“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

 

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. 

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.

Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who find themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.

And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.

Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR”screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of“THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps went into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by the filmakers.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

I am going to put my cards on the table. I have a problem with James Cameron’s new movie, ”AVATAR”. In fact, I have several problems with it. I was willing to remain silent about these problems, but after the movie’s recent big win at the Golden Globe Awards, I realized that I could not keep silent about them.

One would think I was just another fan expressing her dislike of ”AVATAR”. On the contrary, I happened to like ”AVATAR” very much. I saw the movie three times. And it became one of my top ten favorite movies of 2009. So, why post a rant against the movie? Because I fear that the movie has become a front runner for the Best Picture Academy Awards. And as much as I had enjoyed ”AVATAR”, I do not believe that it will not deserve all of its accolades. Even worse, I have a bone to pick about the movie’s distribution.

Award Season

Two nights ago, ”AVATAR” scored big at the Golden Globes Award show. It managed to collect at least two major awards – Best Director for James Cameron and Best Picture. In a documentary about 20th Century Fox called ”20TH CENTURY FOX: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS” (1997), a former executive had pointed out that legendary producer and studio boss Darryl Zanuck believed that the backbone of any good movie was the story. Not the special effects, the casting or even the score; but the story.

Now, I am not claiming that ”AVATAR” has a weak story. Actually, I believe that it has a solid, good story with a relevant theme. However, many critics and moviegoers – including myself – believe that the story has mediocre dialogue. Even worse, it also seems very unoriginal. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is close to being a blatant rip-off of the 1990 Academy Award winner, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES”. Frankly, I cannot see how a movie that is unoriginal to the point that it seems to blatantly plagiarize another film deserves to win a Golden Globe Best Drama Picture award, let alone the Academy Award for Best Picture. I simply cannot.

3-D Special Effects and Movie Tickets

What has really ticked me off about ”AVATAR” is the fact that director James Cameron had decided to film the damn thing in 3-D. Well, he also provided regular prints of the movie. And the movie theaters have allowed filmgoers the choice to view the 3-D showings or regular showings. Unfortunately, all of the movie theaters that I usually attend, offer more showings of the film in 3-D. Worse, not only are the regular viewings scheduled late at night, filmgoers have to pay higher ticket prices for the 3-D showings. This really pisses me off. I find the 3-D glasses very uncomfortable. And the special effects struck me as being less impressive than those featured in the Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time show at Universal Studios Hollywood. The higher ticket prices for the 3-D effects are simply not worth the effort. At least not to me. And I feel that Cameron, 20th Century Fox and the movie theaters are ripping off moviegoers in the process.

Will ”AVATAR” win the Best Picture Oscar? I suspect that it will. And frankly, I consider this a travesty. I am not saying that the movie is terrible. It is not. But Cameron has already managed to win a slew of Oscars for a movie with impressive visual effects and a mediocre script that turned out to be a blatant rip-off of 1937’s ”MAYTIME”. I am talking about 1997’s ”TITANIC”. And I fear that history will repeat itself when he wins a slew of awards for ”AVATAR” – a movie with the same virtues and flaws.

“AVATAR” (2009) Review

Here is my review of “AVATAR”, James Cameron’s long awaited new film: 

”AVATAR” (2009) Review

Has it really been twelve (12) years since director/producer James Cameron had released his last movie? Twelve years? And yet, it is true. Twelve years have passed since the releases of the Academy Award winning movie, ”TITANIC” and Cameron’s latest epic, ”AVATAR”. And I must say that it was worth the wait.

Set in the year 2154, ”AVATAR” told the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic former U.S. Marine, who arrived on the planet of Pandora to replace his murdered twin brother in a program that have created human-Na’vi hybrids called avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators, due to humans’ inability to breathe the moon’s atmosphere. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the Avatar Program, considered him an inadequate replacement for his brother, relegating him to a bodyguard role. Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon of the planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri system, has been targeted by an Earth corporation administered by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) called RDA. It wants to mine Pandora for a valuable mineral called unobtanium. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a former Marine and leader of the Humans’ security forces, promised Jake his “real legs” back in exchange for intelligence about the natives and what it will take to make them abandon Hometree, which rests above a large deposit of unobtanium.

When Jake escorted Augustine and biologist Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) on an exploratory mission in their avatar forms, the group is attacked by a large predator, and Jake became separated and lost. Attempting to survive the night in Pandora’s dangerous jungles, he is rescued by Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña), a female Na’vi. Neytiri brings Jake back to Hometree, which is inhabited by Neytiri’s clan, the Omaticaya. Mo’at, (C. C. H. Pounder), the Na’vi shaman and Neytiri’s mother, instructed her to teach him their ways. Within three months or so, Jake fell in love with Neytiri. Unfortunately, he found himself conflicted between his feelings for the female Na’vi and her clan, and his deal with Colonel Quaritch.

