NEW AT THE MOVIES: War picture misses target - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

NEW AT THE MOVIES: War picture misses target

'Miracle at St. Anna' is Spike Lee's biggest film yet

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Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:02 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. 160 minutes. Two stars out of four.

With “Miracle at St. Anna,” Spike Lee takes on a big, old-fashioned war picture.

But he might not have been ready for the enormity of such a project. It’s wildly unfocused in terms of tone and, at 2 hours, 40 minutes, it is unjustifiably overlong.

“Miracle” tells of the men of the 92nd Infantry Division, black troops who served in Italy during World War II and were known as Buffalo Soldiers.

In following four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller), Lee jumps from visceral battle scenes to intimate drama to lighthearted comedy.

Beginning in 1983 New York, but mostly told in flashback, “Miracle at St. Anna” follows the earnest leader Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Luke), smooth-talking Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Ealy), Puerto Rican translator Cpl. Hector Negron (Alonso) and the sweet, lumbering Pfc. Sam Train (Miller). They’re sent to cross the Serchio River and not expected to make it. But once they do survive, they take in an injured boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and hide out in a Tuscan village, where the locals are initially wary of these heavily armed Americans but slowly warm to them.

Somewhere along the way, Train picked up a piece of a demolished bridge: a woman’s head made of stone, which he totes everywhere because he swears it’s good luck. We’ve glimpsed the head at the start of the film, hidden in a bag at the bottom of someone’s closet, and part of the point of “Miracle” is uncovering the mystery of its meaning.

The other mystery, though, comes as the young moppet Angelo, who seems to have a saintly quality about him. With his wide eyes and innocent disposition, he forges an unlikely bond with Train.

After finding some subtleties through those characters, though, moments like the film’s climax — the horrific event that took place at St. Anna and explains everything — veer to the opposite extreme.

GHOST TOWN

Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. Two stars out of four.

It’s a great idea that doesn’t have very far to go.

A guy dies for seven minutes while under anesthesia, then when he comes back to life, he sees dead people. And they see him, and talk to him, and follow him around Manhattan all day nagging him to help them with their unfinished business so they can go off to the great beyond in peace.

Naturally, the one the ghosts flock to hates people, dead or alive, and so he dreads the company.

This is a perfect fit for Ricky Gervais, whose brand of humor mines laughs from the moments in life that make you cringe: the awkward pauses, the uncomfortable asides. His character, Bertram Pincus, became a dentist specifically because he’d never have to talk to people — just shove cotton and sharp tools in their mouths to shut them up.

But you can only wander down this comic road for so long.

Greg Kinnear brings his usual wit and confidence to the role of Frank Herlihy, a cad who was having an affair when a bus struck and killed him. Frank befriends Bertram, much to the dentist’s dismay, and offers to keep all the other ghosts at bay if he’ll just do him a favor: keep his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni), from marrying a man he thinks is wrong for her.

That these two were ever married seems like a bit of a reach. Frank is a false and flashy businessman who prides himself on his ability to manipulate people; Gwen is an earthy and no-nonsense archaeologist who seems decently suited to her fiancé, a do-gooder human-rights lawyer, even though he appears humorless.

Nevertheless, the machine is in motion. Gervais and Kinnear play off each other nicely, the former with his wry one-liners, the latter all boundless energy and charm.

Then again, finding happiness is what “Ghost Town” is all about. Too bad Bertram — and the movie — were more enjoyable in their misanthropy.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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