My last weekly entry of 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006, Adam McKay) second viewing Watching the DVD of one of my favorites of 2006 was an object lesson in discovering the sham that is the "unrated / director's version" packaging of DVD releases. Basically they added 20 minutes of footage that was excised from the theatrical release, none of it particularly shocking or offensive, and only serving to make the film feel bloated and indulgent. They could have included the original version of the film - instead they give you the option of adding live action clips to navigate through the menu options. Big hooey. Listened to about 5 minutes of the commentary track with Adam McKay before deciding that the layers of self-parodying irony weren't going to enlighten me a bit. I'm sad to realize that the DVD will not do much to help the uninitiated discover what I remember so fondly as one of the most inspired comedies as well as social satires of 2006, but I guess I'll have to keep the flame alive the old fashioned way, by memory. Shake and bake! yes (#8 for new films seen in 2006 between BORAT and WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A TRAGEDY IN FOUR ACTS)

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood) I had some of my highest expectations for any film this year going into this one, and for the most part I'd say they were satisfied. This film does so many things right that it seems peevish to find fault with it. Tom Stern continues his amazing lenswork from MILLION DOLLAR BABY, managing to give daytime scenes the frosty pallor of a dying man's gaze, as if the light were to flicker out at any time. Chillingly appropriate for a film about a troop of soldiers essentially condemned to die defending a god-forsaken island, led by Ken Watanabe in a performance worthy of Toshiro Mifune. His charisma - a mix of stern warriorship, comradely amiability and enlightened moral principle - is critical to planting the audience firmly on his side as he contends with both invading U.S. troops and rebellion from his subordinate officers, who would rather commit ceremonial suicide than fight to the death. The performances are pretty much all top-notch, especially Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) a former Olympic medalist-turned-colonel who counts Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as old friends; and an irrevernt young baker-turned-grunt (Kazunari Ninomiya) who develops his own relationship to war based on the moral code found in many Eastwood films: loyalty to himself and to others who share his sense of humanist decency. That Eastwood is able to elicit performances in another language is a remarkable achievement.

Unfortunately, the film suffers the indelible influence of two individuals -- Steven Spielberg and Paul Haggis -- whose sentimentality and overt moralizing drag the film down noticeably on more than one occasion. (Though Eastwood can't be let off the hook entirely - sometimes when watching an Eastwood film I don't get a sense that he's fully in command of his tone to begin with, and strange, incongruous elements creep in, like Laura Linney's monologue at the end of MYSTIC RIVER). Ironically, the element I find weakest in LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA are the letters. The use of the soldiers' letters to flash back to key memories that deepen their personal backgrounds is neither as poetic or as deft as the epistolaries in THE THIN RED LINE, and feels like no more than what it is - a screenwriter's device. The atrociously unsubtle final image is straight out of a Spielberg movie, ruthless as it is in yanking tears from viewers' eyes. And when Baron Nishi reads a fallen Marine's letter from his mother to his own troop, Eastwood offers the Spielbergian gesture of having the Japanese soldiers rise to their feet in a moment where common sense is suspended for sentimental genuflection. Coupled with Haggis' bathetic "we are all the same" insights as expressed in the letter and subsequent dialogues, it's the film's worst moment.

I guess you need such heavy-handedness to improve the U.S. commercial viability of what essentially is a foreign language film, to make what was the enemy 60 years ago resemble our own men and women suffering through a disastrous conflict today. But as such it denies the film its fullest potential as an unsentimental meditation on what's at stake to fight an unwinnable battle. In that regard it's closer to Kon Ichikawa's soft-hearted THE BURMESE HARP than his unflinching FIRES ON THE PLAIN -- but at least LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, unlike, say the slickly simulated death trip UNITED 93, identifies a soul in human catastrophe and lends a great deal of effort examining its struggle. yes (#18 for 2006 between JOURNEY FROM THE FALL and LINDA LINDA LINDA)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro) What does it mean that I liked HELLBOY more than this, del Toro's anointed prestige picture? I can admire it for its craft, its dark imagination, its attempt to fuse political allegory and children's fairy tale. Maybe the simplistic fairy tale allegory set-up needs to be taken as par for the course, (Sergio Lopez is too much of an all-encompassing evil meanie to really do it for me) but somehow it limited the impact of the film for me. Even as a fairy tale, it never quite leapt into the fantastical enough for me to take my breath away as I was expecting. Neither fish nor fowl. Curious what my Spaniard friend Fesch has to say about this. yes

Nippon konchuki / The Insect Woman (1963, Shohei Imamura) TSPDT #898 Somewhere between Mizoguchi's LIFE OF OHARU and Fassbinder's MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN lies this lively and unflinching look at a woman's misadventures in sex, work and motherhood. Strikes me as historically groundbreaking in its frank and explicit depiction of female exploitation and the limited options a woman had in '60s Japan to find material and sexual fulfillment. There's also a great sense of everyday, unglamorous Japanese society, from the hick villages to the seedy underbelly of the city, that was Imamura's bread and butter. I only wish the dialogue was less expository and the narrative was less choppy as it moved from one episode in the heroine's hard luck story after another. yes

Un giornata particolare / A Special Day (1977, Ettore Scola) TSPDT #899 - final 100 countdown kicks off in the next day or two! Sophia Loren sparkles in an understated earthy turn as a housewife stuck doing chores at home while her 1930s Italian family attends a Fascist celebration to see Hitler and Mussolini in person. Her pet macaw flies the coop across the apartment complex to perch with Marcello Mastroianni, an outed homosexual contemplating suicide in lieu of deportation. No surprise that this is very well acted, and Scola's direction takes full advantage of the natural rapport between the two leads, building up to some wonderfully realized scenes in the second half. Confined entirely to interiors but never stagebound thanks to some deft camerawork, this is the Italian equivalent of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. a very high yes

Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuaron) An audacious, visionary work from Cuaron, set 20 years in an England where humans are mysteriously no longer able to have children, leading to a mass deportation of immigrants and violent upheaval all around. Clive Owen (who, combined with his performance in INSIDE MAN, has really impressed me lately) is enlisted by his terrorist ex-wife (Julianne Moore) to escort a miraculously pregnant immigrant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) out of the country. The film speeds so fast through the phantasmagoric sets and visuals that at first viewing it's hard to take it all in and make full sense of it -- plays like a high-tech version of Ingmar Bergman's SHAME though with more bravado and forward momentum and moments of blistering virtuosity - perhaps Godard's WEEK-END would be a more fitting comparison. There are at least two sequences where the camera runs for at least five minutes through some of the most jaw-droppingly choreographed action sequences ever made - for those scenes alone the film is a must-see. They are so stunningly executed that one can't decide at first whether it enhances or upstages the doomsday scenario Cuaron audaciously offers. But his reconfigurations of contemporary media imagery (deported immigrants, war, torture, civil surveillance) into a futuristic apocalyptic landscape make a powerful impact, surpassing that of Spielberg's recent attempts to do the same (MINORITY REPORT, WAR OF THE WORLDS). A must-see, and possibly a masterpiece. yes/YES (#6 for 2006 between BATTLE IN HEAVEN and BORAT)