Monday, October 20, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna (2008, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee is one of the most fascinating filmmakers currently working in Hollywood, not least because his bold, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking style can just as easily result in transcendent masterpieces as jaw-dropping fiascos. Yet somehow, Lee’s take on an old-fashioned combat film, while closer quality-wise to the negative end of the spectrum, is actually far less interesting than such outright disasters as Girl 6 and She Hate Me. Some of the blame for this can no doubt be laid at the feet of the novel (by James McBride) on which the film is based. While Lee’s big-studio backers no doubt were relieved that the novel might serve as insurance against Lee’s more inflammatory impulses, the film has a bloated, digressive story that distracts from the power of the movie’s central idea- the harsh realities faced by African-American fighting men in WWII. It’s a powerful germ for a story, and the film’s most effective scenes focus on this idea, especially a flashback scene set in a Deep South ice cream parlor in which German POWs are permitted to eat but not black soldiers. It’s a shame about the other, say, two hours of movie that focuses on other matters. It would be bad enough if these scenes were serviceable but semi-extraneous, but that they’re almost entirely lame makes them all the more disappointing since they distract from what should be the good stuff. The biggest offender is the framing device, which wastes almost half an hour of the movie by setting up a contrived happy ending through a series of nigh-impossible coincidences. But there are numerous other plot strands- a romantic triangle involving a white-appeasing staff sergeant (Derek Luke), his militant second in command (Michael Ealy, a talented actor who’s wasted here), and a pretty local woman; the friendship between the gigantic simpleton of the bunch and a young Italian boy; the subplot involving the local partisans- that are nearly as bad. And not helping matters is Terence Blanchard’s score, which Lee cranks up so loud it’s almost oppressive. In the end, it’s pretty much Spike Lee on autopilot, which is just about the last thing I want from the guy.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

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