The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Youth, it is often said, is wasted on the young. On the evidence offered by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it is wasted on the old as well. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born old, a decrepit infant, seemingly days from the grave. Abandoned by his father at birth, the old child grows, in ways curiouser and curiouser, into a strapping young man. Sadly, for Benjamin, everyone around him is in lockstep with the normal march of time, growing older and decaying while he grows younger and more beautiful.

This odd film is very loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in the hands of filmmaker David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth, it grows into a wistful contemplation of love and loss, birth and death, youth and old age, memory and identity, and fate.

Benjamin's unfortunate birth is followed by a fortunate twist of fate -- he is found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the kindly, patient caretaker of a nursing home. With no children of her own, Queenie raises Benjamin as her son, and he lives, and grows up (or down) in the company of senescent old folks who come for a time and then go quietly into that good night. The old man, born to die, is instead born to live among the dying (but aren't we all?). His only childhood friend is also his soulmate, a girl named Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett) whom he meets again in the middle of their lives, as she is growing beautifully old, and he is growing beautifully young. The story of Daisy and Benjamin is recounted in his diary, and is read by Daisy's daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) as the aged mother lays dying in a hospital. That the hospital is in New Orleans, and that Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on it, is an unnecessary distraction from the core story. Yes, time, like a hurricane, is inexorable and deadly, but that point is made with more subtlety throughout
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and without the blunt intrusion of the inevitable thoughts about what happened to all the poor souls trapped in hospitals when the levees broke.
But back to Benjamin. The story follows, for the most part, his backwards lifeline. There are adventures at sea with a tugboat crew. War, love affairs, caviar and vodka. As a result of his curious condition, Benjamin meets many people on the verge of death, and is the recipient of many pithy pearls of expirational (if not inspirational) wisdom. It's a long and colorful life, spanning most of the 20th century, and filled with loquacious Irish sea captains, prostitutes, pygmies, hummingbirds, long distance swimmers, and beautiful dancers.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is charmingly whimsical at times, and frequently warm, sweet, and unexpectedly funny. And remarkably, despite a premise that strains credulity, it is a plausible love story.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a showcase for digital effects -- how else to transform Brad Pitt from wrinkled young codger to youthful old man? The inner and outer lives of Benjamin Button are forever (and tragically) out of synch, and this cinematic feat is accomplished, in part, by exquisite digital effects that capture the boyish essence of Pitt within a decrepit little body. Later, Benjamin is transformed, once again, into the boyishly handsome Pitt of *Thelma and Louise* (1991), and the strikingly pretty man he is now. Pitt's approach to his role is somewhat passive (and only rarely reminiscent of his paint-dryingly dull character in *Meet Joe Black*), which makes Benjamin a little inert, and a bit of a cypher, adrift in his own life. The real fire and spark in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes from Blanchett, who is, pound for pound, every bit as beautiful as her co-star, but also a more lively and daring actor. Youth is not wasted on the young Daisy, a spitfire, an elegantly long-limbed dancer, a woman of intense and unapologetic appetites.

Fincher is best known for thrillers (
Fight Club, Zodiac, Seven), and movies about serial killers. He is an immensely talented and interesting filmmaker who cannot be accused of anything like sentimentality, although he is far from dispassionate. That intelligent and cool passion serves this movie very well, and restrains any potential mawkishness. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is moving and provocative without being weepy or maudlin. It looks, in a clear-eyed way, at the inextricable entwining of love and loss -- it is tender and romantic without being drippy and cloying. I suppose Fincher takes on the ultimate serial killer in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- that'd be death itself, in all its various guises and modus operandi, but especially in the quiet solitude in which most of us will meet our unmaker.


The Tale Of Despereaux (2008)

The Tale of Despereaux is not merely the story of a very cute mouse named Despereaux, but also a story of a rat named Roscuro, a princess named Pea, a scullery maid named Mig who looks a bit like a pig, and soup. The soup is quite special, and so is Despereaux.
He is quite small, and his ears are quite large, even by mouse standards. He is a rodent nonconformist in other, more important ways too: he does not cower in fear, and neither does he scurry. When he is supposed to be nibbling away at a pile of books, he instead reads them, feeding his mind instead of his tummy. Devouring stories of chivalrous knights further emboldens the already too bold young mouse. He gets unmouselike ideas. He endeavors to rescue a fair princess -- that would be Miss Pea, a very sad princess whose mother died, fairly recently, in an incident involving a rat and a bowl of soup.
Speaking to a human and reading books gets Despereaux banished from wee Mouseworld. Over a hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote: "Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time." The elders of Mouseworld would disagree with Mill's assessment of mousy men, but it's a fine message for youngsters to take away from
The Tale of Despereaux. The mouse who dares to be different lives a life of adventure, but more importantly, he makes the world a better place.
Moral courage is something Despereaux (voiced by Matthew Broderick) never lacks, although others around him find their courage, resolve, and goodness occasionally lapsing.
The Tale of Despereaux is based on Kate DiCamillo's Newberry Award-winning novel, and it's a complicated tale of simple virtues. Despereaux meets Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman), a seafaring rodent who has had the subterranean homesick blues ever since he wound up in the bleak underworld Ratworld. Roscuro is a nonconformist rat in need of redemption, and he meets Mig (Tracey Ullman), a peasant girl in need of a little kindness. There's a soup chef too, and an enchanted pile of vegetables, and a lot of unsavory, fairly bloodthirsty rats, and a great deal happens, much of it requiring a great deal of courage. The story is at times like a stone soup, with a little of this and a little of that, while the soup subplot itself is a bit too reminiscent of Ratatouille, especially since it involves both a rat and a snooty chef.
The animation in
The Tale of Despereaux is quite lovely and lively, exhibiting great attention to detail -- from the mouse whiskers and wet noses, to the fine tapestries and delicately carved balustrades in Princess Pea's palace, to the shadowy, trash-strewn Ratworld. The Tale of Despereaux has an exquisite Renaissance glory and luminosity about it (and also a Boschian darkness). The characters often look like they've walked right out of the pages of a glossy book on Renaissance art (Princess Pea's late mother looks like a plump Botero, but her true ancestor is clearly Botticelli's Venus). The artwork shines even when the story turns dark and moody, which it often does. If The Tale of Despereaux has a Grimm Brothers grimness, it is also filled with exciting exploits and daring deeds and life lessons well worth learning. And like any fairy tale about a good, brave mouse, it is a tale that ends well.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

In the 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, a pacifist extraterrestrial visitor scolds the people of Earth for their violent, warmongering ways. The rest of the universe, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) warns us, is concerned about our discovery of atomic weapons, and stands ready to "eliminate" Earth if necessary. He gets shot twice for his troubles.

