Friday, May 28, 2004

Thursday movie reviews!
‘The Last Samurai’
Can a warrior, a man who kills others for a living, have honor? That’s the question at the core of “The Last Samurai.”
The samurai, Japan’s warrior class, were called the epitome of the honorable warrior. “The Last Samurai” takes us in for a look at the final days of these warriors, and it’s a compelling epic, until it succumbs to its own mythmaking pretensions.
The movie was sold as a Tom Cruise action flick, but it’s really a slowly paced meditation on modern life versus the ways of the past, of guns versus swords and anonymous armies versus highly trained, philosophical samurai.
It’s basically “Dances With Wolves” in Japan — a beautiful looking movie, richly designed and well-acted, but yet, a little derivative and troubling at the core.
Cruise is Nathan Algren, a Civil War veteran haunted by the atrocities he witnessed in war and suppressing American Indian rebellions. When he’s offered a job in Japan training the Emperor’s army, he takes it, but he’s really simply waiting for the death he feels he deserves.
When he arrives in Japan, Algren learns the army he’s training is meant to put down a rebellion by Japan’s obsolete samurai warriors. A band of them, led by the legendary Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), are fighting against Japan’s modernization. Alger is hired to destroy the samurai, but when he’s captured by them, he finds himself slowly starting to agree with their view of the world, as the clash between the ancient samurai and modern Japan draws to an explosive climax.
Cruise is good, but feels miscast. He’s so modern in appearance and attitude that he doesn’t work in a period film. (Remember “Far And Away”?) Cruise’s main emotion in “Samurai” is staring off into the distance looking vaguely haunted.
He’s blown off the screen by Watanabe, giving an Oscar-nominated performance as Katsumoto. Watanabe creates a charming, majestic leader for the samurai, combining dignity with a dash of the good humor Cruise’s performance sorely lacks.
Director Edward Zwick’s movie is never less than professional, with the swelling music, painstaking historical detail and gorgeous cinematography all well-meaning epics have. It’s a movie that screams, “Take this seriously!”
Yet it glorifies the samurai as noble heroes, without questioning the brutality their code also included. Suicide warriors are heroic martyrs here, a particularly disturbing claim in today’s fanatical reality.
It becomes one of those movies where a bad white man is “redeemed” by another culture. That’s far too simplistic.
There are lots of people who will watch this without factoring in all the cultural and historical baggage it carries. Am I overthinking it? Possibly. It is solid entertainment. But it’s a movie that also leaves an unsettling aftertaste.
**1/2 of four.

Hey, I’ll admit it. I’m not a big sports guy. But for some reason I’ve always been a sucker for good sports movies, come-from-behind underdog tales from “Rocky” to “The Rookie.” A good sports movie doesn’t just appeal to sports fans. It appeals to anyone who loves tales of triumph.
You can add “Miracle” to the list of good sports movies. Based on the true story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team’s shocking victory over the heavily favored Soviets, it’s a rousing, heartwarming tale that is grounded with a superb performance by Kurt Russell as the team’s coach, the late Herb Brooks.
They weren’t supposed to win. Brooks assembled a team of young college players to take on the top-ranked Soviets, Swedes, Czechs and other heavyweights at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Nobody paid any attention to Brooks, or his attempts to forge a cohesive team instead of a band of egotistic individuals — until they began to win.
“Miracle” became better than just another sports movie for me because of Russell’s fine turn. He doesn’t try to make Brooks likable — a hard-driving taskmaster, Brooks worked his team of college hockey players to the bone, pushing them to their limits and beyond.
Russell, an excellent actor who’s perennially underrated, shows us a man working at an impossible goal, and not caring about the consequences. The truth in his performance, which avoids making Brooks a huggable cheerleader, grounds this “Miracle” in reality.
One flaw in “Miracle” is that Russell is so good, he overshadows his team. The players are shown as mostly interchangeable good-looking guys with long brown hair, and it’s hard to find any who stick out. Eddie Cahill, best known from a guest stint on TV’s “Friends,” is the most memorable as the team’s goalie Jim Craig.
The movie balances high-octane hockey footage and sharp character moments well. Director Gavin O’Connor knows a good sports movie has to have plenty of heart, but he avoids wallowing in sentiment. He does make the movie a little long-winded, though.
We all know going in how “Miracle” will end. It’s a mark of the movie’s skill that you don’t mind knowing. If you don’t feel a tug at the heartstrings a bit with that final rousing victory and the triumph on the ice, then you probably don’t believe in miracles either.
*** of four
(Rated PG for language and intense hockey action.)

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