Location: Los Angeles, California

Friday, December 15, 2006

Letters from Iwo Jima

I am happy to report that "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a vast improvement over "Flags of Our Fathers."

Unlike "Flags," Clint Eastwood gets you to identify with these Japanese soldiers. Their conversations feel more natural, and Eastwood is able to generally resist the urge to ham it up (there’s no drunken Adam Beach in sight).

The first hour is rather daring in its restraint from action; instead, we spend time with a pack of characters before the Americans invade the island. It’s conveyed fairly early to General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) that his battle on Iwo Jima is not winnable – Japan is not sending reinforcements as the nation’s remaining forces are focusing their efforts on defending the mainland.

Watanabe’s performance as Kuribayashi is as clear as daylight. Here's an unwavering and charismatic leader who’s determined to defend this lifeless island to the death, if only because it's his duty to his country.

But the movie’s heart belongs to Kazunari Ninomiya, a young soldier who longs to return to his pregnant wife. Ninomiya, who’s 23 but appears to be in the process of growing his first pubescent mustache, charms his way through the war’s atrocities. By the picture’s conclusion, we’re more emotionally connected to him than anyone else.

Yet, the film is not without its flaws. As technically impressive as the battle sequences are, they feel as if they were imported from another movie... namely, "Flags of Our Fathers." I swear some of the footage is either the exact same or just unused takes that never made it into the first movie.

This becomes a problem for anyone who has already seen "Flags of Our Fathers," for these combat scenes quickly gain a heavy aroma of deja vu. It doesn't help that "Iwo Jima" is shot in the same bleach-bypassed color scheme, which was neat at first but grating after 5 hours – my eyes were starving for something green or blue.

And the film is too long by a good 20 minutes. Eastwood inserts 3 or 4 too many flashback sequences that add nothing to the dramatic or character arcs of the film.

Yet, as I realize I've been dwelling on a lot of negatives, I still want to stress that "Iwo Jima" is an excellent war film. It may lack the philosophical poetry of "The Thin Red Line" or the craftsmanship of "Saving Private Ryan," but it's a brave film because it tackles the WWII genre with a fresh pair of eyes.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)
Opens Dec. 20 in LA & NY


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