It's not easy being Klaatu. One gets the feeling, from the new
The Day the Earth Stood Still, that getting the Earth assignment is a lousy gig for an alien overlord, the planetary exterminator's equivalent of getting the killer bee job. Those dumb, irrational Earthlings never learn, and the odds of being shot are better than even. Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) does get shot. He also gets chased by helicopters, injected, interrogated, arrested, yelled at by a kid, hectored by Kathy Bates (in her capacity as US Secretary of Defense), driven to New Jersey, and taken to McDonald's. No wonder he's so grumpy. We Earthlings, as usual, do not acquit ourselves well, although we promise to change in the face of impending doom. Klaatu knows that's not change he can believe in.

On the Earthling defense team, there's a cute kid named Jacob (Jaden Smith), and his widowed mom Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), an astrobiologist who helps Klaatu and tries to convince him that Earth is worth saving. Actually, it's not the planet Klaatu is here to dispatch, just its most destructive species. You gotta admit, he has a point about humans. Especially after they shoot him. Not that he gives us much of an argument for his radical environmental thesis, but the astrobiologist doesn't give him much of a counterargument. Neither does Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), the scientist Helen takes Klaatu to see after he complains that his "take me to your leader" request was denied. Barnhardt has a Nobel Prize for "altruistic biology," which sounds like the honorary degree you'd give an extremely smart dolphin. Barnhardt doesn't really have much to say to Klaatu by way of saving the human race, and pretty much punts it back to Helen. Cleese was a member of Monty Python, and played the irritable, misanthropic Basil Fawlty in
Fawlty Towers. It's lucky Klaatu didn't see that because he shows no signs of possessing a sense of humor.

Reeves, he of the preternatural calm (
he could turn out to be an alien and no one would be surprised), shows little sign of any sort of emotional engagement with Klaatu's mission. Klaatu speaks very little (sometimes in Mandarin, always in a monotone). He looks bored, actually, as if this whole business is beneath him. He's like an intergalactic bureaucrat completing an assignment in the worst neighborhood in the Universe.

Unlike the original movie, this one is unlikely to become a classic. The first one was unlikely to become a classic too, I suppose, but it did. The 21st century iteration will not because, for one thing, it
shockingly does not include the immortal line "Klaatu barada nikto." Written by David Scarpa, with dialogue that barely qualifies as such, and a pretty minimalist conception of its eco-theme, the movie wastes time explaining things nobody was wondering about, and tries to incorporate some timely finger-wagging about torture and counterproductive governmental bombastication and dunderheadedness, although to little effect. The Day the Earth Stood Still is directed by Scott Derrickson with an emphasis on action and special effects. There are a bunch of glowy orb things, and Klaatu has powers that enable him to move objects and manipulate energy. Gort, his giant enforcer-protector robot, is really rather awesome. Less inspiring are the far from subtle product placements dropped throughout the movie like a trail of breadcrumbs to lead you back out into the mall: when the aliens come to consider our apocalypse-worthiness, let's hope they don't see this movie.

Unlike their Cold War era forebears, the new Klaatu and Gort are not here about all the wars and violence, but because of all the Hummers and oil refineries and stuff, so there's no conflict between their mission and all the killing and destruction and havoc they cause. Which is handy, because it means a lot of stuff can get blown up and disintegrated and smashed and consumed by biometallic insect swarms in
The Day the Earth Stood Still, without Klaatu looking like an eco-warrior hypocrite. One might question his choice of a tuna sandwich for lunch, however. Maybe it was dolphin-safe tuna.


Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

"Happy" and "Mike Leigh movie" are not things that generally go together. The British director is better known for, well, for depressing and brutal films about depressing and brutal people living depressing and brutal lives. Happy just doesn't come into the Mike Leigh oeuvre all that much. So it ought to be little surprise that Happy-Go-Lucky features a heroine who is so darned happy-go-lucky, so chirpy and twittery and giggly and unserious that she managed to make me feel sorry for the crazy, ranting, misguided, hideous, appallingly xenophobic racist whose buttons she unwittingly pushed in her happy happy joy joy way. Isn't he right about her? I thought to myself. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Perhaps this movie is a secret psychological test. Your personality type can be deduced by how annoying you find Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the aforementioned optimist who *always* looks on the bright side, and to what degree you think her martinet of a driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), the aforementioned nutter and the epitome of road rage, might just be right about her.

Poppy, a thirtysomething London school teacher, swears she's really, genuinely, honest to goodness happy. And there's something to be said for happiness, and for
Happy-Go-Lucky, a movie in which very, very little happens except the sort of everyday stuff that makes up Poppy's generally uneventful but kind of ordinarily interesting life. What's extraordinary about Poppy's life is Poppy herself, her joie de vivre, her seeming obliviousness to what's bad, her cheeriness in the face of everything, her goodness. There's a sense in which her happiness appears to be unearned, that she is happy in spite of everything because she takes nothing seriously. But through a series of strange encounters with odd (and sometimes frightening) men, the film gradually, subtly reveals that's not the case -- Poppy does earn her happiness, and it is sometimes hard-earned, and she is happy despite everything, despite her deep empathy for everyone. One way to interpret Poppy is that her happiness is less like inner contentment than desperation. Happy-Go-Lucky offers an alternative interpretation: in the face of life's ups and down, trials and tribulations, there's more than one way to deal. If there's a downside to living, Poppy's strategy for dealing with it is to see the upside instead. But there is risk in that, and in her efforts to spread sunshine and smiles -- she's generally met with indifference, and occasionally with hostility, but she reaches out, reaches across the chasm of loneliness and unhappiness that separates people and tries to make contact. Turns out a lot of people don't want to turn their frowns upside-down.

