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"Letters from Iwo Jima"

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis.  Some material based on a letter collection by Tadamichi Kuribayashi.
Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara and Shido Nakamura.
Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  1/14/07


I still can't figure out why almost no one went to see Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima epic "Flags of our Fathers" last fall; it was a great film by a great director featuring a subject matter that really was different for a war film--the use of war heroes to raise money in our failing economy of the 1940s.  It also had some great war footage; war really is hell when you are fighting against a truly caged animal, like the Japanese soldiers tasked with defending the strategically-placed island under control by the Japanese.

Like "Flags of our Fathers", "Letters from Iwo Jima" is similarly great but perhaps better, for almost everything that "Flags" decided to bypass; "Letters" is really only about the roughly two months of time that the Japanese use to prepare for the oncoming American assault of the island, not concerning itself at all with the aftermath of this event back home in Japan.  Also like "Flags", "Letters" spends almost no screen time dealing with the members of the other side, so here, 95% of the film is subtitled Japanese as we watch these men prepare for almost-certain death, knowing even before the Americans arrive that they are badly outnumbered and will receive no help from reinforcements during the duration of the fight.  We follow the Japanese commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, the Oscar nominee from "The Last Samurai"), as he leads his men through drills, tunnel digging and pep talks; these men include grunts like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and disgraced former officers like Shimizu (Ryo Kase) up through lieutenants like former Olympic equestrian athlete Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and stubborn Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura, from "Jet Li's Fearless" last year).

"Letters from Iwo Jima" is excellent from the jump; borrowing some of the same war footage from "Flags of our Fathers" (except flipped around, making some of the scenes even cooler because you see the cause of situations that lead to, say, Japanese soldiers taking the "honorable" way out), "Letters" is a bit more intense because you aren't really given a break once the fighting breaks out, which I liked.  Even though the film was directed by Eastwood, it very much feels like a Japanese film done by Japanese directors; the themes common to many other born-and-bred Japanese films around honor and male camaraderie are ever-present here and well-represented.  It's also strange to note that in both of these Iwo Jima films, Eastwood has subtly made the case that the Americans are the bad guys here, or maybe it's more accurate to say that the Japanese aren't as bad as they are made out to be even in more modern-day World War II film productions.  In "Flags", the U.S. government (especially after that film's main troika of stars comes home to promote war bonds) is made out to be the bad guy; here, we meet only one U.S. soldier in "Letters" (someone who is captured) and while he is a good guy, I found myself very sympathetic towards the Japanese soldiers for the way they seemed to have fought and the way their government really hung them out to dry.

"Letters" has startling war footage as well, none more so than when one unit of Kuribayashi's forces realizes that it is, for lack of a better term, shit outta luck, and their captain forces all of them to take a grenade out to meet their maker with honor.  Boy, I can't even imagine what that moment's got to be like--you're a goner no matter what you do; you were a goner the second you got the letter saying that you were being transferred to Iwo Jima; you were a goner the second you got into a cave where you were trapped and your options were 1) eat a grenade, or 2) don't eat the grenade, forcing your superior officer to put a bullet in your skull. imagine all of this in conditions where you are working on a swampy island, half your troops are suffering through dysentery, you've been out of food for three or four days...these two films have given my already-solid appreciation for war a swift kick to the rear, I can tell you that!

Excellent movie.  I can't see how this puppy won't be amongst the Best Picture nominees when they are announced in a few weeks.

Rating:  Opening Weekend


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09