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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This enjoyable little yarn is classic Twilight Zone. What I enjoy most
about it is the dialogue and its use of foreshadowing.
"That's the going rate today, Mr. Farwell. It may change tomorrow; I haven't checked the market." This is a beautiful little piece of double irony, intended ironically by the speaker but also unwittingly reflecting the real problem he doesn't know about. By itself, it makes the whole third act worthwhile. Even if you've already figured out what's coming, as I had, you don't expect one of the characters to pronounce his own sentence.
The only thing I would change would be Farwell's murder of De Cruz, because it partly spares De Cruz the consequences of his own actions. Every one of those gold bars weighs a good fifteen or twenty pounds. By extorting gold from Farwell, De Cruz is adding to his own burden and reducing his chance of survival. Leaving Farwell to die of thirst when he runs out of gold to buy water with, only to have De Cruz collapse because he's carrying twice his share and has sold half his water - now that would have been a true character-is-destiny moment.
I haven't read the screenplay for King Arthur, but I'll bet it's far
better than the piece of crap Antoine Fuqua put on the screen. It
couldn't have been much worse.
If it had been done right, this would have been a compelling story of how a group of Roman soldiers, loyal and devoted to their Empire, gradually realize that the nation they loved is dead and adopt a new country for their home. No other version of the Camelot tale, at least that I've seen, approaches from this direction. It was a very good idea, and it deserved a better fate.
But Fuqua didn't understand that this process of British naturalization was the most important part of the material. Once Fuqua is done with it, Arthur is turned into a bore, Lancelot into a whiner, and Guinevere into a . . . I don't know what Guinevere was intended to be, but I know it takes considerable ineptitude to make a largely unclothed Keira Knightley look this unattractive.
We hear a great deal about "fighting for freedom," but as usual, only the fighting gets an examination, never the freedom. No thought is put into what freedom means or what impact it has on the lives of the characters. If they had said they were fighting for monarchy, not a single frame of film would have had to be changed.
Rating: *½ out of ****.
Recommendation: TV fare for hardcore D&D fans only.
The Crusades have lost their old glow of moral rightness, but not their
unique sense of high adventure. We may put the name "crusading" to
either a fanatic or a hero, but never to a stick-in-the-mud. For good
or ill, a Crusader plays for high stakes.
The Kingdom of Heaven concerns one Crusader, Balion of Ibelin, who comes to the Holy Land seeking forgiveness for his sins, and those of his lost wife. Once in Jerusalem, he encounters a delicately balanced political situation. Baldwin of Jerusalem, the pious, leprous Crusader king, and his loyal marshal Tiberias, seek to keep peace with their Muslim neighbors while keeping control of their hard-won holy cities. Another Christian faction, led by the Templars Guy of Lusignan and Reynald of Chatillon, motivated by both religious zeal and simple greed, seek war with the Muslims. Looming over both factions is Saladin, the formidable Muslim sultan of Egypt and Syria. The dying King Baldwin walks the tightrope between Saladin and the Templars for as long as he can, but he cannot keep it up forever, and when he fails the consequences will be tragic.
Despite some deep flaws, Kingdom of Heaven is worth watching. First, it approximates the historical facts pretty closely. Balion, Guy, Reynald, Baldwin, Saladin, and Baldwin's sister Sibylla all really existed, and their behavior roughly resembles that of their historical counterparts.
Edward Norton's performance as King Baldwin is magnificent. He is denied the most versatile tool of the actor, his face, spending the entire movie with his leprosy-ravaged features concealed behind a steel mask. Yet he still conveys a fine leader who embodies all the best aspects of the Christianity of his era, and very few of the worst. In Baldwin's Christianity appears the simple, patient faith that enabled him, and many less exalted than he, to bear burdens of pain and degradation that most of us in the modern age cannot even imagine, without becoming sour or embittered. The ever-presence of physical weakness, discomfort, and imminent death strengthens his moral standards, where many in the modern era would use them as excuses for doing wrong. Baldwin is really the heart of the movie, and one of Kingdom of Heaven's chief problems is that it takes too long to get him on stage, and loses its moral center when he exits. Balion, the ostensible main character, is nowhere near as interesting.
