A rave review in the New York Times can often be as influential among Oscar voters as a ton of Golden Globe awards. And Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jimalanded a doozy today (Wednesday) from lead critic A.O. Scott. "It is," he writes, "unapologetically and even humbly, true to the durable tenets of the war-movie tradition, but it is also utterly original, even radical in its methods and insights." What makes it such, Scott suggests, has much to do with the fact that it is a war movie that ends not in victory but in defeat, presenting, as it does, the Japanese viewpoint of the Iwo Jima battle. "It is hard to think of another war movie that has gone so deeply, so sensitively, into the mind-set of the opposing side," he writes. The film, Scott concludes, is "close to perfect." Letters also receives an equally stunning review from the Los Angeles Timescritic, Kenneth Turan, who calls it "daring and significant." Noting that it is intended as a companion piece to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers,which was released earlier this fall, Turan observes,"While each film reinforces the other, it is Letters that is finally the more remarkable accomplishment, a feat of empathetic cross-cultural connection that Eastwood ... more or less willed into existence." Turan nevertheless suggests that audiences see both films, concluding: "Though war movies traditionally encourage our patriotic blood lust by making the enemy faceless or worse, we realize here, as the fighting begins, that the people we badly wanted dead in the first film are precisely those who we are made to care deeply about here and whose bravery this film so admires."


When it was originally announced, the decision to make yet another Rocky movie with Sylvester Stallone playing the character he created 30 years ago was almost universally hooted. "Critics are going to have a field day with it," was the general consensus. Well, as it turns out, the reviews for Rocky Balboa are pretty good. Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Timeswrites: "Rocky Balboais not the embarrassment many expected it to be. It's actually the bestRocky movie since the original -- a fitting and triumphant final chapter for one of the most iconic characters in the history of motion pictures." Similarly, Stephen Holden in the New York Times writes: "Surprisingly Rocky Balboa, is no embarrassment. Like its forerunners it goes the distance almost in spite of itself." Claudia Puig in USA Today quotes Rocky himself: "Who wouldda thunk?" And Geoff Pevere in the Toronto Starhas this take on the film's accomplishment: "Satisfying in the end because it's not nearly as bad as it could have been, Rocky Balboa succeeds mostly because it does what the character does: gets through without falling flat on its ass." The film may also resurrect the faded career of Sylvester Stallone, other critics observe. "Defying all odds," Michael Wilmington writes in the Chicago Tribune,Stallone's movie "comes close to a knockout."


Days after director Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower opened with the biggest box-office take in China's history, some Western reports are questioning the role of China's exhibitors in producing the record. According to state news reports, Flower, which reunites the director with actress Gong Li after ten years, earned about $12 million during its first weekend and was expected to break the record of $45 million set by Titanicin 1996. Shanghai Dailyquoted the manager of one local theater as saying that he has been using most of his screens for the film, presenting 20 screenings every day. But the British trade publication Screen Dailysaid such policies were producing the record inasmuch as they blocked competition from other films. One distributor, Beijing Polybona Film Distribution, claimed that theaters were breaking a guarantee to show its Confession of Pain beginning December 22 and thereby had "broken the principle of fair competition and monopolized the market." Still other Chinese news reports expressed indignation that the film had been snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association when the group announced its Golden Globe nominees for foreign-language films last week.


Expected denials of British press reports that Tom Cruise was planning on funding a Scientology-influenced movie, The Thetan, and had cast Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham in the lead failed to materialize Tuesday, leading some to conclude that the seemingly unlikely project may in fact be in the works. Spokespersons for Cruise and Beckham remained curiously silent about the report, which first appeared in the London tabloid, The Star.


The MPAA has won what many might consider a pyrrhic victory over a major seller of counterfeit DVDs in China. The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court ruled on Tuesday that the Yu Hao Qing DVD store and its parent, Beijing Century Hai Hong Trading Co., violated copyright regulations. But the penalty -- the defendants were ordered to compensate the U.S. studios $20,000 -- was regarded as barely a slap on the wrist. Besides such light penalties, the MPAA said that China's continued determination to limit the number of foreign films that can be screened theatrically to 20 per year has continued to fuel DVD piracy in the country.