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.


Righteous Kill (2008)

Once upon a time, oh, thirty years ago, Pacino and DeNiro were names you could trust, so to speak. The two actors were in on the ground floor of the auteurial renaissance of the 70s, and could be seen in some great movies. Sure, there were clunkers (anyone remember
Bobby Deerfield?), but far, far more good than bad. It wasn't until 1995 that the two actually appeared together (in Michael Mann's Heat). Alas, here they are, in a different century (still waiting for the next renaissance) reunited in Righteous Kill, a movie that has very little going for it once you get past the names above the title. File this one under F, for forgettable.

Righteous Kill belongs to that category of films with a plot twist at the end, and not much else. I've got nothing against a surprising twist at the end of a movie, as long as (a) the plot supports the twist, and (b) it is actually surprising, and (c) the other 90 minutes of the movie are worth watching too. But there's an unfortunate trend (I personally blame The Sixth Sense for it) in which otherwise lousy movies exist only to build up to the big reveal. I see plot twists. And any halfway savvy viewer will see the twist in Righteous Kill coming about twenty minutes into the movie. This movie, written (surprisingly) by Russell Gewirtz, who also penned Inside Man, a good movie with a good plot twist, tops off the unsurprising surprise ending with an instant replay of the events leading up to the big reveal. This is (a) insulting to the intelligence of viewers who were paying attention and saw it coming a mile away, and (b) a tacit admission that the movie wasn't really worth paying attention to after all, and (c) padding a movie everyone's had enough of already. It keeps the editor busy, however, and director John Avnet depends heavily on editor Paul Hirsch to give *Righteous Kill* a touch of visual interest with his occasional spasms of jittery little jump cuts.

Righteous Kill goes to great but ultimately futile lengths to conceal the inevitable and obvious. One diversionary tactic is that the two main characters are known only by their nicknames, Rooster (Al Pacino), and Turk (Robert DeNiro). Given that his partner is called Rooster, one can only assume Turk is short for turkey. They're police detectives who strut around the barnyards of New York City, halfheartedly scratching at the dirt to find the serial killer who is murdering felons and other lowlife types. A couple of other detectives, Simon Perez (John Leguizamo) and Ted Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) -- disappointingly not named after farm animals -- think Turk's the killer. Rooster spends his time trying to convince them otherwise. Turk's girlfriend Karen Corelli (Carla Gugino) is a fellow detective who is in the movie primarily to wear lingerie and be kinky. There are a couple of other women in the movie, but they're also essentially paper dolls who get dressed up, bent over, and tossed aside once their clothes have been ripped. Rapper 50 Cent turns up as a drug dealer/nightclub entrepreneur named Spider. The webs he weaves are not very tangled, and the same is true of the movie, which strings together a whole lot of cop movie cliches and psychobabble, while giving two potentially magnificent actors nothing to do that's worth doing.


Burn After Reading (2008)

Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking siblings, have a niche. They make crime films. Specifically, they make crime capers, mostly comedies, about bumbling criminals who make mistakes. These mistakes generally have dire consequences, both for the criminals and for the various bystanders who get pulled into the ironical Coen vortex of multiplied miscalculation. The Coens sometimes make masterpieces (
Fargo and No Country for Old Men), and sometimes they make movies that are a lot of fun (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), and sometimes they make movies that are kinda fun, but which suffer a bit from the Coens' cool detachment and misanthropy. Burn After Reading falls into that last category. Not the best of the Coens -- it's a crime/espionage caper in which the bumbling criminals get no love from the filmmakers -- but it's adequately entertaining.

