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Movie Review: Curse you, “Red Baron”!

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Every once in a while a movie comes along that you can’t wait to see, but when you finally get to see it, you realize — sigh — that it’s just a movie, and not a very good one at that. “The Red Baron” hit me that way.
Made a couple of years ago, “Der Rote Baron” was supposedly the most expensive film ever made in Germany, and when it was released, it was a tremendous flop. It was hard to figure out why from reviews. The YouTube clips of the flying sequences looked tremendous. Apparently, Germans don’t care much for war movies these days, even those that star a great national hero.
It took from then until now for the film to be released on disk. I tried to pick one up at Suncoast, but the girl there told me tartly that a film like that doesn’t appeal to “their” class of customers. Shrug. Order a copy of “The Red Baron” on Blu-Ray, which arrived promptly. I prepared by previewing Roger Corman’s “Von Richthofen and Brown,” from 1969.
The Red Baron is Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the highest-scoring ace of the Greta War, with 80 victories, one of the first superstar pilots and a pop-culture icon. He was the terror of the Western Front until he was shot down by either Canadian pilot Roy Brown or a gang of Aussie soldiers on the ground popping off with rifles.
“Von Richthofen and Brown” was a low-budget actioner that contrasted the command styles of the two men, von Richthofen the dashing, titled Prussian; Brown, the dour, common realist. The remaining cast is a rogue’s gallery of famous aviators, including Hermann Goring, Ernst Udet and teenage Werner Voss, von Richthofen’s rival and friend. It is a snapshot of the changing face of warfare, and is largely successful as a movie. But it suffered from its small budget, and the aeroplanes and other details were inaccurate, although likely only us rivet-counters noticed.
Flash-forward to now, with a grand budget and the latest CGI techniques, and “The Red Baron” looks terrific and the aeroplanes are wonderfully accurate. The old gang is here, particularly Voss, although the new movie makes him a grizzled veteran instead of a talented teen. Nikolai Müllerschön, who wrote and directed, also adds a fictional Jewish pilot, although there were plenty of real Jewish pilots in the Fliegerkorps, such as Wilhelm Frankl. It’s an odd political move that smells like apologia.
Both movies, interestingly, make much of the German pilots’ veneration of ace Oswald Boelcke, almost as if he were a religious figure.
Virtually every review of “The Red Baron” points out it fails whilst on the ground, although it soars while in the air. Absolutely true. Taking the audience along in the dreamlike trance of flight is something movies are good at. It’s not only a thrill ride for the audience, it also helps explain the motivations of the pilots.
There are many things that go wrong here. One is the reoccurring figure of Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes) who seems to slip through the Western Front with ease just to have chitchats with von Richthofen. Another is a drummed-up romance with nurse (Lena Headey) that relies on her having abrupt changes of personality in every scene. And it’s storytelling suicide to cheat the audience out of the the two most famous dogfights in the Great War, von Richthofen vs. Brown, and Voss vs. a whole sky full of British SE.5s. These battles, that should have been the cathartic heart of the film, are simply shrugged away.
It also doesn’t help that Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays the title role, is thuddingly void of command charisma. It’s partly the fault of the script, which pushes the image of von Richthofen as a rather sweet, sensitive soul who just happens to kill dozens on men in vicious aerial combat.
The main problem, though, is that Müllerschön just couldn’t decide what his film was about. It needed a tough rewrite from someone who could keep eyes on the prize. Is “The Red Baron” a meditation on the evolving spirit of German martial ardor during the 20th Century? An analysis of the conflict between command and celebrity? A three-way romance between a pilot, his gal and his fighter plane? An engaging bio-pic about someone was once a world-famous figure, and is now a label on a frozen pizza?
This last is the worst. If you’re going to tell the story of a historic character, even if you have to telescope events and personalities, at least get his personality right. Otherwise, it’s literally character assassination. Von Richthofen was a dangerous, wily aerial tactician; a killer; a charismatic leader; a superb manager of public image. That’s an interesting person. This rather damp, twee youngster posing in aviator togs in “The Red Baron” is just playing dress-up.


