From the Archive — Letters from Iwo Jima

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Last week, I dug out the old review for Clint Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers. It’s time for his follow-up. Since I initially took the occasion of revisiting these reviews of Eastwood films to call into question some of the more overt veneration of his skills as a director, I now feel obligated to add that this effort nabbed a reasonably secure place on my top ten list for the year it was released. 

Well it’s a damn sight better than Flags of Our Fathers, I’ll say that.

The companion to director Clint Eastwood’s earlier film about the battle of Iwo Jima shifts the perspective from the American soldiers who charged onto this little chunk of land in the Pacific to the Japanese fighting men who held their fingers on triggers as they sat in tunnels dug into the hillsides, poised for a battle that they knew was hopeless. Eastwood was trying to cover a lot of ground with Flags, drawing in the carnage of war, the impact of images, the calculated use of heroic veterans to bring in enough money to keep the wheels of war turning, the trauma of adapting to live on the homefront again, and the far-reaching legacy of World War II. In Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood largely concentrates on the battle itself, both the preparation on the part of the Japanese and what happens when the bullets and bombs start to fly. By doing less, he achieves more.

Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Eastwood in this instance is to note that Letters doesn’t feel like a movie made by an American director about a different culture. It has none of the condescension or leaden exposition that often drifts into the most well-meaning of features. Instead, Eastwood’s film truly seems immersed in the lives and ideologies of these men it depicts. For instance, the cultural norm that self-inflected death would be more honorable and preferable to facing defeat at the hand of the Americans is illustrated dramatically in several effective and harrowing moments, but Eastwood is clear-eyed about it. He passes no judgment on this men, and also offers no overt explanations for their actions. This is simply how it was, and he shows it to with the quiet assurance that he has conveyed their lives and their world effectively enough for it all to make sense.

That’s not to say that Eastwood implies a uniformity of belief or vision among these Japanese soldiers. A great strength of this film is that he commits to highlighting the individuality of these men, often in very subtle ways. Every man who pulls a pin on a grenade or aims his rifle has a different reaction to the situation he finds himself in. For every man who screams “Banzai!” with conviction, there is another who does it will heavy reluctance, and then a small fleet who stand at different points on the spectrum between those two reactions. These contrasts aren’t especially highlighted by Eastwood, simply captured by his camera. As always, he brings a great restraint to his film-making. Moments that other directors would inflate with bombastic music and technique, Eastwood lets play out with the flatness of real life. In letting a Japanese soldier read aloud the words of a dead American G.I.’s letter from home with no score accompaniment, for example, the film finds a fresh power in that moment. For a moment, it feels like it may not be a movie construction after all, but a legitimate piece of the wartime experience, the discovery that the enemy’s letters read a lot like your own.

As admirable as Eastwood’s approach may be, it has its downside, too. Like many of his films, the careful pacing occasionally becomes too languid. When you want the film to start moving more briskly to its conclusion, Eastwood keeps it at a gentle amble. That leaves time to further admire the performances of Ken Watanabe as the Japanese General overseeing the futile stand on the island or Kazunari Ninomiya as a soldier who values self-preservation over death-with-honor, but it also gives you time to check your watch and start thinking about what to have for dinner.

It’s hard to be too critical of that, however, as it really is a marker of Eastwood’s style. And when that style can yield unique accomplishments like Letters from Iwo Jima it seems a fair compromise.

One for Friday — Jane Wiedlin, “Rush Hour”

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Although I was present and aware during the time when the Go-Go’s dominated radio, MTV, and good chunk of pop culture as a full-on sensation, I don’t recall if there was any particular pressure to identify a favorite band member. Regardless, I was ready from early on to stand up an be counted as a member of Team Jane Wiedlin. I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of an associated crush .

By the time the group splintered into solo endeavors, I’d adopted a music taste that shunted the Go-Go’s into the category of the uncool. Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to what Wiedlin or her cohorts did in the aftermath of their huge, flaring success. Similarly, the inevitable reunions that began in the nineteen-nineties stirred no interest. Callously ignoring the harsh reality of life as a musician, I took as further justification of my dismissal the fact that the Go-Go’s needed to stoop to playing the same oldies circuit gigs then largely reserved for the likes of haphazard simulacrums of Motown acts and other sixties relics

Sometimes, though, time can be kind. Just as I now have a greater appreciation for the easy, playful pop invention of the Go-Go’s, I have in recent years found my way to some of Wiedlin’s solo work and found it consistently winning. Arguably, I shouldn’t have missed “Rush Hour,” which pushed its way into the Billboard Top 10. Of course, that was in 1988, arguably the pinnacle of my principled rejection of all things popular.

