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.

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Five

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Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, does heavy lifting. Set largely in nineteen-forties Mississippi, the adaptation from a Hillary Jordan novel (Rees and Virgil Williams are co-credited on the screenplay) depicts the hardships endured by two connected families on a sprawling, struggling farm, paying acute attention to the differing experiences of the white landowners and the black workers who toil there, hoping against hope that they’ll eventually scrape together the resources to find their way out. The divide is even more stark for Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), returning from military service in World War II. The respect he found while serving as a tank commander is strip mined away by virulent bigots intent on putting him in his place. Only a fellow veteran (Garrett Hedlund) according him due honor, a gesture that itself heightens the dangers against Ronsel. And that only begins to get at the narrative layers of the film, which Rees handles with astonishing adeptness. The different narrative streams all shape the terrain of the film, creating a full, compelling fiction. The film is about racism, but it doesn’t settle for pure villainy pummeling the oppressed with a few pained, benevolent standers-by. Instead, it shows the wide, disheartening range of prejudice, including the insidious sort practiced by those who feel they proceed through life without poisonous hate. The film is powerful, painful, and beautifully acted. (In addition to the performers already mentioned, Carey Mulligan is a standout.) Rees has made an emotional epic that expressed the deepest wounds of the nation’s soul.

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.

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number Six

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In the basic mechanics of its story, Baby Driver is familiar to the point of farce. There’s our hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), referenced in the title, a young man of preternatural skill whose excursion in the seedier side of society belies an inner kindness and purity — a heart of gold, if you will. Then there are the crimes in which Baby is unwillingly enmeshed, bold heists and elaborate getaways, all perpetrated by assemblages of colorfully villainous figures, usually blessed with darkly witty modes of verbal expression. This riotous romp through genre cliche and character archetypes has been writer-director Edgar Wright’s default mode throughout his career, but Baby Driver brings it to thrilling new levels. Every bit of information is vitally important, whether to fill out a character, or — a remarkable amount of the time — to establish the cog on which the plot will later turn. And Wright directs the film with joyous verve, expertly cutting scenes to a procession of grand, unexpected pop songs and exploiting the visceral thrills that come with a movie that races forward, straining all plausibility while also staying firmly bound to logic and physics. Baby Driver celebrates all the potential embedded in the craft of filmmaking, where sound and images can be stitched together to set the pulse racing, to spin the senses, and to give a well-worn story the giddy shock of the new.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #984 to #981

ub40 1980

984. UB40, 1980-1983 (1983)

The early nineteen-eighties was a good time to be dishing out gentle, reggae-influenced pop in the U.K. The band UB40 started germinating around 1978, when Ali Campbell took the compensatory award he received after enduring a physical assault and put it towards securing musical instruments for a bunch of his school chums. The first true live gig for UB40 took place in early 1979, and their first single — a double A-side featuring “King” and “Food for Thought” — was in shops within about a year.

The embrace in their homeland was warm and immediate, but UB40 struggled to make headway in the U.S., at least until a covers album in 1983 contained a slow-building smash. The attention from North American audiences might have been slow to come, but the band’s label for those territories seemed to think the chance for a breakthrough was there in 1983. In addition to covers album Labour of Love, A&M Records released a compilation dubbed 1980-1983. Though UB40’s singles were reasonably well represented, it was questionable to term the album a “greatest hits,” since one half of the band’s tracks to make it into the Top 10 in the U.K. were nowhere to be heard on the album.

The previously mentioned “King” and “Food for Thought” were present, as was “One in Ten,” which peaked at #7 after it was released as a single in 1981. Though pulled together from multiple releases, the compilation has a unmistakable low idle, island grove, whether on the cautionary tale “Don’t Do the Crime” or the slightly more loping “Present Arms.” The material is obviously accomplished within its genre, but there’s only so much creativity that can be mustered within these fairly tight musical confines.

 

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983. Heart, Dog & Butterfly (1978)

As I’ve previously shared, Heart’s fourth studio album enjoyed an impressively strong showing on the very first CMJ album chart, included in a prototype issue of the trade publication birthed in late 1978. CMJ co-founder Bobby Haber assembled the chart from the playlists of college radio stations all over the country, but it’s fair to say that the student broadcasters weren’t pushing into territory all that different from their brethren stocking the airwaves from commercial portions of the FM band. Heart notched a pair of Top 40 singles from Dog & Butterfly: “Straight On” and the title cut.

Dog & Butterfly was an important statement of independence for Heart. It was their first for Portrait Records, a fairly new subsidiary of Columbia Records. To get there, they’d bolted from Mushroom Records, in part because of dissatisfaction with marketing that salaciously played up the attractiveness of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the Seattle sisters who were the creative core of the band. Executives at Mushroom weren’t going to let Heart go without a fight, and extensive legal wrangling culminated with the band grudgingly finishing off one more album for their former corporate master.

Since this was the nineteen-seventies, the album had a veneer concept to it, with the A-side (dubbed “Dog”) stacked with harder rocking tracks (like “High Time,” which almost skews into the ever-treacherous prog rock territory) and the B-side (dubbed “Butterfly”) a little more gentle (a strategy almost stated explicitly on the song “Lighter Touch” ). Although I don’t think the approach is especially calculated, the end result is that listening to Dog & Butterfly is like a primer for what album rock radio sounded like right when it was revolting most emphatically against the disco music dominated the culture.

 

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982. Bolshoi, Lindy’s Party (1987)

When Lindy’s Party, the second full-length from the Bolshoi, was released, a profile of band began in writerly anguish:

God, it’s almost impossible to capture the true essence of a band as defiant of description as the Bolshoi without getting hopelessly lost in the alternative jungle of garbled romanticisms.  

I mean, should I even try?

Hailing from the modest English town Trowbridge, the Bolshoi offered a swirling, driving style of pop music that was the obvious descendent of new wave and edging toward the Brit pop derivation of alternative that briefly ruled college airwaves before Nirvana trundled in and toppled all the shelves. “Please” has an offhand, keening punch to it, and “T.V. Man” is amusing in its counter-culture tilting against the steel-reinforced windmill of pop culture (“One, two, three, hail TV/ Watching Dirty Harry made a man of me”). “Can You Believe It” is one of those tracks that sounds almost conspiratorial in its bratty deconstructionist approach to fussily descriptive lyrics and jalopy thump rhythms. It could only arrive in 1987.

The album is a little less successful when the Bolshoi strains in the direction of a bigger sound, as on “Crack in Smile,” which sounds like warmed over Psychedelic Furs. The band was never going to transform the world, so more modest musical aspirations suited them better. There’s not a thing wrong with that. There are bands that regularly carve out pained masterpieces that could never make a track as immediate — and, I’d argue, irresistible — in its appeal as “Swings and Roundabouts.” (“Ten o’clock, I’m drinking beer/ I don’t know why I come in here/ Well, it’s cold outside, yes, that’s true/ And I don’t really have much else to do” is so perfect a description of about half of my collegiate nights that I can even forgive the song for later rhyming “hero” with “beer, oh.”) If the price to pay is a few garbled romanticisms, it’s worth it.

 

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981. Split Enz, Time and Tide (1982)

There’s no doubt that the New Zealand band Split Enz are best known for nifty pop gems, the sort of songs that insinuate their way into the psyche in three minutes flat and lilt away, presumably to Heaven itself. They did bring a unique skill to those sorts of compositions, but the whole truth of their sonic output is a touch more complicated. Formed in 1972, Split Enz were a product of their time, which meant prog rock and blues-soaked epics, and thundering bombast at every opportunity. No matter which songs have endured with the greatest stickiness, all of that other material is part of their character, too.

Time and Tide, though it contains one of those shards of pop perfection in the form of the single “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” is more notable as a compendium of all of the band’s competing creative instincts. For their seventh studio album, Split Enz worked with producer Hugh Padham, fresh from assisting on the first two solo albums by Phil Collins. That provides a reasonable hint as to the overall feel of the album. Album opener “Dirty Creature” percolates with edgy energy,  “Never Ceases to Amaze Me” slaloms a disco beat around probing rock keyboards, and “Haul Away” sounds as though it was transferred over from the Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake or some other jaunty old rock opera about the undefinable malaise of the British middle class.

Time and Tide is a little all over the place, but that seems to be exactly what Split Enz wanted. If it’s messy, it’s also accomplished and gratifyingly exploratory. It tilts away from expectations just as often as it feeds fan desires. That’s a neat trick.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs