Category: Film/TV reviews

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

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An experienced lawyer struggles to transition to his new position after his longtime partner dies unexpectedly.

Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a veteran lawyer who primarily focuses on preparing briefs for civil rights cases. His longtime partner and mentor, William Jackson, is a respected figure among the black community in Los Angeles who has elevated the plea bargain deal to an art form. While naturally introverted and socially awkward, Israel has a brilliant legal mind and is well-regarded by his legal peers.

When Jackson passes away of a sudden heart attack, his firm goes bankrupt and Israel is forced to take a new job with an up-and-coming firm run by Jackson’s former assistant, George Pierce (Colin Farrell). While initially skeptical of Pierce’s motivations, Israel needs the money and Pierce believes that the veteran lawyer has the potential to make a real difference. Israel has a passion for authentic justice, but he doesn’t fit in well at the new firm, being viewed as a dinosaur by the other lawyers, and faces an uphill battle to prove himself in a new environment. However, Israel manages to take on a few cases that could dramatically influence the future of his career — perhaps sooner rather than later.

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an intriguing film. As usual, Washington is outstanding in the title role. It really is unlike any character he’s played before, and Washington earned his eighth career Oscar nomination off the strength of his performance.

However, the movie itself is a mixed bag. It doesn’t have a traditional me-against-the-world mentality that its plot might suggest, but it’s still fairly well-shot and well-written. Colin Farrell gives a solid performance as George Pierce, but his character is a little underdeveloped. The plot lacks depth overall, and I felt like some of the subplots were either resolved too quickly or didn’t really affect the rest of the story. Additionally, some viewers might not be compelled to watch a film in which Washington doesn’t play one of his usually charismatic roles.

The director/writer of the film, Dan Gilroy, is a veteran screenwriter who first began branching out into directing in with Nightcrawler, the 2014 thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal which I really enjoyed. Gilroy does a solid enough job with the material, but the unusual tone might not be good enough for hardcore fans of legal thrillers. Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq. doesn’t quite do enough in order to capitalize on yet another stellar performance from Washington.

Grade: C+

  • Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
  • Produced by Todd Black, Jennifer Fox and Denzel Washington
  • Director of Photography — Robert Elswit
  • Music by James Newton Howard
  • Edited by John Gilroy
  • Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Lynn Gravatt, Hugo Armstrong, Amari Cheatom, DeRon Horton, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, Niles Fitch
  • Rated PG-13 for language and some violence.

TRIVIA

  • Director Dan Gilroy decided to re-edit parts of the film after initial test screenings at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, resulting in the removal of 12 minutes of footage.
  • In the film, Israel has a noticeable gap between his front teeth. In reality, Denzel Washington had this gap filled when he was in high school, but chose to remove the dental caps for the filming.
  • Dan Gilroy’s second collaboration with DP Robert Elswit and editor John Gilroy (his twin brother). The trio all worked on Nightcrawler together.
  • In addition to the Academy Award for Best Actor, Washington was also nominated for the same category at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the NAACP Image Awards.
  • Washington’s nomination made Roman J. Israel, Esq. the only 2018 Oscar nominee for acting that was not also nominated for Best Picture simultaneously.
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All the Money in the World (2017)

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Based on real-life events, this film chronicles the account of billionaire J. Paul Getty and his refusal to pay ransom money after his teenage grandson is kidnapped in Italy.

In 1973, American oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) is the wealthiest man in the world, occupying a sprawling estate in rural England and running a global empire bearing his family name. His 16-year-old grandson J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) — known as Paul to his friends — is kidnapped in Rome by Ndrangheta, the notorious mafia group.

Paul’s traumatized mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), appeals to her former father-in-law for help. It is revealed that she divorced Paul’s father due to his substance abuse problems, and rejected any alimony in order to get full custody; therefore, she has no means to pay the $17 million the mafia is requesting.

The billionaire Getty, known as a notorious miser, refuses to pay the ransom, arguing that doing so would make him appear weak and/or vulnerable, as well as potentially encourage copycat kidnappings of his other grandchildren. The media frenzy becomes increasingly intense, as they don’t know that Gail is unable to pay the money herself. This leads Getty to arrange for his advisor, former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to further investigate the kidnapping and negotiate Paul’s release.

