Tuesday, June 22, 2004 ______________________________________________________________________________

Movie Reviews 

I watched The Last Samurai on Sunday. It was part of a small Father's Day event with Jim's Dad. We went to an all-you-can-eat Indian Restaurant (which was very nice, although there's only so much you can eat because rice, naan, roti and pappadums are very filling) and then went to Rogers Video to rent a movie. No mention of that night would be complete without talking about the Sponge Cake that I made that was served with whipped cream (whipped myself! None of that Cool Whip crap!) and fresh local strawberries. I will stop here to talk about BC strawberries. For one thing, they are red the whole way through. None of that white core that you see with those pansy Californian ones. For another, they are so rich in smell and flavour that when Jim and I were cutting them up in preperation the scent filled the room as though someone had just sprayed strawberry air-freshener. Pity the strawberry season here lasts only about two weeks and then it's back to the GMed, flavourless Californian product. I digress.

The Last Samurai was quite a good movie. I was very impressed with their treatment of the Japanese culture and their cinematography. There were some shots in the movie that were so impressive that we actually pressed pause so that we could take another look at it. Just beautiful wide shots of sunshine in a valley or the mist that lifts shortly after dawn, very poetic. My only gripe about the movie is the casting of Tom Cruise. Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a Tom Cruise fan as you'll ever find, but the truth is that he was way too pretty for the part. He plays a hardened and bitter war veteran who battles the Native Americans shortly after he served in the Civil War (on the winning side). What makes him so embittered is that most of that battles against the Native Americans were just American soldiers riding into a settlement and shooting the hell out of women and children (General Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn not withstanding). He was under orders and he obeyed them, but he suffers from nightmares and flashbacks and the like. He also holds a grudge against his commanding officer for ordering these attacks.

There was nothing wrong with Cruise's acting. In fact, he did a stellar job and was completely believable, if not for the fact that he looked like Tom Cruise. They tried to make him look more rugged by making him grow a shaggy and uneven beard, but it was still Mr. Cruise, as pretty as ever. Especially when he smiled. Oh that signature Tom Cruise Smileā„¢. In fact, I don't even remember what his character's name was because as far as I was concerned, I was looking at Tom Cruise do a fine job of pretending to be this guy. To compare him with Brad Pitt who is right up there in terms of looks and recognizability, Cruise falls short by several miles. If you've seen Brad Pitt in Fight Club, in Snatch and in 12 Monkeys you don't see Brad Pitt. You see Tyler Durden, Mickey O'Neil and Jeffrey Goines respectively. That's because Brad Pitt scruffs up well, and for some reason can really melt into a role. Tom Cruise on the other hand, not so much. In my humble opinion, Tom Cruise is better suited to roles like the one he played in Vanilla Sky where he was just a rougish hearthrob for the most part of the movie. Also where he had a few moments where he could play the tortured protagonist (behind a mask mind! So his superb acting comes through) just to flex his acting muscles a little.

I went into the movie also expecting a rah-rah-rah-Americans-are-so-amazing-type movie. Afterall, the story is about people from the American army going to Japan to help them modernize theirs. On the contrary, the Americans were portrayed as the bad guys and when Tom Cruise was with the Samurais he didn't try at all to teach them anything about his culture. Instead, he instantly recognized (well, not all that instantly, but fast enough) the value of their ways and culture and tried to start educating himself about it. He was rightly ashamed of his past as well as the part that he played in the military. In fact, right at the start of the movie, when he was still against the Samurai he had the respect enough of that ancient culture not to underestimate them. Strikingly, the Japanese spoke Japanese amongst themselves! This is quite unlike other American movies in which the foreigners speak accented English to each other when they are alone. I really appreciated that point, it just drives me insane when they do that in movies. It's mostly because the average American cannot read subtitles fast enough to appreciate the movie and understand what is being said. They didn't even slow down the language so that the subtitles would look like a Sesame Street reading lesson and Japanese is a fast language. There was this part at the end where the Emperor says something to one of his subjects angrily and the subtitles kept right up with his speech such that Jim couldn't read fast enough to catch it. I can't speak for myself because I read abnormally fast (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire under four hours anyone?)

I also have to give the filmmakers credit for not tacking on a cheesy love interest. They had plenty of opportunity but the fact that Tom Cruise and the pretty woman (indeed the only woman in the whole movie) did not get it on is not just respectful of the culture again (when you watch the movie you will know what I mean) it also helps to add dimension and complexity into their relationship (and rightly so!). Whilst on the topic, the actress did a marvellous acting job. She had very few lines although she had substantial screen time. Every time she was on screen I found it hard to take my eyes off her. It was more than that she is very stunning and graceful, it was also that she had a commanding presence that helped give the audience a strong sense of the powerful emotions that her character is experiencing. It was simple enough to let the story tell us of those emotions, but she played them so well that it was hard not to feel for her. It was a nice touch that her character never spoke English, not even to Tom Cruise (who in the film learns to speak Japanese). Realistically that is how it would have played out.

The rating is higher than normal for a blockbuster of this ilk but it's just because there are very many violent scenes. I'm typically a very squeamish person, but I wasn't too uncomfortable while I was watching this movie. They did not play down what a battle with guns and swords and arrows would look like. On the other hand, they did not celebrate the blood and gore. It was a very balanced take on the fight scenes (not to mention the choreography was riveting!) that left me feeling like I had seen something that could well have happened. Comparing it to the final installment of the Matrix which also had realistic fight scenes (albeit fewer ones) I would have to say I was far more uncomfortable watching the Matrix.

All in all, I think it was a good movie. I might watch it again, but not anytime soon. It might be something that I want to own, if not only because it would look good in any collection.

posted by Joie! at 12:37 p.m.


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