Fright Night (2011)


Fright Night

Colin Farrell doesn't take kindly to Anton Yelchin putting an explosive ketchup pellet in his Gatorade.

(2011) Horror Comedy (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Reid Ewing, Will Denton, Sandra Vergara, Emily Montague, Chris Sarandon. Directed by Craig Gillespie

In these modern times we generally don’t get to know our neighbors very well. We live in isolation, insulated by walls and fences and the Internet. Our neighbors could be the kindest, sweetest, gentlest people on earth…or the embodiment of evil.

Charlie Brewster (Yelchin) is a high school senior with a hot girlfriend, Amy (Poots). His mom Jane (Collette) is a real estate agent and lives with her son in a nice development on the edge of Las Vegas. Charlie has transformed himself from being a geek to being one of the cool crowd. In this sense, he’s leaving behind old friends like Adam (Denton) and Ed (Mintz-Plasse) whom everyone calls “evil” for unspecified reasons.

He also has a new next door neighbor, Jerry (Farrell) who works nights doing construction on the strip. As a day sleeper, he blocks his windows and gee, there’s an awful lot of construction debris and apparently nothing going on in the exterior or the yard. He is, however extremely hot as both Jane and Amy notice, not to mention flirtatious.

Evil Ed isn’t convinced. He’s been noticing that several kids have been missing from school and he believes that Jerry is at the heart of it. In fact, Ed thinks Jerry’s a vampire, which bemuses Charlie no end. However, when Ed threatens to publish some nerdy pictures of Charlie, he reluctantly agrees to join Ed to find out what happened to Adam, who’s among the missing.

Unfortunately, it turns out Ed was right and when Ed disappears, Charlie goes up to Ed’s room to see the “proof” he had of Jerry’s vampire-ness and when he does, Charlie becomes a believer. So much so that when Jerry invites a beautiful sexy blonde neighbor (Montague) who happens to be a stripper over, he calls the cops. Thus the war of cat and mouse games begins.

Charlie enlists  the aid of Peter Vincent (Tennant), a stage magician at the Hard Rock Casino who is a self-professed vampire expert. Charlie’s going to need all the help he can get against a demon that’s over 400 years old and is an expert in self-preservation. Charlie is horribly overmatched but he’s got to find a way to prevail if he wants to see his mother and girlfriend alive again.

This is based on the 1985 Tom Holland movie of the same name which had William Ragsdale and Chris Sarandon in the Charlie and Jerry roles, respectively. That one was appeared on cable regularly for years; it was actually a different kind of vampire movie with enough camp and gore to counterbalance themselves and certainly a refreshing relief from all the slasher movies that were all the rage then.

The acting is pretty solid here. Farrell is playing a role he was really born to play – a bad guy who can do horrible things with abandon, but all with a twinkle in his eyes, a drink in one hand and a woman in his arms. Come to think of it, maybe Farrell didn’t have to do a whole lot of acting.

Yelchin has yet to impress me – until now. He does a bang-up job as the heroic lead, a part he may not be used to. He did buff up a little for the role, although not to the point of ridiculousness; this is supposed to be a skinny high school kid going up against the undead, but you don’t want the fight to be unbelievable or TOO uneven. Yelchin succeeds in avoiding those pitfalls.

To me, Tennant – a former Doctor Who – is the show stealer here. He plays Vincent as a cross between Criss Angel and William Powell, liquored up and a bit of a self-important jerk and outwardly a coward but when it counts he has the heart of a lion. There’s a rock star quality to Peter that is nicely counterbalanced by his inner nerd.

Poots, Collette and Montague are all beautiful, sexy and smart in their roles. I guess it doesn’t hurt that the script was written by a woman – in this case, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Marti Noxon. She brings the same hip quotient, quip repeatability and smarts to the movie that she did to the TV show. I don’t know that Joss Whedon, busy filming The Avengers at the moment, has seen this movie but if he has I have no doubt he’s proud of his protégé.