Friday, September 11th, 2009

It’s been a couple of days since I saw Shane Acker’s debut film “9,” but I’ve had to mull upon it. It’s one of those films that sucks you in completely, wholeheartedly, into a dark, scary, fantastical world, although afterwards it seems to gang a-gley. Was it really simple as all that? It all seemed so real at the moment, although clearly it was not.
It is best described as a steampunk fever dream, with its own logic and perspective.
Acker pumped this concept up from a student film he made that was nominated for an Academy award. A little person awakens. He’s made of a bit of burlap, a zipper and camera-shutter eyes. He’s tiny. A human being, gigantic, lays dead on the floor, rotting. Outside, we recognize what remains of what was once a human world, now devastated into a smoking ruin.
The little creation has “9″ lettered on his back. He discovers that 1 through 8 are just like him, tiny sad sacks of ennui, hiding in a small community. But there are robot killers out there in the ruins as well. Dangerous, scary robots.
The entire film takes place within a few hundred feet, but it a massive place to the burlap people, rotting debris and shredded detritus from what was left of civilization. The burlap people don’t know how they got there, nor what allows them to live and think, but they do. They have to venture out into the darkness that is their tiny universe, picking up clues and fighting for survival.
If it all sounds like a meditation on existentialism wrapped in plot devices from a solve-the-clue-to-advance computer game, you’re on to Acker’s scheme. “9″ is a sequencing of tests for the little folk, like the labors of Hercules, except that these creatures are tiny as mice — and often photographed scurrying like mice. It gets rather metaphysical at the conclusion, but satisfyingly so. And the parallels to Nazi death camps and the horrifying destruction of cities during World War II are there without being clumsy
“9″ is being generalized as a film with great visuals but a weak plot. Certainly, the visuals are downright amazing, and Acker’s editing choreography is muscular and assured, and the sound work and score are fabulous as well. But I rather liked the script, the tentative, parrying nature of the burlap people. It makes spaces for patrons to interpret instead of having everything explained to them.
We project into the movie instead of having it project on us. Neat trick.

G.I. Schmoe

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

If you were to distill the testosterone of a 10-year-old boy who’s been playing HALO all weekend, you’d have what juices “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”
There is some sort of plot to the movie, although it’s basically an excuse for a bunch of noisy mayhem. There are two gigantic secret organizations, one of which is the G.I. Joes, and I suppose the other is Cobra. The political details are fuzzy. The secret paramilitary organizations are so huge that all the black budgets in history would never keep them under cover, but hey, reality isn’t the point. Neither is basic physics. (And one point, the polar ice cap is blowed up good, and the ice sinks in the ocean.)
Nope. It’s all about pressing the trigger, baby.
Sounds profoundly stupid, which it is, but proudly. Also, sounds awful, which it isn’t. Not if you’re still in contact with that frustrated 10-year-old inside. “G.I. Joe” is perfectly OK with what it’s trying to do, which is bring toys to life. And reduce the humans to toylike avatars.
“G.I. Joe” is a tremendous success at one thing, and that is choreographing action sequences. Director Stephen Sommers — “The Mummy,” etc. — is an old hand at this sort of thing, but he’d outdone himself here. The movie is one bravura thrilling bit of crazy crashbang after another, and despite all the noise and fury and spinning camera work, you never lose your footing. You’re able to keep track of who’s doing what, where, and with whom. It’s the motion part of “motion pictures,” and on steroids. Michael Bay could learn a thing or two in basic storyboarding from Sommers.

