ninth symphony films - movie reviews

THE LAST SAMURAI (2003)


DIRECTOR  -  edward zwick

RATED  -  r

GENRE  -  epic

LENGTH  -  144 minutes

RELEASED  -  5 december 2003

DISTRIBUTOR  -  warner bros.

OFFICIAL SITE  -  the last samurai

ESTIMATED BUDGET  -  $140,000,000
the last samurai - a shot from the film

BUY THE DVD:

buy the dvd from the last samurai at amazon.com

buy the dvd from the last samurai at amazon.com


SYNOPSIS:
the story of 19th century japan's evolution away from a feudal way of life protected by the samurai, told from the point of view of an alcoholic american civil war veteran.




MOVIE FACT:
tom cruise took no "up front" salary for this film.


MOVIE FOTOS:

picture from the last samurai

picture from the last samurai

picture from the last samurai



RATING:


three out of four possible stars

The Last Samurai is an intensely graphic and visually stunning film about the fall of the revered Samurai warriors of Japan when they were pushed out of service to the emperor in the late 19th century. This was a time when admiration of the West and its culture was at an all time high and the ancient and traditional ways of Japanese life were called into question by thoughts on "modernity" and questions on the direction the country needed to head in order to become a powerful force in international trading. Dealing with such ideas as the Samurai code of honor (a code which states that a warrior must take his own life if he is defeated in battle), the film nonetheless makes the act of war a heinous one, though it does fall into the trap of glorifying war more than once. It's difficult to capture the horrific violence of what men are capable of in the heat of battle yet make those same men into heroes.

It would probably benefit the audience to take into consideration this paradox as they are treated to what is, in most other aspects, an extremely affecting film. Though Tom Cruise should be faulted somewhat for having his visage doted upon by the cinematographer once too often, it is mildly refreshing to note that the film is not the standard "white man comes to foreign land and saves the indigenous people" escapade into history. One of the most impressive successes of this film is its combining of both quiet, introspective scenes that further the emotional connections of the characters with the gritty and violent battle scenes that please more the visceral nature of the typical audience member.

Regardless of gender, most audience members will find themselves on edge during the high-speed battle scenes in Samurai, but will also find the more docile "conversation" scenes gripping as well. While some of the dialogue seems like the typical Western view of Eastern religious philosophy, the "infinite wisdom" of the Japanese isn't toted out at every turn. In fact, it benefits the story greatly that the audience witnesses faults and wisdom on both sides of this clash of society. Like the misleading "noble savage" portrayal of movies that feature American Indians, this story shows the full spectrum of Japanese temperament, from the most honorable to the most cowardly. And the same can be said for the American (and British) characters. Everyone's got some dirt in their personality.

A note on the length of the film, it can't be ignored that the movie really could have been more tightly edited. To viewers who appreciate Asian cinema, with its emphasis on the "silence between the noise," so to speak (regarding dialogue and the amount of information that can be conveyed without the use of it), there are scenes in this film that take full advantage of that tradition, and every actor bears the weight of that pressure well. There are no performances in the film that buckle under the scrutiny of a long, unedited shot.

But there is a stretch of time in the middle of the film where the "action" gives way for character development for a full forty-five minutes or so, which is valuable in and of itself, but in the larger scheme of things (considering the long battle sequences at the end of the film), could have been trimmed somewhat to push the running time of the film closer to two hours (it runs about 150 minutes in its present form). And the battle scenes at the end of the film, which can test the emotional staying-power of the audience, could have been edited with more of an eye toward character than cinematic vistas. And vistas of Tom Cruise's face. The balance between action and talk stays constant throughout the film, but just because the genre is "epic," doesn't mean the running time needs to match.

In point of fact, if not for the powerful performances across the board, the film might have suffered more from its length. In particular, Ken Watanabe, who plays "Katsumoto," the leader of the Samurai, gives what is the most impressive performance of the film. In his first American film (let us hope he crosses the ocean for future cinematic ventures), Watanabe is a commanding presence both on the battlefield and off. And although his role is not always as "observant" as it should have been, co-star Tom Cruise is also a strong force in the film, even if the camera lingers on his face for a few moments too long here and there (taking advantage not of a deep, brooding thought, but of a contemplative, handsome visage).

Supporting roles which include Cruise's love interest, "Taka," played by Koyuki (a woman who apparently is known by only one name) are strong as well, with the esteemed Billy Connolly finding favor easily and early in the audience's heart near the beginning of the film. Tony Goldwyn, playing "Colonel Bagely," Cruise's military superior, is suitably evil (he often plays a disagreeable character) and Shichinosuke Nakamura, who plays the emperor is both delicate and strong in his role and portrays his character transformation well, this being his first film and a strong debut. Timothy Spall plays an affable Englishman (aren't all Englishmen affable?) living in Japan and though his character is more of a "stock" personality, his performance is sturdy.

The cinematography of the film is, to put it mildly, stunning, though the lush landscape of the Japanese countryside, with its classically styled buildings and thatched-roof cottages seems to lend itself toward the phrase "cinematic vista" quite easily. The soundtrack is suitably roaring for the battle scenes and appropriately subtle for the quiet scenes, but every cue has "epic" written all over it. This isn't the music you'd hear in a romantic comedy. Though the editing could have been more vigorous throughout the film, the battle sequences come together beautifully, with only the protracted "death rattles" of various characters falling out of place with the pacing of the film.

The Last Samurai is an epic film and every facet of the film revels in this distinction. From the large battle scenes filled with countless extras (who seem to have been on the field during the actual day of shooting rather than inserted in post-production with the help of a computer program) to the slow pans of the camera across hills and valleys where low-hanging fog obscures much of the landscape, everything about this picture is beautiful. The people, the scenery, the sets, all of it, beg to be stared at with awe, deservedly so. The film is a powerful theatrical experience and does well in crushing some of the stereotypes based on a Western perspective of Eastern culture.

Review by Kelsey Wyatt.


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