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Masterful ‘Letters’ 

Retelling WWII from the other side, brilliantly.

HUMAN: Japanese general (Ken Watanbe).
  • HUMAN: Japanese general (Ken Watanbe).

Though Western filmmakers have produced a number of stunningly well-done films on the subject of World War II in recent years — Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” come immediately to mind — the enemies on the other side of that conflict have remained as distant and dimly lit as they were in any John Wayne blood-and-guts number from the first heyday of dubya-dubya-two movies.

That all changes with Clint Eastwood’s moving and monumental “Letters from Iwo Jima.” Simply a masterpiece of emotion and depth, “Letters From Iwo Jima” does for the Japanese soldier what “Saving Private Ryan” did for Americans at D-Day: shrinks a massive, faceless force down to the individuals that form it — men with mothers, fathers and the fear of death that haunts us all.

For the most part, “Letters” follows two men: Japanese Army Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (the superb Ken Watanabe), and young enlisted man Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Schooled in Western tactics of war, Kuribayashi arrives on Iwo Jima late in 1944, tasked with defending the island from a looming Allied invasion by sea. Though his new post is mostly grassless rock and black volcanic sand, Kuribayashi knows it is the key to the entire Pacific Theater of the war. If the island is taken by the Allies, an airbase there will put the Japanese homeland within the range of their bombers.

Without hope of re-supply or reinforcement, Kuribayashi and his 20,000 men are told to hold the island at all costs. With the landing of the first wave of Americans and word that the Japanese fleet has been destroyed, Gen. Kuribayashi finds he must fight both the enemy and the attitudes of his officers, many of whom would rather waste their men on pointless banzai charges into the teeth of machine gun fire than take what they believe to be the dishonorable path of retreat. In the midst of all this is young Saigo, a humble baker, who must balance — often moment by moment — his pledge to die in defense of the island with his wish to return home to his wife and the daughter he has never seen.

Like all of Eastwood’s films, there are moments of genuine beauty in “Letters.” That these moments are juxtaposed against scenes of almost incredible depravity and violence –- men blowing themselves up with hand grenades to avoid capture, men burned alive by flame throwers, men blasted to pieces by artillery shells — is kind of the point of the film as a whole; that, given our capacity for kindness, joy and love, war is one of the most useless and insane things we do as human beings.

Sprinkled throughout the film, mostly in flashbacks while characters are writing letters home, are moments that approach a kind of prayer to that ideal: Kuribayashi dining with American friends; Saigo holding his weeping, pregnant wife on the day he is drafted into the army; a former military policeman relating how he was shipped to certain death on Iwo Jima because he refused his superior’s order to shoot a child’s dog; a tank commander translating a letter from a worried mother, found in a dead American’s pocket. These are the moments that truly make “Letters” a modern classic.

In even the best of our films about war, we are much more comfortable with an enemy seen only in shadow: a foreign Other, face lit by muzzle fire. With “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Eastwood finally leads John Wayne’s relentless, ruthless foe out into the sun. There, we find that he is much like any soldier: a mother’s child, no better or worse, just trying to find his way home.

— David Koon

Beautiful ‘Labyrinth’

In 1944, late in World War II, in the hills of Spain a young girl and her pregnant mother travel a far distance to what they believe will be a better life. Set apart from the conflict in the cities, their new home among the trees provides the setting for Guillermo Del Toro’s magnificent “Pan’s Labyrinth” (“El laberinto del fauno”).

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother arrive at the home of Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who intends to take them in. After all, Ofelia’s mother Carmen (Ariadana Gil) carries his child. But within moments of their arrival, Ofelia wanders behind the house and discovers a cave with a long, winding staircase.

“A long time ago, in the Underground Realm,” whispers the narrator, “there lived a princess who dreamt of a human world.” And that’s where the magic of this story begins.

Ofelia develops the courage to walk down the staircase, guided by a fairy, where she encounters a waiting faun. He identifies her as the princess and insists she is to return underground to help her people. But she must prove herself in order to do so. And so Ofelia is given “The Book of Crossroads,” which will indicate the three tasks she must complete. When Ofelia touches the pages, they come to life.

Along her journey she encounters a giant toad, a pale man with saggy skin who sees through hands, squirmy round bugs with hundreds of legs and other interesting creatures. This world might frighten most children, but not Ofelia, who understands that the life underground is far better than the world on top of the ground.

But this is no children’s story. In fact, it’s not a film fit for children. That’s because even while Ofelia is being chased and tested in a world where she can create doors with chalk, there’s a war going on; one that is violent and dark and bloody.

In this on-top-of–the-ground world, Ofelia’s mother is suffering through a very difficult pregnancy. Vidal has made it clear that he has no interest in Ofelia and concerns himself with the war and impending birth of his new son. At the same time, Ofelia discovers a secret held by Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a maid who takes care of her and her mother. She has to guard this secret or Mercedes will die.

