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So Act of Valor’s coming out soon, and I’m really not excited about it in the least. I got a huge beef with war movies, not just after seeing horrors like Black Hawk Down and The Thin Red Line, but after a dedicated evaluation of just what was wrong in premise with an entire genre of film. Obviously there are truly great war movies, chiefly Apocalypse Now, but I’ve found that war movies post-Saving Private Ryan, so barring stuff like The Dirty Dozen, have really taken hard to a style of what is essentially the self-loathing action movie. The movie may have all sorts of blood and violence, but it takes no pleasure in cinema violence. How could it? Unless it’s something fantasy like Inglourious Basterds, the movie’s historical, and won’t be all John Woo (not even Windtalkers was John Woo, though I did enjoy that movie highly). It’ll be gritty, showing guys falling apart and screaming. Take no joy in this, audience. This is a learning experience.

That’s fine, if you’re Apocalypse Now, a movie with a clear message and the smarts to back it up, but if you’re Black Hawk Down, what are you doing? That movie is two hours of war action, which as stated earlier, isn’t action to be enjoyed. BHD doesn’t then go on to make a point about war like even The Hurt Locker does, it just… goes on. And on and on… holy shit dude. That is, from the one review and trailer I read/saw of Act of Valor, precisely what Act of Valor is gonna be. I guess it started out as a recruitment film, so it’ll have even less of an anti-war message than anything before it.

Let’s talk then about the antithesis: Letters from Iwo Jima. Like Apoc Now, it’s an anti-war movie, one where the enemy isn’t in the enemy soldiers, but in fighting them. Come to think about it, how could they be the enemy? They’re America!

Letters from Iwo Jima completes, justifies, and stands alone with its companion film Flags of our Fathers as one beautiful statement from one of America’s most beloved filmmakers. Clint Eastwood has truly made one of the most humane and necessary films here, and if we’re speaking specifically to Letters, it’s quite entertaining as well. I say they ‘stand alone’ because we view Letters from Iwo Jima in the context of being American. For outsiders, not that we should care about them, it’s a movie about Japanese soldiers that happens to be more sentimental than most others. Of course, many would know that an American directed and created it, but its position standing next to Flags of our Fathers helps. That movie came first, and establishes the American perspective. Then we get Letters, and it’s the Japanese perspective. This connects the two, saying essentially that the problem here isn’t the damn Japs, it’s combat. Military institutions. War.

Even though general consensus, which I agree with, is that Flags of our Fathers isn’t as good [I don’t think it’s bad], it’s the requisite piece that completes the whole, the Act I of a two act structure — much like Kill Bill Vol. 1. Volume 2 is the important one, but we wouldn’t get there without the first. I do like it when this happens, even in less planned out circumstances like the two Clerks movies or the first two Terminators, where a sequel is created to form a dialogue with the original to say something greater than either individually does.

There are movies whose concept I could gush over, but the praise stops there, like The Expendables, or Avatar, but Letters isn’t one of them. The idea of Letters from Iwo Jima is great, but the film itself is also very good. At first glance, it may look like yet another Saving Private Ryan retread, with its washed out color and everything, but as we discover, the violence is minimal, the action is punctuation, and the photography is sweeping glides and careful composition. The music is also quite memorable, particularly the main theme.

There is a central tragedy going on in the movie, the Japanese answer to “why we fight.” Discussion of honor and being a soldier is brought into the narrative, with one scene laying out explicitly the deadliness of the Japanese way — they’d rather blow themselves up irrationally than continue on when all seems lost. Even our hero Kuribayashi feels he must sacrifice himself for his country; it’s motives so deeply embedded in the culture one couldn’t possibly refuse them, even when they must leave their wife and unborn child behind.

High-brow stuff, intelligently done. While it would be enough to have a good idea, then follow through and have it be well made, it’s also a movie of tremendous affect and emotional weight. It’s a great example of a movie that follows more than one perspective, in this case a commander and a soldier, and actually succeeds come payoff time. When they meet, it isn’t a slambang action moment or the Death Wish III “Got one for you DUDE!” though it is under an extreme circumstance. It’s a priceless moment, one of high emotional intensity — they’ve both been through hell alone, and now we see that no matter where you fall in rank, they’re both soldiers.