Hawkins is terrific as the constantly nattering, smiling Poppy -- she reveals the ambiguity and awkwardness of Poppy, her annoying cloyingness, but also the genuine warmth and joy. Alexis Zegerman is indispensable as Zoe, Poppy's acerbic and more balanced flatmate; likewise Marsan, as the disturbingly funny, scarily apoplectic driving instructor -- he's the kind of repellent person you can't stop watching. There's great, unrelieved tension in the film that comes from waiting for something to happen -- waiting, really, for something bad to happen, for something to burst those bubbles that the ever effervescent Poppy produces. But that's not what
Happy-Go-Lucky is about. What is it about? Nothing really, and maybe everything. It's a movie that flows like a river, or more like a leaf floating on a river -- it bobs and drifts, gets tossed about a bit, gets stuck in eddies and twirls for a spell, breaks loose and floats some more, and so on. Watching the leaf from the shore is moderately interesting, but Happy-Go-Lucky invites you to consider the journey from the leaf's perspective too.


Australia (2008)

No theme is left unturned in Baz Luhrmann's epic movie Australia: love, war, racism, exploitation, colonialism, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, tradition, cultural assimilation, mysticism, magical realism. It's a cowboy movie, a war movie, a romance, a tragedy, a coming-of-age story, a tale of treachery and murder most foul. There are aristocratic English roses, dusty yet dashing Australian drovers, Aboriginal orphans, soldiers, priests, drunkards, thieves, and cows, lots and lots of cows. The Wizard of Oz is a recurring musical and thematic motif, but you'll see hints of Gone With the Wind and Bonanza too in this crazy pastiche of cinematic genres and styles. Crikey!

The story begins in pre-WWII Australia, and is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-white, half-Aborigine boy who is continually hiding from the authorities -- in the 19th and 20th centuries, Aborigine children were forcibly taken from their families for indoctrination, reeducation and assimilation into white culture (as the movie's opening scroll helpfully informs us). Meanwhile, aristocratic Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has come to the Outback to find her husband, an Englishman caught up in the romance of frontier cattle ranching. His murder sets in motion the rest of the story, which involves a monopolistic cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown), his treacherous son-in-law Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), and a roving drover (a sort of Aussie cowboy) called, simply, the Drover (Hugh Jackman), whose rippling biceps and washboard abs give the rocky peaks and valleys of the Outback something to aspire to. The newly widowed Sarah takes notice of the local landscape too, and takes to the ranching way of life like a born frontierswoman. Apparating in the vicinity of all the action like a skinny deus ex machina is King George (David Gulpilil), Nullah's wizardly grandfather, who imparts some aboriginal mysticism on his magical protege grandson while he waits to take the boy on walkabout. Eventually, the war comes to northern Australia and, as they say, all hell breaks loose.

Australia is really about love, not war, and Lady Sarah must learn that, as Sting once sang, "if you love somebody, set them free." The ups and downs of the lady's love life are played for comic relief as much as they are for three-hankie melodrama, with Kidman more than game for looking foolish and getting her hair mussed. Her role is modeled on the Katherine Hepburn archetype of the capable, headstrong, independently-minded woman attracted to the equally capable, headstrong, independently-minded man. Like Sarah, Jackman's scruffy Drover cleans up pretty well, and transforms from a dusty John Wayne type into a dashing Clark Gable type with an assist from the transformative power of soap and a nice tux (his retro vogueing warrants a few laughs, too). He's an iconic loner, a wilderness man, a free-range horseman, but at heart he's a softie, because Luhrmann always insists that his dashing heroes be every bit as weepy as the women who compete with and complete them. The result is a movie that's funny, moving, and thoroughly engaging, an old fashioned movie with a gauzy glow and a modern, newfangled twist.

Luhrmann is the wizard of this Oz, pulling levers from behind the curtain, unseen but hardly invisible.
Australia, like Luhrmann's Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) employs the director's signature and unabashed "heightened artifice" and flair for the melodramatic to amplify emotion and get a point across without any pretense of subtlety, nor any allegiance to realism. The sets and costumes are deluxe, and draw attention to themselves, but in a way that anchors scenes using the cinematic signposts and tropes that direct both the gaze and the expectations of the audience. Australia is a movie in which a great deal happens, but not much is surprising because most of what happens is strongly predetermined by narrative and movie tradition. That's not necessarily a bad thing, in context -- most movies follow predetermined narrative paths, but don't embrace the fact, and go to great lengths to disguise it. Australia offers up a brief history of the land down under in a familiar package, following well-established trails blazed decades ago by Hollywood. Those trails -- the war movie, the western -- have been retraveled in revisionist vehicles of late. Luhrmann's an anti-revisionist who injects old movie genres with recombinant DNA in the form of new visual techniques and styles. But while he embraces artifice, Luhrmann does it in order to pump reality. Dorothy might have only dreamed in color, while she lived in a dreary black and white world, but Luhrmann's Oz is colored in a way that crystallizes the black and the white, renders them richer and deeper, and strips them clean of ambiguity. Australia may not be realistic, but in its florid, maximalist way, it is sincerely about reality.


Synecdoche, New York

There are so many flaky layers to Synecdoche, New York, so many events and incidents in this zigzagging, perambulating portrait of the artist as pretentious, possibly delusional, man-hurtling-towards-death that a mere recounting of the plot would be pointless. But a brief synopsis: Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, New York theatre director, stages a novel interpretation of Death of a Salesman to great acclaim. His wife, a painter of impossibly tiny miniatures, leaves him and finds fame and fortune in Berlin. He wins a McArthur "genius" grant and decides to stage a monumental play, something "big and true and tough," to leave his mark on the world, to justify his own sense of self-importance (or is it merely self-absorption?). All of which is utterly beside the point.

What you need to know is this:
Synecdoche, New York is the first film directed by Charlie Kaufman, who also wrote it. Kaufman is the author of other complex, eccentric films such as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so you wouldn't expect Synecdoche, New York to be, say, a James Bond film (although a Charlie Kaufman 007 movie might be kinda cool in an impossibly weird and fantastic way that would make me really want to see it). Kaufman's work is about, in a nutshell, the mind -- which is an impossibly beautiful, complex, sometimes nutty thing, just like his movies. Synecdoche, New York is also about, among other things, time, love, life and death, and about how in the midst of life we are in death, etc., (you know, the really BIG stuff), and delusions (of grandeur, of immortality, of mortality, of decay), (look up Cotard delusion), (Kaufman's films are the sort to require multiple parenthetical asides, in lieu of footnotes), (Synecdoche, New York is a film that is itself like a series of parenthetical asides, many of them sneakily inserted so that you just barely notice them and have to make a vague mental note to go look something up later, like "Cotard delusion"), (I have 13 pages of vaguely specific notes from watching this movie, whereas the average movie results in two or three pages).

