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Column Fri Jan 20 2012

Red Tails, Haywire, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Flowers of War, Pina 3D, Norwegian Wood & Mulberry Child

Red Tails

For those of you who have heard the stories of how much of Red Tails executive producer George Lucas may or may not have directed/re-shot personally, try to put such thoughts out of your head as you attempt to watch this story of the first-ever squadron of African-American pilots to fly in combat. It's better if you hate this film on its own merits rather than because Lucas may have pushed aside credited director Anthony Hemingway and put his hands all over this worthy story, turning it into a horribly written, trite adventure film that cares more about aerial battles than it does about telling the glorious but often heartbreaking account of the segregated Tuskegee airmen of World War II.

I'm not going to get bogged down by history; my feeling has always been that if a "based on a true story" movie is engaging and entertaining, I don't really care how much it sticks to the facts. It's not a damn documentary, and it doesn't pretend to be. No, the problem that I had with Red Tails is that it's addicted to war cliches, despite the fact that the Tuskegee men had a military career that was far from cliche. I will admit that the beginning of the film is the most interesting, as screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder detail the way the Army Air Corps systematically kept the black pilots from doing anything other than routine coastal patrols of areas where the enemy hadn't been seen in weeks or months in planes that were equivalent to hand-me-downs from white pilots. The frustration felt by the men is palpable and well earned, and the scenes that illustrate that are the film's best.

But with Lucas and fellow Star Wars producer Rick McCallum guiding the ship, what Red Tails really cares about are the aerial battles, which occur only as a last-ditch effort when the Army Air Corps loses too many bombers when their escort fighters stop protecting them to chase glory by shooting down enemy planes rather than sticking next to the bombers. It's a fascinating bit of history that is kind of glossed over, but the Red Tails (named for the red tails painted on their planes) are called in and told to stick by the bombers, which they do. They still manage to knock down a few enemies on their first mission, as well as keep a single bomber from getting hit. Make no mistake, as much as you may hate the rest of the film, the aerial sequences are pretty spectacular, and we can end that discussion here.

Trouble enters the picture when the film attempts to get to know the pilots, or more specifically, when the film lays out one military "type" after another and pretends that equals character development. First on the list of offenders is Cuba Gooding Jr. as the pipe-chomping Maj. Emanuelle Stance, who delivers speech after motivating speech to the men, to surprisingly little results. They pretty much only listen to each other or the true commanding officer of the squad Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard), who is ultimately the one that gets the Red Tails their first shot at actual combat after defying the openly racist Maj. Mortamus (Bryan Cranston). Every sentence that comes out of Bullard's mouth could be plastered on a motivational poster. He doesn't seem to think or express himself in anything other than noble thoughts. That said, his open defiance of those who would dismiss him and his men would seem to make him a character worth knowing. Alas, he is barely in the movie.

The actual fighters are saddled with nicknames (as was the practice, I get that) and given a type. There's the rebellious pilot who defies his squadron leader if he sees an opportunity; there's the lover boy who woos a pretty Italian woman in a village near the base; there's the guy with the funny voice who is quick with a joke; there are the hardened repair crew members; hell, there's even a guy with a drinking problem. And you've got some strong actors playing these parts, such as Michael B. Jordan, Tristan Wilds, Nate Parker, Elijah Kelley, Andre Royo, and David Oyelowo, as well as musicians Ne-Yo and Method man filling out the roster, and not a one can really rise above the atrocious dialogue. By the time the film is over, you will hate Ne-Yo's character Smoky as much as you did Jar Jar Binks because they're cut from the same stereotypical cloth.

And even if some of the almost unbelievable moments in Red Tails are more or less true, they feel utterly false. There's a moment when the black pilots are invited into a whites-only officers club for drinks, not long after one Red Tail was beaten severely in the same establishment, and the whole place embraces them as equals--after one successful mission. Sorry, guys, I'm not buying it. And it should come as no surprise that the in-the-air dialogue isn't much better. "How you like that, Mr. Hitler?!" may go down as the "Release the Kraken!" of 2012. And no, not even a moving score by Terrence Blanchard saves any part of Red Tails, nor do the aforementioned aerial effects sequences, which are shot almost exactly like every X-Wing battle in a Star Wars movie.

