The Last Samurai 映画評論

The Last Samurai

starring Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony

Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Masato Harada, Koyuki and Willian Atherton

written by John Logan and Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, based

on a story by John Logan

directed by Edward Zwick

I thought this was such a good movie that I watched it twice.  That’s right, twice!  This film has received such publicity that I was looking forward to it, and when it finally came out on video I had to continue waiting more than a week to be able to get my hands on it.  Ken Watanabe was expected to receive a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the renegade conservative samurai, Moritsu Katsumoto, in early Meiji Era Japan.  He did not get it.  I loved watching Watanabe’s performance, though.  He is a handsome man, with a compelling voice, and terrific physical presence.  Tom Cruise gave a good performance as Captain Nathan Algren, an American Indian wars veteran hired as a consultant to help train the first modern conscript army in Japan.  But Cruise’s long, greasy hair and scraggly beard never ceased to bother me throughout the films 154-minutes.  I loved the portrayal of old Japanese rural village life:  the costumes, the wooden houses, the doors, walls and flooring, cooking utensils, temples, rice fields, the valleys, mountains, and woods, etc.  But note:  many of the outdoor scenes were actually filmed in New Zealand.  In the town of Taranaki, to be exact.

Now, a brief history lesson.  Japan was a divided patchwork of provinces ruled by battling warlords until the island nation was finally united under one hegemony by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600 at the famous Battle of Sekigahara.  From then until 1867 Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family head  -  the “Shogun,” meaning general, or supreme warlord  -  while the Emperor remained a sequestered and powerless figurehead in Kyoto.  By law, during this Tokugawa Period, the nation was isolated from the outside world. Shipwrecked foreigners were generally executed.  Japanese fishermen accidentally washed away by the tides and storms were forbidden to return.  The sizes of permissible ships were severely controlled so as to prevent Japanese from deliberately journeying abroad.  Then in 1853 U.S. naval ships under the command of Commodore Mathew C. Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay.  Negotiations were forced to open supply ports in Japan for foreign whaling vessels, and that is the beginning of modern Japan.  The Boshin Setsu, or Boshin Civil War of 1868-69 brought the downfall of the Tokugawa government and the restoration of direct rule by the Emperor.  The teenaged Emperor  -  named Mutsuhito, but known as Emperor Meiji  -  relocated to Edo from Kyoto, and Edo was re-named Tokyo, meaning “East Capital.”  Then a massive and fast-paced modernization program was launched to bring Japan up to speed with other, mostly Western nations, and thereby avoid the fate of China and Indochina, cut up as colonies by European powers:  schooling, railways, gas and electricity, western dress, modern police, law enforcement, and a standing military, a parliamentary government with a written constitution, western style architecture, national roads, coinage, a standardized language, and so and on.

I almost cringed when I heard Captain Algren’s military colleagues in America introduce the idea of traveling to Japan as a military consultant with the horribly politically incorrect statement, “Japan’s got it in its mind to become a civilized country.”  Ouch!  Yuck!  Later, thesame colleagues describe Algren’s winter-long captivity in a samurai village as life among the “savages,” just because the samurai cling to the traditional weaponry  -  swords, bows, etc.  In the film the association of international military arms deals tied to economic trade-and-assistance packages comes across exactly as we still see it today on the front pages of the newspapers.  For the exclusive right to supply Japan with modern arms, America will reward it with trading rights.  Almost exactly what Washington still does today.

Some of the feudal samurai lords resisted many of the demands of modernization.  The Seinan no Eki, or “Military Campaign in the Southeast” led by Samurai of the Satsuma clan in what is now Kyushu island took place throughout much of 1877, and it is this conflict that The Last Samurai is playing on for its story.  The samurai of Satsuma were led by Saigo Takamori who is, I guess, the historical model of Ken Watanabe’s character, Katsumoto.  Typically, this rebellion came in the island of Kyushu, far from the center of power in Tokyo and hence kind of on the periphery of the country.  It shows that despite more than two centuries of unified rule under the Tokugawas in Tokyo there were still strong regional “daimyo,” or military governors who sought for, and took advantage of opportunities to wrest power from the center.  It was a useless struggle, though, that pitted armor-clad, sword wielding samurai against massed firearm-bearing troops.  An interesting social note:  the new armies of modern Japan were conscripted.  That means that they drew largely on the peasant class of society.  So in clashes between samurai rebels and the new army, the former feudal lords were set against their former social underlings, and the social underlings won.

About the title:  “The Last Samurai” might make a lot of people think that the character Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, is himself the “last of the samurai.”  But that is not its meaning.  The plural of “samurai” is also “samurai,” and this film deals with the disappearance of the samurai as a noble warrior class in Japanese society, not with one individual man.  In the course of the publicity surrounding the film I got the impression that Americans tended to view the meaning of the title as the latter, not the former.  I suppose you might say that the samurai class was officially dissolved in 1876 when they were prohibited by new sumptuary laws from wearing their swords  -  the long one called the “katana,” and the short one called the “wakizashi”  -  which had always been a great symbol of their social status and was by itself the catalyst of many small, regional rebellions.

About historical errors:  North American audiences probably will never recognize or suspect factual errors.  But I can find a few first because I live in Japan, and second because I am just such a knowledgeable guy.  The story of Captain Algren is a true story, but the real character of history was a French military officer, not an American one.  But that is Hollywood, isn’t it?  U.S. moviemakers change real stories by throwing in some Yankees to give them an American angle to better appeal to big cash-spending U.S. audiences.  They did it with The Great Escape(Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough), which in reality was based on a book by Canadian veteran Paul Brickhill about a totally British and Canadian POW escape.  They did it with U-571 (Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton), which in reality was a totally British operation to capture a Nazi Enigma coding machine from a German U-Boat.  And many more.

Admittedly, the samurai sword fighting techniques in this film are superb, and Tom Cruise received high praise for his performance.   However, a samurai sword is not a throwing weapon, as his character Captain Algren uses it in the climactic battle scene.  The story begins in July 1876, and I was happy to see that the director did not overlook the fact that summer is the Rainy Season in Japan.  Accordingly, there was lots of rain.  But Edward Zwick failed to give us a sense of the awful humidity of Japanese summer.  Beware the overuse of myths and worn stereotypes of traditional samurai:  talk about honor and shame, purity, minimalism, the warrior spirit, discipline, etc.  It sounds like the screenwriters read Ruth Benedict’s classic study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.  Emperor Meiji, played by Shichinosuke Nakamura in the film (a young kabuki actor in real life), actually speaks to Captain Algren (in English) during an audience.  Even more, he kneels in front of him during a personal exchange in the final scene.  Such things would never, ever happen in real life.

There was but one main female role in the film, the sister of Katsumoto who helps nurse Algren back to health in her home during a winter of captivity following his capture.  I noticed that she sported bright white, modern teeth.  It is a footnote in history books that Japanese women of old blackened their teeth (a practice called “ohaguro”), and that this custom waned and died slowly, with others, during the forced modernization.  I think it would have been an interesting detail if the director had decided to include blackened teeth among what few women there were.  (The reason for the blackened teeth is that traditionally the teeth were considered to be ugly bone sticking through the flesh.  Blackening the teeth was a strategy to cover the ugliness in the name of feminine beauty. Traditionally Chinese women of a certain class bound their feet. Japanese women blackened their teeth.  American women shave their body hair and have a tan.  Canadian women rub their skin with seal blubber.)

About a third of the film is in Japanese.  My Japanese is not so good that I can understand it all, and unfortunately for me, in Japan the English subtitles of the Japanese dialogue are removed because audiences here do not need them.  So I missed out on a lot of the Japanese dialogue.  If I had seen the film in Canada on video or in the cinema I would have benefited from the English subtitles.  The same is true of other American movies that use Japanese dialogue  -  the Pearl Harbor movie Tora, Tora, Tora! is a good example.  I cannot enjoy them to the full.  Anyway, many of the foreign characters in The Last Samurai speak at least some Japanese, and I must say that to my ear Tom Cruise’s pronunciation is quite good.  I myself probably speak with a terrible accent, slaughtering what is supposed to be a beautiful language.  But my ear is good enough that I can easily hear when other foreigners are slaughtering the language  -  in film and in every day life.

