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Friday, February 23, 2007

Film Reviews

Here are two reviews of the Best Pic. Nom's. ( the only major oscar nominee I haven't seen is The Queen)
Just as a footnote, I gave 3 Five-star reviews last year. For a film to get a fifth star it has to go over and above being an excellent film. Four stars is generally the maximum, but a fifth star goes to a film that has something special. This year I have given out five-stars to four films:
United 93, When the Levees Broke, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Half Nelson.


Letters from Iwo Jima
* * * * *
R for graphic violence
Reviewing a war film is always difficult. Mankind in extreme and violent situations lends itself easily to time-tested cliches, and emotional manipulation. It is also difficult to approach a film that has received a large amount of celebration. Usually, in both circumstances, there is some level of disappointment or frustration. Yet, Letters from Iwo Jima, deserves every award, every piece of praise, and acclaim it has received, and then some.
I was one of three people in the theater for this showing. But this is a film that should be seen by everyone. I don’t see how anyone, having seen both of Eastwood’s films from this year, could ever consider going to war as a possibility. His films are not preachy or even have an anti-war agenda. It is just the only possible conclusion that can be got out of watching the effect of this battle from both sides.
What Eastwood has done is unprecedented. He has given us a historic battle, and shown us both viewpoints. But he has done something more complex. He has shown us the implications of the war on the homefront, on what war does to men, and what effect war has on the generations who will follow. On both sides there are heroes, cowards, monsters, and saints. Eastwood’s films connect at three specific and fleeting points. Only one character is in both films. But it is those connections, that together make this pair of films, the best filmic statement on war since Adrzej Wajdja’s War Trilogy.
Kazunari Ninomiya, who was a member of a Japanese boy band, plays Saigo, a young husband and father, a former baker, and forced into army service. It is Saigo we follow, and Ninomiya’s face, like that of Zbigniew Cybulski in Wajdja’s Ashes and Diamonds, is a face that you will never forget, as he witnesses the horrific magnitude of the battle. Letters has a sense of dread, a reverence, and monumental sorrow that is masterful, and Ninomiya carries it all incredibly.
Eastwood is not as technically adept as someone like Scorsese, but he puts so much care and weight into each and every character that we can overlook those technical points that may have been better. While the carnage of the film is perhaps what makes it horrific, it is the characters that make the film shattering. Ken Wantanabe is amazing as the tragic General assigned to hold the Island. He is kind, and intelligent, but flawed. Other characters, such as that of a former Olympic Gold Medalist turned Captain, are equally unforgettable.
Apart the films are not as strong as they are together. Because we know the men and boys on the other side just as well from Flags of Our Fathers, and we want both sets of characters, those who we have grown to care about, to survive equally. That is the power of this set of films. There is no way out of the implications.


Babel
* * *
Babel is extremely well made. It is edited amazingly, the cinematography is incredible, it is well acted. But like Inaritu’s last film 21 Grams, I could not feel a connection to the characters, but I did feel a bit manipulated.
Another strange element of Babel is it’s strange theme of sexuality among youth. I did not feel that it was developed on it’s own to be well addressed, or tied enough to be used as a metaphor or comment to any other pieces of the film.
The main problem I have with the characters is that part of the essence of great tragedy is that we see how unfair fate is, or how a good person making one small mistake, can fall. But here there is not so much as unfavorable fate, or small, common mistakes. To put it bluntly, it is hard to feel sorry for people when they make so many stupid decisions. And that is where the manipulation comes in. The sense of tragedy feels manufactured. That tragedy is the only place we can go because it is a plot device.
The film is trying to say something generally about communication and interaction. The tag-line says: “If you want to be understood listen.” That’s something the screenwriter should have done a lot more of, because the film asks a lot of questions, but forces those questions to be asked rather than let them happen naturally. Part of that is done by the multiple storyline approach. It is clever. But it also cuts out a lot of emotion and lets us off the hook. Some people can do it well, and Innaritu can do it very well technically, but only a handful have been able to do it well and allow their characters to feel well developed.
The performances, as I said earlier are amazing. I wanted to feel something for their characters because the actors were doing such a great job. But I wasn’t given the space or time to do so.

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