Like most Ridley Scott movies, Kingdom of Heaven has a lot of visual impact. The colors are beautiful and rich, with the magnificent reds and yellows of the Crusader states contrasting vividly with the somber blues and greens of Balion's native France. The battle scenes have a great sense of scope and spectacle. In the post-Saving Private Ryan movie world, one may legitimately question Scott's decision to make the battles spectacular rather than horrific; the emphasis is always on the action, never on the agonizing and tragic consequences. But, question the worthiness of Scott's objectives all you want, the fact remains that he achieved the grandeur he was aiming for. Less defensible is the choppiness of Scott's close combat scenes, which often end up looking like an R-rated network war game on the verge of lagging.
The visual display, sweep of history, and compelling story of Baldwin make up for a number of sins. The beginning and end of the story are vacuous, amounting to little more than a thin frame for the battle scenes. The final act centering around the siege of Jerusalem, fails dramatically (though not visually) for two reasons. First, Balion's decision to defend the city to save the lives of the inhabitants is logically absurd. By his age's rules of warfare, a surrendering city's population was to be spared, while populations that resisted were to be slaughtered, and so Balion's defense of the city endangers the people's lives, rather than saving them. Second is Balion's speech to his troops justifying their battle against the Muslims. It is a good speech, eminently reasonable, but also an absurd anachronism. Balion's arguments are clearly aimed at our age, not his own, knocking down doubts about the rightness of denying Muslims access to a city that was once Muslim. We today have such doubts; hardly any 12th-century Christian would have even considered the question of right and justice for the "infidels." Even granting that Balion is a rare exception, he would never have voiced his thoughts publicly in this way.
The final production also shows signs of timidity. In a movie that spends so much time on intimate, gory details of every minor skirmish, and whose central story is of how Christianity lost Jerusalem to Muslim rule, what reason can there be for not showing the battle of the Horns of Hattin? Saladin is one of the central characters of the movie, yet his outstanding military achievement is hustled off screen, hinted at but never displayed. And yet the entire premise of the movie depends on this single battle. This choice gives rise to the ugly suspicion that the producers were simply afraid to present Western audiences in this age of the "Global War on Terror" a picture of Muslims winning a decisive battle against Christians, and the historical facts be damned.
The man who directed this movie also directed Gladiator. Gladiator is much superior, featuring a much more interesting hero and villain, and even more effective and brutal scenes of battle. If you only see one of Scott's period pieces, by all means see Gladiator. But, despite all its imperfections, Kingdom of Heaven is a worthy effort.
Rating: **½ Recommendation: Historical epic fans should rent it off the new release shelf; others wait for TV.
This movie is named "Troy." It is not named "The Iliad." Troy was a
real place, and the Greeks really did besiege it and destroy it. The
Iliad is a work of fiction written some centuries after the fall of
Troy by a guy named Homer, who guessed at what happened based on the
chants and oral histories handed down to him. The movie Troy is not an
attempt to recreate the Iliad word for word; it is an attempt to show
the kind of real events that might have given rise to the myths retold
in the Iliad So it is no crime that the movie leaves out much of the
Iliad. The problem is that the new inventions that substitute for the
Iliad's version often didn't work. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, Troy
is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original,
and the part that is original is not good.
To review the good part: as in the Iliad, Hector is the most noble and impressive character in the story. In fact, he's even nobler here than in the Iliad, as he faces Achilles down directly, while Homer's Hector understandably but ingloriously flees the Greek champion for as long as he can. Eric Bana does the role justice, showing his devotion to his family and his city, and there is a streak of true Greek tragedy in how his love for the one destroys the other.
On paper, Brad Pitt looks like a disastrous choice to play Achilles, so I'm pleased to say he did a fine job. He does very well in his scene with Priam, and he manages to convey with his tears over the body of Hector that he has finally realized that the man he has killed and whose corpse he has desecrated was a better man than he. Also, the movie comes up with a fairly imaginative explanation of how Achilles got his reputation for invulnerability to mortal weapons.
Peter O'Toole, meanwhile, gives a radically different performance from his customary acting, investing Priam with far more dignity and majesty than he usually gets. It's delightful to see O'Toole still willing to strike out in a new direction at his age.
I'm sorry, but that's it for the good part. The bad choices are overwhelming.
To start with, making Agamemnon into a villain was a perfectly defensible decision, but making him into an incompetent was not. It is impossible to believe that a man like Brian Cox's Agamemnon could have united Greece despite lacking not only scruple but also courage, foresight, diplomatic skill, and military prowess. The pious complaints that kings don't fight, but let their underlings die for them is an almost charmingly clueless modernism: from ancient Greece to the Middle Ages, personal skill at arms and tactical mastery were the qualities most demanded of a king, and kings who lacked those qualities were usually deposed and killed by kings who had them.
The second major failure is that the movie wants us to like Achilles, and I left the theater wishing that Briseis had cut his throat when she had the chance. Then Hector would have lived, and possibly Troy would have been saved. And what, precisely, would have been lost by Achilles' death? A talented killer whose only motivation for killing is so that generations untold will sing of his butcheries. Who is worse: Agamemnon, who slaughters people who did him no harm in order to unite warring nations under his rule, or Achilles, who also slaughters people who did him no harm, but does it only to make a name for himself in the epics? Achilles gives a high-falutin' final speech to Briseis, saying "you brought me peace," but what exactly did she do to bring him "peace" that the woman he slept with in the opening scene didn't do too?
It would be easier to like Achilles if there were at least some justice to the Greeks' cause; if, for instance, Paris had been the sniveling coward he was in the original text, or had kidnapped Helen, and if Menelaus had really been in love with her. But in this version, Paris is doing Helen a favor, Menelaus is fighting not for love of his wife but for his wounded pride, and Paris bravely (if incompetently) challenges Menelaus to single combat. Who can possibly want the Greeks to win?
Rating: **1/2 out of ****.
Recommendation: See it on TV.
Sea captain Bart Paxton has a thankless task from the King of England.
Henry Morgan, erstwhile ally of the crown, has set up a kingdom on
Tortuga, whose buccaneers are robbing English ships at will and
strangling the island of Jamaica. The Royal Navy can't attack Tortuga
without igniting a new war with Spain, so the King is sending Paxton as
a secret privateer to put an end to Morgan's depredations. And Meg, the
young hellion who has stowed away on Paxton's ship, isn't making his
job any easier.
Unlike its predecessor The Black Swan or its contemporary Morgan the Pirate, Pirates of Tortuga casts Henry Morgan as a villain, the correct and natural role for that treacherous, rapacious, and brilliant man. The one difficulty is that the historical Captain Morgan died rich, contented, and even respectable, a most unsatisfying end for a movie villain. The movie deals with this problem straightforwardly, by constructing a sort of alternate history that shows what might have happened if Morgan had not chosen to answer King Charles's summons to England after his raid on Panama in 1671, with its very real attendant risk of imprisonment and execution, but instead had followed the course many of his fellow buccaneers did by raiding and looting indiscriminately. It would have been well within Morgan's power to set up the "buccaneer kingdom" on Tortuga that the movie shows.
The plot is bare-bones, but serviceable: Paxton finds Morgan, Paxton poses as partner of Morgan to spy out Morgan's fortress, Meg flirts with the governor of Jamaica, but ultimately decides her heart truly lies with Paxton, Paxton defeats Morgan. But the denouement is a major disappointment: unimaginative, perfunctory, and implausible at once, and moreover, it fails to tie up Morgan's end of the story.
Bart Paxton's part is well-written, a potentially dashing commander with real brains and imagination, but Ken Scott is unable to bring anything to the role but heroic blandness. Letitia Roman is certainly fetching as Meg, especially in her sailor's togs, and her bare-legged wriggling in Paxton's bed is a clear sign of the sexual revolution's tsunami roaring toward the beach of the Hayes Code. But looking beyond her physical charms, Meg's personality really has nothing to recommend her: she's not smart, brave, loyal, honest, or even charming.