Judging by the reactions of many critics and filmgoers, James Cameron seemed to have created a very unique film. I would certainly agree with this opinion – especially in regard to the physical and visual world of Pandora. Quite frankly, I found it lush and strangely beautiful. I also have to commend Cameron for not only creating Pandora’s strange world, but also for guiding crew members like production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg; the art direction team led by Todd Cherniawsky, Kevin Ishioka, and Kim Sinclair; cinematographer Mauro Fiore; the special effects team led by Dave Booth; and the visual effects team. Cameron took his work even further by hiring Dr. Paul Frommer of USC to create a Na’vi language and culture. Actors like Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña and C.C.H. Pounder had to learn the new language.

I did not have any real problems with the movie’s plot. Cameron did a solid job in writing a story that dealt with environmental issues, along with imperialism and biodiversity by consolidating them into a conflict between the nature-based (or primitive in certain circles) Na’vi and the Humans’ military-industrial complex represented by the RDA Corporation and its military force. Sounds familiar? It should. Cameron claimed that he was inspired from such movies as ”AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD” and ”THE EMERALD FOREST”, which feature clashes between cultures and civilizations. He also acknowledged his film’s connection to the 1990 Academy Award winning film, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” in the storyline featuring Jake’s connection to the Na’vi. Personally, I found myself wondering if ”AVATAR” was simply ”DANCES WITH WOLVES” on another planet. Honestly. The two movies struck me as being that similar.

Some fans might accuse me of hinting that Cameron’s story lacked any originality. Well, they would be right. I am hinting exactly that. After all, this would not be the first time for the Canadian-born director. At least three of his most famous films, ”AVATAR” included, bore strong similarities to other fictional works. In an ARTICLE I had posted on my blog, I had pointed out the strong similarities between ”TITANIC” to the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film, ”MAYTIME”. And after his 1984 film, ”THE TERMINATOR” hit the theaters, a well-known science-fiction writer named Harlan Ellison pointed out that the movie bore a strong resemblance to two television episodes he had written. The writer ended up receiving ”acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of the movie, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount. And if the love story between Jake and Neytiri bore a strong resemblance with the one featured in the 1990 film (in that story, the female lead was a white woman raised by the Lakota), the movie’s score written by James Horner seemed to seal the deal for me. It bore a very strong resemblance to Native American music.

Another aspect of Cameron’s script that struck a similar note with me was its dialogue. Let me be frank. I found it just as cheesy and unoriginal as the dialogue found in ”TITANIC”. A good example could be found in Colonel Quaritch’s speech to the human newcomers to Pandora. When he uttered the phrase, ”You’re not in Kansas anymore”, I practically winced. The Wachowski Brothers used that phrase with a more memorable and original twist in their 1999 movie, ”THE MATRIX”. However, I must admit that ”AVATAR” did have one quote that I found particularly memorable. During one of his narratives about the Na’vi, Jake Scully said the following:

” Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”

Okay, it does not really seem like much in written form. But Sam Worthington’s interpretation of the line made it memorable for me.

One complaint lobbied against the movie was that it pandered to the cliché of the ”white man savior of the noble savage”. Frankly, I believe that the only grounds for this accusation centered around Jake rallying the Na’vi to fight against the Human assault against the Hometree. I figured that since he was responsible for giving Quaritch the means to launch the assault, I could let the scene slide. However, I failed to spot any further evidence to support this argument. After all, it was Neytiri’s father Eytucan, who allowed Jake to remain with the Na’vi. Neytiri’s mother Mo’at ordered Neytiri to introduce him to Na’vi culture. Mo’at was also responsible for giving Jake a chance to redeem himself for his earlier betrayal. Another female – namely Trudy – was responsible for rescuing Jake, Grace and Norm from the RDA cell. And it certainly was NOT Jake who defeated the movie’s main villain, Colonel Quaritch, in the end. No one could ever mistake this film for the 1953 movie, ”HIS MAJESTY’S O’KEEFE”.

