Red Tails.

2012/01/21

I write to you today, readers, to make a bit of an appeal: See “Red Tails,” the new film  dramatizing the World War II heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Don’t see it because it’s a superb movie; it’s not. It may be the best fighter pilot film in a generation, but as good as “Top Gun” was, it was only ever a clichéd war genre movie, and “Red Tails” doesn’t break much ground in that respect.

But c’mon. We haven’t seen a good fighter pilot film since 1986’s “Top Gun.” You could do a lot worse than this one.

The aerial scenes absolutely soar, with seamless CGI effects that pull the old WWII newsreel footage we’ve seen on The History Channel and the like into living, you-are-there color. Executive producer George Lucas’ Star Wars space battles were inspired by WWII dogfight footage, and his effects house does a better job of staging these than he ever did in his other films.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do quite as well on the ground. The actors range from OK to quite good, but they can’t quite elevate the material to match the real-life deeds of the 332nd. And some scenes — many, actually — ended too quickly, with a quick fade or dissolve to the next.

Still, when the airmen take off in their first real mission, I had to struggle not to burst into tears of pride. And, later, even though I knew one of the standard clichés of the genre was coming, I shed a tear or ten anyway.

So yeah. I recommend “Red Tails.” It’s a war movie that tells a story that’s not as heartbreaking as, say, “Saving Private Ryan.”

(Oh, and the entire cast is black. Hope that doesn’t bother you. If so, we’ve got a different bridge to cross.)

 

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Day 29-a song that you love to quote

Star Wars Gangsta Rap.

A loving skewering of the tropes of rap and Star Wars alike, this is an internet classic.

(Oh, and for the record, it’s the last line before the rapping starts that I quote the most.)

Watch this original version first to enjoy the lyrics, then move on to the better-animated Special Edition.

 

 

Day 27-a song from a movie

Anyone who read my long-running, slow-burning treatise on Life Lessons I learned from The Empire Strikes Back won’t be a bit surprised at this selection.

“The Asteroid Field” by John Williams

A rare bit of scene scoring that functions equally well as a concert piece, this is some of John Williams’ greatest writing.

Incidentally, there is a concert version of the song. It’s not nearly as good.

It’s been way, wayyyyyy too long since the last update to this long, lonnnnnng-running series. Time to wrap it up, already.

(I actually found I had three — three — false starts to this final chapter in my drafts folder. *shaking my head*)

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It has also come to my attention, as I’m writing this, that Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, has passed away today at the the age of 87 [EDIT: it was Saturday, Nov. 27]. My condolences to his family and friends. I pray he is now in the arms of Our Lord  Jesus Christ. Needless to say, he will be remembered and beloved by generations of Americans for his contribution to the Star Wars saga. And I can think of no better tribute than to actually finish this retrospective on his most famous work.

Irvin Kershner, 1932-2010

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OK, so my nine-year-old mind has already been utterly blown by the incomprehensible sight of Luke getting literally disarmed mere moments ago. Now my hero can only cringe and crawl away from the embodiment of evil:

This image has stuck with me; Luke can only pathetically inch away from Darth Vader over the yawning abyss beneath.

So Vader’s attempting to tempt Luke to know the POWAH of the dark side of the Force, and Luke’s having none of it. He’s good. Vader’s bad. He’s the golden-haired, blue-eyed hero, Vader’s the villain in black. For goodness’ sake, Luke is an actual whole human being (well, up until a minute ago). Vader’s humanity, this tantalizing glimpse notwithstanding, is definitely in question.

That is, until the matter of Luke’s father comes up in the conversation.

Vader: …Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough! He told me you killed him.
Vader: No. I am your father.

Huh?

WHAT?

No, he had to be lying. This is a bad guy. THE bad guy. He’s spent the last two hours choking underlings for even minor failings, welching on deals, torturing and freezing Luke’s friends and even maiming Luke. It’s just…

…Not.

Possible.

But Luke’s anguished denial is, like mine was, more based on emotion than on fact. And while Vader’s certainly given us reason to distrust him, even at age nine I had to consider this news could be true.

(This coincides with a fascinating quote in the 1997 book Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays from director Kershner: “…Now, I was talking to kids, and I discovered that children below the age of nine say, ‘No, no, he’s not his father, he’s lying.’ They can’t accept it. About [age] ten on, they accept it.”

