Miracles at St. Anna

© 2008 Ray Wong


Based on James McBride's novel, Miracle at St. Anna follows four black soldiers of the US 92nd Infantry Division during WWII.

p1Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) is a postal worker living in New York City. On a fateful day, he shoots an Italian man, Rodolfo (Sergio Albelli) point-blank. Rookie reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in search of a story, follows the trail and discovers that Hector was a decorated soldier with a clean record, and that there's a missing sculpted head of a statue in his closet. The stone head from the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence is worth at least $5 million in the black market. But what Boyle finds out about Corporal Negron and the story behind the statue is even more fascinating.

p2It turns out that Negron was part of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, and one of the four soldiers who got trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign in 1944. The other three men were Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Micheal Ealy) and Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller). Train saved an Italy boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), during an attack; he believed the child was a walking miracle and vowed to protect him. Angelo, in turn, got attached to the "Chocolate Giant" and his team, which befriended Renata (Valentina Cervi) and her family, who took them in.

p3Surrounded by Germans and desperately trying to get help from their platoon, Negron and company tried to survive while Train insisted on keeping the boy with them. However, the villagers thought the boy was a devil child and would bring them harm. Soon, they were joined by a group of Partisans whose brutal attack on the Nazis resulted in a reliation against the village. Trapped with limited weapons and a possible traitor among them, Negron and his men must fend for themselves and the villagers while keeping the boy safe.

p4As both the older and young Negron, Laz Alonzo (Jarhead) is exceptional. Granted, he's not really the hero in this ensemble piece, but his character, both in the frame as well as the central story, anchors the entire film, with his solid and restrained performance. Derek Luke (Definitely, Maybe) is also excellent as the group's leader, Staff Sergeant Stamps. His resolve and solitude make him the rock. Michael Ealy (2 Fast 2 Furious) is off as Sergeant Bishop -- he is too modern-acting and out of place with the time period. His cockiness also makes his character less sympathetic. The standout, however, is Omar Benson Miller (Shall We Dance) as "Chocolate Giant" Train. His child-like innocence and heroic acts are the emotional core of the story.

p5The Italian cast does a fine job as well, with beautiful Valentina Cervi (War and Peace) as a love interest, newcomer Matteo Sciabordi as the angelic boy, and Sergio Albelli as Rodolfo. Their performances make us care about what happens to these people, and capture the spirit of the entire story. There are also numerous cameos in various minor American roles, including John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Leguizamo, Kerry Washington, and D.B. Sweeney.

p6Adapted from his own novel, writer James McBride has weaved an intense and interesting tale. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. Using the Italian partisans as an excuse, the Nazis launched a retaliation killing civilians. The central story, told in flashback, is a riveting piece of history meshed with fictional characters and plot. Unfortunately, in an effort to explain the intricate backgrounds and complexity of characters and events, McBride convolutes everything with excessive exposition and flashbacks. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and the points of view are disorienting.

p7Also, there are way too many characters (Americans, Germans, Italians, etc. etc.) and soon the story loses its focus, and it's difficult for the audiences to understand what exactly is going on and whom to care about. There are also one too many coincidences and "magical realism" to make the otherwise-realistic drama completely believable. The ending is also predictable and borderline schmaltzy.

p8Spike Lee's (Inside Man) direction is generally taut and intense. There are key moments that are rife with tension and dread. The violence is extraordinary and appropriate. The cinematography is over all fantastic and eerily poetic. The production is top-notch, of course. Yet Lee is not able to lift the story out of McBride's tangle. The pacing is off as well; there are many moments and plot nulls that slow down the film. At 160 minutes, the film feels unnecessarily long, with way too many threads that could easily have been trimmed. The framing story is slight and inconsequential compared to the main plot -- it almost feels like an afterthought.