Ofelia is precisely the type of child that films create to amaze us or perhaps inspire us. She is clever, adventurous, ambitious, curious, careful and kind. She reads endless stories about fantasy and likes to tell them. And, as it turns out, she’s also capable of saving the day –- at least in one world. In the other world, the realistic world, the outcome is not so fair. But del Toro’s fairness to both the real and the fantastic is the genius of this film.

— Blake Rutherford

Crown him

By now, and with his Oscar nomination this week for Best Actor, filmgoers are widely aware of Forest Whitaker’s brilliant portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the new film “The Last King of Scotland.” The accolades bestowed on Whitaker are much deserved, but the film itself carries its weight, too. It may be the most intense film we’ve seen all year, with a “Munich” or “Syriana” style build-up toward the end.

Among other titles, the seemingly bi-polar Amin declared himself “King of Scotland” at one point, professing a love for the country second only to his homeland. Scotland is also the home of the based-on-fact film’s other main character, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who graduates from medical school and picks a spot on the globe to ply his trade in a way to help people. His finger falls on Uganda, and his arrival coincides with Amin’s takeover in 1971. A chance meeting between Amin and the Scotsman leads to a mutual respect and liking, and an offer to Garrigan to become the new president’s personal physician. In doing so, the randy and indiscriminate Garrigan turns his back not only on the poverty-stricken people needing his help, but a burgeoning relationship with the married but frustrated Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson), who’s in Uganda with her physician husband to help the poor.

The sense of power wins over Garrigan, and he soon becomes not only Amin’s doctor, but his “closest adviser,” as the president dubs him. But the aloof Garrigan, who’s even brought in to sub for Amin in key government meetings when the leader goes off to Libya, seems oblivious to the changing Uganda around him. When Amin is nearly assassinated, his paranoia spikes, and eventually no one around him feels safe.

Garrigan can’t help himself, though, and finds himself emotionally involved with one of Amin’s wives, Kay (Kerry Washington) and her children, whom Amin ignores. Things soon spiral out of control, and the film greatly conveys a palpable sense of dread.

Like “Hotel Rwanda,” the film captures the beauty of central Africa and the wide gap between the ruling class, its army, and the poor. The story was based on a book by Giles Foden. Former documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has a tight rein as director.

Whitaker, who says he pushed his weight to 300 pounds for the role, convinces as Amin, who one minute is jovial and fun, and the next minute is maniacally ready to pounce like a lion. There are few if any acting performances that measure up to Whitaker’s Amin in recent years, and the Oscar should be his later this month.

— Jim Harris

‘Veil’ of tears

“The Painted Veil,” W. Somerset Maugham’s 1920s novel about uppity Englishmen and women in China during the time of cholera, stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber and Toby Jones and is splendidly brought to the screen by John Curran, whose last outing, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” was one of the more underrated films of 2005.

Norton and Watts play Walter and Kitty Fane, Brits living in Shanghai. They have the type of marriage no one wants — one of convenience, she being old (well, old for 1920s England standards) and he being interested. Back then the two went together fittingly lest a woman live beyond a certain time without a husband.

Unhappy and unsatisfied, Watts strays and she and Schreiber embark on an affair that ends badly. Norton discovers her actions and offers her a choice: life in cholera-plagued inland China or divorce. So the choice is cholera-plagued inland China, of course!

And so these two unhappy people venture to a place ravaged by disease. Walter Fane is an infectious disease specialist and he spends his time trying to limit the town’s exposure to cholera. Kitty works in the orphanage helping the children and playing the piano. Toby Jones, this year’s Truman Capote (“Infamous”), plays the only other Brit left in the region.

This is a love story of an odd sort. It’s about love for convenience, falling out of love and then back in it. With such a range of emotion required to convince the audience that such a thing can happen outside the imagination, Norton and Watts are the perfect players.

Norton is dry and emotionless; Watts vain, careless and heartbreakingly naive. We have come to expect fine performances from each of these actors and this film does not disappoint. Norton, who appeared in two other films this year, “The Illusionist” and “Down in the Valley,” is trademark Norton. He’s made Walter Fane his own, perhaps beyond the scope of anything Maugham imagined, and it is a delight. But it is Watts who has so gown on screen since “Mulholland Drive” that it is now appropriate to categorize her as one of the fine actresses of our day. Perhaps in any other year we’d be talking Oscar for her performance.

The film is distinguished not by its story, although it is a good one, but rather by Andre Desplat’s music and Stuart Dryburgh’s photography, which accentuate the film’s emotion.

Director John Curran and Ron Nyswaner, the screenwriter, had to be apprehensive about bringing this story to the screen for the third time. But as the saying goes, the third time is always a charm. With this latest adaptation of “The Painted Veil,” it certainly is.

— Blake Rutherford

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