Burn After Reading features a lot of bad hair. Brad Pitt's got a poofy, bleachy-tipped skunk 'do. Frances McDormand's got a blonde pageboy bob that's just a hair better than the scary bob sported by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Pitt's Chad Feldheimer is a personal trainer at a gym called Hardbodies -- he's a fitness-obsessed airhead who's big on hydrating. Pitt brings a funny, dopey sweetness to Chad -- he frequently shines in roles as the energetic sidekick, and he, along with Richard Jenkins (as Ted, the lovelorn, melancholy manager of Hardbodies) gives Burn After Reading a bit of heart and human interest in what is otherwise a frantic, complicated tangle of sex, lies, deceit, vanity, money, and bad intentions. McDormand's Linda Litzke works at Hardbodies too, although she doesn't appear to do anything but make personal phone calls, mostly to complain to her insurance company because they won't pay for the cosmetic surgery she is convinced will change her life. Linda is the unlikely and highly unqualified criminal mastermind of Burn After Reading. Her motive is a grim combination of narcissism and self-loathing, goosed by loneliness and a mania for self-improvement. The attempted crime is simple extortion -- a disk containing possible top secret spy information is found in the gym.

The victim is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an ex-CIA analyst now writing his memoirs. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, playing his third Coen movie idiot), a U.S. marshal and playboy who likes to jog after his sexual assignations. Apparently everybody knows everybody here in the buffoon-filled 'burbs of Washington, DC, so the various parties all become ensnared, in one way or another, in a tangled web of coincidence, contrivance and conceit. (J.K. Simmons is a hoot in a small part as a CIA chief trying to untangle the mess and apply some high level Cover-Your-Assification to it.) Bad things happen, although they happen more because of bad luck and bad timing than bad will. Cruelty and absurdity are the Coen comedy doctrine: the (relatively) innocent suffer the most, and mostly by misadventure.

The Coens, as always, demonstrate visual cleverness and fine craft, but this spoofy spy caper could stand a few real characters and real connections. Instead, it's a clever catalogue of caricatures that's more self-amused than amusing.


Trouble the Water (2008)

When she bought her video camera, aspiring rapper Kim Rivers Roberts didn't plan on becoming the star of a documentary movie. She wasn't planning on spending the next few nights in her attic either, but as it happened, she did. Roberts bought her camera the day before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, her hometown. The day before the levees broke and spilled torrents of water through Roberts' Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Roberts cruised around on her bicycle, with her camera, chatting up the neighbors, most of whom lacked the transportation and means to follow the mandatory evacuation orders issued by the city. She kept on shooting as the storm raged. When the waters came, filling their house, Kim and her husband Scott went to the attic, taking stranded neighbors -- and the camera -- with them. To hear the neighbors tell it later, Kim and Scott saved their lives.

Trouble the Water, documentarians Tia Lessen and Carl Deal follow Kim and Scott as they try to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the storm. Loud, gregarious Kim finds the filmmakers and offers them her video footage -- there are eerie, wrenching scenes of rising waters and a disappearing city, but also scenes of neighborliness and heroism, and a do-it-yourself spirit that extended to saving lives when no one else could, or would, do it. It's not just Roberts' video footage of the storm that makes Trouble the Water an engrossing, unique film, however. It's Roberts herself, and her outsized personality, her natural charisma, her remarkable resilience, her boundless optimism, and her indefatigable, enthusiastic chatter. She's a star about to be born (you can hear her rapping over the closing credits), a whirlwind of energy, and dogged about getting her story out there.

There's more than one story there, and
Trouble the Water deftly weaves the tale of Kim Roberts' difficult childhood and wayward youth (she was 24 at the time of the storm) together with her Katrina footage, creating a portrait of a strong but interestingly imperfect woman, and how she got that way. Lessen and Deal, both of whom have worked with Michael Moore in the past, intercut Roberts' one-of-a-kind footage with news footage of the storm and its aftermath, along with fascinating coverage of the strange, tense interactions between NOLA residents and the military troops occupying their city. Unlike Moore's work, Trouble the Water is not especially polemical or didactic, nor does it have to be. The pictures of the human tragedy that followed Katrina pretty much tell the story, and scenes of then-FEMA director Michael Brown (fiddling while New Orleans drowns) defending his agency, or the president defending his lack of action (and attention), don't require any additional commentary to make the blood boil and the heart ache all over again. Roberts' quickie video verite portrait of her world -- a part of New Orleans neglected both before and after the storm -- is vibrant, lively and homey, revealing a neighborhood troubled by crime and poverty, to be sure, but also a place filled with families and friends, a genuine community. It's a particularly intimate look at exactly who and what were lost when the waters raged. It reveals, like nothing else can, the exact toll of the storm on the people who paid that toll.