Robert Stephens' Henry Morgan is interesting, but ultimately ineffective. Stephens plays Morgan as a full-blown alcoholic, complete with the shakes. His Morgan is greedy (his eyes almost bug out when Paxton presents him with a chest full of guineas) and cruel, but credulous and unintelligent. He is fun to hate, as a good villain should be, but he lacks the frisson of menace that emanated from Rathbone's Levasseur or Newton's and Heston's Long John Silver.
The supporting cast comes to the rescue, particularly Dave King as PeeWee and Stanley Adams as Montbars. King is appealing, dashing, and sometimes very funny, while Adams' Montbars is pure, unbridled appetite, fat and greedy and bullying, a perfect pirate.
Visually, the movie is outstanding. The shots of the sailing ships are sublime, the colors are sumptuous, and the islands and cliffs are magnificent. The movie is fun to watch, and while it won't stay with you long, it avoids the gratuitous absurdity of many pirate movies.
Rating: ** ½ out of ****.
Recommendation: Worth a rental after it leaves the new release shelves.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie is a ghastly abomination, the movie-world equivalent of
desecrating a corpse. You don't need to see the Frankenheimer original
(which was pretty good, if not the classic it's sometimes made out to
be) to see that this movie is garbage. Most obscenely, The Manchurian
Candidate is routinely praised as "smart," when in fact it is a
129-minute nonstop insult to the viewer's intellect, as well as to
whatever artistic sensibilities he or she has.
The story follows Denzel Washington's Bennett Marco, who is kidnapped along with his entire squad of U.S. infantrymen during the first Gulf War, a remarkable trick somehow pulled off single-handedly by his unarmed guide, who is evil because he works for a private contractor called Manchurian Global. Manchurian Global then uses Advanced Technology to brainwash them all, including the squad leader Sgt. Raymond Shaw, into machines who will kill their own comrades or consent to be killed by them without hesitation. Seventeen years later, Shaw's mother maneuvers him into running for Vice-President of the United States, his sole qualification being his fictitious war heroism, which is based on false memories implanted in him and his squad during the brainwashing. Manchurian Global leaves Marco alive, apparently because they want their evil plot foiled, which Marco proceeds to do.
The idiocies that ensue are mind-boggling. I almost tore out my hair screaming WHY?
1. WHY does Senator Jordan advertise his knowledge of the coup plot to the plotters, while doing nothing to protect himself?
2. WHY does Raymond Shaw drown the Senator with his bare hands in broad daylight (had Jordan been so much as carrying a pocket pistol, he could have defended himself)?
3. WHY does Jocelyne wade up to her father's murderer so he can drown her too, instead of calling 911 for help?
4. WHY does Manchurian bother implanting chips in Marco's and Shaw's shoulders, when it can control them equally well without the chips?
5. WHY doesn't Marco pull out the drainpipe trap to recover the chip he's dropped?
6. WHY isn't Marco arrested and imprisoned when he slugs his interrogator?
7. WHY doesn't Shaw press charges against Marco when Marco bites him?
8. WHY am I watching this movie?
The ninth "why" is, "why does anyone consider this movie intelligent?" Doubtless, because it is transparently aimed at the crew of nitwits and fanatics that have run most of the U.S. government since 2001. For supporters of the American right wing, movies like this are a minor irritant at most. But for its opponents (and I am certainly one), this film is an infuriating example of the intellectual feebleness of the art world's resistance against the sectarian, paranoid, and authoritarian currents sweeping America.
Rating: A million trillion zeros!
Recommendation: What do you mean, the original is better? Hara-kiri would be better!
Andrew Niccol is the greatest screenwriter of our generation. He thinks
deeply, writes intelligently, and is blessed with an incredibly fertile
imagination. Above all he has passion and isn't afraid to show it, when
most writers today hide their real feelings, if they have any, behind
cute, cynical inanities. When his screenplays end up in the hands of
good directors, like Weir in The Truman Show or Spielberg in The
Terminal, the result is a masterpiece. But, regrettably, Niccol feels
driven to be a director himself, a trade for which he has no talent at
all. In 2002's Simone, his hand on the helm hobbled his own brilliant
script, reducing a potential all-time classic to an ordinary good
movie. And now, directing his own script again for Lord of War, Niccol
falls flat on his face.
