Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Last Samurai


Madame Arcati, the medium who has been recommended as being especially gifted at dealing with deceased movie stars that have returned in spiritual form, came to Chateau Maine today to meet with Norman. She's a rather odd woman with an unusual accent, British perhaps, and clothing that seems to exist of a rather extensive set of shawls and veils over some sort of peasant ensemble. I immediately offered her a make-over and a free creation from my VickiWear line to replace the odd assemblage of rags that trailed after her, but she politely declined. Some women simply have no sense of style. She spent a lot of time wandering the halls with a crystal, getting a sense of Norman's vibrations.

We then had tea in the lounge and talked about the best way to deal with Norman's ghost. I'm perfectly happy to share Chateau Maine with him, I have for years. But he has to learn to behave himself. I'll have no more episodes like the dumping of the vinaigrette down Babs Streisand's cleavage at dinner the other night. She and James left rather quickly thereafter and my dinner party was nearly ruined. Madame Arcati is fairly certain she can help by trapping Norman's essence into a more confined space. She's writing off to someplace in the far east for the correct bronze vessel and crystal she'll need for the operation. I graciously offered her the use of my Fed Ex account so that it can be taken care of post haste.

After her visit, I was somewhat fatigued and felt in need of refreshment of the cinematic kind. Tommy, my Jungian therapist, was around. He had been kind enough to stop by to repair a few windows that had been damaged by our last primal scream session. As Madame Arcati and her eastern paraphernalia were on my mind, I suggested something with an oriental flavor, so off we went to Tom Cruise's new film, The Last Samurai to contemplate cherry blossoms, the pouring of the tea, the planting of the rice, and the abundance of hair conditioner that must have been available in rural nineteenth century Japan.

The Last Samurai uses as its background, the Meiji restoration of 1868 and the civil strife that resulted which lasted throughout the 1870s. Since the 16th century, Japan had been ruled by a warlord aristocracy, the Tokugawa shogunate, leaving the emperor and his court as semi-divine puppets. The rank and file of this system were the samurai, armed knights of high esteem and a specific chivalric code of conduct. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the western powers pressuring Japan to open itself to trade and other influences, the corrupt Tokugawa system was tottering and, with the ascension of the emperor Meiji to the throne, power was taken back by the imperial court and a new centralized government. This left the samurai, used to a decentralized feudal system, without a place and a number of rebellions occurred.

In this fictional tale, from partners Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (Legends of the FallGlory,Thirtysomething), Tom Cruise is cast as Nathan Algren, a drunk civil war hero who's making his living demonstrating Winchester rifles in third rate venues. The year is 1876. Custer has just been defeated at Little Big Horn and Algren is well on his way to a wine soaked bad end when his old comrade Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), offers him a princely sum to come to Japan and help train the Japanese imperial army in modern warfare. Rogue samurai, upset with the pace of westernization, are attacking the new rail lines of the oily Mr. Omura (Masato Harada) and the imperial army has been powerless to stop them. Soon Algren and Bagley are busy trying to turn conscripted peasants into modern soldiers with rifle, bayonet and cannon.

In one of those bad decisions that movies of this kind are full of in order for the plot to work, Algren's army is sent into the field against a samurai raiding force led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe)where they are rapidly defeated. Algren is captured by Katsumoto during the engagement and taken by him to his village up in the mountains where he is cared for by his sister (Koyuki) allowing for some chaste love interest. Snow closes the passes and Algren is captivated by the way of life in rural Japan and the samurai code. When spring comes and Katsumoto is betrayed by the machinations of Omura, Algren joins with him against the imperial troops he helped train in order for the samurai to triumph with honor, if not politically. There's lots of vainglorious references to Custer, Thermopylae and other famous last stands so there's no doubt how things are going to turn out in the end.

There's a number of things to like about this film. It has a grandeur and majesty in the photography (by John Toll) that brings the woodcuts of traditional Japan to life with all of their color and harmony. The battle scenes don't flinch from the horrors of war and show just how dangerous a well trained armed man with a sword can be and these sequences are well balanced with the smaller domestic moments. There's also an Oscar worthy performance in Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto. He is the warrior-philosopher incarnate and dominates every scene he's in. When he in Cruise are together on screen poor Tom just fades into the background. The film would have been much more interesting if it had just been about Katsumoto and the samurai without all of the American outsider nonsense. Most of that plays like 'Dances with Samurai Sword' anyways.

There is much to not like as well. Whenever the film comes back to Cruise, who's playing his patented angry rebel part, it starts to drag and the whole thing feels at least half an hour too long. Cruise and his transformation aren't in the least bit believable and the whole thing becomes patronizing of Japanese culture and ethics from time to time. The real politics of the Meiji restoration have been grossly oversimplified into heroes and villains. In reality, there was a great deal of good and bad on both sides and much was in shades of grey that this film simply skimps over. The second act of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures covers the same ground in a much more balanced fashion and has time for a half dozen musical numbers so it's lazy writing (Zwick and Hershkovitz working with John Logan) rather than a story that cannot be easily told. The culture clashes, rapid changes in society, imperialistic thinking and other trends that would make for a decent film are neglected for the treatment of samurai as Rousseau's noble savage.

Tom Cruise is in grave danger of becoming a self-parody if he does not learn to grow and change as a performer. The need to glamorize his character (and to disguise the fact that the actor is now in his forties) leads to bad choices in hair and make-up; there are too many times when he looks like he's just stepped out of Elizabeth Arden and the supply of hair conditioner appears to be free flowing, even in the middle of winter when the passes are closed. He trades on his staring at the camera without blinking as being the be all and end all of emotion and intensity. His films are becoming more and more about Cruise the star and less and less about anything else and his declining box office appeal, I believe, shows that the public is catching on.

While I'll give it a lukewarm recommendation for Ken Watanabe, this is one of those films that may actually play better on TV with twenty minutes hacked out to make it fit a time slot. Unfortunately, the star close ups, which really are dreary, aren't likely to be the bits they remove.

Mechanical Indian attack. Drunken insults. Yokohama harbor matte painting. Seppuku. Gratuitous British photojournalist. Gratuitous ninja attack. Gratuitous child comic relief. Bathing pool. Symbolic scalping. Symbolic sword. Slow motion heroic deaths. Army flambĂ©. 

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