DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Letters from Iwo Jima: Two-Disc Special Edition

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ken_McAlinden, May 21, 2007.

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  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    Letters from Iwo Jima: Two-Disc Special Edition

    Directed By: Clint Eastwood

    Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe


    Studio: Warner Brothers

    Year: 2006

    Rated: R

    Film Length: 140 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

    Subtitles: English, Spanish, French

    Release Date: May 22, 2007


    The Film

    "Letters from Iwo Jima" is the second part of what Clint Eastwood refers to as his "Iwo Jima Diptych". The idea for a film about the Japanese experience at the Battle of Iwo Jima came to Eastwood while he was researching the battle for the film "Flags of Our Fathers". While "Flags..." was as much or more about the aftermath of Iwo Jima on American soldiers as it was about the actual battle, "Letters from Iwo Jima" focuses squarely on the battle as experienced by the Japanese officers and enlisted men who fought there.

    The film, written by Iris Yamashita from a story co-authored by Yamashita and Paul Haggis inspired by historical research and the published letters of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, centers around both historical and fictional officers and enlisted men in the Japanese military at Iwo Jima. As the film begins, Kuribayashi (K. Watanabe) arrives at Iwo Jima to take command of its defenses under the imminent threat of Allied invasion. He gradually discovers that his situation is even direr than he was led to believe, and that he will not be receiving air or naval support for the island's defenses. His plan to dig out caves and tunnels in the hills is met with disdain by the Naval commanders and certain other officers, who feel that he too easily is surrendering the beaches, although other officers, including Lieutenant Fujita (H. Watanabe) and tank unit Lieutenant Colonel Baron Nishi (Ihara) remain supportive. Kuribayashi and Nishi have a unique perspective on the enemy compared to most of their fellow officers since they both spent time in America prior to the war, Kuribayashi as a military attaché, and Nishi as an Olympic equestrian athlete. Parallel and occasionally intersecting with their stories, we follow the path of Saigo (Ninomiya), a baker with a pregnant wife at home who was drafted into the Army late in the war. He is intelligent, but has little talent for soldiering. When a soldier named Shimizu (Kase) is assigned to Saigo's unit, he is initially suspected of being a spy when it is revealed that he trained with the Kempeitai military police unit. As events progress, Saigo and Shimizu, whose unit is part of the forces assigned to meet the first wave of the invasion, achieve a sort of solidarity as they are faced with progressively more desperate and impossible choices.

    The film conveys the hopelessness, discipline, devotion, and chaos of the weeks before and during the battle, providing some insight into the mindset that led to the Japanese forces drawing out the first battle of the war on their own soil for forty days despite being outnumbered by a ratio of five to one. The accepted imperative of so many soldiers to die rather than surrender leads to unthinkable acts ranging from atrocities committed against captured soldiers to mass suicides at the command of officers. By focusing exclusively on the battle from the perspective of the soldiers, only leaving the island for short flashbacks establishing character viewpoints and motivations, the film achieves a figurative claustrophobia as the threat of invasion gradually grows nearer and a literal claustrophobia when the Japanese soldiers take to the hollowed-out caves and tunnels from which they defend the island.

    The cast is uniformly strong, with veteran actor Watanabe and pop-star Ninomiya providing performances that anchor the movie with relatable motivations and perspectives. Eastwood and his casting directors did a good job of overcoming the classic war movie dilemma by selecting actors with distinct facial features that make them easy to distinguish from each other when they are all dressed alike in uniform with helmets, hats, and/or identical haircuts. The combat scenes are realized viscerally with both flashes of fire that cut through the otherwise desaturated color palette and an aggressively enveloping sound mix.

    The Video

    The highly desaturated palette of the theatrical presentation is reproduced faithfully for this 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 presentation. Unfortunately, there is a low intensity ringing along high contrast horizontal edges that mars an otherwise excellent transfer of this highly stylized film.

    The Audio

    The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is enveloping and dynamic, with the chaotic battles scenes realized particularly effectively. Elements of the mix are very specifically placed throughout a three dimensional soundfield that will leave viewers fighting off the urge to dive for cover under their sofas.

    The Extras

    The Two-Disc Special Edition of "Letters from Iwo Jima" comes with a number of special features, most of which reside on the second disc.

    When the first disc is spun up, the viewer is treated to skippable theatrical trailers for "Flags of Our Fathers" (16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 audio) and "Ocean's 13" (4:3 letterboxed 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 audio). This is followed by a promo for the soundtracks to both films in the "Iwo Jima Diptych" (4:3 video with DD 2.0 audio), and a home video trailer for "American Pastime" (4:3 letterboxed 1.78:1 with DD 2.0 audio).

    The second disc, a single layered DVD-5, contains the remainder of the extras. First up is a featurette called "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'". Presented in 16:9 enhanced video, it runs 21 minutes and includes on camera interviews with Eastwood, Producer Robert Lorenz, writer-producer Paul Haggis, writer Iris Yamashita, production designer James Murakami, Costume Designer Deborah Hopper, Cinematographer Tom Stern, and editor Joel Cox. Topics covered include the genesis and evolution of the project, the writing process, research for the production design, and the approach to costumes. The talking head interview segments are intercut with film clips, behind the scenes footage, and stills including production photographs and costume sketches.