The story: If you've got money, Yuri Orlov can sell you guns. Or tanks, or helicopters, or whatever weapons you need. It's his job, and he's good at it. He sells African dictators the weapons they use to slaughter their own people. He sells arms to terrorists for their mass murder jobs (though not to Osama bin Laden, who is always bouncing checks). For some reason, although he will sell guns to anyone, good people never end up buying his wares. He uses his blood money to buy a beautiful wife, a nice home, and to support his drug-addicted brother Vitaly. The development of the plot is essentially a moral version of the Limbo: how low can Yuri go?
This is not one of Niccol's best scripts. It suffers badly from the worst kind of political naiveté, the kind that imagines itself to be sophisticated, making profound insights like "somebody makes money off guns," while cluelessly confusing Liberia's HIV+ rate with Zimbabwe's, attributing non-existent arrest powers to Interpol, and equating the single misguided Bush v. Gore decision to the rampant every-election cheating of a Third World despotism.
But the script still had potential to be good, as it studies Yuri's growing self-loathing, and his suspicion that his brother Vitaly's worthlessness stems from his shame for Yuri's way of life and his own failure to do anything about it. The best and most tragic scene, where Vitaly finally does take action both to stop and to save his brother Yuri, represents what the movie could have achieved. A better director than Niccol would have focused on these character-driven moments and ditched the naive political nonsense.
But alas, thanks to Niccol's directing, character languishes in the background while sloppy political thinking stands is spotlighted. The essential problem is that nobody in the movie, Yuri least of all, honestly examines gun-running as a profession. Yuri tries once to justify himself by saying that he sells people the tools they need to defend themselves. In Yuri's case, that happens not to be true. His clients, or at least the ones we are shown, use their new-bought weapons to massacre political opponents, wipe out ethnic minorities, and otherwise commit mass murder, not for self-defense. But the movie never addresses the fact that lack of guns, and the arms embargoes that Agent Valentine castigates Yuri for violating, also can facilitate mass murder. For a famous recent example, an international arms embargo against Yugoslavia in the 1990s left Bosnian Muslims and Croats defenseless against Serbian nationalists bent on genocide, and the resulting carnage went on for years before the international community decided to do anything about it. Yuri's sin is his choice of customers, not his choice of merchandise.
This basic error percolates. As the movie points out, private gun suppliers like Yuri are small potatoes on the world stage. The five members of the UN Security Council sell far more weapons than all the world's private dealers combined. What is not addressed is whether these nations behave like Yuri, arming any murderous psychotic with ready cash, or whether they can legitimately say that they are helping people defend themselves. It is again simply taken for granted that all arms dealing is evil.
The movie loses the opportunity to examine the ethics of arms dealing through the underused character of Simeon Weisz. Weisz has some kind of ideological basis for his arms dealing, but it's not clear what it is. Weisz believes that "Bullets change governments far surer than votes" an absurd claim, as in fact challenger candidates win far more often than armed rebels do. Eventually Weisz ends up selling guns to the enemies of Baptiste, the African dictator that Yuri is arming (or I think he does, anyway; Baptiste denies it but is probably lying). But there is no clue whether Weisz has chosen to arm Baptiste's enemies because he is morally opposed to Baptiste's brutal rule, or merely because Yuri has beaten him to Baptiste's pocketbook.
However, Niccol's direction has other flaws than self-indulgent and sloppy political moralizing. He has also taken an above-average actor, Nicolas Cage, and wrung a bad performance out of him. Cage is monotonous and shallow, with none of his trademark appealing vulnerability. I blame Niccol not only because Cage is normally better than this, but because the supporting players who get less directorial attention are mostly doing good jobs. Eammon Walker is commendable as the ruthless Andre Baptiste, Sr., and Ethan Hawke projects considerable frustration in the role of Agent Valentine. I feel his pain, for this movie is an intensely frustrating experience, despite occasional flashes of character insight.
Rating: ** out of ****.
