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This is a magnificent adaptation of David Guterson's acclaimed book. Scott
Hicks took on a gargantuan task in attempting to make the book into a film,
not only because it was so powerful and well received, but because it was so
lengthy and daedal. The result, however, was one of the best films I have
seen in quite some time.
There were really three stories intricately interwoven into one. The main story was the trial of a Japanese American for the murder of a fisherman who owned the land wrongfully taken from the accused's father. The other two stories provide insight into critical events affecting the trial. The first involves the childhood love affair of local newspaperman Ishmael (Ethan Hawke) and Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), who is now the wife of the accused. He has uncovered information that can aid the defense, but his resentment for having been jilted by Hatsue stands in the way of his bringing it forth.
The second ancillary story is the persecution of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II. We see depictions of hatred and bigotry, as law abiding Japanese citizens are shamelessly herded into internment camps. This seething animus serves as the psychological backdrop for the trial, which occurs in the early 1950's when the memories of the war and lost loved ones is still fresh.
From a directorial and cinematography perspective, this film was nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a cinematic work of art. Between Hicks' brilliant camera perspectives and Robert Richardson's beautiful lighting and earth tone coloring, the film was resplendent in powerful and stirring images. Many were so artistically done that if made into snapshots they could easily hang in any art gallery. Each shot was meticulously thought out. Many involved complex shots through windows, silhouette backlighting, elaborate blocking, and scenes where actors, props and camera were all moving in different directions to create fabulously fluid perspective shots that slowly unfolded to revealed the scene's full content.
The editing was also fantastic. I have seen comparison's between this editing and The Limey'. While there is some similarity in technique, this was far more elegant and flowing, whereas `The Limey' was jumpy and disconnected. This style of editing was absolutely necessary to adhere to the book's non linear format. Hicks needed to insert scenes that explained the feelings and motivations of the characters, and the only way to do this was with flashbacks and jump cuts. Despite the fact that such editing is disconcerting to a large majority of viewers, it was an artistic decision that was exactly right for the story, and seamlessly done. The same is true of the audio overlays with monologues of characters superimposed on one another, giving great power and emphasis to certain of the characters' lines.
The story itself, with all of its components, was engaging and well crafted. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to develop more of the characters. The scenes depicting the herding of the Japanese out of their homes for relocation were chilling. The courtroom scenes were realistic, not forsaking court procedure for dramatic effect, as is so common nowadays. The love scenes were sensitive, romantic and passionate without the need for sexual explicitness.
From an acting perspective, this was more of an ensemble production. All the actors gave wonderful performances, especially Youki Kudoh, who was torn between her love for Ishmael and her loyalty to her family and traditions. Kudoh was so emotionally involved with the part that she actually began crying during the featurette when recalling one of the scenes. Screen legend Max von Sydow was also fantastic as the aging defense attorney fighting and pleading for justice amidst the racial hatred.
This is a beautifully crafted film with a compelling story. It is a filmmaking 10/10. It has unfortunately not found a wide audience since its strongest elements are not areas of mass appeal. For the refined viewer who can appreciate filmmaking as an art, and enjoy an intriguing but deliberate story with exquisitely woven subtleties, this film is a delight. For those who prefer Hollywood's movie success formula of fast paced linear stories with lots of violence, profanity, clever one liners and raunchy sex, this film will bore them to death.
This film stands apart from the standard, sometimes clever, seldom
memorable work that passes too often for Oscar fare nowadays. It is a film
about life and death, love and betrayal, passion and pain, forgiveness and
redemption. It is about the power of emotion to influence perception and
memory. It is about justice and truth.
But that is not why you should see it; You should see it for the story. For this film is so finely crafted, and the story unfolds so naturally, that it is easy to appreciate for the simple compelling drama of the narrative. You care about the characters, you care about how the trial turns out, and you ache to know the truth.
The plot centers around a murder trial of a Japanese man charged in the death of a local fisherman, and on a white reporter covering the trial. It turns out the reporter had once been in love with a Japanese woman, now the accused man's wife. This romance was shattered as World War II broke out, and the young woman and her family were rounded up with other Japanese Americans, and interred in camps.
The story that unfolds is part "Casablanca", part "Amistad", part "To Kill a Mockingbird", yet wholly original and true to itself. It is at once a tender love story, a lesson in history, a murder mystery, and more.
The story of each of the main characters is told through flashbacks that reveal how each of them has suffered because of the war and how each has to overcome this suffering. Many of the most compelling images of the film occur in these flashbacks. Like real lasting memories, they are moments of deep emotional significance, and include many images which you will carry in your own mind long after you have left the theater.
If you look for them you may also find some symbolic or allegorical images in the film (the boat's mast resembles a cross; the fish could also be seen as a Christian symbol of sacrifice), but these elements are not heavy handed or forced, they occur naturally as important elements of the story which is set in a small fishing village on the Northwestern coast of the US in the years surrounding World War II.
While I have seen many reviewers comment on how beautifully filmed and well acted this film is, I have seen a few who have somehow failed to appreciate the significance of the story. My only caution on this account is, take care that you are not so blinded by beauty, that you fail to notice love.
In short, I found this to be a brilliant, deep, uplifting engrossing, and highly satisfying film experience.
Adapting this novel with its tricky, time-shifting narrative was always going to be a big task, but Scott Hicks' sumptuous and elegant film very nearly pulls it off. Hicks and co-writer Ron Bass move quickly into the courtroom and wisely use the trial to drive the plot, telling the backstory - the real story in this case - through a finely-woven complex of flashbacks. The difficulty is that this story is a rich, long and emotional tale which requires a fair degree of exposition for it to be satisfying. The screenplay is superbly economical in this regard, but there is no escaping the fact that the only way to cover so much ground in a film of tolerable length is to fly over it at 30,000 feet. The necessarily distant treatment this requires occasionally dilutes the emotional force which would have come from a more thorough and leisurely telling. Hicks strives valiantly to compensate with a powerfully emotive score - this works, but it doesn't always hit the mark. Rather than engendering emotion, James Newton Howard's musical is often so insistently overpowering that it locks the audience out. On occasions I felt strangely alienated by a wall of sound when I knew I should have been in tears. But that's a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent production. Overall, this is an intelligent and considered adaptation - probably the best that could be made from a novel which would have been incredibly difficult to bring to the screen. It's solidly acted, immaculately lit, and offers some of the most achingly beautiful imagery to illuminate the screen in years (the opening shots are magnificent). Most rewarding of all is the fact that Scott Hicks takes some real stylistic risks with this film. They don't always pay off, but when they do it's magical.
Snow Falling on Cedars
Nominated for best cinematography, this film deserved to give American Beauty a better run for its money. Sadly savaged by many critics, who seemed to fail to grasp the depth of the story and the beauty with which it was told because they were too busy analyzing the parts. Snow Falling on Cedars follows a mixed race love that is complicated by the onset of war. The reactions of the two principle characters betrays not only how human love can transcend itself into something greater but how those involved can find fulfillment in themselves through its sacrifice. The exquisite symbolism (you could write a book on the different things snow could symbolize after watching this) is never overplayed - in other words, the viewer can enjoy the film as entertainment without having "deeper meanings" rammed down their throat - but they are there in abundance, from the way the scenery is developed to small details such as the main character's name ("Ishmael" - meaning "He whom God hears").
This is one of those films that needs to be seen a second time to pick up on the subtleties of the plot. It is a feast for the eyes and features outstanding acting. It also has a sense of balance. It doesn't manipulate its viewer. The murder mystery isn't one that brings in forces that threaten the main character. The forces are prejudice and fear. The adversaries are not people carrying guns but rather the legal system that often overlooked the rights of people of another race or ethnic background. The internment camps are part of the backdrop. I know that people say this is slow, but so is the process these people faced. I loved the intellectual character of the young man who has to look past his own feeling and try to bring closure to someone he will never be able to have. The transitions are so breathtaking. The winter scenes are a portrait of softness and violence. My wife had read the book upon which this is based and said that the movie might be interesting. Apparently, the producers were unwilling to go the extra mile to get this noticed. It's a gem and deserves to be on a list of very fine movies.
Honor and justice, the effects of prejudice, and most importantly the
for truth; all elements that bind us together as a community of Man, or
threaten to tear us apart, depending upon the circumstances at hand, and
we, as a society approach them. What it all comes down to is having and
living by a moral code, and applying that code objectively, especially
troubled times. And the real question is, when the time comes, are we
people capable of achieving that objectivity that is imperative in
true justice for all? It's an important, legitimate question posed by
director Scott Hicks in `Snow Falling On Cedars,' a very real and
drama, that in the final analysis has a bearing of monumental
that ultimately defines who we are and what we are made of, while
ascertaining whether or not we do, indeed, have the moral courage
to survive as a civilized species.
It's a small town in the State of Washington; the ninth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is coming up, and a young man named Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a much decorated American soldier during the war, is on trial for the murder of local fisherman Carl Heine (Eric Thal). Covering the trial is reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), whose father, Arthur (Sam Shepard), had been a respected newspaperman locally for many years, known as a man who was not afraid to speak from his conscience when writing an editorial, and who took a stand for the Japanese locals during the emotionally exasperating years encompassing World War II.
Attempting to objectively cover Kazuo's trial, Ishmael finds himself troubled by a conflict of interests; he has a history with Kazuo's wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), a former relationship reaching back to their childhood, but which ended with the onset of the war. And Ishmael still is grappling with the bitterness he has felt since that time, born of his experiences in the military, as well as Hatsue's rejection of him. And now he is forced to objectively observe this pivotal point in her life, watching from the sidelines and seeing first hand the effects of the prejudice that is very much alive among the local citizenry, and which threatens the assurance of an impartial judgment in Kazuo's case; a judgment that will determine the future of not only Kazuo, but of Hatsue, the woman Ishmael once loved-- and still does.
Working from an intelligent screenplay (by Hicks and Ronald Bass, adapted from the novel by David Guterson), with this film Hicks demonstrates the difference between a visionary filmmaker and someone who just makes movies. In another's hands, because of the story itself, this would have no doubt been an excellent film; with Hicks directing, however, it becomes something much more, as he has taken it beyond excellent, crafting and delivering a film that is thoroughly mesmerizing, majestic and memorable. It's an accomplishment achieved through a visionary presentation, born of the director's sensitive approach to the material and his acute insights into the human condition. Fully utilizing all of the magic at his disposal, Hicks has taken a good film and turned it into an emotionally involving, inspirational and visually poetic experience.
With a haunting score by James Newton Howard underscoring the magnificent cinematography of Robert Richardson, Hicks brings the era and the rural splendor of Washington State vividly to life, creating an aesthetic ambiance that makes the emotional essence of the drama almost tangible; and by exacting some incredible performances from his actors, he sustains that emotional level and combines all of these elements to make this film riveting and unforgettable.
As Ishmael, Ethan Hawke gives a reserved, understated performance, through which he genuinely captures the essence of his character. Watching him, you can sense the turmoil of a soul at cross purposes with itself, and he enables you to sample that taste of bitterness toward life he so desperately needs to overcome if he is to move on within himself to greener pastures. With this role, Hawke was given the opportunity to do something fine, and he succeeds with one of his most memorable performances yet.
Youki Kudoh turns in an extremely affecting performance, as well, as Hatsue. With this moving portrayal of a young woman enduring unbearable inner turmoil, she fulfills the artistic promises made in previous films, such as `Mystery Train' in '89, and `Picture Bride,' in 1965. She's a terrific actor, whose eyes are truly a window to her soul.
Also adding to the success of this film are the supporting efforts of Richard Jenkins, as Sheriff Moran, and James Rebhorn as prosecutor Alvin Hooks. But the most notable performance of all comes from Max von Sydow, who as Kazuo's defense attorney, Nels Gudmundsson, is given an opportunity to return to the kind of role that shaped his career early on under the auspices of Ingmar Bergman. As Nels, von Sydow gives a performance made all the more powerful by the restraint and subtlety of his delivery. He takes what to most actors would be a good part, and makes it a cohesive element of the film. It's a performance that by all rights should have earned von Sydow an Oscar nomination, but sadly did not.
