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Italy, 1944. As the war takes its toll on Allied forces in Europe, a squadron of black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen are finally given the chance to prove themselves in the sky - even as they battle discrimination on the ground. It's a tribute to the unsung heroes who rose above extraordinary challenges and ultimately soared into history. (Official 20th Century Fox synopsis).

Red Tails
George Lucas had been attached to a Tuskegee Airmen film since before the Star Wars prequels were even a verified as a sure thing, but never quite found the will to get it done. Throughout the production of Red Tails, he claimed that the production took decades to get off the ground, because the studio system wasn’t interested in putting the money into the subject matter. I do believe there was a general lack of interest, and that the studio system is inherently a bit racist, but I don’t believe the production of Red Tails was somehow made impossible due to a lack of studio interest. Spike Lee got the money to make the largely action-free Miracle at St. Anna, and before that George Tillman, Jr. got the money to make the entirely action-free Men of Honor, there had to be some spare cash still lying around to make a buoyant, feel good action film with George freakin’ Lucas’ name on the marquee. In the end Lucas paid for the film himself, like he always does. I believe the decades long delay on the project had more to do with problems in Lucas’ personal life, and his need to get Star Wars out of his system. It’s just too bad that Star Wars clearly isn’t entirely out of his system and that he has created a Tuskegee Airmen film that reeks of a galaxy far, far away.

Two things are immediately clear within the first minute of Red Tails – one, the action is going to be spectacular and, two, the dialogue is going to be terrible. In other words, this is going to be a George Lucas movie. The on-screen director credit goes to one Anthony Hemingway, whose other credits are made up entirely of television work, including The Wire, CSI:NY, True Blood and Treme, but, even without the verification of Lucas’ second unit work, there’s simply no way anyone could possibly not see Lucas’ fingerprints all over this movie. As a producer aware of his shortcomings as a director, Lucas was clever to hire Hemingway based on his obvious strength with ensemble casts and to cast himself as the film’s second unit action director. Complain though we may about the Star Wars prequels, we also have to admit they have some potent and creative action scenes (those of us that don’t may have to admit that they’re choking on sour grapes). But even the generally spectacular dogfight sequences, which stand as the only consistently good part of the movie, are dripping with the essence of the prequels. The action is certainly bloodier than what we’d expect from even the most violent Star Wars film, but the pacing, editing and movement all look like they were made using Revenge of the Sith computer programs with era appropriate WWII planes ‘skins’ stretched over the Delta-7 Aethersprite-Class Light Interceptors (/nerd).

Red Tails
This slick look makes it a bit difficult to entirely buy into the supposed reality of the situation, but clearly Lucas and Hemingway were aiming for something a bit more ‘fun’ than Saving Private Ryan. The problem isn’t the tonal choice, per se, but that the overall tone is too intrusively sentimental for the subject matter. The sentiment should be refreshing, given the usual drudge of ‘War is Hell’ throughout modern WWII cinema, but here it grates, creating the condescending aura of a particularly perfunctory children’s film. I’m sure middle school history teachers will get decades of lesson plans out of the film, but there’s little reason for the general film-going public to pay full price for occasionally entertaining, made-for-classroom material. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lucas and Hemingway betray their tone when dealing with the Germans, who are devastated in a Tuskegee turkey shoot during their first major victory. One can’t help shed a tear for the ‘Jerries’ as they bleed and burn to death, rather than cheering for the heroes that just slaughtered them in an entirely unfair fight. Given the film’s lack of moral ambiguity, this seems like a mistake, betraying both the film’s tone and robbing the significant historical moment of any real joy. I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be a moralistic middle ground, or that the Germans should necessarily be treated as faceless villains, but, with the exception of one sneering, scar-faced Jerry ace, they are otherwise presented as such. Why change the formula for one or two scenes right when the film might actually earn a genuine sentimental thrill?

It might not be quite so difficult to deal with the maudlin issue, had Red Tails been at all funny, but Lucas’ utter inability to deal with comedy appears to transcend writing collaboration. It’s probably an issue with Lucas’ rewrites and final cutting, but the lack of laughs is still baffling, considering the people Lucas hired to write. The screenplay is credited to John Ridley with punch-ups by Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder. Ridley’s other credits include U-Turn, Undercover Brother and a story credit on Three Kings. All of these were at least partially re-written before going in front of cameras, so it’s possible that the laughs were not his, but none of them were anywhere near this laugh-free. Aaron McGruder is credited with providing rewrites for the Lucas directed reshoots, and it’s assumed that he was hired based entirely on an episode of Boondocks he wrote about the Tuskegees called Wingmen. Whatever McGruder’s place was on the film, the consistently awkward prose is distinctly Lucas-esque. The worst dialogue revolves around the eye-rolling inspirational speeches and lectures handed to Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. The more persistent problem is the excessive expositional conversation. The characters spend so much time telling instead of showing, I was afraid I’d stumbled upon the descriptive track for the blind.  I do give the screenwriters credit for cramming a whole lot of information into a relatively short period of time. There’s a lack of focus, an episodic Cliff’s Notes structure, and some of the more interesting plot aspects are barely touched upon to make room for more sentiment, but no single sequence drones on too long. All things considered, I didn’t find myself growing particularly bored at any point.