Recommendation: TV fare for a VERY slow night.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the second film adaptation of George Orwell's classic satire on
the Russian Revolution. For those of you who slept through grade
school, the story tells how the animals of the Manor Farm throw out
their human oppressors, rename their home Animal Farm, and try to
create a new society where they will live equally and prosperously
without exploitation. Instead, everything rapidly goes wrong.
Unfortunately, this film does not adequately convey the warning message of Orwell's superb novel. In the book, the corruption of the animals' revolution is subtle. Until the very end, they do not understand what is happening to them, so they are powerless to resist. In the movie, the pigs are far more open about their power seizure, and the other animals far more aware of what is happening, and thus the lack of resistance to the pigs is hard to excuse. The movie says from the start exactly who the villains are going to be, so the viewer is not allowed to share the animals' initial view of Napoleon and Snowball as heroes, or their reluctance to believe that their heroes are betraying them.
The most startling departure from the book is Jessie the dog's new role as narrator. Orwell views much of his story through the eyes of Clover the mare, and he clearly sympathizes most with the pessimism of Benjamin the donkey. In this movie, Benjamin's role is greatly diminished and Clover is nearly eliminated to clear the set for Jessie. Jessie is a triumph of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, a beautiful, lifelike creation, superbly voiced by Julia Ormond, and she could have become the basis for a bold new interpretation of Orwell's story. Unfortunately, Jessie's narration is confusing; she delivers it entirely in retrospective, and it is hard to tell what she knew at the time and what she realized later. She ends up giving the impression that she saw the revolution being betrayed from the outset, and leaves us wondering why she didn't do anything about it. The dramatic potential of Jessie's feelings toward her puppies as they are corrupted into NKVD-like bully boys is unmined; after Napoleon denies her the right to see her offspring, she never mentions them again.
Director Stephenson often forgets that this is the animals' story. He gives the humans much more camera time than they deserve. Orwell's first chapter, a masterpiece of economy, is bloated into about fifteen minutes of screen time by the irrelevant doings of the humans. Stephenson also wastes precious time on Farmer Frederick, who should have been written out of the script the minute the decision was made to exclude Frederick's attack on Animal Farm.
Aside from the endearing Jessie, the film gets its greatest boost from Ian Holm's rendition of Squealer. Squealer here is so sinister that he often eclipses Napoleon. The creature design is good, but it is Holm's silky, menacing voice that really makes the character.
The ending of the movie ultimately sinks it. Neither this film, nor its 1950s predecessor, has the courage to stick with Orwell's spiritually crushing conclusion. The earlier animated version merely repeated the revolution, with no explanation of how the same fatal course will be avoided. This version is even worse, simply destroying Napoleon's reign by a deus ex machina device. Orwell's supreme contribution to the world was his power to face unpleasant facts - a power that this movie lacks.
Rating: ** out of ****.
Recommendation: Don't hesitate to miss it.
I'm not going to comment on the whole movie, since I only saw the last three
or four hours of it. But those hours present a point that most of the
viewers (and perhaps Stephen King and his adapters themselves)
There is a story, much beloved by Christians (and dog lovers), of a man walking along with his dog, his faithful companion of many years. The man and his dog come to a brilliant gate of pearl with a golden road leading inside, and a shining winged figure who tells the man that this is Heaven. But when the man starts to enter, he is told that no pets are allowed. The man turns away and continues down a different path. Some time later, he comes to a simple green pasture with a humble old hayseed farmer who invites the man in for a drink. The dog, too, is welcomed and refreshed. The man asks the farmer where he is, and is told that this is Heaven. The pearl-gated place back down the road is Hell, and it serves the useful purpose of screening out those unpleasant people who would willingly abandon their friends.
Many of the viewers of The Stand imagine that the three people who complete the journey to Las Vegas to be martyred are admirable. If you pay attention though, you will see that before they ever arrive in Las Vegas, all three of them fail the test that the man in the dog story passes.
Let it never be said that Edward Zwick doesn't know how to make beautiful
movies. Glory, Courage Under Fire, and The Siege are all magnificent to
look at, and The Last Samurai is the most gorgeous of them all. It is
by far, the worst story of the four.
Tom Cruise plays Algren, an American Army officer tortured by guilt over his role in the slaughter of Indians and seething with bitterness toward his former commander, Custer. He speaks disparagingly of his comrades who died for `modern conveniences.' So he feels conflicted when he is hired by a Japanese railroad baron named Omura to train the Japanese Emperor's army to crush a rebellion by traditionalist samurai who want to block Japan's Westernizing path to modernity.
Now, a word or two about those `modern conveniences' that Algren disparages. Those conveniences include living past the age of one (which about half the Western population owes to modern vaccines and plumbing), being able to read (a luxury of the church and nobility until modern schools came along), and the radical concept of constitutional democracy, which may have been conceived of in Greece but not successfully practiced until modern times. These modern conveniences are worth fighting for, and it is no credit to Algren - or to Katsumoto, the leader of the samurai rebels - that they fail to see their worth.
The man who does see their worth is Omura, who is made out as a villain but who ought to be the hero of the film. He is represented as being a coward and a fool on the battlefield, but in fact he does the single bravest thing of anybody in the movie. Katsumoto enters the imperial council chamber wearing his swords, defying the Emperor's law forbidding these weapons. Omura bars Katsumoto's way, standing unarmed before a master swordsman who could cut his head from his shoulders with one well-practiced motion, and says, `We are a nation of laws.' Omura stands in the shoes of many Japanese who stood up for law against Japan's feudal reactionaries, and happily he wins, instead of being defeated and murdered like many of the militarists' opponents in the 1920s and 1930s1.
The message Zwick wants to get across is simple; the samurai lived for honor, therefore they were good. Westerners are dishonorable, and any Japanese who wants to Westernize his country is a despicable sellout. This is simply an ignorant idealization of the samurai. There was much to admire about the followers of bushido: allowing for individual variation, they were disciplined and brave beyond anyone else the human species has yet produced, and were taught to make and appreciate art in a manner that their Western counterparts, the medieval knights, would have scorned as effeminate. But like all human beings, the samurai were far from perfect. They were hidebound traditionalists who froze Japanese society in stasis for hundreds of years. They may have protected the common folk from bandits, but they were equally capable of testing a new sword's blade by cutting down a passing townsman. They were xenophobic to a degree even the most ignorant and bigoted redneck would be hard-pressed to match.
Akira Kurosawa, who understood the history of the samurai, saw through the simple-minded myth that Zwick has swallowed, as he showed through his character Kikuchiyo's speech in The Seven Samurai: `But then who made them [the Japanese farmers] such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labor! Take their women! And kill them if they resist!' Kurosawa's samurai are people, real individuals with both good and bad in their natures. Zwick's samurai are simply symbols, non-human ideals to which his guilt-ridden hero aspires.
The Last Samurai is an excellent example of what George Orwell called `transferred nationalism.' Orwell saw that after someone like Zwick has been stripped of attachment to his own country, he `still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself. God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack -- all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognized for what they are they can be worshiped with a good conscience. . . . [Transferred nationalism] makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic -- more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest -- than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.' This is exactly what has happened with Zwick. His knowledge of American history has made it impossible for him to portray the U.S. cavalry or the cowboys as pure-hearted superheroes, so he has simply transplanted those traits into the samurai, and because he does not know much about the samurai he can avoid seeing that they do not live up to these ideals. Kurosawa, with a real knowledge of bushido and its influence on Japanese culture, could never have done something so silly.
But despite its naivete, The Last Samurai is worth watching. The cinematography by John Toll is breathtaking. The acting is very good all around. Anyone who was watching Tom Cruise with an open mind saw that he did an outstanding job of shedding his 20th-century persona. Masato Harada is excellent as Omura despite Zwick's butchering of his character; Shin Koyamada is heart-wrenching as the young samurai Nobutada, and Hiroyuki Sanada does great work as the gruff old warrior Ujio. There is a magnificent score by Hans Zimmer, which Zwick uses to excellent effect (there is a sequence in the final battle where Zwick times his cuts to the beat of the music, which may be the single best use of a film score that I have ever seen). As a story and a lesson, The Last Samurai is poor; as just plain cinema, it's terrific.
Rating: **½ out of ****.
Recommendation: Watch it, just don't believe it.
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