Tag: historical fiction

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Last Samurai

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[No audio this week; RIP old headset. 🙁 ]

I had originally planned this for no other reason than the sake of novelty. I am, after all, not the only small-time Internet movie critic consistently cranking out reviews for the benefits of whomever takes the time to read my words. I have a Canadian counterpart (no, not my wife), who goes by the handle ‘Marter’ and can be found reviewing movies as often as he can at Box Office Boredom. Since we both toil in the somewhat dank Internet basement clubhouse that is the Escapist user forums, I thought it might be keen to collaborate on a review. He agreed, and for our work I selected Edward Zwick’s 2003 historical epic The Last Samurai.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1877. While the United States continues to recover from its civil war, the nation of Japan is undergoing sweeping social change. Resisting this change are the samurai, the warrior caste whose ancient traditions are threatened by the onset of a modern age. To assist in bringing these men and women to heel, Japan conscripts Captain Nathan Algren, a so-called expert at dealing with and relating to native cultures. In this case, it meant helping a tribe of Native Americans let their guard down long enough for his superior officer to ride in with their cavalry unit and kill everybody. Bitter, nihilistic and half in a bottle, Algren takes the job just for something to do, and ends up captured and isolated by the rebellion’s leader, Katsumoto, a learned man of both word and sword who may well be the last true samurai left in Japan.

So much for the synopsis. Our review of this film has been broken into five sections: Plot, Characters, Cinematography/Mise-en-scène, Actors and Fun Factor. Let’s get started with Marter’s take on…

Plot

The plot of The Last Samurai worked well for me, even if it might have meandered a bit too long watching Tom Cruise sitting there and observing the samurai culture. It also takes a while to get going, with Cruise’s character’s alcoholism kind of coming and going whenever it was convenient. After the first day in the samurai culture, it disappears after he’s denied his saki. That’s fine, but after being released, he’s offered whiskey from the businessmen. He refuses, presumably because he kicked the habit. He even claimed that he’s finally been able to sleep peacefully. But only about 5 or 10 minutes later, he’s saying “I need a drink.” Why?

Oh, and let’s not forget the random ninja attack. It was like director Edward Zwick thought “Hey, they might be getting boring. Let’s have a random action scene!” Sure, it was explained, but not very well, and then it’s never brought up again. I mean, it serves a function and it brings some of the characters together, but making it have some sort of relevance would have been much nicer.

The beginning scene also didn’t quite work for me. It showed us how far this soldier had fallen, but if he was willing to fall that far, more or less giving up hope in human life, why would he accept a lot of work just for some money. Opening this way shows his character doesn’t care too much about his life, or the money he can get, and makes me question why he’d take the $500 a month to teach people how to kill other people.

Most of the plot worked well, though. Despite the film lasting over 150 minutes long, I had no problem sitting through it because there was a lot to take in, and there was always something new happening. I wasn’t bored, and even if there wasn’t a random ninja attack, I don’t think I would have had a problem going over an hour without a real action scene. Watching the life of the samurai, like what I assume happened with Cruise’s character, was interesting to me. I was fine sitting there and simply observing.

Personally, it struck me a bit as Dances with Wolves in Japan. When I first saw the film it felt like a win/win. Dances with Wolves was a deeply affecting piece and I’m a sucker for the history, culture and fables of a land like Japan. However, in retrospect I can’t help but feel there’s been a little glossing over and touching up of some things in places when it comes to an actual portrayal of life during the Meiji era.

I feel what’s missing is the atmosphere of uncertainty. For the most part, Katsumoto (Watanabe) is absolutely sure his rebellion will ultimately serve the Emperor and strengthen his country, while his enemies are absolutely sure their modern way of life will prevail over the ‘barbarians’ who were once universally revered, respected and feared. In a time when nobody was sure what the future would hold, seeing things painted so starkly in black and white dilutes the emotional impact of the experience.

Still, Katsumoto’s desire to resist change for the good of his people’s heritage rings true and is enough to drive the plot outside of Algren’s growth as a human being. The time dilation that occurs can be a bit off-putting, as Marter mentioned, but the scope of the film and the way Zwick shoots it (more on that later) ensures we as the audience are aware of how sweeping the tale is in its scope. It makes a worthy attempt at being an affecting historical tragedy but never reaches the lofty heights of the Greeks or Shakespeare. The lack of moral ambiguity is probably the biggest Achilles heel this movie has plot wise, but it’s not enough to cripple it.

Courtesy Warner Bros
Honestly, I think the beard works for Cruise.

Characters

I’ve sort of touched upon this already, but I felt like Cruise’s character was inconsistent, mostly acting however the plot dictated. Is he an alcoholic for the entire time, or does the samurai life clear him of that? Does he hate all humans, or does he just hate himself? Is he suicidal, or is he not? None of these things are made especially clear, regardless of what the storyline tells us.

He develops though, mostly just as he switches sides from the government to being a samurai. So at least there’s that. Watanabe’s character doesn’t really develop at all. He’s the same at the beginning as he is at the end, with the only difference being that he finished his poem. Wow, that’s a lot of character development there. None of the secondary characters got either depth or development, although that didn’t bother me too much, as we didn’t need to make the film more cumbersome than it already is.