Faking Woodstock

Monday, September 7th, 2009

If you remember the ’60s, then you weren’t there, ha ha. That old line is probably being used in each and every review of Ang Lee’s new film, “Taking Woodstock.” While I don’t remember what happened last week, I remember the ’60s quite well.
In Honolulu, Woodstock was pretty far away. I followed it in the newspaper, but frankly, at that time, rock’n'roll wasn’t considered “real” news. There wasn’t much reported. Essentially, the early reports of people streaming into upstate New York predicted a horrible disaster, then there were several days of no news at all as the festival occurred, and then afterward, stories explored residents’ surprise that things went better than expected. It was sort of a national sigh of relief.
Then word began leaking out that the festival had been bigger, wilder, more mysterious and magical than anticipated.
School started, my junior year. On the first day of class, I was trying to pitch woo at the cute girl who sat behind me in English class. Her name was Patti and she had been born in Germany and still had a little accent. The subject of Woodstock came up and a cloud passed over her face. She muttered something.
“I was there,” she said, darkly. I vas dere.
Where, Woodstock? Suddenly Patti was even more interesting.
“Yah,” she said. After some urging — it was like pulling teeth — Patti told me how she happened to be there. Her folks were in New York City while transiting to Hawaii, and she bought a ticket to the festival and caught a Greyhound north, and then hitchhiked toward Bethel. The roads grew crowded, then gridlocked. It rained. She slept in mud in a field. She never got within five miles of the stage. Occasionally some faint music would drift over the treetops. She was cold and wet and miserable.
Patti shuddered. It was horrible, she said. It was like how her parents described being refugees in wartime Germany.
A year later the “Woodstock” documentary cemented the sunny popular image of the festival in our heads, and over the passage of time, it became apparent what a seminal event it was. I’m pretty sure, though, that Patti, wherever she is, hasn’t changed her opinion.
“Taking Woodstock” is a total flashback. No other word for it. Whether you were at Woodstock or at any number of music festivals of the time, the movie is a Wayback Machine. I don’t know how Ang Lee did it. It’s not just the period cinema verite camera tricks — the people in the movie actually look like 1969 people, not like 2009 people decked out in cringeworthy “hippie” costumes.
The movie is well-acted and more serious than you might expect, with excellent production. Why not? It’s Ang Lee. It succeeds because it has a legitimate story arc.
It’s also a recounting of a historical event, and successfully transports us to a different time. Generally, reality works against historical films. In “Tora Tora Tora” and “Titanic,” were you really surprised by third-act plot developments? The demands of actuality hang over a traditional story arc like an anvil on a string.
The really successful historical films put you not just in the shoes of people of that period, but in their thought processes as well.
Woodstock is farther away from us today than the Pearl Harbor attack was from the veterans who made “Tora Tora Tora.” Oliver Sacks’ treatise “Musicophilia” postulates that the part of the cerebellum that stores musical memory is the deepest, warmest, most welcoming and stable region of the brain. Your last memories, as life goes glimmering, are likely to be musical. Far out, man!

“District 9″

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9″ is perfectly and seamlessly imagined, that is, if your imagination runs to noonday horrors. Twenty years ago, a wounded spaceship appeared floating over South Africa, and when the aliens aboard were finally liberated, they turned out to be insectoid drones with little sense of direction. They are placed in refugee camps that eventually become concentration camps. Human beings are revolted by the aliens, which they call “prawns,” but when the time come to relocate the aliens to a faraway prison, things go wrong.
OK, it’s a beefed-up, edgier version of “Alien Nation” by way of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It’s also told in a hyped-up, gritty video verite style similar to “Black Hawk Down.” The horrors of the alien slum are so vivid that it feels like a real place, not a scifi conceit.
“District 9″ is a smart, slap-your-face thriller with quite amazing F/X. Even though it’s a harrowing, genre actioner, it’s also far from stupid, pressing all sorts of prejudice buttons. It does what scifi is supposed to do, shine a future light on a dark present.

Blood and Thunder!

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Late shows rule. Last night I saw “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and tonight “Terminator Salvation.” Both are loud, slam-bang action fests with plenty of F/X eye candy. Both feature surprising amounts of way cool motorcycle action. Alas, “Wolverine” is so self-conscious that it’s funny when it doesn’t mean to be.

“Terminator Salvation” is a lot more serious, perhaps because lead actor Christian Bale acts without a trace of deconstructive irony. The Terminator canon is safe. It also has a couple of eye-popping action sequences: director McG certainly understands visceral choreography. The “Transformers” editors could learn a thing or two. The movie also has a certain stark beauty that’s striking.

These are the sort of movies that really should be seen in a theater with great sound and screening, along with “Star Trek.” The summer movie season is off to a good start.