There's so much potential for the story, but my doubt lies in the writing -- sometimes it's probably not a best thing for the novelist to adapt his or her own book. McBride tried too hard, and the result is bogged down by the material; even Spike Lee's skillful direction couldn't save it. It could have been a great movie. As is, it's far from being a masterpiece or one of Spike Lee's best. Despite its great intentions, it'd be a miracle if it's got any legs at the Oscars.

Stars: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonzo, Omar Benson Miller, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: James McBride
Distributor: Walt Disney/Touchstone
MPAA Rating: R for strong war violence, language, nudity, and sexual content
Running Time: 160 Minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 6
Production – 8

Total – 7.1 out of 10

Ghost Town

© 2008 Ray Wong


Kind of a cross between Heaven Can Wait and The Sixth Sense, Ghost Town is a romantic comedy that has more to do with growing up than getting laid.

g1Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) is an antisocial dentist living in Manhattan, having moved from London because he was tired of all the people. But why Manhattan, then? Well, he has a good answer to that: Love. But it didn't really work out for him so he's developed a phobic reaction to everyone around him. Such an odd predicament given he has to interact with patients every day.

g2Then one day, after a botched colonoscopy during which he died for seven minutes, Bertram starts to see people who don't really exist. One of these ghosts is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a well-to-do businessman who's concerned about his surviving wife's new fiance, Richard (Billy Campbell). Frank convinces Bertram to help him, in return Frank will ask the other ghosts to leave Bertram alone. Of course, Bertram falls for Frank's wife, Gwen (Tea Leoni), an archeologist. At first, Gwen thinks of Bertram as a jerk and an idiot; but soon she is charmed by his sense of humor and good nature. When Bertram realizes that he's in love with Gwen, and that Richard is actually a good guy, he wants out despite Frank's protest. Little does he know his defiance is going to cost him something very dear to him.

g3Ricky Gervais (Stardust), best known as David Brent in the original UK version of The Office, gives a spirited, nuanced performance as the everyman who has a problem with people. Gervais's brand of humor and comic timing is very British, and yet he fits snugly in an American comedy. His subtle yet witty portrayal is both funny and affecting. His first leading role in an American film pays off very well.

g4Greg Kinnear (Flash of Genius) is effectively smarmy and smug. One doesn't doubt that his character loves his wife, but we also see that he's going about it in all the wrong ways. Kinnear runs through the entire film in a tuxedo, and that itself is rather amusing. Tea Leoni (Fun with Dick and Jane) is subtle and genuine as Gwen. She's pretty and charming to make us believe why all these men are in love with her. However, her character lacks a certain core of true desire and drive -- it is a relative passive role.

g5The supporting cast is solid. Aasif Mandvi (Music and Lyrics) is wonderfully genteel as Bertram colleague and fellow dentist. The scene where he sits Bertram down and delivers the truth is priceless. Kristen Wiig (Knocked Up) is SNL-funny as the ditzy surgeon. And Bill Campbell (The Practice) has a lot of fun playing Gwen's too-good-to-be-true lawyer fiance.

g6Written and directed by David Koepp, best known as the scribe of such hits as Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, has given us an amusing but light story (with fellow writer John Kamps, Zathura). There is nothing extraordinary new and unique, but Koepp and Kamps have given us some interesting characters, especially Bertram Pincus. The dialogue is snappy and the pacing is good. There are some structural issues with the script, however. Parts of it don't fit well together.

g7The good thing about the script is that it goes for the heart without being too sappy, and it goes for the laughs without being too slapstick, and it goes the "grow up" message without being too preachy. The pitfall is that the story is a whole lot of lukewarm and not enough sizzle. It feels light and somewhat irrelevant.

g8Koepp's direction is inconsistent as well. Part of the film feels like a light romantic comedy, and part of it feels like a family drama. The pacing seems off at times as well, and the editing needs work. Some scenes seem to drag on. Pieces of the plot don't fit well together, and there are some gaps in character development as well. Some of the green-screen effects are simply bad. Still, Koepp has given us a tight entertainment that has enough chuckles to make us care.

