Tuesday, October 7, 2008

St. Anna Review Part 1

So, last night I finally made it to the movies. My favorite little theatre was not playing Miracle at St. Anna, so I had to settle for the huge multiplex a few towns away.

First off, wtf? $21 to see a freaking movie? No wonder the box office is a roller-coaster ride. It does not take a genius to figure out that people are going to carefully pick and choose the films they want to see, and of course, the summer is a huge box office success with teenagers being out of school and young adults home from college, allowing them to take in discounted matinee showings.

Did I also mention that a freaking bottle of water cost $4? Four freaking dollars.

Now, you might ask, which rock did I crawl out from under, and when was the last time I set foot in a theater? It’s been a few months. However, I used to try and make a movie at least once a week, and because of this, I had become friendly with the manager of my quaint local movie house. I was only paying half price - if that. In fact, what my husband and I spent to see the movie last night, we’d pay the same amount for our family of four and a small popcorn at our local movie place. The manager is smart, because in actuality, I was spending more at the local place than I would ever plan to at the big complex.

It’s all in the come back.

BUT NO! Not in our time of instant gratification - we want to see our return in our pockets immediately. Where have the real business thinkers gone? Long term is the key - short term equals easy come, easy go. Wake up people!

Anyway, I digressed badly, but I just had to get that off my chest. My two cents - bring down the price of movie tickets and the other crap, and you’ll get the business. We all like a bargain - especially those that really don’t exist. If you’re going to screw the little guy, then at least screw him correctly.

Okay, okay, so back to the movie at hand.

I wanted sooooooo much to LOVE this film. I mean, I wanted to come home and go on and on and on about it... wait a minute, I did, but t not in the way I’d hoped.

I must first state this is extremely personal, and my review is extremely biased. Why? Because I wanted to adapt this film sooooo bad. I had even discussed it with one of my teachers at NYU, and I LOVE the book. I saw bits and pieces of the film in my head, and I felt the characters were waiting to come to life.

When I learned that Spike Lee was directing, yes, I was bitter, but not delusional. He’s Spike freaking Lee and I’m some chick who writes a blog that no one reads. I pretty much knew he had this one. I was also happy to learn that McBride was adapting the novel. Knowing the extensive research he’d done, I felt he knew the subject better than anyone, and that the essence of the story would not be distorted.

But, I’m a screenwriter who has tried her hand at writing a novel and the two, my friend, are quite different. One is NOT easier than the other, but they each have their own distinct set of obstacles to overcome. It’s no secret that producers and development folks are a little wary of having novelists adapt their own work. Can the author take all of these characters and story-lines that they’ve spent countless hours with and chisel them down to a compact story? Can they kill entire characters and create new ones? Can they let go of themes that were important to them, but do not translate well to the screen? Can they take their novel and make it anything but a novel?

Some can. I can’t say that McBride can or cannot, as I do not know the circumstances that went into making the film. All I can do is study and dissect the end product.

Who am I to dissect anything? I’m a student, and it’s one of the many ways to learn. Sure, I can examine films that everyone considers classics, or even the ones that I love. It would be quite obvious to understand what works and why. It’s the ones that disappoint or completely miss any kind of mark that make for good learning tools.

Let me also take the time to state that I don’t know shit. These are my own observations, and a ton of people will disagree. I welcome those disagreements, for that, too, is a great learning tool.

Okay, so let me start with what I loved about the film.

  • It’s a Spike Lee Joint.
What do I mean by this? Spike Lee owns this film. If I were to gather a group of people who had seen only a handful of Spike Lee’s work and showed them this film, playing it backwards and out of order, without telling them anything about what they were watching, they would know within seconds that it was a Spike Lee movie.

I admire this in all directors who have the ability to put a stamp on their work. It shows an air of confidence, the much needed arrogance to survive in this industry. Spike has mastered a style - his style, and makes no freaking apologies for it. You go boy... I mean, man.

  • The original screenwriter remained on the job.
As a screenwriter, I’m always admiring that aspect of any director/producer(s) team. For me, it shows that all those involved are committed and passionate about the story. The core of why the project got started remains intact. And, hey, I’m a screenwriter who would never want to get fired - yeah, it’s a very personal and somewhat selfish reason, so sue me.

  • The original source material.
It’s a really powerful story. I’d never before had an interest in WWII. However, after reading this book, I wanted to learn more. I was curious, not only about the black soldiers who fought so valiantly, but I was also curious about the Italian people McBride had so passionately brought to life. While I completely understood the racial tensions and divisions presented in the book, I was able to gradually put aside race and discrimination and see the beauty of individual people as they shared the same fears and hopes, despite the color of their skin. McBride’s book spoke directly to my personal belief that good and evil share the same blurred lines.

  • The cinematography and set design.
I have always been drawn to the way a film looks, even way before I understood that it was an important aspect of moviemaking. After making my own short film, I also learned the importance of designing a world that draws an audience in. In terms of the look and feel of the world being created, Miracle of St. Anna was engaging. I particularly loved the small town it was shot in. I loved the symmetry of the town and how it correlated to my feelings of the soldiers being boxed in. The cold stone walkway spoke volumes in bringing to life the roughness and detachment the situation of war brought to all involved.

I also loved the colors used to shoot the film. The drabness kept me, the audience member, in a state of uneasiness - transporting me to that world by simply assaulting one of my important senses. I do hope that this does not go unnoticed by the many critics during awards time. For example, one of the most beautifully-shot films was Kundun, and the Academy recognized this, despite its poor reviews and its inability to win over an audience. Filmmaking is collaborative, and while one leg may not do well, another might shine.

  • The rawness.
The violence was real and in-your-face. The massacre scene was definitely brutal and painful. He pulled no punches when showing the brutality and senselessness of war.

  • It was made.
Hey, I’m not delusional. Making a film of this stature takes lots of money. There was a lot of shit blown-up, and the mangled bodies with their missing limbs, and disfigured faces took some cheddar - mucho dinero.

And let’s cut the crap. Spike Lee is controversial - this is PC for “he ain’t holding back shit”. His little tit-for-tat with Clint Eastwood clearly illustrates, if he feels it and thinks it, he’ll say it. I’d be curious to find out if he actually does hold back. If he does, man oh man, I’d love to see what he really thinks.


After I came home last night, I immediately started rereading the novel, thinking maybe I’d missed something or misread the book. I’m still in the process of reading, as well as slowly rolling around in my head exactly what did not work for me. As of now, one of the biggest problems I have with the film is character development, and not feeling emotionally attached to any of the characters. While I felt strongly about the subject matter and the situation these men were placed in, I found myself grasping to hold on to any one of the character’s personal story. I wanted to love or hate the characters for who they were as a person, rather than for the situation they found themselves in.

Maybe this was the point Spike Lee was trying to make, and, if so, he definitely nailed it. Maybe it’s not right to judge an individual person. Maybe the f’d-up situations people find themselves in dictate their actions. Maybe it’s not important to know who the person is, but what the person has done in the face of adversity.

I don’t know, maybe me needing to connect with a character on a personal level is highly overrated. But what I do know is that my husband and I sat in a movie theater with four other strangers, two of which got up and left only ten minutes into the film. Why aren’t audiences responding? Why hasn’t word of mouth traveled? Is there a disconnect, and is it the job of a filmmaker to connect with an audience?

Hopefully, I’ll have part 2 up here in a few days, after I let my own personal disappointment and expectations fade further into the backdrop and do some serious analysis of the film and its original content.

Also, if anyone reading this (the two people who drop by) has a copy of the script, or knows where I can get my hand on it, please let me know.

I also welcome anyone who has seen the film to share their thoughts on the above points.

One thing I can say without a doubt, the film stayed with me, and I would recommend others to view it for themselves. In all fairness, it was entertaining and didn’t feel like a 2 hour and 40 minutes film.

But, more to come.


Anonymous said...

I haven't had a chance to see the movie, and the nearest theater showing it is about 1 hour away. Fortunately for me it only cost $9 to see a movie in FL. Your blog has made me want to read the book. I am the worst when it comes to commenting on movies; I actually enjoy watching bad movies. Enjoyed reading this post. Thanks Tracy.

Tracy said...

Regine, I'm not sure if I would actually call Miracle at St. Anna bad, I think it was more of a disappointment to me.

It is definitely a good read. I did finish reading it again, and I will post part two of the blog review in a few days.

Thanks for stopping by. If you read the book, I'd love to hear what you think.