My only brother is 2.5 younger than I am, and his experience supports this hypothesis; he totally disbelieved while I accepted it while wanting to disbelieve it.)

When the very embodiment of evil shares a kinship with the golden heroic ideal, a powerful LIFE LESSON emerges: Nothing’s ever absolutely black & white in this world…except the truth!

Here, then, Luke’s earlier vows to never join Vader or be lost to the Emperor are put to the test. He’d made those vows A) without knowing the truth and B) assuming that he couldn’t possibly lose. Now he has two excellent reasons to renounce those vows: his thought-long-dead father is alive and he will certainly die if he doesn’t join him.

That Luke chooses certain death by stepping out into the bottomless abyss is a powerful reinforcement to a LIFE LESSON learned way back in Part 5: Shun evil. NO MATTER WHAT.

This shot of Luke falling toward the camera is the one that stuck with me...showing that the seemingly bottomless pit apparently had no TOP, either.

And just when it seems nothing could get worse, it does. Luke ends up stuck on the underside of Cloud City, barely suspended over the truly bottomless drop of the gaseous planet. The scene of the maimed Luke reduced to begging the spirit of Ben Kenobi to help him remains the very picture of hopelessness.

(It also struck me as incredibly useless. What could Ben DO? …Even if he HADN’T warned Luke he couldn’t help him if the young Jedi faced Vader? An unfortunate lesson I almost gained here was: If you disobey your mentors, don’t come crying to them for help when you fail. But the truer LIFE LESSON was: If one person or method doesn’t help, try another. Sometimes it’s the unlikeliest one that saves you.

And so, Luke is rescued, by the very ones he came to the city to rescue. (Two earlier Lessons on not forsaking friends and never giving up are reinforced here.)

After so many dark events, a bit of fun returns to the proceedings as the Falcon’s hyperdrive fails again. I wondered if we might be in store for another extended chase scene like earlier in the film.

It becomes plain, though, that the end is near, as Vader begins to telepathically speak to Luke, father to son:

…and it’s their mutual references to each other as father and son, along with Luke’s openly wondering why Ben Kenobi had lied to him, that sealed the question for me whether Vader was telling the truth.

(For the moment, anyhow. It was going to be a lonnng three years before the question would be fully settled in Return of the Jedi.)

The whole film had taken my naive expectation that the Good Guys Always Win and flipped it upside down, crashed it, exploded it, frozen it and cut off its sword-arm for good measure. So when the Falcon finally makes it into hyperspace and safety…

…the LIFE LESSON that I took from it is this: Even if you’re losing just about as badly as you CAN lose, just one clean escape to fight another day is as good as a win.

On the flipside, Darth Vader, who’s been summarily and capriciously executing subordinates for their failure to capture the Falcon under much more difficult circumstances for two hours of film time, suddenly fails to execute ANYONE for letting the tiny ship escape for good literally right under the flagship’s nose.

I could speculate a half-dozen solid reasons why. But for the purposes of this series, it merely served as a mild reinforcement to the LIFE LESSON learned from Darth Vader’s dark revelation: Nothing is absolutely good or bad…and that apparently includes Darth Vader, too.

That does it for the Life Lessons. But I have just a couple more thoughts and impressions from the very end of the film.

Lando = NOT scruffy-looking. But I totally noticed how he was dressed like Han Solo and wondered if Han was truly being written out of the series. At this point, ANYTHING seemed possible after the events of this film.

And Luke gets a new hand.

OK. Space health care is pretty good. (You'll note that it's private and NOT public, as the Rebel Alliance isn't an official government.) 🙂

I also really, REALLY didn’t want the movie to be over. John Williams’ wonderful love theme (which reminded me so much of the Gone With The Wind theme that I conflated the two for years after) truly reflected the yearning emotion that the heroes have for their lost, frozen friend and, in this viewer, the yearning for this incredible film to not be over.

But, of course, I knew it was.

Thus I’ve finally almost completed my look back at my all-time favorite movie. I want to compile all the Life Lessons learned into one summary as a bookend…and perhaps I’ll get to that by Christmas. Thank you for reading and for your patience.

OK, so now the long-anticipated duel is on. And, true to his chilling declaration that Luke is not yet a Jedi, Darth Vader manhandles the boy from the start…
  • driving Luke to the floor with the second blow.
  • disarming Luke with ease (just after Luke boasts of being full of surprises).
  • knocking Luke down the stairs.
  • And then into a pit, nearly freezing him.