As is, Ghost Town is an amiable little film that would please fans of Gervais, Kinnear and Leoni. But it lacks something substantial to make it really tick, and it could use some tightening in terms of writing, direction and editing. It's not a disaster, but it's also far from being the best in town.

Stars: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Aasif Mandvi, Kristen Wiig, Bill Campbell
Directors: David Koepp
Writers: David Koepp, John Kamps
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references
Running Time: 102 Minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total – 6.5 out of 10

Burn After Reading

© 2008 Ray Wong


Fresh off their triumph at the Oscars with No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers returns to their own material with a quirky, subversive story about spies, blackmail, and adulteries.

photo1Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who has just been demoted. Out of anger, he quits his job to the dismay of his disapproving wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is actually having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a security specialist at the Treasury Department. Katie secretly seeks a divorce from Osborne, and in the process, gathers information from his computer just for leverage. Accidentally, the information falls into the hands of Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), employees at the Hardbody Gym.

photo2Chad and Linda decide to blackmail Osborne, thinking he's some kind of spy. It sounds like easy money: Linda needs it to pay for her plastic surgeries, and Chad is just doing it for fun. Osborne refuses to pay, of course. So Chad and Linda take the information to the Russian Embassy hoping they'll get something out of that. Meanwhile, Linda hooks up with Harry through the Internet and falls in love with him, while he's just playing the field. One thing leads to another, and Linda finds herself in deep in a conspiracy that may jeopardize everyone's life including her own.

photo3The ensemble cast includes Frances McDormand (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), whose performance is almost pitch perfect as a woman who becomes obsessed with her "crisis." She is simply deliciously irrelevant and clueless. Her comic timing is also very good, without being over the top. George Clooney (Leatherheads) is in fine comedic form as the philanderer whose sexual trysts end up biting him back. He seems at ease with the role, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. In comparison, Brad Pitt (Ocean's Thirteen) stands out like a sore thumb as he tries too hard to be funny. In fact, he just acts like Brad Pitt trying to act stupid.

photo4The rest of the cast is rather good, though. John Malkovich (Beowulf) has a blast playing the obnoxious analyst who refuses to compromise. His foul and angry and over the top, but in a good, John Malkovich way. Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) has a relatively small role and her character is too reserved and cold to make a true impression. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is very good as the kind-hearted gym manager.

photo5Written and directed by the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), the film returns to their famed quirkiness and subversive plot twists. At times, you really don't know where the plot is going and how these characters relate to each other. Watching the film, you feel like you're being fed a piece of puzzle at a time, and you hope they all fit together. In a way, they do, but at the end, you still kind of wonder about the meaning of the story. Their writing is crisp, if a bit too meticulous, relying on a lot of forced plot development and coincidences. Also, the Coen brothers seem to try a bit too hard to be clever and funny, but the script turns out manipulative and forced. There are some really witty scenes, but over all, it feels self-congratulatory.

photo6The direction is standard Coen brothers: fast-paced, intricate, and peculiar. The plot and the relationships between these characters unfold almost randomly (but of course, nothing is random). The Coen brothers has carefully planted the foreshadows and pivotal elements along the way -- in hindsight, that's the problem with the clever plot twists: they're too clever, too planned, too carefully orchestrated. Not much feels organic.

photo7In a way, Burn after Reading feels like another lackluster "clever" film of theirs, The Lady Killers. If you like quirky characters and subversive plot twists, you would probably enjoy Burn after Reading. If you prefer something more organic, with less cleverness and more heart, you may still enjoy it, but remember to burn after viewing.