I can now hear it as a glistening wonder, drawing on the sounds of the day while giving them the backbone of sturdy songwriting. It places me solidly back in the era in which it was released, but had also picked up a pulse of lovely timelessness, as if it represents all the pop ever was and could be. It would seem completely at home in Carly Rae Jepsen’s increasingly impressive songbook.

I’ll also offer this note: Charlie Brooker would immediately demolish any misgivings I have about a sequel to “San Junipero” by prominently featuring “Rush Hour” on the soundtrack.

Listen or download —> Jane Wiedlin, “Rush Hour”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Jane Weidlin’s solo catalog is tough to come by, at least as physical objects that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. This song is shared with that belief, but also the strong urge to go out and give some business to the record store of your choice. Wiedlin gets money if you full in the Go-Go’s gaps in your collection, too. Although I believe sharing this song in this way in this place constitutes fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

My Misspent Youth — Black Panther by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Well before there was a comic book industry press eager to cover every instance of a noted creator signing up to work with one publisher or another, there was only person whose place on the payroll was notable enough to be an event in and of itself. And he was the King.

Artist Jack Kirby effectively co-created the Marvel Universe, and it’s reasonable to infer that the loftiest, boldest inventions came straight out of his pencil. When, fed up with his treatment, he left Marvel to join the distinguished competition, it was an event touted with breathless excitement in full-page ads. And when Kirby had his House of Ideas homecoming, it was similarly cause for fevered promotional celebration.

Reflecting his rampant, restless creativity, Kirby largely devoted himself to crazy new concepts, even if he had to shoehorn them into titles based on licensed material. There were exceptions, including a return to Captain America, a character he’d helped create over thirty years earlier. Because of my abiding affection for the Fantastic Four — and Kirby’s legendary, transformative original run with the characters — nothing from the King’s nineteen-seventies Marvel stretch so quickly stirs up for joy for me than his tenure on Black Panther, a series he launched with a first issue cover dated January 1977.

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Kirby was the co-creator on Fantastic Four #52, published in 1966, which introduced Black Panther and much of the lore around the character, including the African nation of Wakanda. According to his son, it was Kirby’s idea to introduce some notable diversity into the Marvel Universe, though, as with all things in the fruitful, fraught partnership between Kirby and writer Stan Lee, differing memories abound.

“I recall during the winter or early spring he asked me what I would think of a black superhero in the comics. Of course he was very much for it, as we all were at the time,” Neal Kirby recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “My father was a very social liberal person. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day. He very much believed in social justice and equality, so he honestly thought it was time. Why shouldn’t African Americans have their own superhero?”

Some ten years later, Kirby was both writer and artist on a series starring Black Panther, largely ignoring the history of the character that had built up in the interim, opting instead to plunge him into bold, colorful stories that bent reality in a way only possible in the comics and allowed for plenty of patented Kirby Krackle.

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Marvel Comics in the nineteen-seventies were inclined toward wild flights of fancy, but no one could go wilder than Kirby. His opening storyline involving frog statues imbued with metaphysical powers that could send or beckon figures hurtling through time. This, naturally, led to Black Panther being pressed into battle from a strange being from millions of years in the future. And there was more and more, the universe of Kirby’s ideas truly so boundless even he sometimes couldn’t describe what he concocted.

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As Kirby’s son Neal noted, the great comic book creator had strong political beliefs, but those usually didn’t intrude in an overt way to the stories he created. Social issues were given no more than glancing attention. Instead, Kirby honored a character like Black Panther by simply giving him the same platform he’d give any other figure. Although I doubt he would have used this precise language, he knew that representation mattered. He was a hero. And he was super.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Playing Catch-Up — Murder on the Orient Express; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; A Cure for Wellness

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Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). This adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famed novels finds Kenneth Branagh in his happy showman role, both in the officiously constructed visuals and in his leading performance as detective Hercule Poirot. The famous sleuth is pressed into service when a brutish train passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin. The screenplay by Michael Green (whose packed slate of 2017 releases also included a justly lauded superhero reinvention and a couple lousy science fiction brand extensions) obediently follows the rhythms of the nearly inscrutable mystery story, with colorful suspects pleading their innocence right up to the big reveal, which of course includes a snarled admission of guilt. It has the makings of grand, theatrical fun, but only Michelle Pfeiffer seems to realize the best approach is to swing for the fences with every line reading. Between this and mother!, Pfeiffer is showing that if she’s destined to age into less glamorous roles, she’s damn well going to do it with admirable gusto.