This is a highly entertaining vampire movie that may not go over well with the kids who love sparkling brooding vampires, but it does have nods to most of the vampire classics in one form or another – even in a backhanded way to Twilight. There is a crapload of CGI which varies in quality from seamless to noticeable.

There is an amazing chase scene in which Jerry pursues the Brewsters in their SUV which contains a lovely homage to the first Fright Night and contains some of the best stunt work in the movie. It’s a scene that obviously required meticulous planning, which is something I always appreciate from a filmmaker and so rarely get.

Fright Night is dying at the box office which is a shame. Hopefully people will pick up on how good this movie is on home video. It’s actually a clever movie that deserves a better audience than it’s apparently getting. Maybe if they’d only gotten Colin Farrell to sparkle…

REASONS TO GO: Smart, well-planned out and well-written. Very sexy where it needs to be. Great mix of horror and humor.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore gets kind of mind-numbing after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of blood, gore and horror violence. These vampires don’t sparkle after all; there is also a good deal of sexuality and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original Fright Night and its sequel (via flashback) makes a cameo as the driver of the car that rear-ends the Brewster’s car and thus is the only actor to appear in all three Fright Night movies.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this is one to watch at home on a dark and stormy night.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT WEEK: The Last Station

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Bicentennial Man


Bicentennial Man

I wouldn't say that Robin WIlliams is a bit stiff in this role but...

(1999) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root. Directed by Chris Columbus

One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov’s robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.

Bicentennial Man opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot (Williams). Their youngest daughter (Eisenberg, a moppet best known for a series of Pepsi ads at the time) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces “android.” Andrew’s arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze), but he gradually works his way into the family’s heart.

After the eldest’s attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love. Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie’s title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family. His creators at NorthAm Robotics take a skeptical approach but eventually the uniqueness of Andrew leads to a whole different relationship between creators and creation.

Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always – what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, he wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would have surprised me if Williams had gotten an Oscar nod given the Academy’s feelings about science-fiction in general, but one would have been richly deserved here – in my humble opinion, his work in this movie was at least as good if not better than the role he did win the statuette for in Good Morning, Vietnam.

There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. A scene near the end when the nearly immortal Andrew chooses humanity and love over eternity is a heartstring puller. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.

The ever-dependable Neill gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and conscience and Embeth Davidtz who plays Andrew’s love interests in two separate generations does a good job. Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist as well but as noted earlier, this is Robin Williams’ show and he shines. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic. This visual flair would serve him well shortly after this was made as he launched the Harry Potter series, his hiring for that job largely based on his work here.

Bicentennial Man is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question – What does it mean to be human? – and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by Bicentennial Man that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar calibre performance by Williams and solid support by Platt, Neill and Davidtz. Wonderful cityscapes and believable futuristic homes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp just a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The headquarters of NorthAm Robotics is actually the world headquarters of Oracle Systems in Redwood Shores.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.4M on a $100M production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Swing Vote


Swing Vote

Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll go fishing for an audience but don't catch anything.

(2008) Comedy (Touchstone) Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Judge Reinhold, Willie Nelson, Mare Winningham, Richard Petty,  Nana Visitor.  Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

We all want our system to work, but the fact of the matter is that few of us believe that it does. However, like the eternal cock-eyed optimists that we are, we hope that it could.

Bud Johnson (Costner) is one of those who don’t really care one way of the other. He works a mind-numbing job at an egg-packing plant and further numbs his mind with alcohol. His cute-as-a-button and smart-as-a-whip daughter Molly (Carroll) is really the adult in the family, putting up with his constant hangovers and dead-drunk slumbers with the patience of a saint.

She is passionate about civics however and is urging her dad to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. As usually is the case with her dad, he messes it up and Molly figures out how to vote for him, a contrivance that backfires when a voting machine error winds up not counting his vote. And when the New Mexico electoral votes prove to be crucial in determining the winner of the election, it turns out that Bud Johnson’s vote in an unlikely turn of events is the deciding vote for the whole enchilada.

