The Wire

Money Monster

There are many ways to tell a story, and one of the great things about film is that it offers the freedom to explore a range of narratives. A sweeping epic may unfold at a leisurely place over the course of two hours. A movie that takes place in a single day will be presumably action-packed and fast-paced, as there is little time for character or plot development. Money Monster promised a glimpse into a day in the life of two men on a particularly harrowing day for both.

George Clooney (Hail, Caesar!) stars as Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer type of character who mixes buffoonery with financial advice on his own cable show. I was amused to see the typically suave Clooney bounce around like a ham-handed carnival barker, flanked by two ‘dancers’ in costume like a bad rap video. Julia Roberts (Secret in Their Eyes) is Patty, his calm and cool producer who helms the ship, making it hum like a well-oiled machine. Gates has a duplicitous, opportunistic aura, sort of like a cross between a car salesman and a stockbroker, with more style than substance. When one of his tips to invest in a company called IBIS proves disastrous, disgruntled viewer Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) exacts his own brand of justice by taking over the television studio during a live broadcast.

An unhinged protagonist is familiar cinematic territory, whether our anti-hero is robbing a bank or holding hostages. Common themes are desperation and a nearly suicidal level of commitment. Kyle is armed with a detonator and makes Lee wear a vest rigged with explosives. He blames the loss of his life savings on the TV host, whose offhand prediction cost him dearly. Dominic West (Genius, The Affair, The Wire) is featured as Walt Camby, IBIS’ shady CEO who claims an unforeseen glitch in his company’s financial algorithm caused the stock to take a hit. At first Kyle’s ire is directed solely at Lee, but Gates is able to pass the buck on to Camby, whose explanation for the massive loss is questionable at best.

Jodie Foster (Elysium) marks her return to directing here, and quite naturally I had high expectations for such an acclaimed collection of Hollywood’s elite. I won’t use the word disappointed, but Money Monster was more decent than memorable. I enjoyed the subplot involving supporting characters as they worked to uncover the truth behind Camby’s questionable geo-political business dealings, but for the most part the tension and tautness wasn’t there. Perhaps the fault lies in the script, as I thought Foster’s direction within the tight confines of the television studio was effective. The small space added to the air of desperation, but overall the film wasn’t something that stayed with me. Sometimes a day at the movies is just a passable one, and while that’s enough for some – others may want a little more. Grade: B

Red Tails

African-American cinema is a tricky thing.  There is enough diversity within the genre to avoid painting it with a broad brush, but there are certain negative things that come to mind when you say something is a “Black” movie.  Does this mean there will be buffoonery, and is there something wrong with laughing at ourselves, as long as we’re the ones telling the joke?  I think our experiences run the gamut, but unfortunately some of the movies that are most profitable aren’t the most edifying.  Movies like Norbit and any one featuring Madea come to mind as examples of movies  that I tend to avoid.  Every now and then, however – a movie comes along that is worthy of our collective attention.  I think Red Tails was such a movie.  More than just a “Black” movie, it is an American story.

Red Tails is the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviation unit that served with distinction in World War II; despite initial reluctance to place the soldiers in combat situations.  Jim Crow’s insidious reach extended to the armed forces, and Black soldiers were deemed inferior due to the bigoted perception that they lacked the mental aptitude and courage for war.  Of course nothing could have been further from the truth, and when the airmen were given their opportunity to serve as bomber escorts, they made the most of their chance.  Comprised largely of the 332nd fighter group, the “Tuskegee Airmen” came to be known as Red Tails due to the unique scarlet markings on the tails of their planes.   Displaying uncommon bravery, the Red Tails proved to be heroic and victorious in their abilities.  Red Tails brings the story of the airmen to a new generation, and it is an important chapter in American history, not just Black history.  Produced by George Lucas, the movie reportedly had a difficult time being made because studios doubted the profitability of telling this story.  I’m happy that Lucas was willing to personally finance its creation, though I wish the movie reflected more of his deft story-telling ability.

Red Tails boasts a young, talented cast whose camaraderie and chemistry radiated off the screen.  Nate Parker (The Great Debaters), Tristan Wilds (The Wire), Terrence Howard (Law & Order: LA), David Oyelowo (The Help), and Cuba Gooding, Jr (The Hit List) were just a few notable cast members.  Parker and Oyelowo had the most screen time and gave the most inspired performances as “Easy” and “Lightning,” respectively.  Easy is the more level-headed and practical leader, while Lightning plays the flashy showboat.  Through it all, they are loyal friends who have each other’s backs in the air and on the ground.  I don’t want to nitpick, but this is a review, right?  Everything wasn’t perfect, and I had an issue with a couple of the casting decisions.  I adore young Tristan Wilds, and I think he’s talented.  However, I thought an older actor would have been better suited for his role of “Junior.”  He looks like he’s about 19, yet his character is supposed to have a wife and child and is told by another soldier that he is the bravest and best he’s ever met.  I guess that is possible, but his character’s backstory seems like it would belong to a more seasoned individual.  Similarly, Cuba Gooding’s role as Major Stance was a little derivative.  We’ve seen the grisly old pipe-chewing commander before.  I could have sworn I’ve seen Gene Hackman or somebody do this already.  Gooding seemed to be over-acting a lot of the time, and it got old.  Terrence Howard wasn’t as irksome as usual, so thank God for small cinematic favors.

I’ve found that you can never underestimate what the younger generation doesn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there are some folks who saw this movie and learned something new.  That alone is reason enough for me to give it my stamp of approval; because this is a story that needed to be told.  HBO made a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen years ago, but it needed a grand stage.  In this day and age our military more accurately reflects the tapestry of American life, but it is nice to have a reminder of our less than glorious past sometimes to appreciate what we have now.  G.I. Joe? No, the Tuskegee Airmen were real American heroes.