The bottom line is that Red Tails fails every time a character opens his mouth. There's a love story that bogs down the movie, a resoundingly dumb focus by the airmen on one particular German fighter pilot (nicknamed Pretty-Boy and played by Lars van Riesen), and an unexplainable commitment to having these men spout useless, predictable words as if their lives depended on it. I'll admit, I don't remember much about HBO's 1995 film The Tuskegee Airmen, starring Laurence Fishburne (and a much younger Cuba Gooding Jr.), but I remember it being a whole lot better than Red Tails. Come to think of it, I liked my last root canal more than Red Tails. If you want to pay tribute to these great men, buy a book that accurately and affectionately details their true story rather than give money to anyone for producing this drivel.

Haywire

Oh mama! If you think that all director Steven Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs (who last worked with Soderbergh on The Limey) wanted to do with Haywire is produce scenes that set up star and former mixed martial arts star Gina Carano to kick all kinds of ass, well you aren't totally wrong. Without giving too much away, let's just say that the timeline in this movie isn't 100 percent linear, and there are many reveals via flashback that are quite cool. My point is that there's a great b-movie star at play here as well, and while some might think that Soderbergh is slumming by even doing something so raw and brutal, I think he's paying tribute to the kinds of films that might have gotten his blood pumping a little stronger as a kid. Haywire certainly got mine going.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a private contractor hired by the government (through her handler/boss, played by Ewan McGregor) for various security jobs including extraction and neutralizing work. She's determined to get out of the life, but we know how well those decisions go in the movies. After allowing herself to get talked into one last high-paying gig of rescuing a kidnapped Chinese journalist, Mallory realizes she's been double crossed, probably by someone close to her, and there are many suspects to choose from, and few she can trust to help her figure out who is trying to have her killed.

Carano is largely untested as an actor, but I think she actually does a commendable job playing against the likes of Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Angarano, and Bill Paxton, who plays her father. It was also nice to see Michael Douglas back on the boards as the contact between the government and the security team. But when it comes to the usually close-quarters action sequences, Carano (who does all her own stunts) is a beautiful and deadly force of nature. What's interesting about the way Soderbergh stages the fight scenes is that he doesn't drag them out; Mallory received black-ops military training, which is all about getting things done quickly and quietly, so when she has to dispatch with an opponent it's often quick and lethal. But when she meets an opponent that is more her match, that's when things get fun--for us anyway.

In truth, the plot of Haywire doesn't really matter that much. If you get lost, all you really need to know is that a bunch of people want Mallory dead, and she is going to release an unholy combination of fists and feet to stay alive. But as I mentioned, the story is actually kind of fun if you can navigate the shifting timeline. But everyone in front of and behind the camera on Haywire exists to serve Carano, at whose hands and thighs I would gladly take a beating. She's attractive without being glammed out; even in form-fitting evening ware, she exudes a toughness crossed with raw power. Violence is in her eyes, but there's also a hint of unbridled passion--maybe for blood, maybe for other forms of physical contact. My immediate thought was how many more movies I'd love to see Carano in immediately.

Fans of Soderbergh know he's a big fan of hiring non-actors in the lead roles of many of his smaller films, perhaps most notoriously in The Girlfriend Experience with adult film star Sasha Grey. But strangely enough, most times when Soderbergh goes this route, it works. And it might work best of all in Haywire, which doesn't feel like your traditional action fare; it feels real without the amplified punching sounds effects and wildly spinning camera movement. Soderbergh shoots the fighting straight on, and the sounds he chooses sound like the natural thudding of fist on bone. You will wince with every impact, and then come running back to Gina Carano and ask for seconds. I know you all want to see Haywire; I'm just here to confirm that it's as good as you were hoping it would be.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

