L argely set inside Mt. Suribachi, from which the Japanese mowed down seven thousand members of the Greatest Generation, Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima is his Flags of Our Fathers turned inside out, which means that now we see the battle through the eyes of Japanese soldiers (faceless in Flags) who knew they’d die but kept on fighting anyway so as not to disgrace their mother country. The project must have appealed to Eastwood on two levels. He could cut costs by shooting both pictures simultaneously (he is famously parsimonious), and he could continue the process of revising his legend that began with Unforgiven, after which Hollywood hailed this symbol of reactionary, cartoon-nihilist vigilantism as a classical storyteller with (who’d-a-thunk it?) an abhorrence of violence. Too old for another Dirty Harry movie, Eastwood embraced the role of brooding, fatalistic American Master—and, I’m bound to say, is finally beginning to wear it more convincingly.
His Iwo Jima films are not thematically linked (different sources, different screenwriters), and Eastwood doesn’t frame the Japanese as archetypally as he did Our Boys. His style is simpler here—more distanced, more stoic. In the first hour, before the carnage began, I wondered if he had any point of view at all on what he was shooting. The groupings are stiff, the dialogue (in Japanese) expository, and there’s little in the way of context: no mention of why the Japanese joined the war, no hint of the atrocities they routinely committed against their demonized foes, and no attempt to dig into the myth of the heroic Japanese warrior—which is more potent than its American counterpart.
It’s when the characters start to die that the movie comes alive. The colors are even more leached out than in Flags, but the blood is brick red and seems to burst from the screen, especially when a group of soldiers, to avoid surrender, blow themselves apart with grenades. The slow pacing begins to pay off: You get a sense of what it felt like to be trapped in that mountain, parched, starving, on the verge of being killed by men you couldn’t see for reasons you’d forgotten, with officers vowing to behead you if you tried to surrender and anthems on the radio (sung by a chorus of children) that celebrated you as your country’s last, best hope.
Letters From Iwo Jima wears its humanism on its sleeve, insofar as only one of the major characters, Ito (Shido Nakamura), is especially gung-ho about slaughtering Americans, and the general, Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), approaches the battle grimly, as a feat of logistics rather than patriotism. The emotional core of the movie is a pair of soldiers who don’t want to be there at all: Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), the baker with a baby he has never seen, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a policeman sent to Iwo Jima as punishment for refusing to carry out a sadistic order. The odyssey of these skinny innocents—from the front of the mountain to the back, from one commanding officer to another, past comrades who fall or kill themselves—takes on the tone of a nightmare farce. The fate of one of these two is the most devastating horror in a movie that’s a chamber of them.
Flags of Our Fathers didn’t do much at the box office, and it got mixed reviews from critics who now think that Letters From Iwo Jima is the geisha’s knees. For my money, Flags (however clunky) cuts more deeply, but Letters is more difficult to shake off. Together, they leave you with the feeling that even a just and necessary war is an abomination. So what is a war based on lies and executed with arrogant—and fatal—incompetence?
A s Barbara Covett, the diarist narrator of the deliciously overripe psychodrama Notes on a Scandal, Judi Dench regards the world with pruney disdain—with pursed, shriveled lips and a tongue always poised to deliver acid rejoinders. But on the inside, this little gargoyle is roiling with passions—and ever in search of a female soul mate. She’s certain she has found one in Sheba (short for Bathsheba), the new art instructor at the London high school where she teaches and played by a blonde Cate Blanchett, who is airy yet ripe, breathtakingly beautiful yet somehow unfinished: tantalizing prey. When Barbara spies Sheba going down on a 15-year-old student, she knows she has a royal road into the young woman’s confidences.
The film, directed by Richard Eyre and written by Patrick Marber (from a book by Zoë Heller), does nothing to soften Barbara’s monstrous narcissism, which borders, at times, on the delusional. And yet she is, as they say, quite a character. Her stratagems, heard in voice-over (“She has nowhere to turn but trusty old Barb”), would make Richard III smile approvingly, and when her emotions are aroused she’s a banshee—she’s feral. It’s appalling to watch the trap close on Sheba, who is married to a much older man (the delightful Bill Nighy) and has two children, one with Down syndrome. She’s self-destructing anyway—she feels smothered by her life (full of love as it is). When she tells her new friend “family doesn’t give you meaning, it gives you an imperative,” Barbara doesn’t hear that as the cry of a disturbed young woman but as an invitation to liberate her.
Notes on a Scandal is another squirm-und-drang movie: too creepy-sad to be a comedy, too intense to watch quietly, without letting out frequent whoops. The score, by Philip Glass, is a study in egregiousness—the usual busy undercurrents with a top layer of bombast. But it does suggest something of Barbara’s turbulent inner life, and it gives the picture momentum. Anyone who has ever felt possessive about a friend will recognize him- or herself in Barbara Covett’s covetousness. And anyone who loves live-wire acting will gasp in awe at Blanchett, more emotionally exposed than ever, and, most of all, at Dame Judi, who’s so electric she makes you quiver.
