Miracle at St. Anna (US - BD RA)
Gabe goes to Italy with a troubled group of Buffalo Soldiers and a little boy...
After a battle goes bad, a group of four soldiers from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division are trapped by Nazi’s near a small Tuscan village. The soldiers find allies in the anti-fascist locals, and stay for an extended period awaiting further orders. Along the way they pick up a lost and emotionally distraught young boy, who may be the key to solving the events surrounding a brutal massacre at the St. Anne mission near-by.
The way I see it, Spike Lee is one of the most important filmmakers of the modern era, but for some reason he’s only made three truly indispensable films: Do the Right Thing, the quintessential statement on race relations in the pre-Rodney King era, Malcolm X, my personal favourite bio-pic of all time, and Summer of Sam, the authority on the unrepeatable New York summer of 1977. He’s made plenty of other good and great films, but seems to never make the sure fire, must see of the year. Inside Man and 25th Hour both proved that the man is still plenty capable of surprising an audience, but for some reason there are still very few of us that will go and see a film simply because his name's on the label. It might be because of a few too many movies like Miracle at St. Anna.
The film starts out on a strong foot, quickly setting up the plot with style and speed. The first WWII sequence starts well too, playing to Lee’s strengths. The Buffalo Solder regiment cautiously enters an impending warzone as the German’s blare anti-American propaganda, begging the black soldiers to throw-down arms and recognize their true oppressors. An already uncomfortable situation is made more nerve wracking thanks to the presence of an ignorant commander. Then the fighting breaks out and Lee subjects his audience to an awkward series of explosions and flying body parts. It’s not full-on bad filmmaking, but it’s no better than much lesser directors could muster on even an average day. All the while Terence Blanchard’s inappropriate, yet somehow stereotypical and repetitive score blares about five registers too loud.
Things don’t get much better from there. Character and dialogue are way too arch for Lee, approaching Michael Bay levels of exaggeration. There is a sense that perhaps Lee is playing with the conventions of typical WWII pulp, but the buffoonery of some of these ultra conventional elements are insulting. It’s not just the ‘sieg hail’ Germans, or the ‘spicy meatball’ Italians, even the black characters are only a few steps away from the jive-talking Harlemites of ‘70s blacksploitation. On top of the character shortcuts, Lee and screenwriter James McBride have way too many balls bouncing on the court to ever differentiate these characters beyond single dimensions of definition (the sleazy guy, the guy who likes the kid, the smart guy, the pretty lady, the nice German, etc.), even at a bladder-testing two hours and forty minutes.
The run time shouldn’t be a problem. Lee made all two-hundred-and-two minutes of Malcolm X fly, and it featured about half the characters and subplots. And St. Anna wasn’t only directed by the same guy that put together that classic, but both films also feature the same editor (Barry Alexander Brown). An entire hour could’ve been cut and never missed. We would’ve been left with a taut little action/mystery that wouldn’t change anyone’s life, but would’ve had a flow.
Lee pays much more homage to Spielberg than I’m sure he intended, and that’s my biggest issue with the film. There are so many things Spike Lee can do with the film medium, things that Spielberg can’t do, and these are the things I came to Miracle at St. Anna expecting. Saving Private Ryan is a fantastic film, but it has such a stranglehold on the war genre I was only looking forward to Lee’s take on the genre because of the differences I figured he’d bring. St. Anna has flashes of the kind of character conflict, moral ambiguity, and snappy editing that makes a good Spike Lee feature, but they don’t resonate. The majority of memorable moments come from the same kind of sappy ‘hero’ moments Spielberg was berated for in 1998.
Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique opt for a similar look to what I like to call the ‘Steven Spielberg WWII Universe’, which includes all WWII productions (films and TV series) directed by or produced by Steven Spielberg since Saving Private Ryan. Miracle at St. Anna is consistently overcast with high contrast stock. This film uses less desaturation and shutter speed change-ups, but the general idea is pretty similar. The important elements to this particular 1080p transfer are the natural browns, which are relatively noiseless, the depth of the black levels, which are bottomless, and the overall realism, which is top notch. There isn’t a great deal of depth to the frame, and details aren’t any more impressive than the average Hollywood release, but there aren’t any problems either.
Miracle at St. Anna lacks the texture of most modern war films, but breakwater bombast was obviously not very high on Spike Lee’s list of important things to accomplish. When the bombs and bullets fly, they fly with a fair level of LFE punch, and there’s some reasonably impressive directional effects strewn throughout the production. The two main focus of this DTS-HD Master Audio track are the score and the dialogue. I already mentioned my general disdain for Terence Blanchard’s less than impressive score, but the spatial representation and depth of the orchestra is quite life like on the track, not to mention very warm. The dialogue is always clean and clear, but the volume levels are occasionally a bit off according to the character positions and/or surrounding audio.
The extras begin with ‘Deeds Not Words’, an eighteen minute literal roundtable discussion with Spike Lee, James McBride, and six black WWII veterans. The discussion covers the places they were stationed, the things they specialized in, the racism they were forced to deal with, the battles they fought, etc, all set to smooth jazz music. Some archival footage and photographs are used to augment the history lesson. These guys deserved a better movie that Lee and McBride gave them.
Next up is ‘The Buffalo Soldier Experience’, a twenty minute featurette about the history of black Americans fighting for the country. This bit is treated like a traditional documentary, culled from interviews, vintage footage and photography, and set to music from the film. The history lesson is very fast, but the history is covered from the beginning, not just their WWII Italian exploits as seen in the film (though that section is the largest of the featurette). A good mini-doc that leaves you wanting more.
Besides a collection of Disney Studio trailers, the set’s extras finish with nine deleted scenes. These scenes are presented in hi-def, with seemingly temp 2.0 sound, and have a play-all option. The deletions aren’t put in any context, beyond what is apparently chronological order, so I’m not even sure where many of them are supposed to go in the greater story. I do know that the film is already too long, and none of the scenes would’ve added anything important to it, so their deletion is a good thing.
I actually avoided reading any of the reviews for Miracle at St. Anna before seeing it, but had noticed its bad standing on rottentomatoes.com. I was hoping that the 34% positive rating was some kind of mistake. It isn’t. This film is a massive disappointment, and Spike Lee should know better. Hopefully the director won’t retreat back into his comfort zone in the face of this failure (apparently it didn’t make much money either), but hopefully he learned something about his limits as well. I only recommend the film to the director’s biggest fans, who might find it an intriguing failure. Everyone else should seek out a good book or documentary on the Buffalo Soldiers instead.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 10th February 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish
Extras: 'Deeds Not Words', 'The Buffalo Soldier Experience', Deleted Scenes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and War
Length: 160 minutes
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