MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Toronto From New York

It would be great to be in Toronto this week, sampling some of the movies that will be released to all the regular folks in the coming months. Alas, I didn’t get a chance to see Che, Burn After Reading, Apaloosa, Me and Orson Welles, The Wrestler, Blindness, The Brothers Bloom, Un Conte de Noel and countless other films. But I was fortunate enough to see some of the films that unspooled up North.

Miracle at St. Anna

I’ve made no bones about my love for Spike Lee. He is a polarizing figure, mostly based on the persona he’s crafted in the media. For some people, that’s the only Spike Lee they know and they are unwilling to give his films a chance, so ingrained is their dislike for him. What they would find, as I keep urging them, is a filmmaker whose compassion and humanity is at odds with that off-screen persona. His films might take a political stance that not everyone can agree with, but at the center of all his films is a warmth and a spirit that is understanding and knowing.

Before he made Inside Man, Lee made the only film of his that I’ve ever despised. It was called She Hate Me and it was a trainwreck of ideas; loose threads that barely connected, combing lesbianism, sperm donation, corporate fraud, whistle-blowing, courtroom theatrics, mobsters and Watergate. The pieces of that puzzle were so awkwardly jammed together that I was concerned that Lee might have lost his way in terms of being able to tell a coherent story.

Interestingly, I think making Inside Man allowed him to get back to the basics of storytelling, forcing him to make a film that had a straightforward narrative. It was a for-hire job that I think was a necessary experience for Spike because his latest film almost feels like an amalgamation of the scattered She Hate Me and the stream-lined Inside Man – but much better than either of them.

Long story short: Miracle at St. Anna is a masterpiece.

It’s a war movie that feels oddly familiar and yet completely different from anything you’ve ever seen. It starts out as a mystery and ends as a film that brought tears to my eyes and in the middle, you’ve got battle scenes, love scenes, and horrifically poetic scenes about the nature of racism. It might not be a film for everyone’s tastes, but it sure blew me away.

The film starts with a war veteran working in a post office in the early eighties. A man comes up to ask for stamps and the postal worker lifts a gun from his belt and shoots the customer in the chest, killing him. A news reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to know why this postal worker, a former veteran, would shoot someone and why he would have the head of a statue in his apartment that is valued at over five million dollars.

We flashback to when that man, Hector Negron (played by Laz Alonso throughout) was in WWII, in a unit of all black soliders. After a particularly brutal battle, he and three of his fellow soldiers are caught behind enemy lines in a remote Italian village with an injured little Italian boy in tow.

That Italian boy is really the center of the whole movie and what he goes through is tied directly to the title of the film. He forms a bond with these four black soldiers, particularly Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), whom the boy calls his “chocolate giant.” The other two soldiers are Staff Sgt. Stamps (Derek Luke) and Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), who square off quite a few times because of their differences in how they view race relations, but there is definitely an unspoken bond between them, even as they fight like brothers.

There is a lot of story here and I have barely scratched the surface. The first half hour and the last are filled with battle scenes, courtroom scenes, and various heartrending and bloody stand-offs. But in the middle is some of the finest human war drama since Roberto Rosselini’s Open City. Pllaying the part of Anna Magnani is the beautiful Italian actressValentina Cervi, who is the only one in her village that speaks English and has a flirtation with both Stamps and Bishop.

The real heart of the film, though, is the Italian boy Angelo (played stunningly by Matteo Sciabordi). The boy talks to his friend ‘Arturo’ who isn’t there and licks the ‘chocolate giant’ to see what he tastes like, but develops a real rapport with the men who view him as something like a good luck charm. He and Train, in particular, develop a friendship by using ‘taps’ to communicate. Train feels like whenever Angelo is around, good things happen miraculously amidst the muck of war.

I must warn, though, that this is a very difficult film to sit through; it’s very intense. When we got to the title scene, I was fidgeting in my seat uncontrollably and my stomach started to roll a bit. This is some of the most devastating and tragic material about World War II that you probably didn’t know. The central issues that the film raises itself is not a comfortable one because it has no easy answer: when these men were fighting for the United States, what were they really fighting for? They were fighting a war for a country that treated them like second-class citizens. A harrowing flashback scene shows the men, in uniform, hoping to be treated with some decency at an ice cream shop, only to find that the uniform they wear is invisible because they can’t wear a different color skin.

It won’t surprise me if I am in the minority on this film. At the screening I went to, I heard a lot of unhappy people afterwards, grumbling about its excessiveness. I won’t argue that at times it’s a bit didactic and it also has times where it goes a bit more broad than the usual film. But if you’ve seen Spike Lee’s films before, you know that he likes to play around a little bit. For example, there’s a scene early in the film set in an Italian hotel room with John Leguizamoand a lot of folks will look at that scene as unnecessary. But what Spike is doing in that scene is throwing you off the scent a little bit. I don’t want to give away anymore than that, but people who are bothered by that scene will be the people that don’t like the film and will be the same ones complaining that Omar Benson Miller’s performance is too broad.

Which brings me to the acting, which is pretty much solid across the board. There were a couple of supporting players that went a little over the top, but the four main players are all great. In particular, Derek Luke continues to show what a fine actor he is, content to underplay in a film that is quite loud. Laz Alonso is someone to look out for – he is the glue that holds the film together. Michael Ealy and Omar Benson Miller are fine as well. But the real standout is Matteo Sciabordi as the little boy, Angelo. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by a child actor.

The photography by Matthew Libatique is absolutely stunning and Terence Blanchard’s score is beautiful. The script is by James McBride, who also wrote the novel of the same name, and while there are a few clunky dialogue choices, it’s mostly solid stuff.

