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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

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David Lee
Omar Benson Miller and Matteo Sciabordi star in Miracle at St. Anna

Two years ago, directors Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood got into a pissing match about Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films. Lee was upset that there wasn’t a single African-American soldier in either movie, arguing that Eastwood was perpetuating old Hollywood stereotypes that denied the role of black soldiers in WWII. Eastwood responded by saying that Lee should “shut his face.”

Skip ahead two years to Spike Lee’s rejoinder, a 160-minute war story entitled Miracle at St. Anna. It focuses on the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division during the Italian campaign of 1944. Though he doesn’t paint all the black infantrymen as upstanding heroes, Lee obviously wants to hail the bravery of those soldiers too often ignored in official histories, as well as highlight the endemic racism that existed both in the Army and back at home. That worthy goal unfortunately results in didactic exposition and dialogue that sound like the script was written by a clumsy historian rather than a skilled screenwriter.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s plot revolves around a Holy Fool character, a private named Sam Train who, early in the film, finds a young Italian boy talking to himself in a barn. Though the two can’t speak to each other, they quickly bond over chocolate, and Train commits his whole being to the boy’s safety. Much of the movie takes place in a small Italian village where a quartet of black soldiers have been separated from their unit and taken up residence. While there, they flirt with the one pretty local woman, interact with the Italian Partisans, and seem strangely unconcerned about whether the Nazis might suddenly show up.

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in Miracle at St. Anna, but there’s a lot to appreciate, too. I love how Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique use desaturated colors to beautifully convey the historical time period without resorting to black-and-white or sepia-toned. There are several scenes inside buildings that contrast light and shadows in gorgeous ways. The movie also ponders the deeper spiritual themes of good and evil in times of war, even questioning the idea of how God could perform a small miracle and yet allow so much destruction (pay attention to everything that happens at the St. Anna church). I’m a sucker for those kinds of metaphysical debates.

On the acting front, Derek Luke is stiff as the stand-tall sergeant, but the other primary actors are solid, especially Omar Benson Miller as Train. While there’s not a single believable aspect to his character, the relationship between Train and the boy still packs a punch. Strangely, Lee has cast several high-profile actors in surprisingly small roles, so don’t go in expecting Joseph Gordon-Levitt or John Turturro to get much screen time.

With all the film’s flaws (the poorly constructed battle sequences are another), I would’ve grudgingly admired Lee’s latest if not for a risible frame story set in 1983 that seems designed merely to set up some kind of emotional ending. The only emotion I felt, though, was disgust, and the closing credit song of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” didn’t help any. He may have the whole world, but let’s not blame him for this movie.

7 Responses to “Miracle at St. Anna”

  1. cody says:

    One of my good friends just interviewed Omar Miller about St. Anna and The Express. It seems as though he really put his life into the two roles. Please check this out and hope it gives you a better sense of who he is as a person.

  2. Mike Stemle says:

    It's always a treat to read your reviews after having seen the film. Yesterday my lovely wife Dacia and I did what we do somewhat-monthly: we find a babysitter, drive out to Savoy 16 theaters, and we catch a double-feature. It's lovely because if you time them right and go in the early afternoon you can really make a fantastic date out of it. Last time we did it we got slightly burned as our choices of films were "Space Chimps" and "Dark Knight." While we did finish that night on a good note with "Dark Knight," the steaming pile that is "Space Chimps" (yes, I should know better) did start us off with a lot of disappointment... enough disappointment that Dark Knight almost didn't make up for it.

    That said, yesterday our film choices were "Igor," and "Miracle at St. Anna." We'd seen many previews, but we're not familiar with Spike Lee's work so we felt that this was a bit of a gamble, but it looked much better than some of the other films that were available to us.

    The church scene at St. Anna was gut-wrenching for Dacia, the image of the young girl was almost too much for her. Dacia, being a new mother and still breast-feeding and everything, is very sensitive, and I thought she was going to want to leave right then and there. That scene went on for what seemed like an eternity, but I think it was valuable to the film because I think we often forget about the effect foreign wars have on the people who live there.

    I agree that the war part was a bit weak--and since it was a large part of the story it should have been stronger. I would think any invading force that goes to a church party with wine while they believe they're currently surrounded would be just two notches above brain-dead. I thought the love interest was shoe-horned in there though I think it may have been Spike Lee's attempt not to make a film with rose-colored glasses. I don't think that he made the film out to be "all black soldiers were saints," and I also liked to see that he threw in some white officers that were sympathetic to the black soldier's situation.

