Over the past week, I saw two quite different war-themed films—one drawn from the pages of recent history and the other derived from the work of the Bard himself. How do they measure up?
The esteemed actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays. He also stars as the title character, General Caius Martius, a bloodthirsty brute in charge of defending Rome against its Volscian enemies, commanded by the equally vicious Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).
Martius leads a successful charge against the Volscian city of Corioles and returns home victorious, but war has created a complete meltdown of Roman society, and the people suffering in the streets are loathe to see him as a hero. There are also conspirators in the senate who are anxious to see his downfall.
He is given the honorarium Coriolanus (after the city he'd conquered) and his manipulative mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), presses him to secure a place in the Roman consul. However, his lack of compassion for the common man and inability to play the political game inspires contempt in those who so recently revered him, and he is banished, driven by vengeance to conspire with his former enemies to launch an attack on Rome.
Fiennes places this centuries-old play in contemporary settings to give it contemporary relevance, and mostly succeeds. Although the drama takes place in war rooms and bunkers and crumbling streets, the language is all Shakespeare, which may frustrate some audiences with its almost musical cadences and lack of directness. Still, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have pared the play down to its essentials and used such modern trappings as cutaways to news reports on HDTVs to keep the action moving.
And Fiennes is certainly a sight to behold as Coriolanus—his bright blue eyes burning under a fierce brow, face covered with battle scars, lip curled with rage—it's hard to believe this is the same actor who almost twenty years ago was the rather effete leading man in The English Patient.
Butler plays Aufidius with an appealingly muscular brogue; indeed, the scenes featuring the two of them locked in battle ring with a kind of sadistic homoeroticism. The always great Brian Cox portrays the well-intentioned adviser Menenius, whose devotion to Coriolanus proves fatal. Jessica Chastain is appealing in her brief scenes as his wife, but there's one actor besides Fiennes who makes the most of her role—and that's Vanessa Redgrave.
The legendary actress gives a career-defining performance as Volumnia. As ferocious as her son, she's a stage mother so ambitious that she thrills to his new battle scars and snarls "Anger is my meat!"
She even throws his wife aside to tend to his wounds herself in a scene that's intentionally—and uncomfortably—incestuous. As terrific as Fiennes is (and as well-done this film is), I'm grateful to him for giving the last original member of one of the storied English acting families the opportunity to deliver a truly great performance.
Red Tails, an action film about the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of heroic African-American pilots who served in World War II, earned a pathetic 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I have to say that's pretty damn harsh.
I went into the screening expecting exciting air battles and a cheesy story, but that's not quite how it worked out. Certainly the screenplay is lighter than air, but the actors are enthusiastic and all the required dramatic points are covered. And it's fun to watch!
The story in short: at a time when black men in America were considered subservient and unable to withstand combat, a valiant group of pilots sought to prove them wrong. Certainly many of the characters are stereotypes (particularly a nyah-ha-ha German pilot), but it's fun and fast-paced and does a fine job bringing these brave airmen to life, rather than burying them in moribund earnestness. It's more of a flashback to the films that were actually made during the war and intended to boost the morale of audiences at home.
Terrence Howard is fine as the tough-as-nails Colonel Bullard who fights the military machine to get his men better planes and better assignments, but Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., alternates between bad and funny as Major Stance, the leader of the squadron. It might be the fault of the editor, but he's putting his pipe in his mouth at the beginning of every scene he's in like some 1950s sitcom dad. What isn't the editor's fault is his mawkish delivery of some of his lines.
The actors portraying the pilots all seem to be having a good time, even when they're delivering some of the screenplay's hoariest dialogue, but the film chronicles the racism of the time, delivering the emotional satisfaction of seeing the pilots overcome adversity and earn acceptance into the formerly whites-only Officers' Club.
I was surprised to see that Aaron MacGruder, creator of the radical "Boondocks" comic strip, was given co-story credit, but he explained in press materials that this film was designed to have a comic strip flavor...and that it certainly does.
The action's the thing here, and it's exciting and wonderfully rendered (except for the opening sequence, which looks too much like a video game). Evidently, live aerial footage was mixed with CG to achieve a more realistic look—and it works. International effects company Pixomondo, which also did effects for the superb Hugo, created many of the aerial stuff, working with Lucas' own ILM.
My final judgment: several dramas and documentaries have already been made about this noble squadron, so what's the problem with making an exciting actioner that highlights their exploits and emphasizes their heroic stature—a black Top Gun?
It's been reported that Levi Thornhill, one of the original Tuskegee airmen, attended a Los Angeles screening and thought it was terrific. And Warren Dart, the son of squadron member Clarence Dart, pointed out that he wasn't even taught about the Airmen in high school, so he appreciated seeing a lively film like Red Tails.
So what's so wrong with that?