The exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American pilots who broke the racial barrier in the U.S. military during the waning days of World War II, are ill-served by “Red Tails” (wide release), a hokey collection of hoary war-movie clichés that turns the men’s courage into comic-book heroics.
The characters are all stock figures, from the battalion leader (Terrence Howard) and his right-hand man (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) on down through the ranks. There’s a squadron leader who drinks to hide his insecurity, a hot-shot fly-boy who’s also the company ladies’ man, a religious zealot, a cynic, and so forth. And the banal dialogue sounds like the retro lines that executive producer George Lucas penned for “Star Wars” thirty years ago.
Add CGI dogfights so visually muddled that it’s almost impossible to decipher what’s going on, along with clumsy episodes in which whites grudgingly admit the pilots’ ability, and you have a picture that hardly does its subjects justice. The Tuskegee Airmen helped change history by shepherding U.S. bombers deep into German airspace in 1944-45, but in this telling, they’re just black versions of the stereotypical Caucasian pilots in countless Hollywood pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
The perils of translating novel to screen are evident in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (wide release), a tale of post-9/11 grief centering on a precocious but troubled young boy whose beloved father is killed in the terrorist assault and who strives to come to terms with the tragedy by finding the secret behind a key he finds in the dead man’s belongings. The search leads him to contact everyone named Black in the NYC phone book.
On the printed page, the implausibility of this story – which also involves as a secondary character a mute old man who communicates only with written notes – can be moderated through skillful understatement and literary finesse. But on the screen the absurdities are thrown into sharp relief, and the characters seem less like real people than manipulative devices.
It doesn’t help that director Stephen Daldry – who managed to master the potential pitfalls of “Billy Elliot” – here opts for a solemn, self-indulgent approach that makes the picture feel like a forced, maudlin tearjerker rather than the sophisticated rumination on national sorrow it aims to be.
Steven Soderbergh puts his considerable skill in the service of pure pulp material in “Haywire” (wide release), the chronologically fractured tale of Mallory (Gina Carano), a female agent for some shadowy firm of mercenaries, who’s double-crossed by her sleazy boss and tears through a passel of opponents to prove her innocence and avenge her betrayal.
There’s some CGI employed in the movie, but unquestionably the best special effect is Carano, herself a MMA fighter who obviously does her own stunts and is as physically impressive as Tony Jaa.
Her acting ability, on the other hand, is about on the level of a much prettier Steven Seagal. But that doesn’t matter; even such talented people as Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender (along with their presumed stunt doubles) are employed more for their virtuosity in fisticuffs than in reciting dialogue.
For what it aims to be, “Haywire” is a success. A pity all it aims to be is a mindless action movie with a butt-kicking heroine.
The saga about a centuries-long war between werewolves and vampires reaches its fourth installment with “Underworld: Awakening” (wide release).
Taking up where the second picture (“Evolution”) ended – the third movie was a stand-alone prequel – it begins with svelte vampire Selena (Kate Beckinsale, still looking great in her tight-fitting, black leather outfit) escaping from a biotech lab where she’s been kept prisoner for more than a decade. She soon discovers that she had a daughter by her hybrid vampire-werewolf mate and now must rescue the girl from the clutches of a mad doctor intent on using her organs to create a master race of lycans, as the script calls the hirsute shape-shifters.
“Awakening” is a gloomy, ultra-violent affair, shot in the same dark, blue-gray tones as the previous entries in the series, with CGI work that’s at best average for this sort of thing. It’s being shown in some theaters in 3-D, but that format adds nothing to its quality.
The result is a movie no better or worse than its predecessors. But they were awful. It does, however, possess the virtue of brevity, running under 90 minutes. With a picture like this, you have to be thankful for small favors.