As much as I like Unforgiven, Letters from Iwo Jima is to me Clint Eastwood’s finest moment. No matter what he does from now on, whether it’s Hereafter, or J. Edgar, which was received less than positively, because of the level of quality he aspires to and reaches here with his war movie, he’ll always be one of the most significant filmmakers of his time, a genre literate Hollywood man with the rarest of things: a heart.

Truly an oddity, a filmmaker using his film to say something real.

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Before I talk about the number 1 on this list, which I’m not sure I even want to talk about, I figured to take a quick stop at the Worst Things of the Year, things that you must avoid. In no particular order, because I just cannot decide… (I left one thing off this list because it happens to be one of my friend’s favorite movies, and I’d feel bad trashing on it… let’s say it’s a particular Tony Scott movie with a particular actress from a particular pirate movie…)

The Takashi Miike Catalogue

Well I still have yet to finish Sukiyaki Western Django, and when I do expect to see a review; I’m torn so far. I have however seen — let’s see… two halves, one third, and one whole of his movies. None were good. He had probably the weakest segment on Three… Extremes, and everything else — 13 Assassins, Ichi the Killer, and Shinjuku Triad Society, were all terrible.

There’s no filmmaker I’ve wanted to like more than Miike but simply could not — he turns me in the opposite direction every time. I look at his filmography and see titles and recognize a few of them, but they all seem to be about ultraviolent guys busting each others’ brains out. Oh right, extreme Asian cinema — I love that stuff. Chan Wook Park n shit? No.

Park may have had some violence against women in… every movie so far, I suppose, but never rape. I don’t know rape is really where I draw the line on cinema violence. Irreversible sucks (but for more reasons than that). Cinema violence for me is very important. It’s escapism if it’s gratuitous, and it can be artful if it serves a purpose. People getting shot in Paul Verhoeven movies, people getting bludgeoned in Park movies, people getting mutilated in The Thing, which I just talked about here. I love it all, but when I have to watch for even one minute a girl screaming and being chased around by some dude — even a villain — I freaking hate that shit.

It’s not fun, and is that not what the exploitation mentality is all about? I suppose I’ve never really watched any women-in-prison movies or anything like that, but even those are supposed to be arousing. Entertainment, by some degree. This is just stupid.

So while the violence is good, the other shit is always bad.

It sucks because Sukiyaki Western Django tells me definitively, and for many reasons, that Miike is the Asian Tarantino. Not only because Tarantino’s making a Django movie, or because he’s in this movie, but Sukiyaki is totally grindhouse post-modern. I’ll talk about that later, but in premise it’s a pretty good idea.

The Office: Season 8

Before we begin, let’s do a quick recap of the fall of this TV show…
Season 5: The last time The Office was genuinely good. Once Idris Elba leaves and the Michael Scott Paper Company arc is over (which seemed troubling at the time), stop watching the show.
Season 6: Super over-the-top, some funny moments. Kind of uncomfortable to watch.
Season 7: Very worrisome. No laughs, any episode. Embarassing to watch.

For a time The Office was one of my favorite shows. But they just kept making bad decisions, and the characters got really, really terrible. I never realized but Jim was an incredibly interesting character, because his sense of superiority that the sitcom straight man usually carries (acknowledged by Lindsay on Arrested Development), must be very well balanced. Jim was always kind of an asshole, but nowadays, when that assholicism isn’t balanced by wit or realism or sympathy, he’s just a plan dick.

Dwight is annoying. He’s no longer the naïve ass-kisser — he’s an aggressive weirdo. Pam is one-dimensional, she only talks about the baby, which is… less than exciting. Robert California adds nothing, Gabe is still here for some reason. Andy is the boss and he isn’t what he used to be, Erin is strange, and their relationship is the least compelling of the five or so that’ve been on this show.

The supporting characters have become caricatures of their past selves. They jockey for the camera and act out — shout, dance — one could never possibly mistake this office for a workplace. Old Office worked so well because the comedy was not only well written, but organic. The writers applied comedy to the workplace environment, and the writers now seem to do the opposite, force the workplace into your typical bad sitcom.

The decline has been steady. Each season has gotten worse, and though there are a few glimmers of hope, like the John Krasinski-directed episode which wasn’t totally terrible, and Craig Robinson and the new warehouse. But I’m rarely optimistic. Once a show goes south, it rarely gets back.

Honorable Mentions (For Good Stuff)

Well I totally forgot about Letters from Iwo Jima, so there you have it. Also good was Hobo with a Shotgun, which you should definitely check out. Better than Machete, maybe a little less awesome than Grindhouse.

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