This film tied (alonb with Larry Crowne) for my Worst Film of 2011, so you already know we're not starting from a good place. Explaining exactly why this film is worthy of such pure and unadulterated loathing is not the easiest job I've had, but lord knows I'm game. Right out of the gate, let's start with the character of Oskar Schell (played by newcomer Thomas Horn, who was discovered after appearing on "Jeopardy"), the 11-year-old son of Thomas (Tom Hanks), a New York eccentric who likes to send his child on mini-adventures and treasure hunts of his own making. Quite frankly, I hate stories about people/families like this because I don't believe they actually exist on the planet earth. Regardless, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close flashes back between a time when the family was together and a time after "The Worst Day" (as Oskar calls it), meaning September 11, 2001. You see, it just so happens Thomas worked in the World Trade Center and died on that day.

All of these adventures are meant to force the sensitive pacifist Oskar confront his fears head on, but with dad gone and mom Linda (Sandra Bullock) a complete wreck, Oskar must force himself to find a mystery to solve, which he does when he finds a key hidden in a vase in his father's closet. The key is in an envelope with a name on it, and Oskar looks up every person in New York City with the same last name to see if he can discover what the key unlocks. Oskar is using the mystery to avoid confronting his loss (duh), and avoid playing his mother several terrified messages his father left on their answering machine just before he died.

Oskar has encounters with such dignitaries as Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and Max von Sydow (there's no way this guy is getting an Oscar recognition, so stop saying he will) during the course of his hunt, all with quirky, sometimes annoying results. But mostly his meetings with various people with the same last name are a series of weirdly pleasant exchanges to lead nowhere. I get any kind of cheap thrill picking on kids, but Thomas Horn is a terrible actor; I don't want to call him annoying because that might be the way Oskar is written, but dammit, I wanted to throttle the twerp pretty much for the whole movie.

The thing I kept thinking while watching Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that I could see it working better as a novel, which it is. But something went horribly wrong in the transition from Jonathan Safran Foer's book to Eric Roth's adaptation to Stephen (The Reader; The Hours) Daldry's directed work, and the result is a disaster of the highest order. This film is so spectacularly bad that the bar for pretentious, deep-thoughts movies has been lowered roughly the length of my middle finger.

And then comes this scene at the end with Davis, Wright, and the kid that actually is kind of interesting and moody, but it's so painfully out of place in this movie that I wanted to murder the rest of the film for ruining this sequence. By the time all of the mysteries are revealed, I was ready to hop in my car and park it halfway through a tree at 75 mph. There is nothing "special" or "noble" or "touching" about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; and it's weird to have a film that features a death at the World Trade Center be about nothing more than an over-indulged child continuing to be allowed to run around the city, meeting strangers, and being away from his mom for hours on end. There is no search for meaning, for reason, for life's big and little secrets. This movie exists very much on the surface despite its clear belief that it is a cerebral experience meant for only the most feeling intellectuals. Oh, god, when you are wrong, you are so wrong, Stephen Daldry. And I'm done.

The Flowers of War

Welcome to the rapey-ist awards season since Gandhi went up against E.T. and Tootsie. From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to In the Land of Blood and Honey to the latest from the legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Hero), the movies have become a downright creepy place to go these days. The Flowers of War picks one of the darkest periods in world history--Japan's invasion and brutal decimation of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937 (commonly referred to as "the Rape of Nanking"). I've seen some pretty graphic documentaries about these events, but Zhang's movie picks a weirdly, not convincingly uplifted aspect of this time and the result is a strangely jovial movie that always seems in search of the cute angle rather than be somewhat true to the facts.

If you wanted to know what Christian Bale did between The Fighter and The Dark Knight Rises, this is it. He plays John Miller, a Western mortician sent to the Catholic church in Nanking to bury the priest who has just died, but the invasion is happening right as Miller is arriving. When the caretakers of the church and the dozen or so young female students admit they don't have any money to pay him but they need his help in protecting them from the onslaught of Japanese soldiers, he refuses and starts tearing the place apart looking for money. But when the soldiers bust through the church doors and threaten to rape the school girls, Miller dons the dead priest's robes and pretends to be the riding holy man in charge, defending the girls and eventually chasing off the handful of would-be attackers.