This will be a divisive film, there is no doubt about it. It is a long, dense and bloody film and those kinds of movies tend to polarize people. It’s a film that is really impossible to review correctly before release because there is so much meat that I’d love to chew on for a while. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this film again when I do my year-end top ten list and that’ll give me the opportunity to dig a bit deeper.

While I wouldn’t quite put it on the level of Lee’s other masterpieces – 25th Hour, Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing – it’s just a notch below them, somewhere near Malcolm X. And if you ask me, that’s not too shabby.

Rachel Getting Married

Jonathan Demme is a strange cat. Before he started winning Academy Awards, he was the kind of guy that would make a film like Something Wildwhich is a romantic comedy for about an hour before it turns into something wickedly dark and sinister. Or a film like Melvin and Howard which is aboutHoward Hughes for the first ten and the last ten minutes and in between is a film about what it means to scrape by in America. Or a film like Married to the Mob, which combines organized crime with almost slapstick comedy. In other words, this is a guy who is fascinated by America and all of its sub-groups, but also a man who understands that life doesn’t stick to one genre; sometimes we laugh in the middle of crying and sometimes we stub our toes at our happiest moments. Life is funny that way.

After a string of feature films that were either misfires or mediocre (Beloved, The Truth About Charlie,and Manchurian Candidate), Demme comes back to his free-wheeling 80’s style a bit changed from when we last saw him. While his offbeat 80’s films were genre-bending like his new film, they were also polished while this one has some grit on it. For the first time in forever, Demme is using a cinematographer other than Tak Fukimotoand it does wonders for him. Declan Quinn’s fluid, hand-held camera makes the action vital and intoxicating, much like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, which this film owes a lot to.

Rachel Getting Married is a film about family pain, hidden in plain sight due to impending nuptials. Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a fresh out of rehab for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding to Sidney (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe). Kym and Rachel’s parents are divorced, but they spend the majority of their time with dad (Bill Irwin in an award-worthy performance) than with mom (Debra Winger). Rachel and Kym do not have the best relationship, with Rachel resenting Kym for requiring so much of their parents’ attention (even during the weekend of her wedding) because of her substance abuse problems. Kym, in turn, resents Rachel for not being more understanding. Their father is desperately trying to make everyone happy and mom is constantly showing up late and leaving early. And there is, of course, a haunting memory that each of them refuses to acknowledge or confront; like a specter lingering in the house.

I had never, until now, been too impressed with Anne Hathaway’s film work. Perhaps it was the way her characters were written, but I didn’t feel like she brought a lot to the table in films like The Devil Wears Prada or Brokeback Mountain. But here, finally, I get what everyone is talking about. She is both unbelievably irksome and completely sympathetic, often in the same sentence. She is clearly a person who is struggling with her sobriety, sure, but is struggling more with trying to find a place in her family. Hathaway never goes over the top, instead finding a perfect pitch between hyperactive and sullen. If you’ve ever known anybody in recovery, the mixture of attention-getting and heart will be familiar and Hathaway nails it.

Rosemarie DeWitt is quite good as well, even though her role forces her to be a bit of a whiner. But we’re sympathetic because she’s been in the shadow of her needy sister for so long and we understandable why she’d want some attention on her big day. Debra Winger is excellent in her few minutes of screen time, reminding us why she was one of our greatest stars at one point. Let’s hope this means she’ll be coming back soon.

But the real revelation for me was Bill Irwin as the father. He’s a man that is clearly always the life of the party, always quick with a joke and always there for his girls that they take him for granted. He’s the guy who is always there to help but nobody wants to ask for help. He’s the silent glue that holds everyone together and Irwin plays it perfectly, like a sad clown trying to juggle knives. This man should at least get a nomination come Oscar time.

The rest of the supporting cast does great work, from Anna Deavere Smith as the stepmother to Mather Zickel as the best man. The greatest compliment I can give the film is that there is not a note in the film, from any of the cast members, that feels off or unrealistic.

Overall, the film is good but not great. There are lulls in the proceedings, like a real wedding, and it makes me wonder if that’s part of the point. The rehearsal dinner scene seems to go on a while, but it’s also incredibly instructive when it comes to letting us into the characters’ lives and rhythms.

The music is something that a lot of critics will be going nuts over because it’s kind of an integral part of the film. It’s good, but it’s not mind-blowingly great, it’s not like we’re watching Demme’s Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense. It’s really nice, solid music that is emanating from all over at all times. I wish Tunde Adebimpe and his band TV on the Radio would have added a few songs to the soundtrack.

Jenny Lumet has inherited her father Sidney’s skill for no-frills drama. There is only one scene in the whole film that could be called a “wow” scene, but there is no catharsis in the film. Life goes on, like it does in most of Demme’s films; not with a life-altering change, but with a knowing smirk. When the film finally ends, none of the characters are drastically different, but maybe – just maybe – they’re on their way.

Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies

I just wanted to say a few words about this short documentary from Arne Glimcher, produced by Martin Scorsese.

For anybody who loves film, this is a must-see. I, for one, have always been fascinated by film history and I love to learn about the roots of the art form that I adore. This is one of those films, where we listen to great artists and directors like Julian Schnabel, Chuck Close and yes,Martin Scorsese discuss how film influenced artists like Pablo Picasso and vice versa. This is evidence by many clips from silent films that you may or may not have heard of by directors like Thomas Edison and Georges Melies. We get to see how the movement of cinema opened up a lot of doors for Picasso when it comes to transporting that kind of movement onto his canvases. But the real treat of the film is to watch how color was used in some of those early silent films by using different filters, etc.

I’m not sure if this film will be getting any sort of release in theaters near you, but if you have the opportunity and sixty minutes to spare, it’s really a treat to watch.

– Noah Forrest
September 12, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon