Two of the most powerful films of 2008, movies that stay with you long after their final credits roll by, are out this week on DVD. Yet “Miracle at St. Anna” and “Frozen River” are different in many ways, from their disparate scopes to the dissimilar experience and fame of their directors.
Over the years, director Spike Lee has become this country’s finest film chronicler of the African American experience - whether looking at history (“Malcolm X,” “4 Little Girls”) or contemporary life (“Do the Right Thing,” “He Got Game,” “When the Levees Broke”) but he had never made a war film until last year.
Miracle at St. Anna
Laz Alonso, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller, Matteo Sciabordi, Valentina Cervi, Pierfrancesco Favino, John Turturro, John Leguizamo
Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly
(Sony Pictures Classics; US DVD: 10 Feb 2009)
In “Miracle at St. Anna” (Touchstone Home Entertainment, $29.99 DVD/$34.99 Blu-ray, rated R), based on James McBride’s novel about the all-black 92nd “Buffalo Soldier” Division of the U.S. Army during World War II, Lee focuses on four soldiers who become separated from their unit behind enemy lines in war-torn Italy in 1944. They witness a horrifying massacre of Italian villagers by German troops, save the life of a little Italian boy and take refuge in a small village, where they battle alongside partisans against the Germans.
“Miracle at St. Anna” includes some of the most graphically realistic battle sequences I’ve ever seen, comparable to the intensity of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Lee forces audiences to confront the racism of the times, showing black soldiers based in Alabama being denied service at a white-owned restaurant, while German POWs and the U.S. Army MPs guarding them are treated with politeness and respect in the same establishment, and looking at the prejudice of some of the white officers in command of black troops. Lee also slows down the pace for touching, revealing and intimate scenes among the individual soldiers, who are hardly united in their perspectives and personalities, and between the soldiers and the Italian villagers.
Yet it is this very unevenness of pacing that ultimately makes “Miracle at St. Anna” fall short of what it could have been. In his large-scale, epic filmmaking style, Lee takes too many detours in the plot to sustain complete interest, even though the central story remains compelling and the ensemble cast, including Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller as the four principal soldiers, is excellent throughout.
Although the regular DVD for “Miracle at St. Anna” includes no bonus features, the Blu-ray edition comes with deleted scenes and two documentaries that explore the history of the Buffalo Soldiers during the war.
In “Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $28.96 DVD/$39.95 Blu-ray, rated R), the feature film debut by writer/director Courtney Hunt, the struggle is also for survival. But the enemies of Ray Eddy (played by Melissa Leo, best-known for TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street”) are both poverty, as she attempts to provide food and a home for her sons (aged 15 and 5) after her gambling-addicted husband runs off with all of their money, and her own impetuous behavior.
“Frozen River” is set around Christmastime in the cold and snow-packed upstate New York town of Massena, just across the St. Lawrence River from Canada and nearby territory controlled on both sides of the river by the Mohawk nation. Desperate to keep creditors at bay, Ray hooks up with a young Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham), who has her own personal problems and tragedies, to smuggle immigrants into the United States through Mohawk territory.
At every turn, writer/director Hunt packages her empathy for Ray and Lila and their plight with an unflinching look at what they are doing. There is no nobility in their smuggling of human beings, as some of those they drive across the unguarded border in Ray’s trunk appear to be virtually enslaved. But Ray cannot see, or feel, anything besides the money she needs to obtain.
Although Hunt provides Leo with some memorable supporting players, particularly Upham and Charlie McDermott, as Ray’s teenage son T.J, the camera is steadily focused on Leo. From the movie’s intense opening close-up on her pained and weary face through the film’s continual, almost-claustrophobic examination of her moods and feelings, Leo carries “Frozen River” with understated power. She’s a deserving recipient of a best-actress Academy Award nomination for her performance.
Hunt has also received multiple honors for her work, including a Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival for the movie and an Oscar nomination for her original screenplay. On both the DVD and Blu-ray editions, Hunt and producer Heather Rae provide an audio commentary in which they discuss the casting, the budget (under $1 million for a 24-day shoot) and the filmmaking process.