And what else? The film feels oddly longer than it is, although later, you'll wonder how so many ideas and incidents were crammed into so little time, which works perfectly with the way in which it is about a life that sometimes feels longer than it is, and sometimes far too short for what all gets done, or must get done.
Synecdoche, New York follows Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for about 40 years, more or less. He is a man obsessed with all the little things (eruptions, boils, fluids) that happen to and come out of his body (and they must mean something awful and big and nasty is brewing, all these oozing effluents). He's a guy who sweats the little stuff to the point that he hasn't the attention left to notice the big stuff. The big stuff, narrowly defined, is what he wants -- big recognition, big ideas, to produce a masterpiece. In a massive warehouse, he catalogs all manner of human experience and indignity, with his own life, and the lives of his actors (Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson), and his one true love (Samantha Morton) folding into, enmeshing, entangling, intermingling, becoming the lives of the characters in the play he can't name (Simulacrum, maybe) and can't finish. The real and the ideal, life and art, all mixed together like the multiplying and self-reflecting shards of a shattered mirror.

It's not an easy film, and Kaufman keeps dropping mental bread crumbs all over the place, little bits of ideas that you have to pick up and pocket and sort out later. The sorting-out-later is the most gratifying part of Kaufman's films, but it's the part that is probably the most alienating aspect of his work too, at least for those who, having digested their popcorn, want their movie work to be done. Kaufman works on big, serious themes, but he's also seriously, smartly funny, and all those little mental notes that keep falling out of his screenplays, all the dictionary words and visual gags and puns, they just fall like confetti all over
Synecdoche, New York.

I fear that none of this will make you want to see the film, so I make this blatant appeal to narcissism: the synecdoche in
Synecdoche, New York is that Cotard, the part, the man, is the everyman who represents us all, with our own obsessions over the insignificant parts of ourselves and our lives, the pimples and excess hairs, the hair loss and excess pounds. Who doesn't want to see a movie about him/herself? Cotard's tragedy is everyone's tragedy -- the triumph of the narrow, the inane, the trivial, over the significant, the beautiful, the glorious. Yeah, it's a hard sell. But how about this? Kaufman is a masterful artificer, but his greatest skill is that out of his utterly surreal inventions, truth and reality emerge, and out of the ugliness and effluence, awkward beauty always breaks through.


Quantum of Solace (2008)

It can safely be said that I don't really know what I want from James Bond. Having grown up with the jokey, hokey Roger Moore version, I was okay with the slightly less comedic but suaver Pierce Brosnan Bond. I like the new, leaner, meaner Daniel Craig Bond quite a lot, although he may have gone a bit too far over to the dark and brooding side. Can we have a little levity and suavity back, or is it all about exercising that license to kill now?
Quantum of Solace breaks with another Bond tradition -- it's not a standalone film, but an actual sequel to the previous film, Casino Royale (2006), which rebooted the Bond franchise (now on film number 22!) with the rougher, tougher new Bond. Quantum of Solace begins with a pretty nifty car chase -- over swervy mountain roads and through narrow, traffic-choked tunnels -- picking up exactly where the last film left off. Bond is pissed off, believing that he has been betrayed by Vesper Lynd, the woman he loved, for whom he is also grieving, since she recently met an untimely end. Bond's MI6 boss M (Judi Dench) is worried that 007 might be too motivated by revenge to do his job with objectivity, whatever that means in this context. When the bodies start piling up like cord wood, she worries even more. It's a bit amusing that she continues to express surprise and outrage at Bond's homicidal tendencies, given how consistently he finds it necessary and/or convenient to kill people.
The title, which means, I suppose, something like "measure of comfort," but is meant to sound more gadgety and high tech -- because you wouldn't want Bond just settling down by the fire with a mug of hot cocoa and The Carpenters Greatest Hits would you? -- says very little about the plot of the movie, but does imply that this is a revenge story more than anything else. There is a multinational syndicate of evil called Quantum, and there's a villain named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) who is plotting to overthrow the government of Bolivia in order to plunder its precious resources. He's cleverly disguised as an eco-philanthropist, so it's very handy that his name is Greene. He's in cahoots with General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), the murderous would-be beneficiary of the incipient Bolivian coup. The Bond girl (there's always a Bond girl -- or two, as the case may be) is Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who, for her own vengeful reasons, wants Medrano dead, which means she's involved with Greene and, eventually, with Bond. The other Bond girl here is a cutie pie named Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), who serves as the sexual plaything du jour, since 007 and Camille are not particularly lusty for each other, but are rather consumed with their mutual and interconnected lust for revenge. The new Bond has mostly replaced sex with violence, which is definitely a break with the old Bond, who always found time for both in his busy schedule.
The plot is fairly complicated (and never quite explains exactly who those Quantum folks are or exactly what they're up to), and has Bond hopping from Italy to Spain to Haiti to London to Bolivia to Russia. Racking up the frequent flier miles seems to be the primary activity of movie spies these days. MI6 should look into developing an eco-friendly hybrid personal aircraft that serves as its own flotation device. They'll want to avoid hydrogen fuel cells, since
Quantum of Solace pretty much confirms that said fuel cells are highly flammable and extremely likely to blow up when James Bond is around. 007 tangos once again with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), and with CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), both from the previous movie. Quantum of Solace also features skeevy, amoral Americans, and (of all things) Canadian spies. I suppose they have spies in Canada, although they are woefully neglected in the world of movie spydom. At any rate, the Canadian spy is extremely polite, which is to be expected.
There are vehicular chases of all kinds in
Quantum of Solace -- on land, sea, and air, by foot, by car and motorbike, by motorbike *onto* boats, and through walls of flame and showers of bullets. Vehicular-jacking and mayhem aside, gadget-wise, this is a fairly disappointing Bond, with nothing new to report on the spy tech front. Director Marc Forster has taken a page from the Paul Greengrass book on *Bourne*, and filled Quantum of Solace with pretty much continuous, fast-paced action and lots of brutal combat, and with a quick, relentless, and cat-like 007 leaping across rooftops and padding nimbly along ledges. Indeed, 007 now has more in common with the robotically combative yet brooding Jason Bourne than with prior iterations of Bond. He's clever, but not very witty, and rather short on charm. Craig's Bond is more coarse than cool, but also more soulful than suave -- a more emotionally complex 007 is a good thing, although Quantum of Solace is a grim and mirthless bit of business that pretty much starts and ends with grief and rage. That quantum of solace is a tiny measure indeed. Which is just to say that Bond could lighten up a little, to distinguish himself from the rest of the new millennium spy pack, which is pretty much all-brooding, all the time.