My favorite character is expatriate Englishman Simon Graham, played by Timothy Spall.  He came to Japan as part of the British diplomatic delegation.  But because he had the indiscretion actually to speak the truth  -  or, rather, to say exactly what was on his mind (“honne”)  -  in a land where people did not (and still do not) do that, he lost his employment.  So he makes his living as an expatriate using his fluent Japanese to accurately translate the lies of others.  It is in this capacity that he falls in with Captain Algren.  Mr. Graham is the kind of person I like, a Japanophile “henna gaijin” (“strange foreigner”) who speaks the language perfectly and has fallen in love with the country and all of its oddities.  I love it when he convinces Japanese prison guards that Algren is the American President in order to bluff their passage into a prison to meet the captured Katsumoto and help him escape back to his mountain village.  Graham is typical of many foreigners of that time who found their way to the newly opened kingdom of Japan.  Just as there was a jaded, so-called ‘Lost Generation’ after World War One there was a similar generation of disillusioned people in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861-1865) who took the chance to go someplace new and unspoiled (or, so they thought).

All–in-all, Captain Algren reminds me of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves.  Both men are American military veterans of the Indian Wars, haunted by the horrors they saw and perpetrated.  Each seeks salvation in communities outside of their own:  Dances With Wolves finds peace and acceptance with the Sioux (Lakota) Indians; Nathan Algren, who describes himself as a man “beset by the ironies of my life,” finds his absolution in a Japanese mountain village.

When Captain Algren’s colonel recognizes that his man is “going native” he asks him, “What is it about your own people that you hate so much?”  Then I wondered if the same could be asked of me?  No, it can’t.  Impossible!

The climactic battle scene is fascinating.  It reminded me of the gruesome opening battle scene in Gladiator (Russell Crowe).



( http://www.live-english.com)

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Kill Bill Vol 1 映画評論

Kill Bill Vol 1

starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Julie Dreyfus, Michael Bowen, Jun

Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri, James Parks, Vivica A. Fox,

Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

This is “Volume 1” of Kill Bill.  Volume Two is currently in Japanese movie theaters.  Uma Thurman plays a former assassin out for revenge against a group of colleagues who turned on her, tried to kill her, and left her for dead thinking they had succeeded four years previously.  For that reason the film does not progress as a linear story, but involves a lot of flashbacks, which I think make it hard to follow.  It makes the story an exercise in decryption, which is not really what I want in a movie.  I want to relax and not have to work my brain so hard.  Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still like stories to make sense.  Anyway, in Volume One she succeeds in dispatching only two of her would-be killers – Lucy Liu (of Charlie’s Angels and Ally McBeal fame) and Vivica A. Fox.  The others, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine  -  possibly the coolest human being alive  -  get theirs in the next movie.  Why did her, one-time cohorts in assassination turn against her?  Presumably we learn that in Volume Two, which I haven’t seen yet.

I waited with some anticipation to see this movie for a few reasons.  First, it is Quentin Tarantino’s first film in a long time.  Next, there has been so much hype about it.  Third, I was eager to check out how Japanese elements came across  -  Japanese dialogue, Japanese anime illustrations, clothes, fencing style, yakuza depictions, and more.  A spate of films in recent years are sometimes put forward by some commentators as examples of how Japanese culture -   especially pop culture like weird fashions, anime cartoons, and technological gadgets  -  is being popularized/has exerted its influence abroad and is making its way in the world.  Kill Bill; The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise);  Lost in Translation (Bill Murray);  Ronin (Robert di Niro);  Wasabi (Jean Reno);  Samurai (Forest Whitaker); Black Rain (Michael Douglas);  Rising Sun (Sean Connery); Last Man Standing (Bruce Willis), and many more. Of course, The Magnificent Seven (Yul Brynner) is the classic example, although it is about 40-years old, and not recent.  Plus, the success of anything by Kitano Takeshi (especially in France, where judges at the Cannes Film Festival seem to think that he is a great artist, rather than a mere criminal).

Quentin Tarantino’s respect for/debt to Japanese pop culture and film culture have been played up tremendously.But I think there are still grounds for interpreting this movie in another direction.  I think that the point needs to be made that Tarantino is not paying homage to Japanese culture-  pop culture or high culture  -  so much as he is paying homage to cheap 1970s Kung Fu flicks churned out in Los Angeles and Hong Kong.  Not only in this film  -  but in this film especially -  Tarantino flexes his obsession with everything 1970’s.  Sounds and sound effects.  Gimmics and costumes.Camera angles and lighting.  Many of his films seem intimately, obsessively tied to the 70s somehow.  He is fascinated by the decade he grew up in.  Tarantino and I are of a similar age, and I probably watched a lot of the TV that he watched as a kid, which helps me recognize the source of many of his film elements.  At the same time, his knowledge of those elements is encyclopedic.  He draws deeply from pop cultures far and wide.  He uses arcane film techniques.  He deserves a lot of respect for the ways he puts them all together.  But he is not a walking encyclopedia of high art films so much as he is a walking encyclopedia of 1970s B movies and comic books.