Of course this brings out a media feeding frenzy and personal visits from the candidates, the incumbent conservative President Andrew Boone (Grammer) and the liberal challenger Donald Greenleaf (Hopper) visiting, promising Bud the sun and the moon with their obsequious campaign managers (Tucci and Lane, respectively) in tow.

Bud’s main goal is not to be the deciding factor but simply not to embarrass his daughter, which he is doing in a big way. The issues of the campaign trail and the resulting chicanery of the candidates gives way to the need for a father to make his daughter proud.

This is not really a polemic, and it isn’t strictly a comedy despite its categorization as such above. This is more or less a look at the modern American electoral process with elements of a spoof to it and certainly elements of a comedy. That it is marketed as a comedy is a very likely reason the movie floundered in its general release.

It’s certainly not the fault of the actors. Kevin Costner has moved from the dashing leading man phase of his career to the respected character actor phase. He takes the all-American schlub who is ignorant and content to remain that way and gives him charm. Bud Johnson isn’t the kind of neat, tidy character who gets rocked by the world’s blows and stands tall. He’s complicated and terminally weak-willed.

He has a match in young Madeline Carroll, who was so excellent in last fall’s Flipped. There are an awful lot of smarter-than-adult juvenile roles out there that are just plain annoying, but Carroll elevates the role to something special. She has a really intense scene with her mom (Winningham) which explains a lot of why both Bud and Molly are the way they are – it’s one of the best scenes in the movie and is the kind of performance that gets you noticed.

In addition to the impressive cast, there are also celebrity cameos of pundits, politicians, politicos and celebrities. A little bit of that can go a long way and before too long you’re overloaded on the famous faces in the film, which also would have benefitted by a little more editing. I don’t know about you, but I thought the movie would have been perfectly fine with at least half an hour of meaningless subplots lopped out, don’t you think?

If Frank Capra was alive today, this would be the kind of thing he’d be selling. He’d just condense it down into an hour and a half or less whereas this drags on for more than two. Its heart is in the right place though – and as examinations of the American political system go, it’s amazingly candid. I thought it was a bit underrated when it came out and thus I’m pleased to give the movie some love now.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprising amount of pathos mixed in with a terrific performance by Costner.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many famous people cameos, gets distracting. The movie is much too long and would have benefitted from a firmer hand on the editing room.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but nothing too rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Costner’s second movie with Hopper, the first being Waterworld (1995).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video from the band Modern West which is fronted by Kevin Costner himself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.6M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Tree of Life

Gnomeo and Juliet


Gnomeo & Juliet

Featherstone engages in a little light bondage with Gnomeo and Juliet.

(2011) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Dolly Parton, Stephen Merchant, Richard Wilson. Directed by Kelly Asbury

If the play’s the thing, then Romeo and Juliet may just be THE thing. Perhaps the most famous play ever written, it has been told and re-told in all sorts of cinematic methods, from musicals (West Side Story) to epics (Zeffirelli’s 1968 version) to mistakes (Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 MTV-hip version). However, I can’t think of any version that is quite as bizarro as this one.

Mr. Montague (Wilson) and Miss Capulet (Waters) live at 2B and Not 2B Verona Avenue. They have had a petty rivalry going on over the years stemming from their gardens. This resentment has carried over to their garden furniture, particularly the garden gnomes that populate their yards. On the Montague side, Lord Redbrick (Caine) rules the red gnomes; on the Capulet, Lady Bluebury (Smith) is the boss.

Gnomeo (McAvoy) is son of Lady Bluebury; Juliet (Blunt) daughter of Lord Redbrick. The endless rivalry that goes on, largely in the form of lawnmower races between Gnomeo and Tybalt (Statham) which Tybalt cheats in order to win, has been escalating. Juliet, tired of being cooped up on a pedestal watched over by Nanette (Jensen), a frog fountain at the behest of Juliet’s overprotective dad, wants to contribute and be productive; she spies a rare orchid in the hothouse of a neighboring yard whose house has fallen into disrepair. She means to nab it for the Reds in order to put the red yard ahead of the blue.