While Katsumoto doesn’t really have an arc the way Algren does, that doesn’t necessarily mean the character’s dull. Is an old tiger dull just because it’s old? We see Katsumoto knowing what he does may end his life at any time, and his willingness to face death, at least his own. The deaths of others, however, have more of an effect on him. One of the film’s best scenes comes when his carefully-crafted mask of tranquility is shattered by someone getting fatally wounded. I won’t say who or when, but trust me that it’s an example of a great deal of emotion and depth being conveyed without a single word.

The one-dimensionality of the other characters does indeed keep burdens to a minimum as the story progresses and ties in to that lack of moral ambiguity I mentioned. There are no real surprises when it comes to the allegiances or motivations of people, making the overall story feel like a duet between Algren and Katsumoto with everybody else playing instruments in the backing band. But at least those two are decent characters, even if Algren seems a bit inconsistent at times. He also, thank the Maker, never becomes a “magical white person”, solving all of the problems of his poor minority friends simply by being there or making a speech. During the final battle he does play a role but never becomes a major factor, and in the aftermath maintains his place as an observer and narrator rather than a firebrand or symbol. He drives home the point of Katsumoto’s rebellion, but in the end seems somewhat superfluous to the actual historical events. To be honest, I like that.

Better that than him rallying Japan to remember its traditions the way a white person is sometimes shown as making a black person a better football player or being responsible for a civil rights movement.

Cinematography/Mise-en-scène

I felt like I was in Japan in the 1800’s. Nothing made it seem more modern, which is always a good thing. If the film felt more modern — even if it was done in certain times for the government to highlight how they’re more technologically advanced — I think it would have broken the immersion tha the film tries to bring to the table. But there wasn’t anything distracting like that, and as a result, I didn’t have any problem with the way the film was built on a staging level.

The battle scenes, unfortunately, might have been the low points of the film. It’s not that they’re not well-made, because I think they were, but because they just didn’t particularly fit with the rest of the film, which is a slow-paced drama. The first scene, where the military is slaughtered, is not particularly interesting because we’ve yet to have enough time to care about anyone involved, especially in regards to the enemy. But luckily, it’s short and then it takes a while for another battle to be fought.

I must again respectfully disagree, with regards to the first battle. While we really don’t care much about anybody outside of Algren, and even so only in passing at that point, the sight of the samurai in full armor riding hard out of the mist gives them an eerieness that works very well, in my opinion. It’s obvious to me why the newly-crafted Japanese army breaks at the sight of them. As is explained to Algren, most of those men grew up hearing tales of the samurai and being in awe of their power and honor. And then, like specters of the past, they’re coming directly at you, screaming like banshees and carrying deadly weapons. It’s a psychological tactic that works beautifully and speaks to Katsumoto’s craftiness in battle strategy, not to mention making for a great shot.

Going back to a previous point, though, the ninja attack is probably the “low point” of the film for me. With the exception of two moments I can think of, nothing particularly interesting happens either story-wise or in terms of shot composition. As Marter mentioned, it’s pretty much just Zwick saying, “Have some ninjas, guys!” Sure, sending assassins after Katsumoto makes sense, but what is this, G.I. Joe?

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Pretty much any scene with these two in it is a good one.

Actors

Cruise and Watanabe are the two more prominently featured actors here. I’ve never actually had a problem with Cruise — offset problems aside — and I think he made a convincing war veteran. Watanabe was more the star though, and I would have liked to see more from him. He clearly understood exactly what was needed from his role, and as a result, he seemed to be fully immersed in his character. Supporting and thankless roles go to Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall and Koyuki.

I agree completely. Tom Cruise all but disappears into his role and it makes the rest of the film better. There are a couple moments early on when he might be overdoing it a bit with the way his character is ‘tortured’, but looking past that we find a performance that conveys Algren’s arc in an earnest, very human manner. He truly brought his A game, which is a good thing because Watanabe shows he is fully capable of blowing less talented actors completely out of the water. The aforementioned death of another character is all but perfect in its presentation and Watanabe absolutely nails it. As I said, this really comes down to a duet between these two characters, and the way the actors play it makes their conversations the highlights of the film.

Fun Factor

Did I enjoy The Last Samurai? Even if it didn’t always seem like a consistent effort that made complete sense, I did. Like I said when talking about the plot, I was rarely, if ever, bored, and I was captivated for most of the time it was playing. Learning the culture of the samurai, even if not completely accurate, was very involving for me, and when the film concluded, I felt like I had learned something even if I hadn’t. It’s an immersive experience that definitely held my interest. While I didn’t always feel as if the battle scenes fit, on their own, they worked well and were exciting. You might not think that a gun vs. sword battle would be entertaining, but you would be wrong in that assumption. I simply had fun with this film. Enough fun, in fact, to forgive some of the things that I didn’t think worked quite right.