Soul Men (2008)

There's a fair bit of
Soul Men that's completely familiar: two grumpy old men grouse and grumble at each other during an eventful cross-country road trip where they encounter flat tires, sexy senior ladies, and thugs. Something heartwarming happens. Viagra happens. The money runs out. There are brushes with the law.

The familiarity of the plot elements aside, there's a lot of pleasure to be had in the profane company of Floyd Henderson (the late Bernie Mac, in his last movie role) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson), two foul-mouthed, has-been back-up singers once known as the Real Deal. When their former frontman Marcus Hooks (John Legend) dies, Floyd and Louis are reunited for a tribute performance. Floyd, bored out of his mind since being dumped in a retirement community by his nephew, is desperate to get back on stage. Louis, who has fallen on hard times, is content to stay in the hole he's dug for himself. They're an odd couple, and they've got a week to get from L.A. to the Apollo Theater, so they climb into Floyd's sweet ride, a vintage lime green Cadillac Eldorado ragtop, and head for New York.

Soul Men is a loose and ambling, sharp-tongued comedy starring two performers with a well-known capacity to invest blue dialogue with nuance, meaning, emotion, soul, and even poetry. Since Floyd and Louis share a mutual and justified animus for each other, there's a lot of yelling and swearing in Soul Men, and the volatile duo demonstrate that there's a kind of music in a targeted and well-articulated string of F bombs. The plot -- which supplies a number of stock characters, including a pudgy, nerdy white fanboy (Adam Herschman) and a dopey, cowardly rapper (Affion Crockett) -- is merely a vehicle for allowing Jackson and Mac to loosen up and let fly, which is precisely what they do, and which is also the primary reason the movie is as enjoyable as it is. Much of the dialogue comes across as off the cuff and obscenity-enhanced, as if director Malcolm D. Lee just turned the cameras on and let them roll in case anything happened. It happened.

Floyd and Louis don't just talk -- they also sing (and it is clearly, obviously Mac and Jackson singing). They may swear better than they sing, but one of the other delights of
Soul Men is the movie's celebration and good-natured ribbing of musical idioms, and its meticulous ear (and eye) for the good, the bad, and the silly of 60s and 70s R&B. The Real Deal were Pips-like backup singers who danced and cooed and snapped their fingers in synch. As Floyd and Louis make their way across America, they hone their R&B musical stylings in an assortment of dives (where they can also pick up a free meal), wearing an assortment of matching suits. The retro-soul music of the movie sounds and feels completely authentic, even when it's being played by the house band in a country western bar. (The late Isaac Hayes also appears in Soul Men, adding more period authenticity to the movie, but also enhancing its bittersweetness.) Floyd and Louis are decidedly out of synch when they reunite, and the movie is primarily about how they get their groove back. It is lucky for Soul Men that its performers can lay down a groove so well themselves.


Changeling (2008)

As a director, Clint Eastwood is pretty dependable. His directing style is elegantly understated and unobtrusive. Eastwood has shown a partiality for thematically interesting, morally ambiguous movies that revolve around characters rather than action and special effects. His movies also tend to be Oscar bait -- in the last five years he's directed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, all of them justifiably heaped with praise and awards. Changeling, on the other hand, tends toward Oscar-baiting, with loud, emotional, explosive performances and larger-than-life (though based on a true story) melodrama. There's a plodding deliberateness to Changeling, in the way it moves through the plot, in the odd way that the period costumes and sets are so noticeable, and in Eastwood's surprisingly obtrusive musical score.

There are really two movies here, and the transition from one to the other is handled a bit clumsily. In March 1928, Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother in Los Angeles, comes home from her job as a telephone operator to find her 9 year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. Anxiety turns to desperation when the police tell her that, as a matter of policy, they don't investigate missing children until they've been gone for 24 hours. Five months later, her son is finally returned to her, from Illinois, to great fanfare and publicity. A corrupt police department under attack for abusing its power has the chance to look heroic. Only the boy returned to Christine isn't her son, or so she says.

Police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) is condescending, unsympathetic, and unbelieving. He treats Christine at first as an hysterical woman, and when her insistence that the boy is not her son becomes dangerously inconvenient for Jones, he smears her in the press and has her tossed into a snake pit of a mental hospital, where she finds other inconvenient women (among them Amy Ryan, playing one of those heart-of-gold hookers) have been sequestered, tranquilized (and worse) as well. Everywhere she turns, Christine is at the mercy of arrogant, sadistic, and self-serving authorities -- police, doctors, psychiatrists -- who all insist, with a cruel authoritarianism, that they are necessarily right because they simply can't be wrong. Her sole ally is a crusading Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who enlists a high-powered attorney (Geoff Pierson) to her cause.

What happens to Christine is outrageous and dramatic, and the film catalogs her bureaucratic nightmare with an accumulating sense of horror. By the time she's tossed into the insane asylum, with its sinister, hatchet-faced nurses and doctors, and its howling, mad-eyed inmates, the figurative horror movie becomes a literal horror movie. And then it turns even more obviously in that direction with the story of what might have really happened to Walter. That part of the tale comes to light when the only honest cop in the LAPD, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), investigates the case of a runaway Canadian boy and discovers an isolated chicken farm where very bad things have happened. And
Changeling starts to unravel at this point, about two-thirds into the film, moving clunkily and without focus from one scene to the next as it tries to get all the historical pieces to fit together, and to merge the story of a sinister, violent, morally bankrupt police department and the story of a whingeing, psychopathic killer. It is, in fact, an astonishing story, but what makes it thus in reality -- including the far-reaching implications of Christine's ongoing fight for truth, justice, and the American way -- also makes it unwieldy as a movie.

