April 13, 2010
 

War Movies: The New Chick Flicks?

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To: MAJ Readers
From: Wendy McHale, Publisher


The NFL leads the quest to establish a larger, broader audience with sports marketing, particularly with its SuperBowl programming. By now, we are all familiar with the annual pre-game pageantry of star football players it parades out in the positive roll-modelesque "up close and personal" look.

Whether one likes this content or not, the truth of the matter is that NFL's strategy to humanize the players is an excellent way to increase the size of the female audience. It does not hurt that the common theme and characteristic of each of the player's stories have a similar rags to riches theme.

That's because the bulk of the players do come from low income households. The NFL is one of the only ways these individuals have the opportunity to break through the crisis of poverty. If they are involved with charitable organizations, that's because they are only-too-aware of the need for help in their community. In essence, their efforts are real and therefore authentic.

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The NFL does not have to go to great lengths to dress each of these up romantically. They even cover some of the players with major problems like Tank Johnson and even debate the NFL's decisions. This is also authentic. It also borderlines on the public notion of PC. We award them for their boldness. With all the reality TV on the air today, why shy away from the nation's addiction to inspecting what each of us has under the covers.

Hollywood seems to be doing the same, though it's not working as well. The difference to the NFL though is that fiction - in the production values sense - does not deliver an authentic look and feel that the NFL real life stories do. There in lies an important distinction. Who knows? Could warm and fuzzy film content drive male audiences away from war films?

With all the inner male beauty being outed these days, could what in fact be really happening is that female programming tastes are changing? Soap operas dress up violence with long gowns and gorgeous living rooms. Football dresses up violence in spandex pants and shoulder pads. War movies dress up violence with snappy uniforms, cool helmets and sparkling metals on its stars chests. Are we seeing a new genre erupt before us; war films as the new chick-flicks?

Kurt Brokaw gives us his view of how Hollywood is intersecting the wars between Alpha vs. Beta!

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By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

Movies that show us the unraveling of governments and the passing of civilization are usually box-office poison. Remember Ridley Scott's brilliant "Blade-Runner"? Scott took Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and created a 2020 Los Angeles as an industrial slagheap in which people with money had moved to off-world colonies, leaving the city to hooligans and replicants. The picture did little business initially and was quickly pulled. Jonathan Demme's dazzling remake of John Frankenheimer's "Manchurian Candidate" (from Richard Condon's 60s novel) pitted Denzel Washington's angst-ridden soldier against a vast corporate/governmental plot headed by Liev Schriber and Meryl Streep, underscored with an all-bad-news-all-the-time tone that included ominous news bulletins and armored troops guarding Penn Station. Not much business here, either. Neither film was helped by mixed to negative critical reviews.

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Maybe times have changed. The Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuaron established himself as an A-list talent with "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Now he's taken English author P.D. James' novel and turned it into a dark, endlessly brutal and terror-filled preview of a world collapsing before our eyes. Clive Owen is a low-level Brit civil servant in 2027 who cheats death when the coffee shop he's just walked out of is blown up by a terrorist bomb. The world's youngest person is in his 20s and has just died. No child has been born on earth for 18 years. Thousands of refugees from war-torn nations are flowing into England and being held in wire cages throughout the wasteland. Clive's former lover is shot and killed before his eyes. When Clive starts drinking Bell's scotch from the brown bottle he carries around, you may find yourself wondering if the concession stand has anything stronger than sodas to help bring down the misery index that Cuaron is relentlessly raising.

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The plot centers on Owen's encounter with a young black woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who somehow has become pregnant. Clive agrees to transport her into a safe zone to have her baby. Dramatic fantasies in this ruined-landscape genre are almost always done on the cheap, like "The World, The Flesh and the Devil" and "Last Man On Earth." Cuaron works on a massive scale of trashed neighborhoods, huge crowds and frenzied revolutionaries embedded in real-time combat. The feeling is very close to Ridley Scott's recreation of block-by-block assaults in "Black Hawk Down." There are long, intricately choreographed action sequences shot hand-held without a cut. The body count piles up fast, and nearly every major and support actor in the film goes down. For better or worse, the picture belongs to Clive Owen, who's in virtually every scene and who the camera mostly stays tight on, even when it's flanking him on the run. Owen grows from a vapid onlooker into the torch bearer for the human race--it's a calculated, fake/heroic part, and the actor grows into it with grim, capable resolve.

