Conceptually, Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna is a necessary work. An account of black American soldiers whose contributions to WWII were overlooked by history, it is needed less as a critique of the supposedly all-white fraternities of Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers than as a reminder that, as recently as Tropic Thunder, black actors continue to get swindled out of movie roles. As a theoretical corrective, it's salutary; as a movie, it's a frickin' blooper. John Wayne opens the tale as a grainy TV image, with the Hollywood heroism of The Longest Day coming under the scrutiny of an aged, Puerto Rican postal worker (Laz Alonso under old-age powder), who is not stirred: "We fought for this country, too," he mutters, then goes to work and blasts a fellow geezer with a German Luger. It's been some four decades since the war, but, with this abrupt murder plus the discovery of the decapitated noggin of an invaluable Italian statue, buried secrets start rising to the fore. By the time the old man kicks off the obligatory flashback from his Bellevue cell, everything feels off. The editing rhythm is often arbitrary, shots seem either truncated or oddly prolonged, and the lacy thong worn by a throwaway Italian babe sure as hell doesn't come from 1983. The cut from New York to the Tuscan battlegrounds at the end of WWII doesn't alleviate things, despite the silky taunting of a "Kraut version of Tokyo Rose" (Alexandra Maria Lara, with lipsticked swastikas and all) broadcast to the Buffalo Soldiers as they slog through enemy fire. More and more with Lee, provocation and sanctimoniousness become difficult to tell apart.
Separated from the rest of the U.S. forces following a skirmish, Alonso's multilingual corporal is joined by three other stereotypes: The girl-shy stalwart (Derek Luke), the sarcastic skirt-chaser (Michael Ealy), and the superstitious Baby Huey (Omar Benson Miller). Stuck in a peasant village surrounded by Germans, the fellas wile away their time patting the head of the traumatized little boy they've adopted as their mascot (Matteo Sciabordi), waiting for the local bella (Valentina Cervi) to take off her blouse, and wondering what they're doing in what one terms "the white man's war." A flashback-within-a-flashback lands the men in a segregated diner back home, where they're denied service while war prisoners brunch at a nearby table -- people fighting for a nation that doesn't respect them sure is a barbed idea, but Lee wants it both sobering and crowd-pleasing and makes sure the fellas come back and give the racist owner a lesson before they stare accusingly at the camera. It's around this time that one realizes Miracle at St. Anna has no engine powering it ahead, there's just Lee's ungainly glibness and Terence Blanchard's lugubrious orchestra, both hammering away. Nothing in the movie's 160 minutes is as moving and trenchant as the moment in Roberto Rossellini's Paisą where an African-American grunt drunkenly sings a few lines from "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" while the street urchin by his side warns him in Italian that he'll have to steal the man's boots if he passes out. True humanism emerges from the awareness of such conflicting impulses. Lee's botched epic, meanwhile, simply plods through massacres, resurrections and courtroom contrivances on its way to an ending that plays like a Shawshank Redemption outtake. So much for bold cinematic revisionism.
"It is impossible to talk about race without talking about sex," critic Mitchell Shore once wrote about Lee. The inseparable elements make up the pubescent marsh of Towelhead, though under Alan Ball's hand everything becomes sludge. The writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under, Ball doesn't so much follow his characters as lob spitballs at them -- directing his first film, he covers every scene with the kind of fussy derision patented by Todd Solondz, Todd Field, and all the other ringmasters of suburban distress. The setting is the early 1990s during the Gulf War, which supposedly makes it okay to giggle at a Lebanese immigrant (the ineffably Boratian Peter Macdissi) who exclaims "Aw, fuck Saddam" during news coverage in Texas. His 13-year-old daughter (Summer Bishil) comes to live with him after Ma (Maria Bello) learns of the girl's bikini-waxing session with her boyfriend; Bishil wears a dab of makeup at the breakfast table, her father cuffs her and then says, "I forgive you." On one side of the street is the smarmy Army reservist (Aaron Eckhart) whose hands are to venture into the teenager's bulky shorts, on the other is the hippified Earth Mother (Toni Collette) who, being a pregnant liberal, is spared the filmmaker's darts. The discomfort zones of a young girl -- especially one who learns about orgasms from a stack of stroke magazines -- cry for sympathetic toughness, not Ball's snickering at pubic hair and clammy suburbanites. Even Catherine Breillat sketched the characters' humanity before bringing out the stained tampons.
Similarly set in a land of adolescent highs and lows -- Manhattan's hipster netherworld, namely -- Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is a pleasingly jumbled mix CD. Nick (Michael Cera) is the uber-uncool high-schooler from John Hughes's heyday, given here an iPod and a spot as the single straight member in a queercore band named The Jerk Offs; Norah (Kat Dennings) is the sardonic rich kid who's looking for her musical soul mate. The plot charts their long night together as the two scramble from one dive to another, looking for an elusive band and Norah's drunk pal (Ari Graynor) and gradually dropping their masks of protective irony. It's quite an affecting movie despite its share of crude gags, thanks greatly to the offhand vulnerability of its two stars: Cera's Gen-Y Eddie Bracken number is matched nicely with Dennings' acerbic poise. The director, Peter Sollett from Raising Victor Vargas, gives the slender project a Linklater-esque sensitivity to moment-to-moment romance and unexpected gestures (the couple's love is sealed via Handi Wipes), with at least one bold reversal of the sexism of the average teen comedy. Any picture that can make a finger-banging interlude palpitate like heartbeats on a sound studio screen is undoubtedly past virginity contests and McLovins.
Reviewed October 23, 2008.