REVIEW: “Miracle at St. Anna” (**)

Posted by · 8:06 am · September 6th, 2008

Touchstone Pictures\' Miracle at St. AnnaSpike Lee knows how to mount a natural tension behind the camera. He knows how to create powerful scenes. He knows how to weave theme and yes, even subtext into his narratives. But more often than not he fails to put these gifts together in a successful piece that gets out of its own way and provides a complete experience.

“Mircale at St. Anna” isn’t the nosedive that “Bamboozled” takes half-way through. It isn’t the vibrant mess of “Mo’ Better Blues” and it sure isn’t the ineptitude and stylized aggression of “Inside Man.” Indeed, it is probably the filmmaker’s most unique effort in a number of years. But despite a few sequences that remind the viewer of the skill and artistic ability of its director, it is mostly a narrative strung along and together by poor performances (at least one of them awful) and unfocused screenwriting.

The story begins in Manhattan in the present day. A murder in a post office. Casual, but purposeful, and full of mystery. A giant stone head, a relic, discovered in the perpetrator’s home. The intrigue on high so much that we can forgive the out-of-place and unnecessary, “Pilgrim, we fought for this country, too” that the character spoke not five minutes earlier (a typical on-the-nose Lee aside but also entirely out of keeping with the character’s motivations).

A reporter is digging at the truth. “I know who the sleeping man is,” the shooter tells him. We’re hooked; what will the flashback have in store to explain all of this peculiarity?

Not a whole hell of a lot, as it turns out. We’re zapped back in time to World War II in the countryside of Italy. The Buffalo Soldiers division, a group of African American soldiers referred to as an “experiment” by one blatantly racist commander played by Robert John Burke, will be our company throughout.

Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller — that terrible performance I was talking about) is lugging a familiar stone head around with him, rubbing it for good luck, chastized by his fellow soldiers for dragging the clunky object along. It was apparently part of a bridge the Nazis destroyed in Florence. Not that that bit of information will matter…ever again.

(from left) Matteo Sciabordi, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke and Laz Alonso in Miracle at St. AnnaA botched aerial assault single-handedly gives Lee another opportunity to go for the reverse racism he portrays so well, puts “The Shield”‘s Walton Goggins on cracker duty yet again, and getting back to the narrative, leaves the soldiers detached from the overall division and in some dangerous Nazi territory. They make their way to an Italian village oasis where they settle in for the majority of the film’s 167-minute running time with a wounded, hallucinating child that Train has scooped up along the way.

What unfolds for the next hour or so is some of Lee’s richer work in the film. The relationships between the Italians are more interesting than the Buffalo Soldiers, as are the fighters battling advancing Nazis in the forest. It’s a WWII perspective I’ve never really seen committed to film in an interesting way and, even if the story had stagnated by this time, it kept me interested.

There are plenty of unfortunate diversions, of course. Like a flashback sequence that takes us to the Buffalo Soldiers’ Louisiana barracks and a completely unrealistic stand against southern racism, even if it does lead in to one of the film’s more artistically interesting shots and moments.

Meanwhile, a love triangle between Michael Early’s Sgt. Cummings, Derek Luke’s Sgt. Stamps and Valentina Cervi’s sultry Renata comes across more impotent than particularly revelatory of either character’s disposition. And the eventual “sleeping man” thing just falls flat on its face during a questionable beat.

I did, however, enjoy an early scene in the film that shows the Buffalo Soldiers methodically advancing on enemy lines as a Nazi belle whispers sweet racist nothings in their ears via a manipulative loudspeaker system. The underlying score mixes quite nicely with the tension-building editing of the sequence. When the moment finally erupts in gunfire, the payoff feels real because of Lee’s steady and attentive hand.

Derek Luke in Miracle at St. AnnaIt’s just a shame he continuously fails to apply that talent on an even level.

When the film finally reaches its laughable denouement — a scene that will have you wondering if, in Spike Lee’s world, everyone wears fedoras and dresses like they’re in 1940s Harlem (consider the style that permeates “Inside Man” and place it in a tropical setting) — the broken pieces of an incoherent film are all around you and their effects irreversible.

But there is reason to study “Miracle at St. Anna,” regardless of how drastically it fails to make any point whatsoever. That is the theme of Lee’s career in many ways. The failures are gems of value with interesting ideas worth investigation. It would also be fair to now say that Lee can handle a war film, as the action is never confusing and always moves the story forward. And as always, Terrence Blanchard’s score is a soaring event unto itself that lifts Lee’s work beyond what it might have been otherwise.