The emotional tone of
Changeling, coupled with the overacting by almost everyone involved, strains credulity. Jolie's role requires her to howl and cry and throw things, to experience grief and terror and rage, but also to appear thoroughly rational and certain of her own certainty. This is a tall order, of course, and requires much shifting of emotional gears for the actress, which creates the appearance of really strenuous (and maybe good) acting, although it feels more like an exercise in emotional range. Christine flips from crusader to suffering mother and back again (and again), but the script by journalist J. Michael Straczynski doesn't provide a center -- there's no filling to this character sandwich, which leaves Jolie to supply the ham, so to speak. The lack of nuance and depth in Christine's character and the exaggerated melodramatic mood of Changeling requires much bluster and excess on the part of the other actors, notably Donovan, who does a lot of fist-pounding and finger-pointing and yelling. This is surprising because it is unlike the even-keeled Eastwood -- he typically brings an unstrenuous naturalism and realism to his movies that tends to guard against dramatic excess, even when the story is itself wrenching (as it often is). It's also surprising because there is a really compelling story of evil and justice at the heart of Changeling, in the tale of the aggrieved and grieving mother and the lost son. There's potential here too for an ambiguous and devastating mystery story, and for a while, it almost looked like Changeling (as the title suggests) might be a weird and interesting tale of uncertainty and identity, although the movie dismisses that possibility pretty quickly. In the end, Changeling feels familiar and clumsily predictable, and worst of all, it becomes a true story that just doesn't ring true.


Pride and Glory

Among the sterotypes that persist in movies is that of the Irish cop, and specifically, the Irish New York cop. Faith and begorrah, we love our true blue detectives Seamus and Sean O'Whoziwhatzis of the NYPD. Pride and Glory, written and directed by Gavin O'Connor, the honest to goodness Irish son of an Irish New York cop, is nothing to write home about, although it might get your Irish up, unless you like ploddingly familiar storylines and cliches. Seriously, this movie ends with fisticuffs between two Irish cops in a pub called Irish Eyes while an Irish reel plays on the jukebox. Not that I have any objections to Irish reels, mind you. The fightin' Irish are also brothers in law -- one good, one bad -- from a long line of Irish cops. Aren't they all?

The hard-drinking patriarch of the Tierney clan is police chieftain Francis Tierney, Sr. (Jon Voight), the sort of bloke who gets sloshed and makes emotional speeches at Christmas dinner. His son Frannie Tierney (Noah Emmerich) is commander of a Washington Heights precinct where there have been some shenanigans of late, perpetrated, unbeknownst to Frannie, by his dear brother in law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). The misdeeds involved an extortion and thuggery racket operated by Jimmy and his fellas, which resulted in four cops being killed during a drug bust gone wrong. Jimmy's about the squirrelliest guy you're ever going to see, so it must have taken some top-notch looking-the-other-way for Frannie not to have noticed what was going on. He was, perhaps, distracted by the fact that his wife (Jennifer Ehle) is dying of cancer, which, I'll admit, is a good excuse.

The cop killings are being investigated by Ray Tierney (Edward Norton), a former detective with history, an angry scar on his cheek, and stuff he doesn't want to talk about, including a marriage that fell apart, apparently because of all the stuff he doesn't want to talk about. Ray lives on a boat -- a leaky boat. And the water's rising. Which is a metaphor for something, I'm sure. Ray doesn't want to investigate the cop killings, but Pop Tierney presses him to do it, which sets up a whole brother vs. brother, family loyalty vs. truth, thin blue line tale of moral conflict and whatnot that leads to that ridiculous donnybrook in the pub.

Mano a mano fistfights are a poor way to solve the problem of endemic police corruption, of course. Jimmy's a particularly bad cop -- in addition to murder and extortion, he threatens a baby with a hot iron. The baby is the child of a vicious drug dealer, but still, that's pretty bad, and warrants more than a punch in the nose. On the other hand, Jimmy loves kids, especially his own, so I guess it all evens out. All he needs is one act of self-sacrifice and redemption and everything will be okay. Luckily, the script provides just such an opportunity. Oh, and there's a race riot, too, because if there's one thing
Pride and Glory won't do, it's leave any stone unturned, if said stone resembles a retro cop movie cliche.

Like I said, I have nothing against Irish reels. I'm even willing to entertain some Irish cop cliches, but this movie's got all the Irish cop cliches, and, for that matter, all the cop movie cliches. There's a lot of shouting, and drinking, and speechifying about protecting the family (broadly defined) and not making waves if you live in boathouses, so to speak, and doing the right thing even if it's the wrong thing. Perps get slammed against walls, guns are drawn, blood spatters, people get punched in the face. It's all pretty well beneath Farrell and Norton to be in this bit of nonsense -- they're both capable and likable actors who can do better than play simplified versions of good cop/bad cop.

The director has a good eye for atmosphere, and the movie makes particularly good visual use of chiaroscuro to impart a vivid sense of the insularity and clannishness of the police force, while also creating a sense of heightened emotional intensity and intimacy that holds the attention even though the rest of the movie doesn't really warrant it. That's about the best and most high-falutin' thing that can be said for
Pride and Glory.


The Duchess

Times were tough for 18th century English ladies. They were essentially chattels. They couldn't inherit property and thereby achieve financial independence or escape the necessity of marriage. They wouldn't get the vote until more than a century later. And, if they were like Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire, the fine clothing and palatial homes were little consolation for the indifference and tomcatting of their husbands. Or so we are to think in The Duchess, in which poor little rich girl Georgiana (Keira Knightley) longs for a husband who takes her seriously, and, you know, talks to her once in a while. Instead, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is an incurious dullard who can't keep his pantaloons on around the scullery maids, and whose only interest in his teenage wife is in using her for breeding stock. Her unsympathetic mother (Charlotte Rampling) advises her daughter (as Queen Victoria is alleged to have later told her own daughter) to close her eyes and think of England.

Georgiana gives the Duke children, but not the right sort for his particular needs -- he's interested only in producing a male heir, and is getting pretty desperate about the whole thing. Apparently life is demanding for 18th century English gentlemen too, however ungentlemanly they might be. Georgiana's only solace is that she is the toast of the town, a fashion icon, a woman whom other men fawn over, the people's princess. Remind you of any other sad ladies named Spencer?

