Film reviews

Cruising Samurai
The Last SamuraiThe Last Samurai
dir. Edward Zwick.

Is it enough to say that The Last Samurai is everything that cinema shouldn’t be? That the filmmaker’s vision of ‘the way of the Samurai’ makes The Karate Kid look like a masterpiece of classical Buddhist philosophy? That visually it offers little more than a series of computer-generated, statistically-averaged, test-screened and exit-polled post-cards? (‘Look, a traditional Japanese village! Look, a noble Samurai! Look, a despicable cowardly businessman! Look, a clash between good traditional Japanese indigenous culture and bad modernising Western influences!) That it relies on the most hackneyed and clumsy expository devices to tell the audience the story that its manufactured images are unable to carry? That we don’t just hear extracts from the central character’s diary explaining what is going on, but we have to see him writing in it at the same time, in case it all gets too confusing?

That it manages to be a perfect Orientalist text (in Edward Said’s sense of the term), all the while pretending to criticise the inimical influence of Western culture on traditional Japanese values? That it’s a remake of Dances With Wolves set in Japan? That every word, image, movement, every hair on Tom Cruise’s head is calculated within an inch of its life, so that not a single moment of spontaneity emerges to surprise the audience (or wake them up)?

That Cruise does not act so much as strike a series of tableaux—bitter Tom, noble Tom, drunkard Tom, heroic Tom, culturally sensitive Tom—as if to announce to the audience by semaphore, ‘Tom Cruise is acting’? (No need for the marketing people to produce a Tom Cruise action figure—he already is his own action figure, with all the expressive range and subtlety of a fully poseable GI Joe). No, the one thing you really need to know to understand what this film is like is that its title really does refer to Tom Cruise’s character.

Allan James Thomas

One that got away
Big Fish
dir. Tim Burton.

I want to love Tim Burton’s films. They have such promise.

Mad desires, strange un-doings, trembling visuals, but, when will I actually love one? Patiently I wait, figuring there must be one gurgling away in Burton’s gut that will win me over. I thought Big Fish might be it! Sadly, my vigil continues.

There is no nut-shell plot for this film, at least not one worth retelling. It meanders around the life (real and fantastical) of Ed Bloom. Bloom, story-teller extraordinaire, weaves real life and fancy into tales that capture everyone’s imagination—everyone that is, except his own son Will (Billy Crudup). Frustrated by the endless melding of fact and fiction, Will confronts his father on his death bed, in an attempt to find out the facts of his father’s life. But surprise, surprise, Will discovers that the truth can be one hell of a slippery beast (don’t forget we’re talking ‘big fish’).

Big Fish certainly has an enviable cast. Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor (as senior and junior Ed Bloom respectively) give appropriately cock-eyed performances, but lack the common ground needed to pull off the double act. When Jessica Lang (playing Ed senior’s wife) slips fully dressed into a bath with pyjama-clad Ed, I was intensely moved. She always seems slightly drunk to me, but damn, she can nail a poignant moment. Billy Crudup deserves real credit for maintaining Will’s straight guy persona in a film full of decidedly fruity characters. There is a host of other big stars (Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham-Carter, Steve Buscemi) that give what can only be described as dazzling character turns.
But all that great acting wasn’t enough to shorten my breath. Even with Burton’s famously flamboyant visual flair, Big Fish just didn’t have oomph. The script was soft when it needed to punch hard and was too tidy when it needed to sprawl. Burton needs tougher subject matter to play fairy tales with. If only The Brothers Grimm were still pushing the pen.

Siobhan Jackson

Sleepers wake
Good bye Lenin!
dir. Wolfgang Becker.

Good bye Lenin! is a ‘small’ film about ‘big’ things. No stars, no digital effects, no fancy hair-dos and no histrionic flourishes. With the summer holiday blockbusters screaming their budgets from the mountaintops, it is good to know that ‘small’ films are still out there.

Good bye Lenin! has a delightfully simple plot. Christiane (Katrin Saβ), a committed East German communist, falls into a coma just months before the wall falls. When she awakes East and West have re-unified. On doctor’s orders, Christiane is not to be subjected to any minor let along major shocks. Concerned that the political enormity of re-unification may kill her, her son Alex (Daniel Brühl) decides to keep his mother in the dark. And so the farce begins.

The madness of Alex’s scheme is plot enough, but Good bye Lenin! gives you a good deal more than that. It’s not easy to portray East Germany in a gentle light, or to make its supporters profoundly sympathetic, but this film manages to do just that without pulling too many punches. Reminiscent of Britain’s great anti-Thatcher films of the eighties (My Beautiful Launderette, Letter to Brezhnev etc), Good bye Lenin! tackles ‘big’ politics at the kitchen sink. It is not about the big figures of history but the people who nurse their own mothers, sport cheap hair-cuts, dictate letters while ironing and eat pickles out of the jar.

Good bye Lenin! has its short comings—it’s neither quite funny enough nor satisfyingly tragic—but with a handsome eye for detail and a light directorial touch it deserves a good deal of its art-house hit status.
Juggling the freedoms of the West with the convictions of the East was at times too politically complicated for what was essentially a light comedy—but there were whispers of a tough strangeness in Good bye Lenin! and for that I praise it.

And if, like me, you have always preferred the word cosmonaut to astronaut I suggest you moon-walk right on down to the next session of Good bye Lenin!. There are treats in store.

Siobhan Jackson


Human conflict
Cold Mountain
dir. Anthony Minghella.

Charles Frazier’s remarkable 1997 novel evokes Civil War-time North Carolina through the slightly formal drawl and godly—or ungodly—habits of its principal characters. It’s a complex tale, both odyssey and psychological development novel, a mix the film’s director and screenplay writer, Anthony Minghella, has absorbed and understood as comprehensively as he did Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. What both films lack, necessarily, is the leisure of the original form. In Cold Mountain this matters more, because more is held in imaginative suspension in Cold Mountain. Movies, even the best of them, are not good at letting you linger, or wonder.

The would-be lovers of Cold Mountain, preacher’s daughter Ada and Inman (Nicole Kidman and Jude Law) are separated by four years of war. They write letters, but minimal, repressed ones, revealing more between than in the lines. While you’re still pondering their subtext, the film’s action spirits you elsewhere, most forcefully to the carnage of the Civil War battlefields and their amoral aftermath—vigilante civil guards who use war as an excuse for sadism, whole families procuring and profiting like flies on the human carcase. Minghella does the episodic mayhem justice, aided by a skilled cast. With his central characters and their long-distance bond, he is less successful. Kidman and Law act their hearts out—you can see thespian effort in every one of Kidman’s gestures—but they are both so implacably beautiful it’s hard to believe in their suffering. (Someone should speak to Kidman’s hair stylist.) As for Renee Zellweger, as Ruby, the practical drifter who comes to live with and ‘learn’ the over-educated Ada after the death of her father (Donald Sutherland, in a faultless cameo), well, she’s just a bit too reflex backwoodsy for me. Caricature acting.

But all that said, it is an affecting film, perhaps because it is so intelligent about war, more profound, for example, than the celebrated Saving Private Ryan, because it gives war a broad human, not just an heroic, context. Minghella is, of course, not American, and he shot Cold Mountain mostly in Romania rather than North Carolina. His stars don’t all have authentic Southern accents because most are not American, let alone from North Carolina (Kidman, it seems, is ‘from the UK’). So you might, in these the post-Free Trade Agreement days, enjoy the Hollywood industrial campaign currently being conducted via email and internet, roundly condemning the film on all the aforesaid grounds. Tut tut.

Morag Fraser

 

 

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