Monday, January 15, 2007

Iwo Jima Times Two

Clint Eastwood deserves considerable credit for taking on the challenge of making two movies about the historic Battle of Iwo Jima: FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS from the U. S. viewpoint and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA from the Japanese perspective. Both films emphasize the sacrifices a soldier makes for his country. But, surprisingly, the latter film is the most impressive of the two.

With its devastating battle sequences and fine performances, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA helps us understand what it was like for the Japanese soldiers in those underground tunnels and caverns where they made their stand against an enemy that significantly outnumbered them in troops and firepower.

Ken Watanabe (from MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) portrays General Kuribayashi, the savvy Commander who developed a brilliant strategy enabling his men to hold out much longer than anyone expected. The film, in fact, is based on letters Kuribayashi wrote during the battle. Watanabe lends dignity and depth to this key role and is supported by an excellent group of Japanese actors, including Kazunari Ninomiya, as Saigo, a soldier who is just trying to stay alive in order to return to his wife, even when many of his comrades are committing suicide.

A great deal of this movie takes place underground in a long system of tunnels that formed the inspiration for tactics Kuribayashi created. Consequently, we get a little taste of the cramped feeling the Japanese soldiers must have experienced. And people who have seen FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS are given a dramatic look at the other side of the battle.

Watching these two Clint Eastwood films made me feel extremely sad about the 26,000 lives lost in the Battle of Iwo Jima, no matter which side they were on. And, even though subtitles bother some viewers, I think it was a good idea for the actors to speak in Japanese here because it enhanced the realism of this extraordinary movie.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Very Serious Robin Williams

In THE NIGHT LISTENER, scheduled for DVD release on January 9, an extremely serious Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a late night radio personality involved with an HIV-infected, sexually abused young boy and his adoptive mother who carry on a relationship with him by phone. Their calls started as the result of a remarkable book the boy has written about his tragic life.

One day, a close friend tells Gabriel that the woman and the boy sound quite a bit alike. Could it be possible they are the same person, and that the story is made up, not factual? Gabriel decides to track the mother and son down to find out the truth. His journey takes him to a small town in Wisconsin during the Christmas holidays. While there, he faces a number of surprises and disappointments. And yet, he still wants to believe.

THE NIGHT LISTENER is one of the most ambiguous mystery movies ever filmed. In fact, I am still confused about what happened. Although the lack of closure here disturbed me, Robin Williams tugged at my heart with his portrayal of a sad, lonely man searching for a son he never had -- and Toni Collette (the mother in THE SIXTH SENSE) is outstanding as a woman hiding more than one secret.