MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Red Tails; This Means War; Pony Express


RED TAILS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U. S.: Anthony Hemingway, 2012 (2oth Century Fox)
There are two ways to look at Red Tails, producer George Lucas’s long-gestating  World War II movie about the storied all-black Air Force unit, The Tuskegee Airmen.
 You can see the show as a big spectacular action movie, with incredible aerial dogfight scenes, based not too scrupulously, but respectfully, on some interesting and even inspiring historical material. Or you can see it as a failed war drama mucking around with meaningful and important historical material about racism and American social and military history, which has been Hollywoodized, snazzed up and sugared over, and who cares if it has wonderful fight scenes?
Either way you choose to judge it, and I lean toward the former, you’ll get a mixed reaction — because the action stuff is so good and so brilliantly and excitingly executed, and the dramatic stuff so comparatively clichéd and this-is-where-we-came-in-ish. There’s room for praise in the first instance, and for blame in the second — even though I would insist, Red Tails is easily better than most big action movies of its kind, and exactly the kind of movie I would have expected from producer George Lucas. (Of course, you can also damn Lucas’ business acumen, which is the backstory of Red Tails — a movie he had to finance himself.)
The subject of Red Tails is The Tuskegee Airmen, a.k.a. the 332nd fighter group, an all-black Air Force unit, which had to combat both racism in their own world, among their white superior officers and fellow pilots, and the hell of war besides: the deadly forays of the German Luftwaffe fighter planes, including one ubermensch-ish Teuton dude they call Prettyboy, in the skies over Italy in 1944. As we watch, two black officers — Terrence Howard as scrappy Colonel A.J. Bullard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the more meditative and pipe-smoking Major Emmanuel Stance — fight to keep up their men’s morale and get them into the thick of the battle. They’s up against opposition from hard-ass or gentleman-racist attitudes in Washington and the Pentagon, and also ridiculous evaluation reports that insist “Negro soldiers” are not suited for complex fighting duties like flying a plane and going on bombing raids.
Since we know — or most of us know and the rest of us probably suspect — that the Tuskegee Airmen are a famous WW2 outfit with a great war record, we know that report will not stand. But in the beginning the Tuskegee pilots — reduced to bombing munitions trains and shooting it out with occasional lone German planes — are relatively inactive, hungry for the fight. They’re a bit like Henry Fonda’s Lt. Doug Roberts, on the cargo ship in Mr. Roberts, yearning for a war they can’t get near, but also subject to racist abuse and taunts Roberts wouldn’t have suffered.

We like these guys.  The fliers and ground support of Red Tails, also fictional, are mostly war movie types some with colorful tics or descriptive nicknames, like Declan “Winky“ Hall (Leslie Odom. Jr.), Leon “Neon“ Edwards (Kevin Phillips), Andrew “Smoky“ Salem (Neyo), Antwan “Coffee“ Coleman (Andre Royo) and Samuel “Joker“ George (Elijah Kelley). Among the more notable of the bunch, for personality and screen time, are squadron leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), who likes whiskey; Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wills), who’d rather be “Senior” and whose back row status makes him chamf even more at the bit; and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oylelowo), the charismatic star pilot, daredevil and lover-boy of the group. (Lightning, a great magnetic character, played with lots of swagger and pizzazz by Oylelowo, is the equivalent to someone like Steve McQueen as “Cooler King” Hilts in The Great Escape, the guy a lot of us wanted to be when we were kids and saw that movie.)

There’s no suspense about what’s going to happen in Red Tails overall, except over who lives and who dies. (Suspense enough for some, I guess). We know who won the war and we aren’t really worried about the Tuskegee group as a whole. So our pleasure in the movie comes from following characters we like though hazardous situations that we know not all will survive.Howard’s Bullard, who’s no go-along guy, keeps up the pressure to get his men their shot and make nonsense out of that “report.” And finally, the brass relents, and the Airmen get to fly (in special signature planes with red-painted tails), and of course they prove themselves magnificently. Some die, some live, and almost all get their moments in the sun and in the exploding skies, in Lucas-style dogfights that look like William Wellman’s Wings crossed with Star Wars. Those fights are, all by themselves, almost enough to recommend this movie, especially if you were a kid who loved the better buddy-buddy war movies like  The Great Escape. (If you did, there’s an escape here too, by impatient Junior, from “Stalag 18” — the one after Stalag 17, of course.)