The Duchess urges us to feel sorry for Georgiana, while at the same time oohing and aahing at all the grand architecture and lovely frocks. The Duke, though a little too sadistic and unpitying himself to be entirely sympathetic, is, as Fiennes portrays him, an arrogant but sad, lonely figure who appears somewhat aware of his own intellectual shortcomings. He knows that his young wife carries a torch for the more interesting, rabblerousing (and Duchess-arousing) politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). It's tough, however, to feel terribly sorry for a guy who installs his wife's best and only friend (Hayley Atwell) in the family mansion as his live-in mistress (and does even worse to his headstrong but utterly dependent wife). Fiennes just happens to be a much better actor than Knightley, so he's able to work some complexity, nuance and subtext into his character, which makes the Duke more pitiable than he probably looks on paper.

The movie is not otherwise exactly bursting with subtlety or interesting ideas.
The Duchess, based on a true story, and more specifically, on Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, conveys some sense of the emotional emptiness and isolation of life at the top. The pitch for this movie was probably something like "It's Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette crossed with Jane Austen, but with more sex, no humor, and fewer beheadings." There are in fact no beheadings in The Duchess, although a few might have livened up the joint a bit. But the French Revolution was years off (and in a different country) as poor Georgiana underwent her many tribulations.

Director Saul Dibb co-wrote the screenplay with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen.
The Duchess is a very picturesque film, but it's one that doesn't stray far from the obvious in telling Georgiana's story. A moment of great tragedy for the young Duchess is played out on an isolated, windswept, muddy road -- true to history, perhaps, but how much more interesting it would have been if it had taken place on one of those gorgeous, grassy, sunlit lawns where Georgiana spends her carefree, happy moments. Georgiana's story isn't well-served by the pedestrian treatment it gets in The Duchess. The movie emphasizes surface appearance -- Knightley's striking face, her lavish costumes and towering wigs, and the ornate, marble-licious architecture -- without bothering to dig very much below the surface. This makes the proportions of the story far less than tragic. Unhappy, untidy, and occasionally unusual, but nothing to get terribly worked up about.


Body of Lies (2008)

The newly-recharged James Bond, and the indefatigable Jason Bourne have put some sizzle back into the spy genre, but that news seems not to have reached the good people who made Body of Lies, a rote, lackluster spook movie set primarily in the Middle East. Never has the war on terror looked so boring, even with the addition of explosions and car chases. I had a running interior dialogue going throughout the movie. It went something like this: "Oh, something just blew up and all those completely anonymous people were killed. I probably should feel something about that. Nope, the movie's already moved on..." It's not that I don't so-called care about the so-called war on terror -- I just didn't care about the war on terror depicted in Body of Lies, and neither, I suspect, did the filmmakers, including director Ridley Scott, who has made far better, and more interesting movies about US foreign policy.

Body of Lies is one of Russell Crowe's chubby/shlubby movies, in which the actor packs on the pounds, slaps on some grey hair and a southern accent, and galumphs around. His character, a CIA chief named Ed Hoffman, is funny -- he's comfortably ensconced in stateside suburban splendor, attending to filial duties like any good soccer pop, all while chatting into his Bluetooth to the understandably uptight Roger Ferris. This is an amusing idea -- that one of those annoying people always chatting into their earpieces is actually engaged in life and death conversations on which hang the fate of nations. Hoffman, we are to think, is a regular Joe who just happens to be saving the world by pulling the strings on Very Important Overseas Spy Operations. Some of those strings are attached to Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) an Arabic-speaking CIA operative who is thisclose to finding a bin Laden-like figure named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul). DiCaprio is increasingly hobbled as an actor by his baby face -- he looks like a teenager playing spy games here, rather than a mature adult capable of managing (single-handedly, apparently) American security operations in one of the world's hottest hotspots. Body of Lies follows Ferris as he hops around the globe, getting in and out of sticky situations (such as being chewed up by dogs, tortured, etc.) using diplomacy, cunning, lies, and guns, all to make the world safe.

Or something like that. There is, I suppose, a message to all this routine spy exposition, and it's stated by Hoffman, who reminds his spy guy that no one is innocent, and that the war must be won by any means necessary. Hoffman keeps an eye on Ferris from the comfort of his Langley office, via satellites which can zoom in on the minutiae of Ferris' daily spy exploits. Ferris, being the guy getting his hands dirty (and mangled) in all this, isn't so sure Hoffman is right, although rather than dwell on that potentially interesting moral controversy, the story throws an arbitrary and convenient romance-with-multicultural-complications in Ferris' path. The woman tangentially caught up in the web of intrigue is Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), an Iranian refugee and nurse.

The more interesting relationship is between Ferris and Hani (Mark Strong), the suave director of Jordanian security, who calls Ferris "my dear" and places a premium on truth and loyalty. Hani is one of those iron fist/velvet glove types who embodies the moral conflicts inherent in matters of intelligence and security, and the possibilities such a character presents are intriguing. The Hani-Ferris-Hoffman love-hate triangle is the most interesting thing about
Body of Lies, but it isn't given a chance to develop into much of anything in the film. Instead, Hani's role is, in the end, to be the unseen hand playing all the players who think they're controlling the game. It all makes for a tidy but implausible conclusion. If there's one thing that isn't going to come out of the war on terror, it's a tidy conclusion. Or, as I said to myself in that ever-so-pithy interior dialogue: "Phhbt. Not bloody likely."


Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

There's a little something vaguely familiar about the perky, sweet, tuneful teen romance Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. What's cool about the movie, though, is that the vaguely familiar stuff --like the pretty, popular mean girl, and the stock angsty teen torments -- get persistently swept aside to make room for characters that aren't caricatures and kids who are alright, when all is said and done.

What's said and done in
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is said and done in a single, fleeting night, in a city that never sleeps. It's the kind of night you can have when you're young and don't need to sleep, when time both careens forward, and stands still, and a few songs and small epiphanies can change your life. The restless city is Manhattan, where hordes of invading teens from the Jersey 'burbs are in search of fun, love, and an elusive, enigmatic band called Where's Fluffy?, rumored to be playing somewhere in the city. Among the hordes are Norah (Kat Denning) and Caroline (Ari Graynor, a relentless scene stealer). Norah's there for Where's Fluffy?, and to keep an eye on Caroline, who tends to get passing-out drunk when she's out on the town. They run into frenemy Tris (Alexis Dziena), the popular mean girl, at a show where The Jerk Offs, a queercore band, is playing. What a coincidence it is that Nick (Michael Cera) is the Jerk Offs' guitarist, and the only straight member of the band, and the heartbroken shlub that Tris recently dumped. He's also the author of mopey, thematic mix CDs that Tris trashes and Norah adores. Nick and Norah are entirely simpatico in their musical tastes, and in their utter devotion to Fluffy, and thus begins a complicated night of shenanigans, awkward romance, and assorted sortings out of feelings, exes, lifeplans, and other matters of great importance to high school seniors. Much of it is done in an unreliable Yugo.