While this is going on a group of courtesans is hiding out watching the final remnants of the local Chinese military defend Nanking, giving them time to find a way to sneak into the church and hide in the attic, unbeknownst to Miller or the students. What follows is one bizarre moment after another involving a music-loving Japanese officer demanding a concert from the students; the courtesans doing the dumbest shit possible, including sneaking out of the protected compound to find music strings and expensive earrings; and the social barriers between the prostitutes and the tween school girls break down so they can be chums. Meanwhile, Miller falls in love with the lovely lead courtesan Yu Mo (played by Ni Ni), who basically trades sex for protection and eventually helps escaping Nanking.

Based on the novel by Geling Yan, The Flowers of War never misses an opportunity to find the lighter side of every situation, until it finds the absolute darkest situation imaginable. For example, the scene where two courtesans sneak out to their burned out brother to find their missing items ends about as badly as it possibly could, and for a brief moment Zhang makes us remember that this was a war in which the Japanese systematically used rape as a means of subjugation and as a precursor to death. But before that happens, he treats the escape like a whimsical moment; the tonal shifts here are disturbing.

I guess I can understand the filmmakers attempting to tell the story about people just trying to survive with the most unspeakable war crimes going on just outside the gates. But the film makes its ultimate turn into unsettling territory when the Japanese request that the school girl choir be taken from the church to perform at a "party" celebrating the invaders officially taking control of Nanking. Miller knows that if the girls leave, they will never return, and what happens is, well, predictable and icky. Thankfully, we are spared seeing it carried out. And frankly, the moral center of this film and the judgements made do not sit well with me. I know there is something resembling a noble message somewhere in here, but it escaped me.

Bale is really trying in The Flowers of War, but even he seems like he's flailing as the fast-talking Miller, who is always cutting deals, making moves, and conning someone out of something. But it's his flirtations with Ni Ni that are the strangest to watch. Not that she isn't stunning, but he seems preoccupied with having sex with this woman for large sections of this movie. In a film so front loaded with the threat of rape, maybe you need to put casual sex on the backburner. I'm just saying. I found this movie difficult to watch because its sense of logic and justice seemed backward and sometimes insulting. And the fact that the painfully misguided Flowers of War is China's official Oscar entry does not bode well in any language.

Pina 3D

Another Foreign Language Oscar candidate (this one from Germany) opening in select theaters right around now is director Wim Wenders' lovely and elegant documentary Pina 3D, a profile less of the person than of the dance of famed choreographer Pina Bausch, whose most celebrated works are recreated by some of her finest dancers is glorious and extremely effective 3D. You could fit what I know about modern dance on the head of a pin and still have room for a vegetable garden, but I'm fairly certain I know gorgeous movement when I see it.

Interspersed with interviews with former company members are examples of some bizarre experimental dance pieces that seem so perfectly suited (perhaps even staged) for the big screen that I completely understand why Wenders would seem like the perfect fit for this means of artistic expression. The dances are curious, daring, hypnotic, and sometimes thrilling because they are unlike any conventional works I've ever been exposed to. But then to add the 3D element puts the audience on the stage among the dancers (hopefully this will not lead to dancing in the aisles).

I think Wenders' specialty is incorporating other forms of artistic expressions in his films, whether it's Nick Cave in Wings of Desire, the Portuguese group Madredeus in Lisbon Story, or his exploration of lost Cuban music in Buena Vista Social Club. But this is a different animal altogether. There's one performance that sticks out in my head for no particular reason other than it actually seemed to generate a sense of tension during the dance, and it involved just a few dancers in a space with chairs that they stacked and positioned and weave in and out and through and under and over. And I was mesmerized wondering how someone could actually choreograph something so strange and lovely.

Pina died in 2009, and there is a bit of footage of her in action just to let us know she was capable of executing the moves she was teaching to others. This film is a fitting tribute to her marvelous creative force, and I hope those of you who are scratching your head about why I even reviewed this give it a chance before dismissing it. If you're going to spend your money on 3D this weekend, skip the unscreened Underworld sequel and check out Pina, which opens today in Chicago exclusively at the AMC River East 21.