In the meantime, Gnomeo means to exact revenge for Tybalt’s destruction of the Blue lawnmower. He and his cousin Benny (Lucas) go on a stealth mission to the Red yard, meaning to lay down some graffiti but Benny gets a bit carried away and the two are discovered. They flee and Gnomeo is forced to take shelter in the abandoned yard.

It is of course at that moment that Juliet, dressed as a ninja (okay, wearing one of Mr. Montague’s old socks) enters the abandoned yard to nab the orchid. Gnomeo sees her go after it and in the way of guys everywhere, once he sees somebody wants something he wants it too. The two of them compete for the flower in a series of martial arts-like moves until they get a gander at each other’s faces. That’s it – instant love. However, they fall into a convenient pond, washing off Gnomeo’s camouflage and washing away Juliet’s sock and they realize that they are from opposing sides.

That doesn’t mean much to true love however and they arrange a meeting in the neutral yard the next day. There they meet Featherstone (Cummings), a plastic pink flamingo who has languished in the storage shed since the owners of the house divorced and went their separate ways years ago. He is pleased to see them, particularly when they discover his missing leg. He is all about love, particularly since his own love was taken away from him in the divorce.

The two are definitely in love and life could certainly be idyllic, particularly if they follow through with their plans to run away and start a new garden in the dilapidated old yard. However, Tybalt is getting out of control and the war between red and blue is escalating and frankly, red is winning. However, the blue side looks to even things out with something called the Terrafirminator. The more out of control things get, the more likely that a tragic ending is  inevitable.

This is one of those nice occasions where my expectations were exceeded. I didn’t think much of the trailer; the animation isn’t really ground-breaking and while the whole concept is different to say the least, it is sufficiently out there that sight unseen it left me with a kind of wait-and-see attitude. Quite frankly, Da Queen was far more jazzed to see this than I was. I’m very glad that she insisted we go see it.

This is more than pretty good. There are many sly Shakespearean references (“Out! Damn spot!” refers not to a bloodstain but to a wayward hound) as well as some amazing stunt casting, like metal god Ozzie Osbourne as a sweet porcelain deer, and Patrick Stewart as a grumpy William Shakespeare. Hulk Hogan narrates an online ad for the Terrafirminator and Dolly Parton adds a turn as the starter at the lawnmower race (with an appropriately blonde and large-breasted gnome as her onscreen alter ego).  

Director Kelly Asbury previously worked on such disparate projects as Shrek 2 and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron.  He shows a deft hand here and despite an army of writers, lends a Monty Python-esque air to the proceedings.

Elton John was the executive producer of the project and most of the incidental music is themes from his hit songs done with an orchestra. That does make for a nice trip down memory lane, not to mention he contributes two new original songs (one a duet with Lady Gaga) but I would have preferred a little more original music – maybe another song or two – to balance the retreads.  

There aren’t nearly the pop culture references so prevalent in most animated features in the post-Shrek era which is kind of refreshing. It has a decidedly English feel, like the Aardman films (like Chicken Run and Flushed Away). In short, this is something completely different from the animated ranks, so much so that Disney chose to release it through their Touchstone imprint rather than the parent company where they usually place their animated features. That may backfire on them – I suspect that the film might have benefitted from the Disney marketing and brand name, but still in all don’t let its lack stop you – this is a fine animated feature that will delight children and adults alike.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful Shakespeare in-jokes replace pop culture references. Nicely cast (and drawn) cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Music recycles Elton John themes ad infinitum – some more original music and songs would have been welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart have both played Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies; Stewart in the first three (and the Wolverine spin-off) and McAvoy in the upcoming X-Men: First Class.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the 3D aspect may work better in the theater, but this one looks just as good at home methinks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Other End of the Line

When in Rome


When in Rome

Josh Duhamel and Kirsten Bell hope they are eaten by wild animals before doing When in Rome 2.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Dax Shepard, Jon Heder, Danny DeVito, Anjelica Huston, Alexis Dziena, Kate Micucci, Bobby Moynihan, Lee Pace, Don Johnson. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Love is so mysterious to most of us that it borders on magic. It appears in its own mercurial time, it disappears without warning, it transfers from one person to another and when it hits us head-on, our lives are never the same.