The Yugo is a lemon -- or maybe a pumpkin -- but it's a fitting carriage for the stop/start, frequently stalled, roll backwards, jump forwards relationship between Nick and Norah. They've got issues, those crazy kids. They're ironic, sarcastic, cool, and dorky hipster geeks with an endless capacity to gab about matters of grave importance (on the relative merits of The Cure, for instance), and about nothing at all. They're also full of adolescent self-doubt, and they're basically decent, sweet people. Norah, whose father is a famous record producer, can get into any nightclub in the city, but she's never sure if anyone likes her for that, or for herself. (Maybe she should stop hanging around with mooching musicians.) Nick isn't over Tris, and Tris is a high maintenance, mixed-signal-sending girlfriend, even when she's an ex-girlfriend. Nick's cutie-pie bandmates act as infinitely patient matchmakers throughout the night for Nick and Norah, the obvious and oblivious soulmates.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist treats these emotionally charged relationships with the kind of seriousness and sympathy that they rarely get in movies, which tend to view the complex and messed up relationships of adolescence as a passing and ultimately insignificant phase (and a source of puerile humor) rather than as a permanent part of the human condition.

Ah, but the movie's not all serious. There's fun to be had too, and the infinite playground is an enchanted, sparkling version of the city, filled with like-minded, club-hopping kids in an ├╝ber-tolerant, ebony-and-ivory-and-everything-in-between, gay-straight, drunk-sober melting pot in which the secret ingredient is the shared love of music -- the more insidery and alternative, the better. The worst things that can happen to a reckless kid in the big city -- the things that keep the parents of teenagers awake all night -- never do happen, and can't possibly happen, because Nick and Norah's sugar-sprinkled neon city is a fairy tale place open only to teenagers, with their fierce hearts and fearless ability to dance on the border between carefree childhood and careworn adulthood. (Caroline descends into the yuckiest, grungiest depths of the enchanted kingdom -- the Port Authority Bus Terminal -- in a scene that is suitably and hilariously disgusting.) It's a place of infinite possibilities when viewed through the filter of an authentic (but charmed) high school sensibility. Director Peter Sollett avoids teensploitation prurience and moralizing finger-wagging, maintaining a breezy and benign aimlessness that recalls how an all-nighter can feel all-too-brief when you're young and (maybe, kinda, possibly, starting to be) in love.


Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

A murder mystery is one of several plot elements in Spike Lee's sprawling World War II movie.
Miracle at St. Anna is not a sprawling war movie like, say, The Longest Day. That's the John Wayne movie that an old man watches on television at the start of Miracle at St. Anna. The old man tells the movie star, "We fought for our country too." By we, it turns out, he means the Latino and African American "Buffalo Soldiers" he fought with, in segregated units, during with war. When the old man, a postal worker named Hector Negron, shoots a customer trying to buy a 20 cent stamp, it is seemingly for no reason. A cub reporter for the Post (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tries to get the story out of him.

Miracle at St. Anna is sprawling in the sense that the movie dwells on several key themes: race relations in America, Fascism and racism in Europe, miracles and supernaturalism, religion and superstition, innocence and cynicism, the futility and cruelty of war. Any one of those themes would have been adequate for an average movie, but Miracle at St. Anna aims to be more than an average movie. The murder mystery, which tangentially involves the head from a broken Italian statue, and takes place in New York in 1983, is a framing story around a core wartime story, which is told in flashbacks (with the occasional flashback within a flashback), and which begins with a devastating friendly-fire incident. The man connecting the two stories (or the many stories) is Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), a devoutly Catholic, Puerto Rican soldier from New York, and one of four Americans who penetrate enemy lines and find themselves in a picturesque Tuscan village in 1944.

The village is divided into intermingling partisans and fascists, including partisan sympathizer Renata (Valentina Cervi, in a deeply implausible role), and her fascist father Ludovico (Omero Antonutti). Renata's family billets the four Americani and a small, troubled boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Angelo, who appears to have supernatural visions and powers, was rescued and adopted by the deeply superstitious Private Train (Omar Benson Miller), an oversized man-boy who carries the statue head around for good luck. Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) and Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) make up the rest of the platoon -- they squabble constantly, about the trustworthiness of their white commanders, about the racial contrasts between Italy and America, and about Renata.

The screenplay by James McBride (based on his novel), has a tendency to underline its themes with speeches and arguments which can get a little preachy. Lee clearly has in mind to make
Miracle at St. Anna the war movie that should have been -- but never was -- made about the overlooked members of the "greatest generation," the soldiers of color who wore the same (color) uniforms and bled the same (color) blood as their more frequently lauded white counterparts. To that end, Miracle at St. Anna is meant to be a long overdue counterpoint to movies like The Longest Day. The point is well-taken, even if the delivery is overly obvious (where subtlety would have done just as well). It's a lot to ask of a movie that it set such a long and consistently whitewashed record straight, and Miracle at St. Anna wants to do a whole lot more in addition to that, so moments of heavy-handedness may just make the point faster, if not better.

The Tuscan village is surrounded by Germans who, as the war draws to a close, have apparently adopted a scorched earth policy towards Italian civilians, although they are also doggedly pursuing a vendetta against a partisan known as "The Butterfly" (Pierfrancesco Favino). Lee stages several dramatic and wrenching scenes of wartime massacres and battles -- they give the movie gravitas and weight that helps to balance some of the fluff. Much of the fluff comes via the odd story between Angelo and Train, which veers the movie from sturdy, solid, and powerfully effective realism into the airier domain of magical realism, and, even worse, sappy sentimentality. Lee has always been a somewhat idiosyncratic filmmaker, and his idiosyncrasies are evident here, although they mostly work for the film rather than against it.
Miracle at St. Anna at times seems to meander and lose focus, but it does so in ways that give it a warmth and humanity that puts the inhumanity of war into sharper focus.