Speaking of Sam Worthington, he led the cast as the a paraplegic former U.S. Marine Jake Scully, who found himself drawn to Pandora and the Na’vi culture. Although I would not consider Jake to be one of his more complicated or complex characters, I thought that Worthington did an excellent job in conveying Jake’s conflict between the Humans’ agenda and his love for Neytiri and the Na’vi. He also managed to effectively project Jake’s array of emotions following the character’s arrival on Pandora, whether in Human form or connected to his Na’vi-Human form. And he also did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. Believe or not, not every actor or actress has a talent for verbal narration.

Zoë Saldaña was cast as Neytiri, the Na’vi huntress with whom Jake fell in love. Saldaña did not simply provide Neytiri’s voice. She also provided the character’s body language and facial expression via a process called motion/performance capture. This process has already been used in movies such as two of the latest ”STAR WARS” movies, the ”MUMMY” films, ”KING KONG” and the last two ”LORD OF THE RINGS” movies. I must admit that Saldaña did an excellent job in guiding Neytiri’s character from being slightly resentful and contemptuous toward Jake, to being a female in love and finally to the fierce and determined Na’vi warrior determined to protect her home. Frankly, she was my favorite character in the movie.

Sigourney Weaver found herself being directed by Cameron for the second time as Dr. Grace Augustine, a scientist and creator of the Avatar Program. Her Grace is a no-nonsense woman with a dislike toward Selfridge, Quaritch and the RDA Corporation. Her bluntness was tempered by a genuine desire to study the Na’vi and Pandora. Weaver did a solid job in portraying these aspects of Grace’s character. Stephen Lang could have easily portray Colonel Quaritch as a one-dimensional villain. In fact, he nearly drifted into such a portrayal on one or two occasions. But in the end, Lang managed to control himself and give a first-rate performance. He even infused a touch of homme fatale into his performance in scenes that featured Colonel Quaritch’s attempts to “seduce” Jake into providing information about the Na’vi and their Hometree. I found that aspect an interesting twist.

Many critics have dismissed Michelle Rodriguez’s performance as Marine pilot Trudy Chacon as another one of her many tough chick roles. From a superficial viewpoint, they might be right. But if I must be honest, I found that Neytiri seemed to fit that role a lot better than Trudy. There was something about Rodriguez’s role that struck me as different from her previous ones. Her Trudy seemed like a laid back type with a warm and cheeky sense of humor – completely different from the roles that the actress had portrayed on ”LOST” and ”THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS”. I consider this a good thing, for it told me that Rodriguez was quite capable of portraying more than one type of role. If I must be frank, I would not consider Parker Selfridge to be one of Giovanni Ribisi’s best roles. Mind you, the actor managed to keep himself from drifting into a purely hammy performance. But I found his portrayal of the RDA Corporation’s administrator as a walking cliché of corporate greed and rather unoriginal. The only other movies I have ever seen Laz Alonso in were ”JARHEAD” and last year’s ”THE MIRACLE OF ST. ANNA”. I found his role as Neyriti’s fiancé, Tsu’Tey, to be a different kettle of fish. His Tsu’Tey was an aggressive and slightly arrogant warrior with a deep distrust of Jake and the other Humans. Like Lang, Alonso could have easily allowed his character to drift into a one-dimensional performance. I have to give kudos to the actor for making Tsu’Tey somewhat sympathetic in the end. I suspect that deep down, the character truly loved and respected Neytiri, despite the political and cultural nature of their betrothal. I also enjoyed the way Alonso used the motion capture suit and body language to convey his character’s aggressive nature.

I have already commented upon the special and visual effects in ”AVATAR” that managed to blow everyone’s minds, including mine. However, I could have done without viewing the movie with 3-D glasses. I simply did not see how filming the movie with a 3-D camera was worth the effort. I found the 3-D effects found in the TERMINATOR 2: 3-D show at Universal Studios Hollywood more impressive. And since I already wear glasses, wearing an extra pair of 3-D glasses proved to be very annoying for me. And while we are on the subject of quibbles, I found Horner’s score and the theme song performed by Leona Lewis called ”I See You” not that impressive, either. In fact, I am surprised that the song managed to earn a Golden Globe Award nomination.

After reading most of this article, one might end up with the belief that I have mixed feelings about ”AVATAR”. Let me assure you that my views are not mixed. Yes, I have some quibbles with the story’s lack of originality and sometimes pedestrian dialogue. And I found the 3-D photography not worth the effort. But I still enjoyed the movie’s plot very much. It was a solid tale that centered on a theme I wholeheartedly support. The cast, led by Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña did an excellent job. As Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet did twelve years ago, Worthington and Saldaña managed to create a great screen team that proved to be the heart and soul of the film through their performances. And from a visual point-of-view, Cameron outdid himself in his creation of the world of Pandora.