In spite of its historical inconsistencies and a few moments that push the melodrama almost to the point of absurdity, The Last Samurai never feels less than sincere in its sentiments and presentation. It may not always work as intended and you may have trouble shaking the feeling that Zwick is trying really hard to remake Glory, but historical war stories are his bailiwick and this one isn’t bad at all. Between the lush cinematography, the interesting historical aspects of the story and the powerful performances of the two leads, it’s safe to say both Marter and I recommend The Last Samurai.

However, when you look up what actually happened in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, from the actual number of samurai to the way the Japanese were using their Western ‘experts’, you may get a little bit angry at the aforementioned inconsistencies. I don’t think this necessarily detracts from the performances or cinematography, but nevertheless, consider yourselves warned.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Robin Hood

A little something different this week… thanks to Jonny at Non-Social Media.

Original Text:

Spoiler
Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that the actors Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes and Russell Crowe have all that much in common other than their profession. We are, after all, talking about actors from different genres and even eras of film. However, they have now all portrayed versions of perhaps the most famous rogue of British folklore: Robin Hood. Flynn’s Robin was a man of high adventure, Costner’s was barely British and Elwes was in a spoof. As for Russell Crowe, his Robin was the central character in Ridley Scott’s 2010 more ‘historical’ adaptation of the story, and by ‘historical’ I mean that very special kind of history that conflates years of people and events into something that fits a theatrical running time and the attention spans of your typical movie-going audience.

While in the past Robin has always been at least peripherally attached to noble title and lands in Nottinghamshire, this time around our hero is plain Robin Longstride, an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army of the Third Crusade. Robin himself isn’t much of a holy warrior, though, and when he makes his distaste for the slaughter of innocents over the name given to inscrutable omnipotent beings known to his sovereign, he’s put in the stocks. Richard gets himself killed and Robin takes it upon himself to escape, but not before stumbling across a few plot-relevant items that give him a way back to England. Events unfold around him that will set him on the path of becoming an outlaw whose fame will live on hundreds if not thousands of years after he’s dead.

Historical fiction is a road both Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have walked down before. Crowe has been a lifelong fan of the legendary archer, but was never quite satisfied with the way Hollywood portrayed him. Scott, on the other hand, found a spec script in 2007 that tried to take the legend in a new direction. However, he eventually became dissatisfied with the evolution of the story, and what had begun as a revisionist film of the legend called Nottingham became a film simply entitled Robin Hood, styling itself as a Crusades-era Batman Begins.

For the most part, this actually works. We have a brilliantly talented cast, with nuanced and interesting characters delivering well-paced and balanced dialog in period settings that feel, for the most part, authentic. I get the feeling that this sort of thing has become something of a comfort zone for Ridley Scott, and all of the main selling points of Kingdom of Heaven are present here. From gorgeous shots of the English countryside to the inclusion of historical figures like Eleanor of Aquitaine, this film has a lot going for it.

Of course, true history buffs are likely to be somewhat put off by Scott’s interpretation of historical events. Things take place years before they actually happened, perpetuated by different people. Some figures meet ends differently than they did in life and liberties are taken with important documents and items. And like Kingdom of Heaven, at least in the theatrical release, some elements of the plot feel cobbled together with rubber cement and a staple gun. There’s at least a couple bits missing that would have smoothed out rough patches in the story, and some elements feel like holdovers from the original Nottingham notion. That’s not likely to be the case, however, as the writers of that original treatment were shouldered out of the production entirely. Now you’ll need to poke around online to see what they originally had in mind.

As much as it seems harsh that the original creative spark for the movie was removed from the hands of those writers, the end result could certainly have turned out worse. Prequels, by and large, have earned a stigma for being unnecessary works of fiction that fill in too many of the blanks audiences would probably prefer to populate themselves. While I can’t help but agree with the spirit of this sentiment, if a work is aiming to present the origins of a character in an intelligent, relatable and at least somewhat unique (but not superfluous) manner, I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Like the aforementioned Batman Begins or X-Men: First Class, Robin Hood gives us a look at a character we think we knew in a way that we can understand, relate to and cheer for. Prequels may not always be necessary stories, but if the job is done well enough, the story will still feel worth telling.

While the mileage of this film with the individual film-goer is likely to vary, I do feel that Robin Hood does its job with more than adequate aplomb. Some of the moments in the third act feel a bit over-the-top, most notably King John’s declaration at the end, and I am curious as to how a Director’s Cut of this movie would compare to its original release. However, in its theatrical version, the story is relatively free of overt contrivance, the characters are solid and the acting is poignant without being melodramatic. Some may feel there are too many echoes of Braveheart or Gladiator or other movies here, but Robin Hood manages to find its own place and I feel it’s worth seeing since its merits do outweigh its flaws.

There are some universal things present here, outside of the legend of Robin Hood: Don’t get into a swordfight with Russell Crowe, don’t make Kevin Durand (here playing Little John) angry, and most of all, do not mess with Cate Blanchett anywhere near a forest. You piss off Galadriel or perpetuate wickeness in her wood, you are entering a world of pain.

© 2021 Blue Ink Alchemy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