Beth (Bell) is a workaholic sort who has blazed her way into becoming the youngest ever curator at the Guggenheim in New York City. Nick (Duhamel) is an easy-going sportswriter. They meet at the whirlwind wedding of Beth’s sister Joan (Dziena). Beth, stressed over a big exhibition that she is curating that no work is getting done on while she is foolishly enjoying her family’s life event in the company of chip-off-the-old-block pa (Johnson).

Things go inevitably wrong complete with a vase that refuses to break, electrical mishaps and the kind of shenanigans that usually go on at movie weddings. Pay no attention to these. Instead, note that Beth is getting hammered, and as hammered women often do she goes wading into the Fountain of Love (the city fathers of Rome wisely prevented the Trevi Fountain from being associated with this in any way shape or form) and pulls five coins out of the fountain.

This is when the magic happens…so to speak. Each of the men who threw the coins in the fountain – an annoying street magician (Heder), an annoying painter (Arnett), a really annoying model/narcissist (Shepard) and a slightly less annoying sausage king (DeVito) – all fall hopelessly and unrealistically in love with Beth and follow her back to New York where they make attempts to woo her that are about as well-worn as the word “woo.”

In the meantime there is that fifth coin. Was it thrown in by Nick? And if so, does that mean the blossoming romance between Nick and Beth is all a lie, forced by the magic of a fountain which has apparently confused stalking for love. Then again, what would you expect from a hunk of concrete.

There are some elements here that would have made for an interesting movie – unlike a lot of critics, I have no beef with the concept, only the execution. Rather than trying for genuine laughs, the writers opted for weak slapstick routines and cliché comedy bits (if I hear that freaking record scratch again I swear I’ll lose it – and you hear it not once but twice in the first five minutes).

It’s a real shame because Duhamel and Bell are genuinely appealing and make a nice couple. Duhamel, in particular, shows himself to be a real pro, offering a good performance despite the obvious knowledge that he’s in a movie that has some real problems.

I have no issues with Shepard, Arnett, DeVito and Heder individually but I’ve never really connected with them consistently as actors (with the exception of DeVito, who showed in such films as The Oh in Ohio that when given a decently written role he can make something wonderful out of it) and here they seem to be allowed to mug all over the place. I get the impression occasionally that there are four of them because they could get four name actors for the roles; had one of them passed, there would have been three of them – if one more name actor had agreed to do it, five. I found it amusing that all four of the coins belonged to men- statistically, far more women throw coins into the Trevi than men – and thought the movie might have worked better if at least one of the coins belonged to a woman (I could see someone like Amy Poehler as an aggressive romantic stalker).

But then that wouldn’t have played in middle America and one gets the sense that this was a movie assembled to target a particular demographic rather than because the writers had something important to say about love and life. I know that the first instinct of a studio executive is to go with the safe and the familiar, but I think box office figures demonstrate clearly that a well-written movie with an interesting story, memorable characters and something to say about the nature of life will more often than not bring in the box office gold that Hollywood studio executives know more about chasing than they do about chasing love.

WHY RENT THIS: Duhamel is one of the most underappreciated stars in Hollywood and he has nice chemistry with Bell.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The romance is cliché, the comedy is cliché, the script is cliché, the romance is cliché, the comedy is cliché, the script is cliché – say, do you get the strange feeling you’ve seen it all before?

FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestion of sexuality but nothing really overt.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Beth first stands in the Fountain of Love and surveys the coins, they are all in U.S. currency even though the fountain is supposedly in Rome.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos and a blooper reel here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43M on an unreported production budget; the movie most likely underperformed or broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Invincible

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man