Stars: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence
Running Time: 96 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 7

Total – 6.9 out of 10


© 2008 Ray Wong


Based on Philip Roth's novel, Elegy: The Dying Animal, the film is a character study of man and his personal philosophies as well as experiences about love and relationships.

photo1David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is a renowned writer and literary critic in New York City. His best friend is fellow professor George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper), a man seemingly trapped in his marriage. David also has a purely sexual relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) for over 20 years. He also despises his adult son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), who still couldn't get over the fact that David walked out on his mother and him. You see, David doesn't believe in love or relationship. Once burned and having walked out of a marriage, David is happy to be single. He also likes sex, and he often seduces his students (after they're done with their classes, anyway).

photo2One of those students is a Cuban immigrant, Consuela (Penelope Cruz). David is immediately smitten by her beauty and poise. David succeeds in getting Consuela to bed; but he also unexpectedly falls for her. An one-time encounter turns into some kind of relationship. But does he know Consuela? Does he even love her? Deep down, David knows it won't work -- he loves his freedom too much. He also knows that he's old; sooner or later Consuela would find a man her age and leave David. And yet he becomes almost obsessed with Consuela. He couldn't break things off before it's too late.

photo3As the intellectual who likes his sex, Ben Kingsley (War, Inc.) is surprisingly subdue and introspective. He also narrates the film in an observant, quiet way. Kingsley gives a solid performance portraying a man who thinks he knows what he wants, but ultimately has his world turned upside down by a woman 30 years younger. Normally, such May-December relationships (not to mention sexually charged) could have a strong yuck factor, but Kingsley exudes a kind of sexiness -- intellectual, cultured, charming, thoughtful -- that works for his character. We can truly see why Consuela could involved with a man like him.

photo4Penelope Cruz (Vicky Christina Barcelona) is absolutely stunning. She looks young and radiant. There's no denying that she is gorgeous. What is remarkable is that she also gives a nuanced, vulnerable performance of a woman who seems strong and confident on the outside. She makes us believe why Consuela could rock David's world so profoundly.

photo5The support cast is in general excellent. Patricia Clarkson (Lars and the Real Girl) is exceptional as David's fuck buddy, a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and yet still can't get past her own insecurity and fear. Peter Sarsgaard (The Mystery of Pittsburgh) is a bit weak as David's needy son. I'm not convinced by the character nor his performance. Dennis Hopper (Swing Vote) is wonderful as David's best friend and confidant. His criticism and own failure reflect on David's bad behavior. In fact, David thinks he's more superior because at least he's honest.

photo6Nicholas Meyer (The Human Stain) adapts Roth's novel by keeping the focus on David, whose view points and philosophies continue to crumble. As George said to David, "It's not about growing old. It's about growing up." Meyer's screenplay is layered with keen character observations and nuanced interactions that reflect on David's struggles and changes. It's not the kind of story that is full of surprises, twists and turns, or any real plot. Instead, it's an intimate examination of love, sex, and obsession. How one's heart sometimes simply can't reconcile the mind, no matter how hard one tries. The characters come off as realistic and not two-dimensional or caricatures. They don't come off as elite snobs either, even thought they could be. The dialogue is exquisite at times, and the relationships among these people release and reveal themselves like the flavor of a fine wine. It is slow. It is deliberate. It's relaxed. But it's also intricate and delicate.

photo7Isabel Coixet's (Paris, je t'aime) direction matches well with the material. There's something lyrical in the pace and the structure. Nothing is rushed. The music is appropriate but not melodramatic. And Coixet trusts his actors, all veterans who know what they're doing. There are times when Coixet does have the tendency to linger too long, or rely too much on the audiences to interpret the characters' thoughts and feelings. Over all, Coixet has given us a richly layered, well-paced character study that is intimate, intellectual, and emotional. The ending also reminds us of the age-old wisdom: "If you love something, let it go. If it's meant to be, they'll come back to you."

photo8Elegy, like the word suggests, is a serious reflection of human emotions, relationships, and wants and desires. The filmmakers and actors have done a tremendous job. It's exquisite. It's touching. And it can be provocative, too. It's one elegy you can enjoy without an advance degree in literature or art.

Stars: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper
Director: Isabel Coixet
Writers: Nicholas Meyer (based on Philip Roth's novel)
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 108 Minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 8.1 out of 10