The supporting cast includes Reeve Carney (Young Ishmael), Ann Suzuki (Young Hatsue), James Cromwell (Judge Fielding), Ariia Bareikis (Susan Marie), Celia Weston (Etta) and Daniel von Bargen (Carl). In a year (1999) that saw lesser efforts acknowledged, `Snow Falling On Cedars' was inexplicably ignored at Oscar time (except for Richardson's most deserving nomination for cinematography); an injustice, to say the least, as this was clearly one of the best films of the year. Reminiscent of Ang Lee's artistry, yet with a style uniquely his own, Hicks has given us a poetic film of rare beauty and conscience, for which he is hereby granted an Award in it's purest form:
The gratitude of an appreciate audience. 10/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having loved David Guterson's novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars", we
resisted in seeing the film based on it when it was released. Some
times a book that is still alive in one's imagination doesn't compare
well with what movie people can do to it; it can go either way.
Fortunately, as in the case with this work, director Scott Hicks, who
also helped to adapt it for the screen, shows a sensibility for the
book as it shows in the finished product. The co-writer is Ronald Bass.
The film is told in flashbacks. We are given the premise of the discovery of Carl Heine's body tangled in the nets and then the film goes into the trial in which the accused man, Kazuo Miyamoto, stands trial in spite of the fact he is an innocent man. Kazuo was a man that happened to be at the scene of the crime, but had nothing to do with what happened. His only guilt was trying to get back what had been the family's land from Heine.
The film goes back to the time when Ishmael and Hatsue, who is now married to Kazuo, were childhood sweethearts. We see how inseparable they were and how they didn't stand a chance because they came from different ethnic groups. Hatsue's parents want her to stick to her own kind.
Prejudice is shown as Japanese immigrants living in America were interred in concentration camps. This shameful page in the history of the United States changed forever the relationship between Hatsue and Ishmael. Kazuo went to fight in WWII on the side of his adopted country. Ishamel also goes to the conflict and suffers a loss of an arm during his time at the front.
Ishmael, who is seen at the trial where he is reporting the process for his own newspaper, holds the key in solving the mystery. Even though he knows he will never have Hatsue back, he does the right thing in clearing her husband's name and his innocence.
The film was shot in dark tones that renders the film with a sepia finish. There is not much color in Robert Richarson's splendid cinematography as he captures the bleak atmosphere of the different times shown in the movie. The editing of Hank Corwin works well in the movie. The musical score by James Newton Howard is an elegant compliment to the images one sees on the screen.
Ethan Hawke's Ishmael has little dialog in the movie, yet, his expressions contribute to make his character a complex figure throughout the film. Youki Kudoh makes a beautiful Hatsue. Rick Yune plays the accused Kazuo. The great Max Von Sydow is seen as Kazuo's lawyer, the man who clearly understood what he was fighting for; he was an upright figure who opposed the prejudice and narrow mindedness of the small town. Sam Shepard, Richard Jenkins, Eric Thal, Arija Bareikis, James Cromwell and the others in the cast make valuable contributions to the success of the film.
Ultimately, this is a Scott Hicks film and he proves he had a vision in how to stage the novel for us to rejoice.
As the referees say on pro football TV games, "On further review......"
That's the way I thought after my second viewing of this movie.
GOOD NEWS - On the first look, I was totally blown away and dazzled at the fabulous cinematography. Man, this is one of the prettiest movies I've ever seen.....and that's important for my entertainment. Scene after scene looks like some picture postcard. I also enjoyed the two lawyers in this film, played by James Rebhorn and Max VonSydow. Sometimes those two were riveting to watch.
BAD NEWS - Most of the story was anything but riveting, way too slow and with way too much time used on flashbacks. This story could have been told in a much more presentable way which could have kept the audience's attention. It's also a little too politically-correct. We were beaten over the head with the prejudice against Japanese. Everyone here, except the Liberal newspaper editor and his son, is portrayed as extremely bigoted.
Overall, a spectacular visual film - one of the best ever - but a story that takes interminably long to tell.....too long.
