New reviews – ‘Miracle at St. Anna,’ ‘The Lucky Ones,’ ‘Choke’

Miracle at St. Anna (dir: Spike Lee)

The title of Spike Lee’s war drama, based on the novel by James McBride, suggests a war miracle movie where all are saved by kindness or luck or divine intervention, but there is no such otherworldly benevolence here, merely the sacrifice of four black servicemen – Buffalo Soldiers – to protect the folks of a small mountain village in Tuscany surrounded by the Germans. Derek Luke plays the senior officer left in charge when most of his platoon is killed by the bombardment of his own commanding officer and Michael Ealy plays his opposite, a former preacher turned cynical about the state of race relations in 1940s America.

Derek Luke and his men
Derek Luke and his men

McBride’s busy script overflows with characters and competing stories: a Fascist sympathizer in the village, a feisty Italian woman whose soldier husband has been missing for years, a ruthless partisan guerrilla, a German officer sickened by his orders and a shellshocked little boy adopted by the simpleton Private Train (Omar Benson Miller).

It makes for a would-be epic (more than 2 ½ hours) fallen into a sprawling mess. Lee captures the chaos of combat well, and his portrait of racism among the officers and poor training for the black soldiers is justly infuriating. But McBride has a tin ear for spoken dialogue, and his awkward script, and its rambling side story, should have been shortened and sharpened.

Read the complete review here.

The Lucky Ones (dir: Neil Burger)

Neil Burger directs and co-writes this latest attempt to crack the American war experience on the screen. This one is a meandering road trip of three soldiers – two on leave (Rachel McAdams and Michael Peña), one going home (Tim Robbins) at the end of his tour of duty – when they wind up sharing a rented car to get out of an airport black-out. The title comes from the repeated phrase about how one or the other is lucky for coming out of one situation or another – like Iraq – alive and relatively in one piece.

Michael Peña, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins are "The Lucky Ones"
Michael Peña, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins are "The Lucky Ones"

Burger is more interested in their easy-going camaraderie and the culture of their trip than political debate or confrontational scenes. Even what begins as the obligatory road-house bar fight becomes a show of military reflexes and team unity: their instant posture of force and fierce determination cuts the confrontation short.

At its best it’s a snapshot of attitudes toward the war seen out the window of a lazy tour of the heartland in a rented van and Burger’s matter-of-fact direction is refreshing, if not exactly dramatically involving. But if it avoids the usual clichés of these situations, it doesn’t offer anything more substantial in its place, merely a succession of scenes on the road.

Read the complete review here.

I also interviewed Tim Robbins about this and other films. A digest sampling is at the Seattle P-I, a longer version on Parallax View here.

Choke (dir: Clark Gregg)

A black comedy of sex addiction, gastronomic asphyxiation, sacred DNA and maternal dementia, Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Portland author Chuck Paluhnick’s novel is as a strangely warm, affectionate look at bad behavior amidst emotional damage and a stranglehold of identity issues.

Sam Rockwell brings a scruffy likeability to the role of Victor, a confessed and unrepentant sex addict (the meetings are a great place for hook-ups) who supplements his meager income as an actor in a colonial life theme park with a decidedly inspired (if physically traumatic) con. He picks a restaurant, induces choking on a piece of food and flails around until he finds an appropriate (i.e.: affluent) savior.

Clark Gregg, an actor making his debut as a screenwriter and director, is more bemused than disturbed by Victor. For all the self-loathing and self-destructive impulses, not to mention the uncomfortable scenes of self-induced suffocation and aggressive bouts of sexual congress, this is hardly the disturbed world of Fight Club.

Read the complete review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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