    Next up is a featurette called "The Faces of Combat: The Cast of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'". As the title suggests, this eighteen and a half minute featurette focuses on the actors as well as the process of casting them. Interview subjects include casting associates Yumi Takada and Matt Huffman, Ken Watanabe, Kazunori Ninomiya, Ryo Kase, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Hiroshi Watanabe. There is extensive discussion of the casting process including an explanation of how Matt Huffman served as a liaison between his ailing (since deceased) mother, Phyllis Huffman, who was the New York-based casting director, and Yumi Takada who identified most of the Japanese actor who were auditioned. There is discussion of how native Japanese actors had to research Iwo Jima since it was not taught in their school's history curriculum as well as some notes about their approach to their characters and relations with the rest of the cast.

    Also included is a three and a half minute montage of pans and zooms across production stills called "Images from the Front Lines: The Photography of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'". The image is enhanced for 16:9 displays, and the stills are accompanied by music from the film in DD 2.0 stereo.

    Next up is a 16 minute feature called "11/15/2006 World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo". This consists of red carpet arrivals of Eastwood, Lorenz, Yamashita, and the principle cast, who then individually address the premiere crowd with prepared statements. It is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 16:9 with DD 2.0 audio.

    Additionally, another feature taped on the subsequent day is included called "11/16/2006 Press Conference at Grand Hyatt Tokyo". This is a bit more substantial than the premiere footage as it includes twenty-four and a half minutes of the same participants fielding questions from the assembled Japanese media.

    Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 audio.

    Packaging

    The film comes in a standard Amaray-style case with a hinged tray allowing it to hold two discs with no inserts. The cover image eschews the "big star heads" theory of movie marketing (probably because none of the cast are big stars in America), and instead contains a striking image from the film's theatrical poster of a backlit Kuribayashi in silhouette on the beach.

    Summary

    "Letters from Iwo Jima" offers a sharply focused picture of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the doomed Japanese soldiers who fought there. In addition to providing a perspective rarely glimpsed in eastern or western films about World War II, it offers poignant insight into what humans are capable of when faced with impossible circumstances with viscerally affecting, but unglamorized battle sequences. The DVD offers outstanding audio quality with video marred for large screen displays by some low intensity ringing along high-contrast horizontal edges. A reasonably informative collection of featurettes on the second disc offers some insight into how the film was produced and cast.

    Note: If you are interested in an assessment of the HD-DVD release of this film, check out Pat Wahlquist's forum review available at this link.

    Regards,
     
  2. Thommy...M

    Thommy...M Stunt Coordinator

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    Great, and I do mean GREAT, film. Only thing wrong with it is, as you call it, its "highly desaturated palette." The most annoying trend in films today. It is our age's "split-screen." Now look at how dated that technique looks. Monochromatic film coloring will look just as dated in a decade or two.

    Picked up the five disc box set. Now I have about as good a collection of Iwo Jima as I can possibly get:

    - FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
    - LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
    - HEROES OF IWO JIMA (documentary)
    and of course
    - THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA

    Perfect viewing for Memorial Day...or any day, really.
     
  3. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    I totally agree. And I feel the same way about playing with the frame rate of action scenes (see Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, et al).
     
  4. Chris Moe

    Chris Moe Screenwriter

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    I am really looking forward to seeing this film as I missed seeing it in the theater. Glad to hear it's a good disc.
     
  5. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    What really physically irritated me was playing with the exposure speed such that there was no motion blur during some of those shots in "Gladiator". It actually made me queasy.

    Regards,
     
  6. Randy Korstick

    Randy Korstick Producer

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    Easily the best film I saw for 2006.
     
  7. Etrigan

    Etrigan Extra

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    I think you mean "playing with the shutter angle" instead of the exposure speed. Those shots in Gladiator appear extra crisp because the shutter angle is increased (to about 200 degrees, decreasing exposure time) capturing little to no blurryness, but the frame rate (exposure speed) remains constant. Incidentally, this technique is used to make people queasy during violent scenes, so I guess it does work after all.
     
  8. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    I'd rather have had them use Tiger Musk Smell-O-Vision (or whatever they called it)!
     
  9. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    In my mind, was "shutter speed", but somewhere on the way to my typing fingers, things got confused. Thanks!

    Regards,
     
  10. Stephen Orr

    Stephen Orr Screenwriter

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    Watched this on Memorial Day. Though it was an OUTSTANDING film.
     
  11. Sulaco22

    Sulaco22 Auditioning

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    Has the Flags/Sands 5 disc set already been discontinued? Amazon and DDD no longer carry it.
     
  12. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    I wonder if they are just slow in getting them out. I did not receive a review copy of the box set until the same week it was released vs. the review copy of "Letters..." by itself which came almost two weeks earlier.

    Regards,
     
  13. TravisR

    TravisR Studio Mogul

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    I got my copy of the 5 disc set through Amazon so they had them at some point. There's nothing special about the set so my guess is that they are just out of stock and it's just listed funky.
     

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