 

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dan Gilroy, 2017). In the sociopolitical push and pull of Academy Awards nominations, the voting body of the MPAA could certainly have done worse than a citation of merit they gave to Denzel Washington’s work as the titular character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The performance certainly doesn’t rank among the very best from the screen titan (and, being honest, probably isn’t as strong as that of the Oscar hopeful he likely displaced, freshly reestablished problem child James Franco), but it’s at least markedly, blessedly different, giving Washington the rare opportunity to call on some character actor inventiveness. To the degree that Washington flounders as an unorthodox, socially maladjusted lawyer, it’s most attributable to the rickety efforts of writer-director Dan Gilroy, who follows the well-meaning but eye-rolling inanities of Nightcrawler with a similarly compromised exercise in eager plumbing of slippery modern morality. Gilroy’s storytelling isn’t as twisted and daring as he seems to think it is, giving the film an ugly sheen of smug self-congratulation.

 

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A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017). This utterly wackadoodle horror-thriller suggests what Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island would have been if it had no interest in — or maybe capacity for — psychological gamesmanship. Certainly that impression is only heightened by the presence of Dane DeHaan, resembling more than ever Leonardo DiCaprio recovering from a bout with tuberculosis. And then there’s the decision to defer to bygone costume and art direction styling at every turn, despite the contemporary setting of the story. It would be baffling, except so little of the film makes any sense at all that quibbling over mildly incongruous storytelling trappings is like clucking about wallpaper design as the house burns down. Before he set sail with the Jack Sparrow money machine of diminishing returns, Gore Verbinski was an intriguing director, albeit with a troubling tendency towards the hyperkinetic. Now his artistry is as sadly confused as the various characters flailing in circles in A Cure for Wellness.

From the Archive — Flags of Our Fathers

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Clint Eastwood has a new film out. It is not being especially well-received. In general, I’ve long found the movie critic discourse around Eastwood’s directorial career to be a little perplexing. I’ve liked many of his films, including proud placement of a few on various lists of laudatory accomplishment. But to refer to Eastwood as one of the great filmmakers (I remember at least once critic, circa Mystic River, positing that Eastwood was the greatest American director then working) requires turning a blind eye to a lot of flawed material, even if one generously ignores the absolute worst efforts. I think many critics keep projecting layers of intriguing subtext that simply isn’t there. They believe Eastwood is making statements, though the man himself insists he just makes movies. Arguably, the strongest illustration of the gap between the myth of Eastwood’s artistry and the actual expression of it came in 2006, when in quick succession he delivered two different films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, each from an opposing perspective. One film worked, and one didn’t. This week and next, I’ll excavate my original reviews.

In adapting the the non-fiction bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood is arguably making the most conventional important and serious-minded film of his career. From Play Misty For Me on, Eastwood’s films as a director have always had a sort of pulpy feel. Even his two Oscar winners, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, are immersed in the sort of from-the-gut storytelling one associates with the old school rough and tumble publications that employed the likes of Raymond Chandler and Louis L’Amour, guys who pushed away from the typewriter after rapping out story with dirt under their fingernails. This isn’t to suggest that Eastwood is out of his depth with this World War II drama because his lacks the artistic maturity or nuance to handle the material. Instead where he gets lost is in the script’s disjointed construction. There’s essentially two different films here and Eastwood simply can’t bring them together. The other characteristic of those old pulp stories is that the were unrelentingly straightforward. That’s the kind of filmmaker Eastwood is, but that’s not the kind of film Flags of Our Fathers is.

The book was written by the son of one of the men in the famous photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, one of the most iconic images in American history. His story kinda-sorta shows up in a framing sequence in the film. In the early portion of the film, Eastwood includes moments of him interviewing people about the image, the soldiers and the battle of Iwo Jima. Those brief exchanges are intercut with scenes set in the battle itself, the journey of the photograph through the American consciousness and the halls of government and the celebrations of the men captured on film. Throwing everything out there at the beginning and letting the rest of the film catch up to all the elements that have been introduced is not an especially rare technique, but it’s one that’s new to Eastwood filmmaking toolbox, and he has simply lacks the touch to pull it off. The film opens as a muddled mess, more baffling than compelling.

As noted before, it basically settles down into two different films: the Battle of Iwo Jima and the experiences of the three surviving soldiers from the photograph after they are pulled from their active duty to stump for war bonds because the funds to finish the war are not there. When Eastwood is training his camera on the bursting war itself, the film is surprisingly weak. It doesn’t help that the dusty, bleached cinematography inevitably recalls Steven Spielberg’s superior Saving Private Ryan, but even without the comparison, Eastwood rarely achieves any coherence with his storytelling in these moments. That clumsiness keeps the emotions of the battle itself at a distance. For the most part, if guns are cracking and explosions are bursting on the beach, Flags is floundering.

The film fares better when it turns it attention to men after they’ve returned home, perhaps because this is where Eastwood finally seems to be saying something fresh. As soon as the photo hit the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, the military knew they had a public relations coup, the sort of simple patriotic image that would give them the needed boost of homefront morale to finish the job overseas. The soldiers were now enlisted in a different battle, moving between big city rallies and gala parties getting celebrated as heroes and raising desperately needed funds in the process. Just daring to note the last just war almost bankrupt the nation is a little bit of boldness from Eastwood, as is the depiction of the crass exploitation of the men, the way they were summarily discarded and forgotten once they’d served their purpose. Still, there’s generally a flatness to the characters themselves. Ryan Phillippe’s “Doc” Bradley is a quiet cipher, the eyes of the audience, a reduced to bland passivity. Jesse Bradford is stuck with exactly one trait to play as proudly glad-handled Rene Gagnon. Only Adam Beach gets a full-fledged, juicy role to play with Ira Hayes, a Native American soldier whose emotions are desperately close to the surface. Beach responds with a fiercely dedicated performance.

Eastwood’s most effective tribute emerges during the closing credits. He gives us the photos of the real men, simple snapshots of proud, worried soldiers staring directly into the camera, or wounded men being helped across the battlefield. At the end, it cuts to a shot of the memorial that currently stands on the island of Iwo Jima where the flag once flew and the camera drifts off to view the black sand beach from a distance, the carnage long gone, the machinery of the war absent. In that quiet moment, that gentle gesture, Eastwood does more for those men and that place than the rest of his muddled film can muster.

One for Friday — Meryn Cadell, “The Sweater”

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As we come upon the time when exhaustive discussion of the Winter Olympics swamps out all other topics for a couple of weeks (with the sartorial and broadcasting stylings of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir the only aspect of the spectacle worthy of attention), it seems an acceptable time to reflect on the greatest figure skating performance I ever witnessed.

It was 1997, during — the internet suggests — the Ladies Professional Figure Skating Championships. Josée Chouinard, a Canadian skater who was her country’s top champion three different years, took to the ice accompanied by music that was notably different than the usual co-opted movie scores that aligned the physical feats of the performance with orchestral swells. Instead, the arena speakers boomed out “The Sweater,” a spoken word pop nugget by Meryn Cadell which I knew well from my college radio days.

“The Sweater” recounts the teen tragicomic tale of a girl pining after a hunky lad, briefly claiming his toasty top with “that slightly goat-like smell which all teenage boys possess” as a prize of potential shared affection. The song is as well-crafted as an expert short story, marked by turns of fate, acute emotional observation, and a pitch perfect sense of humor.

When Chouinard skated to the song, she adhered to its narrative and acted out different key beats.  She plays to the details of the lyrics without sacrificing any of the needs of the athletic performance, placing her various jumps and spins with cunning skill. And she does it all while wearing the garment of the song’s title, which is as floppy and oversized as the lyrics suggest, giving Chouinard an entire other element that could easily throw off her critical balance.

It’s inventive and charming, showing that a figure skating performance can have a whole other level of wit and style than is normally the case. I have only the most marginal interest in figure skating, and I adore Chouinard’s piece. Let everyone else be rapt before the NBC-trumpeted new ice battles. I’ll stick with this twenty year old marvel, thanks.

Listen or download —> Meryn Cadell, “The Sweater”

(Disclaimer: As best as I can tell, Angel Food for Thought, the album that’s home to “The Sweater,” is out of print, at least as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It may have turned up elsewhere — it is a bit of a cult hit — but my meager, half-hearted detective work turned up no such placement. The track is shared here with the belief that my fair use impedes no fair commerce. If the album can be bought, do nab it. I’ll finally note that I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Seven

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There is a truism of storytelling that I think uniquely consistent in its accuracy: Intense specificity is the key to creating a fiction that is strikingly universal. I well remember 1983, the year in which Call Me By Your Name is set, but I can say with certainty that my youthful experience was unlike that of the film’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), in practically every way. Even if I can’t exactly relate to a teen experience of falling in love with a handsome male academic (Armie Hammer) against a picturesque Italian landscape, all under the watchful affection of intellectually and culturally advanced parents (Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg), I feel a bracing recognition in watching every bit of what Elio goes through. That’s in part because of the artful writing (by James Ivory, adapting an André Aciman novel) and in part because of the patient, probing, lyrical direction of Luca Guadagnino. And much of it can be laid directly at the shuffling feet of Chalamet, who captures the adolescent process of establishing a strong sense of self, marked by petulance, impulsiveness, curiosity, doubt, confidence, and rawness, often swirling together in a woozy morass of reverberating emotion. Call By You Name is piercing in its beauty and its honesty. In telling one story with spirit and grace it seems to touch on all stories, drawing them together in a sense of broad understanding, at least for any who care to look.