polanksi as a film maker, although apparently as a wanted fugitive he’s still in high demand.  The film was so clumsy, that it was almost impossible to imagine that the same man who had made The Tenant and Repulsion had turned out this artless piece of jetsam.  I’ve never been so glad to be so wrong, as Carnage more than makes up for it. In fact, with all due respect to The Pianist, it might be Polanski’s best film since Frantic. While lovers of the various productions of Yasmina Reza’s original play seem to not agree, this is an exceptional ensemble cast, with the four leads (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly) fitting together perfectly in this very black comedy  about two sets of parents meeting one another after their children get involved in an after school brawl. Although initially cordial, the afternoon meeting quickly degenerates into a miasma of base emotion and emotional brutality. It’s not a subtle film, but the verbal jousting between these four accomplished actors is a sight to behold. Winslet and Waltz in particular are in fine form, and one desperately wants to be a fly in the wall on their car ride home. This movie uses words as it’s special effects, and as such, it’s a blockbuster.

Honourable Mention: 13 Assassins directed by Takashi Miike, The Descendants directed by Alexander Payne, Rango directed by Gore Verbinski, Benda Bilili! directed by Renaud Barret & Florent De La Tullaye

Worst Movies Of 2011: I was lucky enough not to have to sit through a lot of truly bad movies in 2011, but if I had to pick one, it would be either Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Green Lantern, or Sucker Punch.

Most Overrated Movies Of 2011: Lots on this list, but Hugo, Crazy Stupid Love, and Bridesmaids will probably compete for this top spot.