A tightly wound and dynamic thriller that centers around a local news reporter (Ethan Hawke) who runs into an old childhood flame part friend (Youri Kudoh) during a murder trial in a small Washington town during the early 1950s. Director Scott Hicks, who made a name for himself and actor Geoffrey Rush in "Shine", takes an interesting approach in putting plenty of flashbacks that go back to the late 1930s and it works wonderfully. The film's best (and the saddest) flashback scene is witnessing every Japanese person being hauled off in (trucks or trains) to special camps. The courtroom scenes are excellent and watching the devoted prosecutor (James Rebhorn) and an aging, but determined defense attorney (Max von Sydow, who should have snatched a nod for Best Supporting Actor) make their cases is almost perfect. The film is backed by Robert Richardson's terrific cinematography and composer James Newton Howard's gentle and moving score. It's "Stand By Me" meets "To Kill A Mockingbird".
`Snow Falling on Cedars' stands as one of the most visually ravishing
of the past several years. Beautifully attuned to the natural splendor of
its Washington State locale, the film actually converts its setting into
of the major characters in the film. Nature, in the form of topography,
flora and weather, seems to exert, if only subliminally, as much influence
on the people involved as their own actions and passions. However, there
always a drawback to a movie being so closely tied to its physical
environment: very often the background advances to the foreground,
ultimately overwhelming and dwarfing the human figures that should be our
primary focus. Almost inevitably then, `Cedars' itself falls victim to
syndrome from time to time. Despite many intriguing elements in its
narrative, we do come away remembering far more the stunning landscapes of
rugged stone mountains, fog-enshrouded lakes and endless rows of
snow-covered cedars than the characters at the story's core. Still, the
film offers enough interest in the story and personalities to keep `Snow
Falling on Cedars' relatively intriguing for the majority of its
overlong) 128-minute running time.
Set in 1950, the film chronicles the effect a mysterious death of a local fisherman has on the populous of a small island community made up mostly of whites and Japanese Americans, a death that, for complicated reasons, awakens many of the racial prejudices still holding over from the recently concluded war. As a Japanese man stands trial for the `murder,' Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), a mediocre reporter for the local paper, copes with three basic issues: his unrequited love for the defendant's Japanese wife, the flaring-up of anti-Japanese bigotry in both the past and the present, and haunting memories of his deceased father, a socially crusading newspaper publisher, in whose shadow Ishmael toils and against whose professional reputation Ishmael is tested and found wanting.
The film is definitely at its most emotionally powerful in its superb middle section, which beautifully dramatizes, in flashback, the shameful deportation of these Japanese-American citizens to interment camps in California, for no crime more serious than simply being of Japanese descent. Parallels to the rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany are never far from our minds as we witness this wholesale forced migration of a group of innocent people singled-out to assuage the prejudice and fear of an ignorant but powerful majority. For these scenes alone, the film is most assuredly worth seeing.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film cannot sustain this same intensity of deep emotional conviction. The forbidden interracial childhood romance between Ishmael and Hatsue, the current wife of the man on trial, smacks a bit too much of tired Romeo and Juliet melodramatics. Furthermore, Ishmael seems underdeveloped as a character, too dreamy-eyed and passive, just the kind of character that can be easily swallowed up in a film in which the background plays such a prominent part. Moreover, the easy wrap-up of the trial is woefully unconvincing and unsatisfying both as realism and as drama.
On the positive side, `Snow Falling on Cedars' boasts a fascinating dual-level structure, in which small snippets of information are introduced to us in the form of near-subliminal quick cuts representing memories or speculations on past events, often, oddly, those at which none of the characters involved in the current scene were even present. This latter inconsistency in the film's point-of-view may seem dubious and questionable from a strictly narrative standpoint, but the format does help to flesh out the story and characters in interesting and intriguing ways, intensifying the mystery as we attempt to piece it all together to finally get a view of the whole picture. Director Scott Hicks, along with his co-writer Ron Bass, succeeds in providing a richly detailed glimpse into a shameful episode in American history - and the lyrical quality achieved through Robert Richardson's outstanding cinematography helps the film override some of its more obvious flaws. If one brings an attitude of patience and a fine eye for natural beauty to the film, `Snow Falling on Cedars' turns out to be quite rewarding, especially for those misguided misfits who still, at this late date, justify and defend the actions taken against the American Japanese during the war. This film is a stunning rebuttal to both them and their idiotic notions. For that aspect alone, `Snow Falling on Cedars' demands to be seen.
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