He even flies, sort of. VADER OWNS YOU, BOY.

Of course, Luke has some impressive talents himself and manages to not only survive “Plan A” of Vader’s trap but to actually knock the dark lord off the chamber platform into a shadowed area some 10-20 feet below.

Instead of taking this respite from battling the stronger Vader to seek a way to escape, Luke chooses to pursue the dark lord.

What?

I’ve asked my brother, who was six-and-a-half at the time, about what he was thinking during this scene when he first saw it. His reply:

“What are you DOING, Luke? RUN!!!!”

I wondered the same thing. I thought he was trying to rescue his friends. Granted, by killing Darth Vader he might accomplish that goal. But realistically, that’s not quite in his ability yet.

More to the point, the purity of his motive for coming — loyalty to his friends — is revealed to be suspect. In his heart, he wants to destroy Vader as much as he wants to help his friends.

I suppose I can’t fault Luke for wanting to kill two birds with one stroke of a lightsaber. But I do fault him for being too arrogant to learn the LIFE LESSON that Lando Calrissian taught me earlier in the film: Quit while you’re ahead, fool!

Bu Luke doesn’t. And so he gets horribly beaten up when Vader hurls the contents of  an entire room at him with the Force. And then Luke is thrown out of a window into a bottomless pit!

This was a very shocking moment for me.

Even after all this, I still didn’t think anything really bad could happen to heroes in a story. After all, didn’t Han survive the freezing? And weren’t the other heroes making good their escape while Luke fought Darth Vader?

And remember…Luke is THE hero of the story. The one who blows up Death Stars without a targeting computer and fells Imperial Walkers with ropes, his ‘saber and a single grenade. Even when he’s down on the floor with Vader’s sword at his throat, I still don’t think Luke can possibly lose to the bad guy.

Vader wins. End of story...?

And then, suddenly, Vader literally disarms Luke, ending the lightsaber duel. This moment taught me perhaps one of the most important LIFE LESSONs I picked up from this film at age nine: Sometimes the worst things happen to the best people. Sometimes the good guys DON’T win. Seeing this play out onscreen helped me accept this truth a little better in reality.

But the worst was still yet to come. Join me next time as I reminisce over the biggest twist in film history.

I learned a lot from this battle.

Wow. I originally intended to be done with this series by late June. But here it’s September and I’m just starting the final segment, which is going to run for at least 2 installments.

But enough with recrimination. On with the retrospective!

The duel doesn’t start with the first clash of lightsabers captured above, but several minutes earlier in the film, when Luke decides to abandon his training at a crucial stage to rescue his endangered friends. Thus was an earlier lesson I learned in the film reinforced: Don’t abandon your friends and comrades.

But there’s a tension in the lesson this time around, as Luke is defying the wishes and advice of both the greatest mentors of his young life. They fear that he will fail and only dash their hopes anew:

Yoda: “Strong is Vader. Mind what you have learned; SAVE you it can!”

That line chilled me a bit. Yoda isn’t even guaranteeing that his training is enough to survive, much less defeat Vader. But Luke, for his part, doesn’t even entertain the possibility of failure. It seems that Yoda’s earlier instruction for him to “Try not; do or do not” has finally taken root in the worst way. Luke says two things in this scene that resonate much later in the film and much later in my life:

“You won’t.”

and

“I’ll return…I promise.”

The first line is in response to the ghostly Obi-Wan’s voiced fear of losing Luke to the dark side the way he lost Vader, his previous apprentice. The second line is a similar vow given to Yoda regarding his unfinished training.

These exchanges remind me of an episode near the end of Jesus of Nazareth’s earthy life. Two of his disciples, James and John, conspire with their mother to jockey for right- and left-hand-man status with Jesus when He comes into His Kingdom. Jesus asks them if they’re able to pay the same price in suffering that He’s about to endure. In their blindly ambitious naivety, both say they can and will.

Like Luke, the “sons of thunder” had no clue what they’d just vowed to do.

The LIFE LESSON of this scene, then is this: don’t make vows you really don’t know if you can keep.

There’s one more element at the very end of the scene that underscores the danger that Luke faces. As Obi-Wan and Yoda stand in the glow of Luke’s departing X-Wing, they have this exchange:

Obi-Wan: That boy is our last hope.

Yoda: No…there is another.

Wait…what? You mean Luke might not walk away from this?