Meanwhile, Paul’s captors are surprisingly courteous towards him at first due to his quiet and passive nature, but as the weeks go on, they grow increasingly impatient and continue to demand the ransom money. With Getty still unflinching, it seems that it’s up to Chase and Gail to get creative — and fast.

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All the Money in the World is loosely adapted from John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, published in 1995. The film, directed by legendary Ridley Scott, contains a footnote that some events in the movie were changed for dramatic purposes, as per usual with these types of films.

Scott had reportedly been interested in directing the project, as the script (written by David Scarpa) had been a hot commodity in Hollywood. “I just consumed it,” Scott said. “I knew about the kidnapping, but this story was very, very provocative….there are many facets of the man Getty that make him a really great study. There’s this great dynamic. It was like a play, and not a movie.”

The 80-year-old Scott shot the movie mostly in England and Italy during the summer of 2017. With an all-star cast of Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams and Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, the movie was being pegged as a serious Oscar contender.

And then disaster struck.

As we’ve all heard by now, Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual assault by former teen idol Anthony Rapp when they did a show on Broadway together in 1986 (Rapp was 14 at the time). Shortly thereafter, a number of other male celebrities accused Spacey of similar misconduct.

Disgusted by the Spacey revelations, Scott immediately cancelled the movie’s pending premiere at AFI Fest and planned to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes.

Scott’s producers — and the studio executives — thought he was nuts. After all, the film was already shot and edited, it had already started its Oscar marketing campaign, the movie’s premiere was less than a month away, and the trailer featuring Spacey had already been released.

Nevertheless, on November 8, Scott announced publicly that All the Money in the World would be reshooting all of Spacey’s scenes (a good chunk of the movie) and replacing him with Christopher Plummer, while still getting everything done in time for the film’s initial premiere, December 18th.

All of the reshoots were done in just over a week during the Thanksgiving holiday at a cost of $10 million. Coincidentally, Plummer had actually been Scott’s first choice for the role of Getty, so the venerable Canadian actor had little difficulty memorizing his lines and getting comfortable with the role.

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I really enjoyed this movie. While a bit long (two and a half hours), All the Money in the World features some incredible acting and cinematography. It’s an intense true story that highlights the desperation of a woman trying to find her son, while also showing what the film’s title itself — having all the money in the world — does to people.

All the Money in the World allows its entire cast to shine; I’ve long been fans of both Wahlberg and Williams. Wahlberg is a versatile actor who always brings a lot of depth and charisma to his roles, while I’ve always felt that Williams is seriously underrated, despite typically choosing very good scripts and working with many different directors. And quite frankly, Christopher Plummer is Christopher Plummer — an absolute legend — and he got an Oscar nomination out of it at the age of 88.

All of Scott’s movies are beautifully shot, and this is no exception. The use of music was also pretty solid and gave an otherwise slow-paced film a real sense of urgency and drive. I also thought that Charlie Plummer (no relation to Chris) gave an earnest and restrained performance as 16-year-old Paul Getty that felt both appropriate and believable.

Despite some minor flaws, I really enjoyed All the Money in the World and I have to give a serious hats-off to Ridley Scott for rescuing a film — and simultaneously, letting it reach a much higher level, when it could have been much easier to shelve the project altogether and forget about it.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Ridley Scott
  • Produced by Ridley Scott, Chris Clark, Quentin Curtis, Dan Friedkin, Mark Huffam, Bradley Thomas and Kevin J. Walsh
  • Written by David Scarpa
  • Based on the book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty by John Pearson
  • Director of Photography — Dariusz Wolski
  • Music by Daniel Pemberton
  • Edited by Claire Simpson
  • Starring Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton, Andrew Buchan, Romain Duris, Marco Leonardi, Giuseppe Bonifati, Nicolas Vaporidis
  • Rated R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content.