    Dacia and I thought it put a lot of neat ideas out there, and was an interesting introduction to Spike Lee's work for us. It's wonderful to see that I'm not the only one who liked and disliked this film all at the same time. I'm curious to know whether you'd say you liked it more or disliked it more though.

  3. chris says:

    I want to buy the version of "He's got the whole world in His hands" that plays during the closing credits... but I can't find it anywhere. It doesn't appear to be on the soundtrack, as I bought the "end credits" from the movie's album via Itunes, and that wasn't it. I can't find it on the web. Can anyone help me?

  4. Mike, thanks for the nice words. I'm glad you and Dacia liked the movie. I would probably say I disliked it more than I liked it, mostly because of the epilogue, which feels really dumb.

    I know you mentioned this was an introduction for you. Others can chime in, but the two next Spike Lee movies I'd recommend would be his breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing, and his post-9/11 movie, 25th Hour. I think both are flat-out brilliant. At some point in time, I want to write about Lee in more detail, as I like his work a lot, even some of the movies other critics pan. Unfortunately, Miracle at St. Anna wasn't one of those movies for me.

  5. Len Bourret says:

    Movie Review: "Miracle at St. Anna" (2008)

    If the Devil makes Spike Lee do it, there's a reason for some Hell raising.

    by Len Bourret

    A.O. Scott in the New York Times, while agreeing that the movie "sometimes stumbles under its heavy, self-imposed burden of historical significance," suggests that this war movie, except for darker faces, is not all that different from war movies of the past. He writes: "Mr. Lee sticks to the sturdy conventions of the infantry movie, adapting old-fashioned techniques to an unfamiliar, neglected story. And the cinematic traditionalism of "Miracle at St. Anna" is perhaps its most satisfying trait. At its best, this is a platoon picture, and if it's not exactly like the ones Hollywood made in the late '50s and early '60s, that's part of Mr. Lee's argument: it's the movie someone should have had the guts or the vision to make back then. Better late than never." And Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, while also expressing criticism about some of Lee's scenes, concludes: "The scenes I object to are not evidence of any special perception I have. They're the kind of scenes many studio chiefs from the dawn of film might have singled out, in the interest of making the film shorter and faster. But they're important to Lee, who must have defended them. And it's important to me that he did. When you see one of his films, you're seeing one of his films. And "Miracle at St. Anna" contains richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence and life. Maybe too much. Better than too little."

    I am of Italian descent, and so are my relatives, but none of us are offended by Spike Lee's film. The movie honestly depicts the heavy cost of discrimination and prejudice. The fact is that blacks, right up to the time of Civil Rights, were treated as second or third-class citizens--just the way gays are treated now. A significant number of blacks died during the war, but rarely was one of them given a purple heart. And, none were given recognition for their sacrifices. Italians, remaining in Italy, had to survive. Some were fascists. Some were anti- fascists. Some Germans were pro-Jewish, but they feared for their lives, and dared not to turn against Hitler and the fascists. Some whites were treating blacks like trash. Yet, blacks were fighting for America and freedom. Some Italians accepted the blacks. Some Italians did not, but blacks immediately noticed that they were treated better by the Italians, than they were by the Americans. Some Italians resented Americans invading their native soil--regardless of their race, color, or ethnicity. Additionally, some members of the same racial, ethnic, and cultural group don't even get along. It is clear that human beings, in general, have a lot to learn about treating each other with dignity, respect, love, gentleness, and kindness. Nobody wins in a war, not even in a war of discrimination and prejudice. Spike Lee tells it like he sees it--and aims right for the target, like a militant soldier carrying a loaded gun. Lee completely bares his soul, his conscience, his thoughts and his feelings. He tells a story of oppression, richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence, and life. Sometimes, life is ugly and is anything but white-washed pretty, or made better by being politically correct. Spike Lee is to be praised for telling a story that is not white-washed pretty or politically correct. I don't think he tells us too much. I think that Spike Lee tells us what--he thinks-- we need to see, feel, and hear. And, through Spike Lee's voice, he tells us what is important to him. Like Roger Ebert, I defend Spike Lee's right to do so.

    I rank this film a 10 out of 10.

  6. Landis Barnes says:

    He's Got the whole world in his hand was sung by whom? Was it recorded on a CD?

  7. Joseph Rae says:

    This is what I've been able to learn about the song "He's got the whole world in his hand." My understanding is it is not in the soundtrack. This song is sung by the Morehead College Glee Club, Spike Lee's alma mater. The glee club has there own website, which sell its own albums.

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