Typical of a Tarantino film, there is a lot of blood and violence in Kill Bill.  And like his other movies, the violence is mostly cartoonish super-violence  -  in this case accentuated  with some really  groovy Japanese anime.  Maybe some American conservatives protest his work and point to it as a sign of the depravity of the industry and the age, and the potential danger it represents for impressionable youngsters.  But for those who understand what he is doing there is less cause for alarm.

The climax of this film is in the last thirty minutes, the big samurai sword fighting scene set in a Tokyo restaurant between Uma Thurman and the yakuza army of Lucy Liu (O-ren Ishii), dubbed “The Crazy 88s.”  The sword choreography was directed by Sonny Chiba, who appears in a cameo.  I loved this segment so much that I watched it repeatedly before having to return the video to the shop.  I also loved the all-girl band playing in the restaurant  -  The 5,6,7,8s.  They are a real Tokyo bar band.  You can go see them in Roppongi or Shibuya if you want.  The tunes they were singing in the restaurant scene were so neat and catchy that even my children went around for the next day singing, “Go, go, go, ga-ga-ga-ga-ga yeah!” and “Oo-oo, Ooo-oo-oo, Oo-oo, Oo-oo-oo!” in imitation.

Tarantino must have watched the same Sam Pekinpah sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus circa 1973 that I watched, because throughout Kill Bill he repeatedly uses the same hilarious fire hosing blood-splattering trick.  You know what I mean.  Lop of an arm, a pair of hands, or a head with a samurai sword and then blood shoots everywhere under pressure like a garden hose for a minute while the wounded person scurries around in a deliberately silly manner  -  faux death throws.  I laughed when I saw the Monty Python sketch the first time.  I laugh now when I see it on Monty Python videos, and I laughed again to see Quentin Tarantino using it.

And finally, a note about samurai swords.For the most part they are single-edged blades designed for slashing more than stabbing.  But good for chopping, too.  I don’t see how a person can die immediately just by being slashed, but Japanese “samurai dramas” are filled with sword fighting scenes in which actors collapse and die all over the place after a good slashing.  In fact, there are actors who specialize in such scenes.  There is a word for it, “the slashed guy,” or something.  As a Westerner, I don’t appreciate the etiquette of sword fighting.  I figure, if you want to kill a guy, then go ahead.   Use overwhelming force, never accept an “even playing field” and get on with it.  Don’t play around with swords.  Better get a good gun and do it right.  But no, the etiquette of sword fighting is that even if a single person is surrounded by a horde of adversaries, only one-on-one battles are permitted at a given time.  So, there I am shouting at the TV screen urging the other samurai to rush the guy, and my wife keeps telling me “that’s not how you do it.”

Japanese fencing is not like European fencing or saber fighting.  You do not stand erect and swing your sword.  Maybe because of the traditional shorter stature of Japanese  -  I don’t know  -  the center of gravity is lower, and samurai bent their knees and crouched lower than a European swordsman would.  The fight choreographers in Kill Bill, and Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai got this right at least.

Grant Piper ( registeredalien.weebly.com)

Live English House (www.live-english.com)