TRIVIA

  • Plummer said that he was prepared to play J. Paul Getty on short notice because he had previously been considered for the role and had read the script. He had less than two weeks to memorize his lines, but did have the advantage of having met the real Getty in London at a couple of parties during the 60s.
  • Ridley Scott elected not to show Plummer any footage of Spacey in character, or even tell him how Spacey played the scenes. When finished, Scott found both performances to be quite different and equally effective in their own particular styles.
  • The film’s reshoots took eight days to film at a cost of $10 million.
  • Michelle Williams said that she would have been unable to promote the film if Kevin Spacey had stayed in it, because she felt so much sympathy for the people that he had hurt.
  • This was the second time Scott was faced with drastic re-shoots during his career. Previously, he almost had to abandon Gladiator due to the untimely death of Oliver Reed.
  • Scott said an interview that one of the more interesting aspects of the reshoots was the fact that Spacey played Getty as a more explicitly cold and unfeeling character, while Plummer’s take on the role showed both a warmer side to the billionaire and the same unflinching refusal to simply pay off his son’s kidnappers.
  • Scott has gone on record as saying that Spacey or his representatives had not contacted him since the news about Spacey’s history of sexual harassment came out, and added that he had no plans to ever release the footage with Spacey to any public viewing forum.
  • Mark Wahlberg had already lost 30 pounds for his next role when the reshoots happened; as such, his costumes had to be refitted.
  • Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman both turned down the role of Gail Getty before Michelle Williams was cast.
  • Although it is extremely rare, this was not the only time a major character had to be recast in a Hollywood film after the filming was almost or entirely completed. For instance, after more than half of the movie Solomon and Sheba was done, the film’s star Tyrone Power, who played Solomon, suddenly died and had to be replaced with Yul Brynner. All of his scenes were then re-shot. Also, Michael J. Fox had to replace Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in the first Back to the Future movie, even though at least one third of the movie was already completed with Stoltz in the role. In that instance, the filmmakers thought that Stoltz’s version of Marty was simply coming off as too serious.
  • Michelle Williams was paid over 1,000 times less than Mark Wahlberg for the reshoots. Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million, while Williams received just $1,000 for the week’s work. Many reports used this in order to highlight the perceived gender wage gap in Hollywood, neglecting to mention that Williams herself requested to go without the pay entirely, or that Wahlberg shot many more of the reshoot scenes with Plummer than she did.

 

Raw (2017)

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A first-year vet school student — despite being a lifelong vegetarian — develops a craving for human flesh after a series of bizarre hazing rituals.

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a young woman who has spent her entire life as a vegetarian. Her parents met at a veterinary medicine school and expect her to attend as well, just like her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Naturally reserved and mild-mannered, Justine is reluctant to enter the intense environment of vet school, but is soon forced to participate in various hazing rituals alongside fellow newcomers.

The first day of school, Justine and her incoming class are splattered with blood during their class photo and are forced to eat rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, citing her vegetarianism, but Alexia goads her into it. That evening, Justine breaks out in a severe rash and goes to a doctor, who diagnoses it as food poisoning and proscribes a cream for it.

Justine soon begins craving meat, but feels ashamed and tries to confide in Alexia about her problem. As it turns out, both sisters are hiding dark secrets. In the midst of more partying and hazing, Justine becomes increasingly unstable, lashing out at both Alexia and her bisexual roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). It seems like the sinister environment of the school is rubbing off on everyone….

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Raw is a nasty little shocker in the best sense of the phrase. Shot by a rookie director (Julia Ducorneau) on a minuscule budget of 3.5 million Euros, this French language film debuted at Cannes in May 2016, but didn’t get a theatrical release until March of last year.

In addition to being a fresh, original horror film, Raw is genuinely unsettling and creates an eerie atmosphere, particularly with its cinematography. While it’s clearly a low-budget endeavor, the acting and directing are overall very good. Ducorneau handles the provocative material effectively, knowing how to portray visceral shock value with artistic flare and symbolic moments. Only 34 years old, Ducorneau cut her teeth by writing and directing a couple of shorts, as well as serving as a script consultant on larger European productions. I think she has potential and I’m excited to see what she does next.

As mentioned previously, Raw was critically acclaimed at Cannes, as well as the Toronto International Film Festival and the London Film Festival, taking home the Sutherland Award (for most original debut feature) at the latter. Mark Kermode, the noted BBC film critic, went so far as to declare Raw the best film of 2017, while Rolling Stone‘s David Fear also raved about it.

While certainly not for everyone, Raw packs a punch and succeeds due to its eerie cinematography, immersive storytelling, and surefire originality.

Grade: B+

  • Written and directed by Julia Ducorneau
  • Produced by Jean de Forêts
  • Music by Jim Williams
  • Director of Photography — Ruben Impens
  • Editor — Jean-Christophe Bouzy
  • Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss
  • Rated R for for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying

TRIVIA

  • Ducorneau really wanted Marillier to work on her body and posture. You can see a drastic change between the beginning and the end of the movie; Marillier’s posture changes as her character transforms.
  • At a screening at the Gothenburg Film Festival in Sweden, several audience members fainted and/or vomited.
  • Primarily shot in and around Liège, Belgium.
  • Halfway through the film, there’s an intense psychological scene in which the character of Justine goes through withdrawals. Ducorneau made Marillier watch a similar scene from Trainspotting in order to prepare herself for it.

The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)

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The inspiring true story of Burt Munro, the New Zealander who set the land speed motorcycle record in 1967, a record which still stands today.

Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) leads a simple life in the peaceful, sleepy town of Invercargill, New Zealand. For years, he has been tinkering with and perfecting his streamlined Indian motorcycle, which he plans to use to break the land speed record during “Speed Week” at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

While occasionally annoying the neighborhood by revving his engines at 6 AM (and refusing to mow his lawn!), Burt is still well-liked in Invercargill due to his trademark ingenuity and boyish charm. He takes local ladies out to community dances. He lets his impressionable young neighbor, Thomas (Aaron Murphy), help him out around his workshop. And he inspires lots of his friends with his dogged pursuit of greatness.

Once satisfied with the engineering performance of his Indian, Burt decides to go to the States for Speed Week. Although his fellow Kiwis wish him well, Burt draws polarizing reactions when he reaches America. Nonetheless, Burt meets and wins over numerous locals due to his gregarious personality and determination. However, he encounters numerous challenges while driving up to Utah, and needs everything to go right in order to make a positive impression. Can Burt’s unflappable nature withstand unforeseen obstacles?

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The World’s Fastest Indian is a delightful experience. Perfectly-paced and very entertaining, the movie is anchored by Hopkins’s brilliant performance as Burt Munro. Right off the bat, Munro is a guy that we want to cheer for, and the film shows the instant impact that the courageous New Zealander had on everyone he met. The fact that Burt goes over 200 miles per hour on his bike seems almost like an added bonus due to his decency and generosity.

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Kiwi director Roger Donaldson had previously helmed a short documentary about Munro in 1971 and had long desired to make a feature film about him as well. Donaldson was also fortunate to have a relationship with Hopkins, whom he had directed previously in the 1985 version of The Bounty.  Hopkins later recalled that Munro was one of the easiest characters he had ever played, given that their lives resemble each other.

While some aspects of the film are fictionalized, Donaldson elected to go for a sense of realism as much as possible, shooting many scenes on location in Invercargill and using some of Munro’s own tools as props (at the time, most were still on display at Invercargill’s Southland Museum). The movie also shows some of the health issues that Munro experienced — including angina, which led to his eventual death from a stroke in January 1978.

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Upon its release in 2005, The World’s Fastest Indian broke box office records in New Zealand and received hefty critical acclaim as well. Critic Peter Calder of the New Zealand Herald expressed his annoyance that Hopkins, a Welshman, didn’t attempt the “Southland burr” — the Scottish-inspired drawl that is unique to Invercargill — but otherwise loved the movie. “Hopkins gives a generous, genial and utterly approachable performance … he nails the backyard eccentric genius dead centre. He has inhaled the nature of a mid-century Kiwi bloody good bloke and he inhabits the part to perfection.”

Beautifully shot and very well-acted, The World’s Fastest Indian is a fun and spirited adventure. I highly recommend it.

Grade: B+

  • Written and directed by Roger Donaldson
  • Produced by Roger Donaldson and Gary Hannam
  • Starring Anthony Hopkins, Aaron Murphy, Tessa Mitchell, Iain Rea, Annie Whittle, Greg Johnson, Kate Sullivan, Antony Starr
  • Director of Photography — David Gribble
  • Music by J. Peter Robinson
  • Edited by John Gilbert
  • Rated PG-13 for brief language, drug use and a sexual reference

The Master (2012)

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A boozy, self-destructive WWII veteran falls in with a bizarre seafaring cult led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.

In post-WWII America, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a volatile US Navy veteran who has resorted to sex and liquor in order to feel like himself again. One late night in San Francisco, Freddie drunkenly stumbles aboard a large yacht. When he awakens, he discovers that he is surrounded by members of “The Cause”, a bizarre philosophical and spiritual cult headed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Part self-help guru, part spiritual father, Dodd immediately takes an interest in Freddie and offers him to join their group. With few options left, Freddie becomes involved with The Cause and undergoes numerous psychological tests in order to progress to a higher state of being. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of various fellow voyagers, including Dodd’s much younger wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) and his increasingly skeptical son Val (Jesse Plemons).

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The Master was released in 2012 as the brainchild of acclaimed writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood). Controversy followed the film’s release due to the cult in the movie being compared to Scientology, but The Master received hefty critical acclaim — all three of its leads (Hoffman, Phoenix, and Adams) earned Academy Award nominations for their work.

The movie, which premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, underperformed at the box office, but still received rave reviews from Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. Sadly, it was also the fifth and final collaboration between Anderson and Hoffman, the latter of whom died tragically in February 2014 of a drug overdose.

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Anderson is widely known as a courageous risk-taker in the industry, bending the rules of filmmaking to his advantage. To be sure, he’s a director that I respect due to his habit of making innovative, technically proficient projects. The Master has an authentic old-school feel to it, having been shot on 70mm film, and Anderson certainly did his homework on the time period. The Master takes place in a 1950s America where a Navy veteran lacks fulfillment in his life and struggles to re-enter civilian society. The film doesn’t shy away from weighty subjects and features some very powerful performances, smart dialogue, and excellent cinematography and music.

However, The Master doesn’t have enough forward momentum, narratively speaking, to sustain all of its important themes. The film feels more like a series of interconnected vignettes as opposed to a cohesive, traditional story. I’ll give Anderson & Co. credit for taking risks and creating a great-looking movie. But ultimately, The Master doesn’t quite reach masterpiece level due to its own internal contradictions and a labored third act.

Grade: C+

  • Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, and Megan Ellison
  • Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Ambyr Childers
  • Director of Photography — Mihai Malaimare Jr.
  • Music by Jonny Greenwood
  • Edited by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty
  • Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

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The story of the infamously bloody Battle of Iwo Jima, as told from the perspective of the doomed Japanese soldiers who fought it.

As Allied forces reclaim the Pacific in 1945, only one island stands between them and the Japanese mainland: Iwo Jima.

Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) arrives to command the forces on the tiny, unpopulated volcanic island. He surveys Iwo Jima with his subordinates and inspects the troops. Kuribayashi insists on rationing food for everyone on the island (not just the enlisted men) and condemns the banzai suicide attacks, viewing them as a waste of human life. Smart and ingenious, Kuribayashi worked as an international diplomat in America for two years prior to the war, so he is more educated than most on the American mentality and, importantly, how to defeat them. Tough but fair, Kuribayashi attempts to use the geographical features of Iwo Jima to his advantage, ordering his soldiers to dig tunnels and caves in the hills, as opposed to trenches on the beach.

Kuribayashi’s old friend, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), joins him in the daunting task of keeping Iwo Jima out of American hands. Charming and well-educated, Nishi is a former Olympic equestrian champion who appreciates Kuribayashi’s resourcefulness despite the objections of other officers.

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Meanwhile, Private Saido (Kazunari Ninomiya) writes letters home to his wife during his time in the caves. An earnest and intelligent man, Saido begins to doubt his mission; unlike many of his compatriots, he doesn’t want to sacrifice himself for the good of the Empire. He finds an unlikely kindred spirit in the mysterious Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former member of the kenpeitei (secret police).

Knowing that his men lack adequate food, water, and ammunition, Kuribayashi tries to keep spirits high, but he is alarmed when he hears that the Allied forces have decimated the Japanese Navy and Air Force at the Battle of the Mariana Islands. Desperate for any sort of assistance, Kuribayashi sends the increasingly ill Admiral Ohsugi (Nobumasa Sakagami) back to Tokyo to request support.

Despite no air or naval reinforcements, Kuribayashi remains stoic and turns what was predicted to be an easy, five-day American victory into over a month of prolonged, brutal warfare.

“If our children can live safely for one more day, it would be worth the one more day that we defend this island,” Kuribayashi urges his men.

Along the way, we see Saido, Shimizu, and others struggle to come to grips with their suicide mission while also showing empathy, courage, and bravery in the face of impossible odds.

 

This film is one of my favorites. War films typically draw you in quickly, and Letters from Iwo Jima takes a unique perspective. Clint Eastwood had previously helmed Flags of our Fathers, a WWII movie that focused on the American side of the Battle of Iwo Jima, but along the way, the veteran director said he was stricken by the similarities of the letters that American and Japanese soldiers wrote. In particular, Eastwood said he found it intriguing that American soldiers only wanted to be home with their families, away from the hellish conditions of war, but the Japanese knew that they were not expected to come home alive, with suicide being preferable to capture.

This is explored in-depth in the movie itself. Shmizu states early on in the film that American soldiers lack discipline and let their emotions interfere with their battle duties. Japanese soldiers, he reasons, are honored to die for their Emperor and their country, viewing death as the only honorable method of leaving a war. However, Saido consistently shows humanity, being willing to care for the wounded and follow Kuribayashi’s orders, even when other soldiers or officers refuse and opt for suicide.

The reason Letters from Iwo Jima succeeds on such a grand scale is the character development. It’s an incredibly dark story, showing hopeless, exhausted, hungry men preparing for their inevitable deaths at the hands of their sworn enemies. To be sure, the film never shies away from the brutality of the Japanese, but still shows their humanity and their struggles to come to grips with their new reality. These men were willing and able to die for extremist, imperialist nationalism, but they still worried about their families and their communities just like a soldier of any nationality.

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Letters from Iwo Jima was released in Japan on December 9, 2006 and in the US on December 20. The film received overwhelming acclaim in both countries, with audiences responding strongly to the performances and direction. Made for a modest $19 million, Letters from Iwo Jima grossed almost $69 million at the worldwide box office and received rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly. 

While Letters did win Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Golden Globes, it was ineligible for the same award at the Oscars since it was made and shot in the States by an American director. Nonetheless, the movie received four nominations overall at the Oscars — Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing.

In short, Letters from Iwo Jima features outstanding acting and directing, a moving story, and suitable period-piece cinematography. It’s a tour-de-force and one of the best war films of the modern era.

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Grade: A+

  • Directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Produced by Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Lorenz
  • Screenplay by Iris Yamashita
  • Story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
  • Based on the book “Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief” by Tadamichi Kuribayashi & Tsuyoko Yoshido
  • Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Takumi Bando, Eijiro Ozaki, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takashi Yamaguchi, Yuki Matsuzaki, Nobumasa Sakagami, Ken Kensei, Toshi Toda, Hiro Abe, Masashi Nagadoi
  • Director of Photography — Tom Stern
  • Music — Kyle Eastwood & Michael Stevens
  • Editor — Joel Cox & Gary D. Roach
  • Rated R for graphic war violence.

TRIVIA

  • Filmed back-to-back with Flags of our Fathers.
  • Most of the young cast knew nothing about the incidents on Iwo Jima, as the subject is not taught in Japanese schools.
  • One of only nine foreign language films ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Though shot almost entirely in Japanese, it was an American production and was therefore ineligible for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination.
  • When word spread that acclaimed Japanese actor Ken Watanabe had been cast in the lead role of Kuribayashi, virtually every young actor in Japan became interested in working on the film as well.
  • Eastwood had originally wanted to film Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers as one film, but as pre-production continued on Flags, he felt it would be impossible to fit both of the storylines into a single movie. Primarily, Eastwood stated that the two separate cultures created very distinctive and separate storylines, creating the need for two individual films about the same battle.
  • The film was shot entirely in California in only 32 days. The filmmakers were not allowed to film in Iwo Jima itself due to cultural taboos, as over 10,000 soldiers are still buried on the island.
  • Ken Watanabe visited the birthplace and grave of Kuribayashi to help him build on his characterization.
  • Eastwood originally wanted Paul Haggis, a frequent collaborator, to write the script, but Haggis felt like he lacked the expertise required to make a foreign language film. He recommended Iris Yamashita, a Japanese-American writer who was a research assistant on Flags of our Fathers.
  • In an effort to keep the movie as historically accurate as possible, costume designer Deborah Hopper deliberately chose not to use silk in any of the period kimono costumes that are used in the film’s flashbacks. Silk was considered too expensive of a fabric to be used in wartime and its use in garments was prohibited.

Ed Wood (1994)

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Based on the real-life story of Edward D. Wood Jr., the independent, DIY filmmaker who is widely considered to have made some of the worst movies of all time.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) sees himself as the poor man’s Orson Welles, making numerous low-no budget genre films on tight schedules, in addition to acting, directing, and producing his own projects.

Born in Poughkeespie, New York, Wood insists he had a happy small-town childhood, surrounded by comic books, classic horror and sci-fi films, and other nostalgic media that inspired him to be a filmmaker. However, Wood’s mother always wanted a girl, so she dressed him up in girl’s clothing frequently, which affected his psyche as an adult. Wood is therefore a heterosexual cross-dresser, often commenting about how he likes the way angora sweaters feel on his skin. He also mentions that, as a Marine corporal in World War II, he was petrified of getting injured even more so than getting killed, given his penchant for wearing women’s clothing under his uniform.

Despite his quirks and strange traits, Wood’s relentless optimism keeps him going through multiple career disappointments. His actress wife, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), helps him at various stages of his filmmaking processes, and Wood also enlists the services of cynical exploitation film producer George Weiss (Mike Starr).

By chance, Wood strikes up a friendship with his boyhood hero, horror film legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Long considered washed-up — and even presumed dead — by film industry executives, Lugosi still has plenty of talent and ends up acting in several of Wood’s most notorious films, including Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Wood’s campy, error-filled movies draw a small cult following. He seldom does more than one take, as many of his films are made on extremely small budgets, rarely taking more than two weeks to shoot. Despite the lack of respect from his Hollywood peers, Wood perseveres and draws more attention from various people in the industry. However, Wood also deals with financial troubles and relationship drama, and his partnership with Lugosi is put in jeopardy due to the veteran actor’s drug problems. Can Mr. Wood triumph and become an unlikely success story?

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This film biography takes a comedy-drama approach and succeeds all the more for it. The real Ed Wood (1924-1978) died a penniless alcoholic at the age of 54 after failing to attract any notable attention — either positive or negative — post-Plan 9 From Outer Space, which is now widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Despite his many ups and downs and obvious lack of filmmaking skills, the real Wood had an extremely fascinating life story. Although he died in relative obscurity, Wood’s life and career were re-examined in 1992, when writer Rudolph Grey penned the biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. 

The movie itself was penned by the writing team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski when they were both students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. They eventually decided to make the film in order to avoid typecasting after some initial success with children’s movies. Alexander and Karaszewski pitched the script to Tim Burton, a young director/producer who was fresh off two huge successes — the 1990 version of Batman and Edward Scissorhands.

Burton and Denise Di Novi agreed to produce Ed Wood for Columbia Pictures; but the project’s director, Michael Lehmann, had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Burton decided to direct the film himself, but Columbia butted heads with him when he decided to shoot Ed Wood in black-and-white. Eventually, the script was shipped off to Disney, who made the film through their Touchstone Pictures subsidiary.