Writers John Ridley (U-Turn) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) don’t try to give these characters, either the officers or the men — or their sometimes supportive white colleagues (played by Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney and others) — too much depth or nuance. They try to make them all likable or pungent movie star or character types. They do. It would have been nice if the movie achieved great drama as well as great action. It doesn’t.

Still, Lucas and company — the writers and director Anthony Hemingway (TV‘s well-liked The Wire and CSI:NY) try harder in those areas, psychology and sociology and history,  that most action films tend to skimp on. (Here, Lucas reportedly pitched in on some of the action.)  But,  by telling even a part of the Tuskegee Airmen story, and putting it in a big movie package pitched toward a big audience, with a huge gallery of characters, multiple storylines and dozens of speaking parts, Lucas, and Hemingway and the others, are showing more ambition, trying harder, maybe failing sometimes, but still deserving of that ordinary people’s applause I heard at the screening. I may have wanted to be a Cooler King when I was a kid, so why should we begrudge all those kids today who’d like to be Lightning?

By the way, here’s a salute to the Tuskegee Airmen. They deserve our best — which is probably the whole point of the arguments about the movie. The box-office  argument too.

THIS MEANS WAR (Also Blu-ray) Two Stars

U.S.: McG, 2012 (20th Century Fox)


Let me try to do this one in 25 words or less:

McG’s This Means War: Reese Witherspoon torn between CIA super-agents and ex-pals Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. Ultra-slick. Techno-happy. Obnoxious rom-com. Overblown action. Don’t bother.

There. That’s 25 — counting hyphenated words as one-word. Betcha thought I couldn’t do it.

Extras: Commentary by McG; Three alternate endings with commentary by McG; Deleted scenes with commentary by McG; Gag reel; Trailer (with no commentary by McG).



PONY EXPRESS Two and a Half Stars

U.S.: Jerry Hopper, 1953 (Olive)

Charlton Heston plays Buffalo Bill, Forrest Tucker is Wild Bill Hickcock, and Rhonda Fleming and Jan Sterling are the womenfolk — the sophisticated belle and the faithful cowgal — in this fanciful account of how the Pony Express stretched from St. Joe to Sacramento, with the help of the two Bills, and despite all kinds of gunplay and chicanery. This is the same kind of historical mish-mash Cecil B. DeMille made in his ’30s westerns, Union Pacific and  The Plainsman, the latter of which also matched Buffalo Bill and Hickcock, and brought in Custer, Lincoln and Calamity Jane as well. But Pony Express, while just as absurd, lacks the DeMille shows’ style and pizzazz.

It’s not very good either, though western buffs will find Pony Express interesting, and it’s actually better than lots of the stuff I see new in the theatres. Western specialist Charles Marquis Warren wrote the screenplay, and this was in his heyday, when he was not only writing movies, but doing one of TV’s most popular shows (it eventually dethroned “I Love Lucy”), “Gunsmoke.” “Gunsmoke” was kind of the “Seinfeld” of Westerns, a talky show with four recurring gabbers who had lots of personality, sitting around, often doing nothing but confabbing with each other, and Marquis Warren has to have set the tone for that. Here, there’s a lot of talk too and Heston plays one of his arrogant dude roles, which are always fun to watch. It’s also interesting to see Jan Serling’s self-sacrificing honey here, only two years after she was a memorable scheming bitch in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. The director is journeyman Jerry Hopper (The Private War of Major Benson), who at least doesn’t annoy you.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon