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.

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.

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.

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.

Playing Catch-Up — From Beyond the Grave; The Family Fang; Black Mass

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From Beyond the Grave (Kevin Connor, 1974). Drawn from the horror short stories of British author Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, this anthology film from the macabre minds at Hammer Studios offer a quartet of twisty tales of supernaturally-charged comeuppance, all of them stirred into being after individuals engaged in ethically-challenged transactions with an antique store proprietor (Peter Cushing, gleaming menace). As in all but inevitable given the format, some stories work better than others. But each segment has at least one element that works wonderfully, such as David Warner’s mounting exhaustion as he’s compelled to murder by a haunted mirror, or the delightfully loopy performance by Margaret Leighton as a clairvoyant who offers her services in expelling an invisible demon from an otherwise humdrum home. A story entitled “An Act of Kindness” is the strongest, due to especially creepy performances from Donald and Angela Pleasance (father and daughters thespians playing, appropriately, father and daughter) and a twist ending that’s actually surprising. Kevin Connor brings a playful sense of humor to the staging without ever skewing into condescension.

 

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The Family Fang (Jason Bateman, 2015). It was probably the darkly comedic elements of this story that made Jason Bateman seem like a viable choice for director, as if it could be an extension on the tone he employed in his reasonably promising feature debut as a helmer, Bad Words. But there are far more layers to this examination of the lingering repercussions of growing up in a colorfully troubled clan, and Bateman delivers a muddled mess almost entirely devoid of emotional authenticity. Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman, who also isn’t up to the acting task he’s undertaken) are smarting from their wild childhoods as pawns in the social stunt performance art of their parents (played in their younger years by Jason Butler Hamer and Kathryn Hahn, and in pending dotage by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). There’s nothing psychologically astute about the film. It’s so inert that it practically disproves Leo Tolstoy’s famed quote about the individualized uniqueness of unhappy families.

 

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Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). This biographical fiction about infamous Boston organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) desperately wants to be a the second coming of Goodfellas, with a bit of The Departed cross-stitched in for good measure. Instead, Black Mass offers convincing proof that Scorsese’s mobster masterwork would have been incredibly dull had each entry in the famed procession of retribution killings set to “Layla” been instead fully dramatized, complete with predictable fake-outs of mercy before each trigger pull. Perhaps the only element of Black Mass that’s surprising is the remarkable array of affected Boston accents, no two alike and yet all equally atrocious. It’s like a Whitman sampler of drawn-out vowel sounds. Scott Cooper assembles a cast stacked with names and then leaves most of them stranded, gaping at proceedings with a level of stern seriousness so heightened that it reads as befuddled worry. Depp, in the dire downswing of a once promising career, is terrible in the main role, but he has plenty of company in acting ignominy, including Dakota Johnson, who delivers one of the least convincing line readings of the word “motherfucker” ever committed to film.