Age regards youth with the same hunger in Venus, a pedestal (or is it a headstone?) for an alarmingly skeletal Peter O’Toole, whose cadences now resemble those of his Lion in Winter co-star Katharine Hepburn. O’Toole was once the most beautiful of actors, and it’s shocking to see him as a near-death version of himself, a matinee idol called Maurice who lived through a succession of women—through the flesh that’s now gray, almost translucent, pulled tightly over his bones. The movie centers on his alternately creepy and moving attraction to Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the teenage, working-class niece of an old acting chum (Leslie Phillips). He dogs her; he wishes fervently to reach across the chasm that separates them, to fill the vacuum in his soul with her youth. No, he can’t have sex with her; his medication makes him impotent. But he wants to look—and touch. He brings her to the famous sculpture of Venus and explains, “A woman’s body is the most beautiful thing a man will ever see.” And slowly, this ill-mannered, untutored child—whom Maurice now calls “Venus”—begins to understand the depth of his need. It’s “Ewww” and then “Ahhh” and then “Ewww … ”
Directed by Roger Michell from a script by Hanif Kureishi, Venus is a sort of companion piece to the pair’s The Mother, in which an aging widow (Anne Reid) lusts after a studly handyman (Daniel Craig). But Michell’s clammy, clinical gaze worked better in the last film, in which all the characters were vaguely rancid. Here, there’s something unseemly about the way the director rubs our noses in O’Toole’s decrepitude while his camera hugs Whittaker’s bare thighs and shoulders. In this context, even the funny lines—and there are a lot of them, with Phillips and Richard Griffiths as acting colleagues who meet for lunch and comb the obituaries for their friends—seem heavy-spirited. It’s only a surprise when Jessie’s thug boyfriend begins to knock the frail old man around because it’s hard to believe the filmmakers would be that shameless.
But Venus is worth seeing for the scenes between O’Toole and Vanessa Redgrave as the woman he abandoned—the mother of his children. Her anger at Maurice for putting his pleasure first is still there, but you can see in her eyes that she knows he’s dying, and so even her criticisms come out tenderly, less to get a piece of her own back than to let him know she understands the pain he’s feeling now. These are beautiful scenes—a pedestal indeed.
S peaking of not going quietly into that good night: In the sixth Rocky film, Rocky Balboa, old Sylvester Stallone tries to prove he’s still vital by making a movie about old Rocky trying to prove he’s still vital. Stallone might be a pathetic figure, but he sure is cunning when it comes to using that pathos to generate sympathy. Actually, he’s better at it now. The first Rocky worked because the director, John Avildsen, made the hero small in the frame—a shambling stumblebum whose improbable rise never seemed predestined. But when Stallone became a star and took over the Rocky reins, he moved the camera way up close to give himself he-man stature. Stallone’s impossible-to-please father had reportedly criticized his physique in the first film. Thereafter, he was so grotesquely swollen that all you could think was “Who’s puny now, Daddy?”
The camera in Rocky Balboa has been moved back, and once more we’re looking at a sorrowful mutt who never fully takes the space. Adrian is dead but Rocky runs her Italian restaurant, greeting the customers and recounting for them his champion fights, blow by blow: very sad—and realistic, given the second career of so many ex-athletes who open restaurants. Shortly thereafter, realism excuses itself and the 59-year-old Rocky gets a bout in Vegas with the reigning heavyweight champion. There’s another Adrian on the scene, a middle-aged colleen with a half-black child—but they don’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the memory of Adrian, especially since Stallone superimposes her head over settings from the first film.
It’s not easy to look at Stallone. Whatever he did to his face is starting to become undone; parts of it are frozen while other parts droop, like the figures in House of Wax when they begin to melt in the climactic fire. He stares into the distance, and we hear Bill Conti’s Rocky theme with piano and strings. We wait, eagerly, for the trumpets to come back. They do, of course, and Rocky Balboa is one cornball go-for-it cliché piled on top of another, complete with the usual life lessons: Nobody’s gonna hit you harder than life. It’s how hard you can be hit that matters.
Does Rocky Balboa deliver? Weirdly enough, it does: I was jumping out of my seat during Rocky’s bout. If you close your eyes and try to halve your IQ—aim for something between a baboon and a lemur—you might even think it’s a masterpiece.
Rocky Balboa’s tagline, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” the famous Yogi Berra rally cry, has already popped up in Lenny Kravitz’s songbook (“Baby, it ain’t over ’til it’s over”). Though the original Rocky tagline was “His whole life was a million-to-one shot,” Rocky had to wait until Rocky II (“The rematch of the century”) to beat those odds and knock out Apollo Creed. The Rocky III tagline, “A fighter. A lover. A legend. The greatest challenge,” was one-upped in intensity by the Rocky IV tagline, “He’s facing the ultimate challenge. And fighting for his life.” And Rocky V, which got a Razzie nod for “Worst Picture,” had the short-and-sweet “Go for it!” Perhaps he shouldn’t have.
Letters From Iwo Jima
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Bros. R.
Notes on a Scandal
Directed by Richard Eyre. Fox Searchlight. R.
Directed by Roger Michell. Miramax. R.
Directed by Sylvester Stallone. MGM. PG.