Friday, September 26, 2008

Not Perfect, St. Anna Still Captivates

This past summer Spike Lee promoted his new World War II epic Miracle at St. Anna by criticizing director Clint Eastwood on his Iwo Jima film Flags of our Father for not having a single black actor on screen. Lee, known for his films dealing with controversial issues in society, was quoted saying “That was his version. The negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.”

St. Anna follows four soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division. After saving a young Italian boy they come to a small Tuscany village where they hold up while waiting for orders from headquarters. The film’s story is inspired by the 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre.

St. Anna opens with a bang of intrigue and a sharp indication of Spike Lee’s message. The film begins in 1980’s New York. Hector Negron is seen watching the Duke, John Wayne, in an old black and white war movie. The only problem for Negron is there’s really nothing black about it. The next day, while working at the post office, Negron kills a man in cold blood. Soon after, police stumble upon the missing sculpted head from the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence, which acts as the framing device for the rest of the story.

Ultimately this film is hurt by the over involving script. James McBride’s script of his own novel contains too much focus on too many characters. Not only does this film put the spotlight on the four soldiers and the young boy but also on the Italian partisan group, family relations in the Tuscan village, and so on and so forth. Running at 160 minutes, a film with as many characters and subplots as this one can’t help from meandering through.

Despite these imperfections, St. Anna is still a very powerful, emotional, and jointed film. Even when I was taken away from the main story, I never felt too disconnected. I’d rather have too much to care for than too little. Lee’s ability as a true and brilliant artist is shown throughout. There are a plethora of stunning scenes that come to life thanks to smart dialogue, great cinematography, and vibrant atmospheres. A few of the combat scenes are very jolting and powerful. While they may not rival the likes of Saving Private Ryan they do impress enough.

St. Anna has a clear message about the prejudice against blacks in the war. Lee’s attempt to convey this message, while noble, was a disappointment. At times the message becomes stereotypical, overbearing and too obvious. Alternatively, there are scenes that effectively and powerfully represent the message. Lee’s handling of the issue is average.

Miracle at St. Anna is a solid film that features a lot but can’t really master much of what it has. The essence of war, much like the other themes of romance, loyalty, brotherhood, and betrayal is there but not perfected. The film is too epic for its own good as the encompassing script is simply in too many places at the same time. The ending is poorly handled and it feels like Lee never reaches his ultimate point. The acting is average as no one stands out in the crowd and no one falls far below par.

Despite this, Spike Lee’s ambitious effort is to be recognized. His artistry saves this film from becoming a muddled mess many directors would allow it to be. A great story is being told and there are enough intriguing and captivating moments in this film that make it very enjoyable to watch.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Subpar Script Hurts Lakeview Terrace

Let’s face it; the next door neighbor from hell routine has played itself out in film, television, and everyday life. Lakeview Terrace is director Neil LaBute’s attempt to reenergize the concept by throwing handfuls of social commentary of the racist fashion into the mix.

In this dramatic thriller, Samuel L. Jackson plays single father and L.A.P.D. officer Abel Turner who just can’t get over the fact that his new neighbors Chris and Lisa Mattson, played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, are an interracial couple. Taking things into his own hands, Turner terrorizes the couple in an attempt to push them out of the neighborhood.

Lakeview Terrace never really crosses the threshold into being the shocking film about racism that it so desperately tries to be. Held back by a PG-13 rating and a script that is both lazy and subpar, director Neil LaBute is only really able to touch the tip of the iceberg on the subject. The film tends to slowly move along with both subtle and obvious racist comments here and there from antagonist Abel Turner which generates some sort of retaliatory response from the neighbors. Rarely does the film ever delve deep into anything of substance as it merely stays on the surface as a preachy yet shallow representation of our culture’s problems. None of the characters are truly developed leaving no one to sincerely care for. This is a major problem for a film of such sensitive material.

As the film progresses towards the climax and conclusion the script reaches a heightened level of senseless stupidity and absurdity. All in one fell swoop everything the film had going for it, which wasn’t much, as a completely serious and believable film is gone. Thanks to one unnecessary plot movement the story runs into a brick wall and falls flat on its face during its most tense moments. Terrace runs at a long 110 minutes yet it still feels like it was wrapped up all too suddenly and in the most ridiculous way.

All is not for lost though. Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly casted as Abel Turner. Jackson’s signature rip roaring and biting dialectic style returns along with his ever so intimidating glares. He adds more to this lackluster script than anything else in the film does. Fans of Samuel L. Jackson will enjoy his performance and it makes the viewing of this film at least worth something. The film also has enough thrilling and entertaining moments, albeit most of the times less than spectacular, to keep the viewer watching.

Lakeview Terrace is a film with an identity crisis. It moves from serious drama to ridiculous cookie cutter thriller with a B-movie feel. It never reaches the level it desires in terms of shock and its exploitative juices never get flowing. To his credit, Neil LaBute did what he could with a bad script and regains some credit after his horrendous debacle with his 2006 remake of The Wicker Man which turned into an unintentional comedy.

Terrace is better off staying away from unless you simply can’t get enough of Samuel L. Jackson. Nothing outside of him works that well in this film and it all comes crashing down before it ends. This film does nothing other films about racial tension haven’t already done better. If you are curious at all about this film save your money and time for now and wait until it hits DVD.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading: When Idiots Collide

When you win four Academy Awards, one being best picture, you are given the tough task at following this up with another successful film. Joel and Ethan Coen are the latest receivers of this inevitable task after their 2007 film No Country for Old Men became an instant classic. To answer this call, the Coens did a complete 180 and menacingly drove a star studded vehicle that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand and created a completely original, clever, and unique black comedy/spy thriller with Burn After Reading.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who just quit his job after being demoted. His wife, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), is cheating on Osbourne with a Treasury agent played by George Clooney and decides to look into divorce. Katie copies all of Osbourne’s personal information, including his memoirs, at the discretion of her divorce lawyer. When this disk of personal and classified information winds up in the hands of Hardbodies employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) they decide to blackmail Osbourne and hold the disk for ransom.

The Coen brothers have been known to be able to sublimely integrate comedy into both ridiculous situations and dark, serious material as seen in their most well known films such as The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Burn takes the cake in the ridiculous department of Coen brother films. This winding, intricate and almost meaningless plot of blackmail and spy play all comes together in the most hilarious and remarkable way. In true Coen fashion each character is as unique and memorable as the next is. George Clooney and Brad Pitt lead the way with their dueling boneheaded and idiotic performances that truly let them exercise their comedic talents. John Malkovich is thunderous while Tilda Swinton is stern yet funny and Frances McDormand is as likeable as a stupid person can be. This star studded cast lives up to their names.

What the Coen brothers did here deserves to be recognized. They took some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and put them into an insane screwball comedy as goofy as one will find. Burn goes to the extremes in both comedy and violence and may end up surprising many viewers. The actors let loose and do a brilliant job as they make fun of their personas on screen. The Coens also tap into American issues and fads such as online dating, plastic surgery, self image, obsessive workouts, and paranoia and sardonically mocks each and every one of them.

Only the Coen brothers could direct and create this lunacy and do it so well. The two of them have such a knack for being able to write and create these unique, stylish and memorable films like no one else. For many fans of the Coen brothers this film will be a delight. It’s a laugh out loud, sarcastic, smart, and brutally witty film. On the other hand, this offbeat style of filmmaking may disappoint the average moviegoer. Where this film ranks among the Coen’s films boils down to personal taste. I had a blast getting wrapped up in this idiotic intelligence tale that almost has no intelligence at all. Burn After Reading is the most brilliant film about idiots you’ll see for some time.