At the time, Depp was in a career rut, trying to avoid typecasting as a 30-year-old rising star. But when Burton approached him about playing Wood, Depp was instantly intrigued. “The role gave me a chance to stretch out and have some fun,” Depp recalled, adding that working with a legend like Landau helped him renew his passion for acting. In order to prepare for his role, Depp studied Jack Haley’s performance as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

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Ed Wood is an excellent film, featuring extraordinary acting from Depp (in his second collaboration with Burton) and Landau, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Bela Lugosi. The movie explores Wood’s weirdness and his utter lack of talent, but also shows his odd charm and humanity.

The relationship between Wood and Lugosi is a major highlight. Written off by Hollywood as a has-been, the gruff, no-nonsense Lugosi still takes an interest in Wood, and their friendship results in some of the film’s most memorable moments. Wood’s relationship with Dolores, his first wife, also takes center-stage at several times. In addition to Landau and Depp’s outstanding performances, the movie is frequently lifted by its excellent supporting cast, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, and Jeffrey Jones.

Ed Wood was released in 1994 to critical acclaim, with particular praise for the acting and directing. However, despite earning two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup), the movie flopped at the box office, earning a mere $5.9 million on an $18 million budget.

Burton is an excellent director, and Ed Wood has outstanding costume and production design, but the film can sometimes feel unfocused or inconsistent in tone. This can be common in biopic films, considering that one is trying to cram in lots of information, drama, and comedy into a two-hour runtime. With that being said, Ed Wood is very well-made and does almost exactly what I expected it to do. I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re interested in Depp’s early ’90s work.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Tim Burton
  • Produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi
  • Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
  • Based on the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr.” by Rudolph Grey
  • Director of Photography — Stefan Czapsky
  • Music by Howard Shore
  • Editor — Chris Lebenzon
  • Starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Jeffery Jones, Juliet Landau, George Steele, Ned Bellamy, Max Casella, Vincent D’Onofrio
  • Rated R for some strong language.

TRIVIA

  • The movie cost more to make ($18 million) than all of the real Ed Wood’s movies combined.
  • Kathy Wood, Ed’s widow, once visited the set and asked to meet Johnny Depp. That day, they were filming a scene where Wood would look really messed up, which made Burton nervous for what Kathy would think of the movie. When Depp exited his trailer, she said, “That’s my Eddie.”
  • Tim Burton’s second collaboration with Johnny Depp, after Edward Scissorhands. Also the first Burton movie in which his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman, did not compose the score.
  • Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi — the first time any actor had won an Oscar for playing another actor.
  • Bela Lugosi Jr. loved the movie, but objected to his father’s speech in the film; according to the younger Lugosi, his father never used profanity.
  • The real Dolores Fuller enjoyed Depp’s performance and Burton’s direction, but was displeased with her portrayal in the film. Particularly, she objected to the circumstances of her and Wood’s initial breakup (she left him primarily because of his alcoholism, which is not depicted in the film).
  • In addition to Jack Haley’s performance in The Wizard of Oz, Depp said he was influenced by the films of Ronald Reagan and Casey Kasem. Depp also commented that he had previously been introduced to Wood’s films through director John Waters.
  • In the film, Lugosi dismisses Boris Karloff’s role of Frankenstein’s monster as “all make-up and grunting.” In real life, Lugosi himself was offered the part and turned it down because it didn’t have any speaking lines and required too much make-up.
  • One source claims that one of the reasons that Burton chose to shoot in black-and-white was that he had no idea how Bela Lugosi should be filmed in color, as all of the actor’s own films were in black-and-white. In order to accommodate the black-and-white film stock, Landau’s makeup was done in a deliberately contrasted way, with parts of his face nearly painted white.
  • Landau did not want his portrayal of Lugosi to be over-the-top, saying that “Lugosi was theatrical, but I never wanted the audience to feel I was an actor chewing the scenery… I felt it had to be Lugosi’s theatricality, not mine.” In order to imitate Lugosi’s voice and mannerisms, Landau watched approximately 35 Lugosi movies and purchased Hungarian language tapes.
  • Burton’s first collaboration with editor Chris Lebenzon and his second with costume designer Colleen Atwood.
  • Out of his entire filmography, Burton has said that this movie is his personal favorite.