Red Tails

Video


Red Tails was primarily shot using Sony CineAlta F35 high definition digital cameras, similar to the ones used for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and the utter clarity of the 35mm-aping format is gloriously represented here on this 1080p, 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer. The clarity of the format is a strange problem aesthetically, considering the grim and grainy look of most modern war films. The image is consistently sharp without more than a hint of digital noise, which is good news for the quality of the transfer, but kind of terrible news for the film itself, which ends up looking, well, cheap. Contrast levels are set reasonably high throughout, but in comparison to the kind of hyper-reality found in Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, the more even-handed sheen appears downright glossy. Again, not a problem for the transfer, which handles the subtle gradations and sharp black edges very well (black levels can be a bit too soft), but, for the film itself, which is stylistically unimpressive. The colour schemes tend to skew warm, utilizing a lot of yellows and browns, all of which blend well with other common hues like olive greens and sky blues. Red is the most common highlight element, and pop without bleeding or blooming effects, and the more natural forest greens are wonderfully lush. There are some issues with low level noise in the softer backgrounds, especially where red highlights mix with the tan and brown bits. There are also some minor compression effects in the (usually computer enhanced) wider shots, but no major edge enhancement problems.

Red Tails

Audio


This being a George Lucas movie, audio design is a top priority, and this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack does not disappoint. Ben Burtt is credited as co-editor, not sound designer, but his influence looms heavy and there are plenty of Burtt’s patented, Lucasfilm universe, aural Easter eggs throughout the mix. There’s very little in the way of silence anywhere in the film. Even comparatively and pointedly quiet sequences are usually busy with light ambience throughout the stereo and surround channels. The obvious standouts are the dogfight sequences, which roar to life with the buzz of plane engines cutting across the channels and the startling blast of gunfire punching up the LFE. The off screen rear and stereo effects are especially impressive, leading me to instinctively crane my neck to look behind me more than once. The value of the mix is found less in its bombastic qualities (of which there are plenty), but the dynamic highs and lows of the sound, which help define the rush of the action. The lip-sync does appear to be slightly off throughout the film, and there is constant inconsistency in dialogue volume and fidelity, leading me to assume that something terrible happened to the source dialogue, and the majority of the film was ADR’d. Considering Lucas’ love of digitally constructing sequences in post production it’s more likely that there were big changes to dialogue after filming. Grammy Award winning jazz star Terence Blanchard’s musical score is among the dopiest and most inappropriately derivative I’ve heard from a studio production in years. Blanchard aims for something John Williams-esque, and entirely misses the target. The score, which rarely gives the rest of the soundtrack a chance to breathe, does sound quite rich on the track, which is little consolation following how terrible it is.

Red Tails

Extras


The extras begin with Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War (1:06:45, HD), a documentary concerning the true history of the Tuskegee airmen, and their struggles in segregated America and overseas in WWII. Narrated by Cuba Gooding Jr., it includes interviews with surviving pilots Lt. Col. Charles Dryden, Lt. Col. Lee Archer, Lt. Col. Leo R. Grey, Lt. Col. William Hollowman III, Jr. Lt. John Leahr, Captain Roscoe C. Brown Jr., 2nd Lt. Mitchell Louis Higginbotham, Captain Les Williams, Lt. Col. Herbert E. Carter, Lt. Col. Charles A. Lane, Jr., Tech Sgt. George Watson, Sr. and Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, Tuskegee wives Edith Roberts and Mildred Carter, non-Tuskegee pilots Lt. Col. George Hardy, 1st Lt. Herb Heilbrun, Lt. Hiram E. Mann and 2nd Lt. Roger Terry, and experts/historians/authors John Morrow and J. Todd Moye. The interviews are supplemented with plenty of photographs and newsreel footage from the period.

Next up is George Lucas: Executive Producer (3:30, HD), a fluff piece interview on set with producer/secret director George, discussing the long gestation of the project, including behind the scenes footage and choice cuts from the film, followed by the similar Anthony Hemingway: Director (5:30, HD), which includes footage of the actors in boot camp, Terence Blanchard: Composer (6:20, HD), and The Cast of Red Tails (25:10, HD), with producer Rick McCallum and actors Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Michael B. Jordon, Marcus Paulk, Kevin Philips, Gerald McRaney, Brian Cranston, Method Man and Andre Royo. Things end with Movie Magic (5:10, HD), a look at the special effects with Lucas, McCallum, effects supervisors Paul Kavanagh, Victor Muller, Craig Hammock and Peter Daulton.

Red Tails

Overall


Red Tails isn’t a terrible film. It moves along quickly, and features some spectacular dogfight sequences. But it isn’t the movie this story deserves, and is very disappointing for the few of us that still hoped George Lucas could get behind something special, post- Star Wars prequels. Those that did enjoy the film, and history teachers looking for a bit of busywork for their students should be plenty happy with this Blu-ray’s image and sound quality. The rest of us should also enjoy the included documentary on the real life Tuskegee Airmen, which runs about an hour.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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