Norwegian Wood

I'm going to admit, I was a bit baffled by this one, the latest from the great Vietnamese filmmaker Anh Hung Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya; Vertical Ray of the Sun) telling a story based on the novel by Haruki Murakami about three Japanese young adults involved in a twisted-up love triangle that we pretty much know no one is getting out of unscathed.

Set in a late-1960s Tokyo boiling over with youth protects, Norwegian Wood focuses on Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), who is deeply in love with Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi from Babel). The pair have been friends since they were kids, but she had always been in love with the third member of their group who committed suicide when they were young. Naoko is a sensitive girl who feels things a bit too deeply for the rough world around her. She goes into seclusion, and Toru thinks he'll never see her again. When in college, Toru meets the shining light of his life Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who is a lot tougher, forward thinking and brimming with confidence. She makes it clear that she and Toru have a future together. Naturally, it's at this point that Naoko re-enters the picture to confuse things.

Norwegian Wood is a strange little film in which the characters speak very frankly and explicitly about their sexual histories and needs, and that's a fun change from much of what Tran Anh Hung has done in the past. While Toru is able to maintain a juggling act for a time, it becomes clear that he will have to decide which of these two women he wants to be with before one or both of them lose interest. Naoko represents a part of Toru's past that he doesn't want to give up, while Midori is sexy, mysterious, and more mature than any woman he has ever known.

Despite the forthright sexual politics and strong performances from all three leads, especially Kikuchi, the film takes an extraordinarily long time to get where it's going (with a running time well over two hours). Still, the film is a beautiful display, with many of the encounters between Toru and his women taking place in tall fields of grass or in the rain. With just the right touches of melodrama and romance-novel imagery, Norwegian Wood might be enjoyable for those with a sappy streak running through them. I might be accused of that from time to time, but this movie just didn't break through the way it needed to. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Mulberry Child

What begins as a documentary about the disconnect between a Chinese-born mother and her extremely Americanized daughter becomes an unexpectedly moving story about growing up during China's painful Mao's Cultural Revolution and how generations show affections to each other and the generations that follow. Narrated by Jacquelyn Bisset and directed by Susan Morgan Cooper (An Unlikely Weapon), Mulberry Child starts off in Chicago and springs forth from the words of Jian Ping, who expresses a great deal of concern about how little time she and her daughter Lisa are spending together. Lisa works 60-hour weeks, travels constantly, and is a social butterfly to the exclusion of spending time with her mother.

In an unusual but effective way of helping her daughter understand where she came from and why a relationship between the two is critical to her, Jian writes a memoir, Mulberry Child, about her struggle as a child in a family that received little justice during the Cultural Revolution. But the book also reveals how the family managed to stay together while various members were imprisoned or sent to live in the countryside to see how farmers lived (as Chairman Mao commanded). Eventually, mother and daughter take a trip to China together to visit Jian's still-living parents and extended family, and to attend the Beijing Olympics.

The film uses reenactments to show moments from Jian's childhood, but it doesn't feel like cheating in the documentary format. It actually breathes a lot of life into her writing and puts human faces on the suffering and injustice that occurred in this era of Chinese history. Perhaps what is most saddening is a scene in which Jian and Lisa visit the Cultural Revolution Museum, which is empty and secluded, as if the nation is so ashamed of this period that it almost wants to erase it from the history books. The concluding moments when the two women finally make it see their family is as wonderful as it is touching and evocative, and the change it has on Lisa is profound. Mulberry Child starts out seeming delicate and quaint, but it transforms into a powerful statement on history's impact on the bond of family, and how it can strengthen those bonds as it attempt to weaken them. Great stuff from everyone involved.

Mulberry Child director Susan Morgan Cooper, writer/associate producer/subject Jian Ping, and her daughter Lisa Xia will be present for audience discussions at all three screenings, which take place Saturday, Jan. 21 at 8pm; Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 8:15pm; and Thursday, Jan. 26 at 8pm.

 
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