But isn’t this becoming a consistent theme with Lee? It seems we always have to highlight the exceptions to his otherwise messy narratives, the silver linings in films that are burdened by the director’s insistence upon sensationalized artistic comment. But it doesn’t work. In fact it has rarely worked, and when we consider the perfect storm that allowed for the precise implementation of these elements, we realize that it was nearly 20 years ago and still his finest film to date.

A “Summer of Sam” here and a “25th Hour” there are enough to keep me stringing along, but soon enough, the string is bound to break. And then I guess we’ll finally ask the question: Spike Lee, where have you gone?

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Reviews

17 responses so far

  • 1 9-06-2008 at 8:22 am

    Bing147 said...

    Just for the record… because this always bugs me, there’s no such thing as reverse racism. Racism is racism, no matter what race is directing it at what race.

  • 2 9-06-2008 at 8:58 am

    Casey said...

    you are exactly right bing147. thank you

  • 3 9-06-2008 at 9:21 am

    Jamie said...

    Disappointed but not entirely surprised.

    How is Michael K. Williams? Does he have a substantive part?

  • 4 9-06-2008 at 10:37 am

    LoveSpike said...

    Well, well well,

    Not surprising you didn’t like it, Judging by your intitial trashing of the trailer I didn’t expect to you, Thats the difference between this and Ben Button you want to like that but you were waiting to stick it to Spike, even if you try to mask your disdain with complements on the border of veiled insults. I can’t wait till it comes out.

    P.s. Not everybody thought Bamboozled was a nosedive, i happened to think it was an accurate description of the domint effect that would occur if we were introduced to a minstrel show in that way.

  • 5 9-06-2008 at 11:32 am

    Marcus said...

    I agree with LoveSpike, you already trashed this movie and Lee before you even saw it. I bet this movie is very good and I can’t wait to see it.

  • 6 9-06-2008 at 11:39 am

    Rob Scheer said...

    Excellent review. Kind of cemented what I’d been thinking/expecting, and gave me a real understanding of why it doesn’t work.

    But, I don’t know about anyone else, but when do we get your take on ‘Burn After Reading’?? Any hints..?

  • 7 9-06-2008 at 11:40 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Thats the difference between this and Ben Button you want to like that but you were waiting to stick it to Spike”

    This is an out and out lie. But make excuses where you must, guys. I didn’t like the movie. Maybe you will…

  • 8 9-06-2008 at 10:13 pm

    John Foote said...

    Kris is not wrong –the film is a failure, a most noble failure, but a failure nonetheless. When will Spike learn that not all we white folks are evil red necks who hate the black man due to his skin color? I don’t and never have and never will. Spike grew up in wealth, but no doubt was called some terrible names in his life, but certainly not by every white person he ever met. His film would have been better with a more honest portrait of that, less preaching, less Terence Blanchard (My God…not since The Color Purple have I listened to such a terrible score) and more great filmmaking. This as his chance for Oscar, I so wanted it to happen for him, and he blew it. So you see Kris is not alone in his thoughts on this. You should also recognize that to true lovers of cinema every film we walk into see might be the greatest film we have ever seen and we must keep an open mind. We must.

  • 9 9-06-2008 at 10:14 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Love Spike, you are saying that the trailer for Miracle at St. Annea was really that good? It looked like any other cliched world war II film. The film itself may be good but there is no reason to believe that based on the trailer.

  • 10 9-07-2008 at 2:32 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “When will Spike learn that not all we white folks are evil red necks who hate the black man due to his skin color? ”

    I think that’s a very unfair oversimplification of Spike Lee’s credo, John. After all, two of his best films — The 25th Hour and Summer of Sam (which, for me, his greatest work) — very intelligent and compassionate studies of white characters.

    As for the film, I have yet to see it, but that trailer had me worried right from the get-go.

  • 11 9-07-2008 at 2:34 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sorry, that’s missing an ‘is’ and an ‘are’ — I only just rolled out of bed!

  • 12 9-08-2008 at 9:14 am

    Ivan said...

    I´m totally with Guy Lodge,
    25th Hour is such a Great film and is about white people, so John Foote stop that crap

  • 13 9-08-2008 at 9:28 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Wow Guy, surprised someone else is with me on Summer of Sam. I rarely mention it because it’s so reviled, but I love it!

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