At age nine, I barely registered this bit of foreshadowing, but it really is a subtly masterful storytelling device and a bit of insurance on the filmmakers’ part if their lead actor is lost somehow.

Finally, after much Imperial maneuvering, Luke finds himself facing the dark Lord Darth Vader at last, who has his own chilling words with which to open the encounter:

“The Force is with you, young Skywalker…but you are not a Jedi yet.”

Suddenly, the weight of all leading up to this moment hit my nine-year-old consciousness:

Yoda’s warning that Luke’s training might save him.

Obi-Wan’s warning that he can’t help Luke this time.

Yoda’s revelation that Luke isn’t the only hope.

Vader’s demonstrated unilateral authority in the movie so far.

And, most of all, the Rule of Expectations. My earlier assurance that Luke was destined to win (based on a fellow kid’s spoiler) was dashed in the scene at the cave midway through the film.

I’ve never been as on-the-edge-of-my-seat in any movie experience before or since. Thus the first LIFE LESSON of my Empire Strikes Back summer was reinforced: expectations have a way of coloring and affecting everything we do or experience. But my (and Luke’s) naive expectation of Luke’s victory is, with this scene and the others represented above, put into serious doubt. Consequently, a corollary lesson emerges: the reality still trumps the expectation. Don’t get ahead of yourself, kid!

Next time, we’ll look at what we can learn from the actual fight.

Lando had already made a positive impression on the nine-year-old Khari simply by being the first black character in the Star Wars saga. But he makes an equally negative one not two scenes later by turning our heroes over to the Empire.

Nice try at assassinating the heavy of the Empire, Solo. But Vader SPITS on your blaster fire. SPITS, I SAY!!!

But, we soon learn, Lando’s deal with the devil is, well, just that.

  • Far from keeping the Empire out of Cloud City forever, as Lando hopes, Vader almost immediately threatens to renege on that condition.
  • Vader turns Lando’s old friend over not to the Imperial justice system (as the law would presumably dictate) but to a bounty hunter in the employ of the galaxy’s most notorious gangster.
  • Vader forces Lando to be a jailer of Solo’s companions — until Vader decides to imprison them himself later anyway.
  • And, not least, he makes Lando a further accessory to the near-murder of Han Solo by carbon-freezing.

The LIFE LESSON LEARNED FROM LANDO in this sequence of events rang clear to the viewing nine-year-old me: Don’t try to deal with the devil.

Speaking of that carbon-freezing scene…early in this (protracted) series, I mentioned how I learned how much sound matters in film. A fascinating documentary about John Williams’ scoring of Empire underscores this reality. (Pun not intended.) Watch this link from about 5:50 to 8:20 and see the master at work on this pivotal scene of the film and hear how the music just makes it. I’ll wait.

She loves him. And he knows it.

Eventually, Lando realizes there’s absolutely nothing good about a deal with a guy who can and does change the rules whenever and however he likes, so he decides to change the game himself, no matter the personal cost. LIFE LESSON LEARNED FROM LANDO: It’s never too late to try to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, after freeing Solo’s allies, he finds them immediately turning on their benefactor:

"No good deed goes unpunished" was almost the lesson I took from this.

Precious moments later, Lando’s convinced them that he’s on the level and is able to breathe again. But they are precious moments too late to stop the bounty hunter Boba Fett from safely lifting off with his prize, leading to this:

…the single most heartbreaking shot of the whole movie for me. In the background, Lando’s head sags under the weight of his compounded failures this day, and Leia can only watch in absolute despair as the man she’s come to love is rocketed off to captivity. And this time she knows it’s partly her own fault for slowing Lando’s plan just long enough to enable Boba’s clean getaway.
The LIFE LESSON LEARNED FROM LANDO at age nine: Losing your temper can cost you more dearly than you can imagine. TRUST a brother sometime.
The last lesson I learned from the First Black Man In Space is embodied in his announcement a couple of scenes later to the citizens of Cloud City. He warns everyone that the Empire’s taking over and that everyone should leave. Not only has he done all he can for them in light of the overwhelming power of Vader and the Empire, but he’s also shrewdly generated a chaotic situation to help himself and his new allies escape.
LIFE LESSON LEARNED FROM LANDO: Have an exit plan, even if you have to make it up on the fly. Make sure you leave with something…but always leave responsibly.
Now we’re on the final stretch of this retrospective. Be here in a couple of days for the first of the lessons I learned from the climactic duel between Good and Evil.