When the Robertses, with a newfound friend Brian, return to the Lower Ninth Ward, they find a ghost town full of houses stripped to their bones, utter devastation, and dead bodies. The film follows them as they try to make a clean start somewhere else -- they hope that, just as the storm obliterated their neighborhood, erasing the Lower Ninth Ward from the map, it might also erase their pasts, and transgressions they'd just as soon leave behind them.
Trouble the Water looks forward, with the Robertses, and looks backwards too, revealing just how it is that an event as terrible as Hurricane Katrina could be, for those who have nothing to lose, both a blessing and a curse.


Traitor (2008)

Traitor is a movie that's all over the place, literally, and figuratively speaking. On the one hand, it's a globe-trotting spy thriller that moves from Sudan to Yemen to Paris to Toronto to Chicago. On the other hand, it tries valiantly not to oversimplify terrorists and the so-called war on terrorism, to add dimensional shades of grey to the stock black and white, good versus evil story of Islamic terrorists and the FBI agents trying to catch them. It is, in the end, a complicated tale of complicated people wrestling with moral and political ambiguities.

It's also a decent thriller, building suspense, withholding and revealing just enough information to create a narrative that is just plausible enough to be engaging, even while it asks the audience to sort out a complex tangle of motives, allegiances, and sympathies. It does this without flashy action sequences, and at a deliberate, unhurried pace.

Holding the center is a subtle performance by Don Cheadle as Samir Horn, the Sudanese-born son of an African father and an American mother. Samir is a devout muslim who questions the goals and methods of Islamic extremism yet who falls in with an international network of suicide bombers plotting a major attack against the U.S. Samir is recruited by Omar (Said Taghmaoui), with whom he engages in a vigorous, thoughtful moral and religious debate about war and jihad. Samir remains, for much of the movie, less an extremist than an extremely ambiguous character, a man of faith and conscience who walks in many worlds, and is at home in none. That he will be a traitor to someone is given away by the movie's title -- what isn't clear, even by the end of the movie, is just who and what he betrays.

To say that
Traitor is evenhanded in its portrayal of Islam and Islamic extremism is an understatement. It tries very hard, and mostly succeeds, in portraying the people involved in terrorism as complex human beings with, for the most part, sincere beliefs about the necessity and righteousness of what they do. This is not to say there are not fanatics and hypocrites among them, but they can be found working for the other side as well. Samir is seemingly pushed towards extremism by an encounter with FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough). They suspect him of terrorist activity before he is ever involved in terrorist activity. Clayton and Archer, too, are examples of evenhandedness on the part of writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Archer is the bad cop, given to abusing prisoners and cracking wise about the Bill of Rights, while his good cop partner Clayton has a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies and is the thoughtful, soft-spoken son of a Southern preacher who somehow ended up working in counterterrorism.

The movie trips a bit as it hops needlessly from one location to another, meandering along with Samir and his compatriots while piling on additional characters like Samir's ex (Archie Punjabi), a shadowy intelligence contractor (Jeff Daniels), and assorted spooks, leaks, suicide bombers, and terror financiers. It is overly expansive, and overly ambitious, in trying to give a big picture look at the complex problem of terrorism, but it is at its best when it narrows its focus to Samir, to the psychologically, politically, and ethically compelling drama of a mysterious man and his moral dilemmas. It's only within the context of that small, intimate picture that the big picture can ever hope to make any sense.