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But Cueron has a trick up his sleeve--a miracle of sorts once the young woman has finally given birth--which functions as a kind of gift to mankind and the viewer. If you accept it--and you may, for it's a transporting scene that brings audiences to tears--"Children of Men" takes on a quality of redemption that can cleanse a lot of the violent, apocalyptic imagery you've witnessed. Cueron works the scene and a final coda that follows with skill and tact, using the same kind of keening vocalization on the soundtrack that Michael Mann builds into highly emotional scenes in his films. Does it work? This is one critique and critic that are going to stay objectively, stubbornly neutral, a rare stance. Which is another way of saying, reader, you're on your own.

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We're on far firmer and more familiar ground here, even though this is Clint Eastwood's reverse-angle of the American invasion of Iwo Jima during World War II. "Flags of Our Fathers" bookended the U.S. theatre of combat with the historic flag-raising and the subsequent peacetime travails of the individual half-dozen soldiers who planted the American flag. "Letters from Iwo Jima" is a Japanese-language story of the officers and enlisted men who fought and died in the caves and tunnels and mountain terrain of the Pacific island. It doesn't use the dramatic device of the flag-raising. It has no dramatic device at all, and thus its strengths rest almost entirely on what Eastwood's cast and characters bring to a hard-fought battle we know our troops are going to win. At two hours and twenty minutes, this is a very, very long battle.

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Playing the Japanese General Tadamichi Kurbayashi is Ken Watanabe, who has stepped into the kind of roles once assayed by Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai. Watanabe can be a powerhouse, but he's reigned in here, doing more with less as do most casts in Eastwood films of the last ten years. The narrative is essentially the general's role seen through the eyes of a younger soldier. Because both "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags Of Our Fathers" were shot in Iceland, on Iwo Jima, and in actual caves on the Mojave Desert, they include some of the same battle footage. Eastwood films in CinemaScope with a Technicolor process that's been heavily desaturated down to a near black-and-white texture that complements the black beach sand and bleak landscapes.

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Other than Watanabe, there are no known actors in "Letters From Iwo Jima." The perform-ances are perfunctory and unsurprising, and the various bits of characterization that do emerge seem no different from a lot of Hollywood WWII black-and-white films. Steven Spielberg (Eastwood's co-producer on these films) was able to raise the bar of R-rated screen carnage considerably with "Saving Private Ryan," and Eastwood has followed through in both his pictures, with moments of grisly gore that are difficult to watch. While Clint Eastwood has grown into a world-class, Oscar-winning artisan and director, a part of him will always be the guy who made somebody's day playing Dirty Harry.

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"Letters from Iwo Jima" is heaping up more Best-of citations from more critics than just about any other U.S. release of 2006. But it's not a great movie. It's not even a great Japanese movie, and it's not even as interesting a Japanese war movie as the 1972 film, "Under the Flag Of The Rising Sun," a moving account of four war deserters which has been shown at Japan Society in New York City, or the 1953 film "Attack Squadron," in which Toshiro Mifune plays an Air Force officer opposed to the changing Japanese offensive strategy in 1944.

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Eastwood leaned heavily on Paul Haggis in adapting the story for "Letters From Iwo Jima." Haggis is famous for "Casino Royale," "Crash," "Million Dollar Baby" and a slew of television work that goes back to "The Love Boat" in the 70s. Haggis gave Clint a serviceable, workmanlike story for what evidently started out as the director's Lucky Strike extra to "Flags Of Our Fathers." That film faded fast, but its Japanese counterpart seems to be the one to beat on the top-ten lists. One hesitates to write this twice in one column, but as with "Children of Men," you're on your own.


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