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The Third Miracle 映画評論

The Third Miracle

starring Ed Harris, Anne Heche, Armin Mueller-Stahl,  Charles Haid,

Michael Rispoli, Jams Gallanders, Jean-Louis Roux, Ken James and Barbara Sukowa

written by John Romno and Richard Vetere

directed by Agnieszka Holland

Based on the novel of the same title by Richard Vetere (who co-wrote the screenplay), this is the story of Roman Catholic priest Father Frank Shore, who is suffering a mid-life crisis of faith.  Fr. Shore’s job is working as a “Postulator Advocate” for the Archbishop of Chicago.  That is the Church functionary whose job it is to investigate reputed miracles  -  the kinds of religious events that we periodically read about in the media:  unexplained events like bleeding attributed to statues, healings attributed to prayer directed to the soul of a deceased pious person, etc.  – and either recommend their cause to the Congregation of the Saints in Rome, or else to put the kybosh on it.  Frank’s job requires him to exercise the toughest evidentiary criteria, the profoundest intellectual investigation, and the latest scientific methodology to rule out any possibility of events occurring by anything other than divine intervention.  Naturally, most unexplained phenomenon can eventually be explained when investigated like this, and Postulator Advocates can reputations for themselves as “saint killers” more than saint makers. This is Fr. Shore’s reputation.  He reminds me a little bit of the priest in The Exorcist, Father Kelly, utilizing every effort of his psychiatric training to rationally explain the afflictions of Linda Blair in that movie, and also of Antonio Banderas as the priest in last year’s movie The Body.

Set in 1979, after the ascension of the current Pope John Paul II, Fr. Shore is faced with the case of Helen, a deceased local housewife (a European immigrant), who is credited by local parishioners of the miraculous cure of a local girl of terminal lupus.  Helen’s favorite statue in the church school’s playground is said to cry tears of her own blood  -  but only during the month of November, and only when it rains.  Predictably, this attracts crowds of the simple faithful, people who don’t care about the rationality of it all, or the doctrines of the Church, but are imbued with simple faith and hope.

There are three stages in the process of recognizing a Saint.  (I cannot say “making a saint,” because, as the movie points out, the Church does not “make” saints.  God makes them.)  The first stage is called Veneration.  Next is Beatification.  And, finally, Canonization is the official declaration of sainthood.  The process takes years and years, and the final step cannot be taken until at least three miracles can be suitably demonstrated and attributable to the person one is praying to.  That is no easy task, since the Church is very rigorous in its requirements and evidence.  Who, or what is a saint?  A saint is a person who was filled with a love beyond what people are thought capable of such that, when they die, they are considered to be “friends of God,” immanent with God in heaven.  They are love incarnate.  And so, prayers directed to that person are thought to be granted because of the saint’s ‘special’ relationship with God.  That’s the idea, anyway.  Most people probably are not interested in these things, but I really dig them.  I studied theology, after all.

During his long reign over the Holy See Pope John Paul II is responsible for elevating a large number of people to sainthood  -  a surprising number, actually, when set against the context of the widespread cynical doubt of our secular age.  John Paul’s canonization program probably is best viewed against his conservative agenda for the Church and his desire to bolster Catholic traditions in these secular times when disbelief is common, and religious belief is considered an eccentricity. He wants to keep the message of the Church current, by canonizing greater numbers of modern people and  provide role models for the times.  Plus, he selects a great many candidates from the developing world where most of our population growth occurs.

There have only been a handful  -  less than five  -  American saints.  That, and the fact that the woman, Helen, was a layperson of no particularly pious reputation during her lifetime, weakens her case.  But Frank, who enters the story as a skeptic after previous investigations of reputed miraculous events, is swayed to the veracity of her case.  Two miracles can successfully be attributed to her intervention (with God).  By the end of the film the process of canonization is in stasis as a third miracle is awaited.  Figuratively speaking, maybe we can say that the restoration of Fr. Shore’s faith and vocation is the third miracle.  Where once he complained to a friend, “How does faith get away from us?” by movie’s end he is happily ensconced as a parish priest with a revived sense of vocation and faith.   Halleluiah!

Grant Piper

Grant先生のブログ: registeredalien.weebly.com


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Hulk 映画評論


starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas and Nick Nolte

written by John Turman, Michael France and Jones Schamus

directed by Ang Lee

Movies made from comic books are nothing but unmitigated garbage and this is another one.  I have made this complaint before about other movies made from what were originally comic books (then TV shows before finally coming out as films):  Superman; Batman; Spiderman; Spawn; X-Men; Dark Angel; Inspector Gadget; Richie Rich; and more.  I keep hoping that one will be an exception and might actually be good, and so I continue to rent them on video, hoping.  But I was disappointed once more.  This one is based on the Marvel Comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  At 138-minutes it is just too long.

I remember the TV show from the 1970s, “The Incredible Hulk,” starring Bill Bixby (Eddie’s Father) as scientist Bruce Banner, and body-builder Lou Ferigno as his giant, green nemesis, the Hulk.  Looking back I guess even the TV show was trash.  But I was a kid then, stupid and not very discriminating about anything at all  -  least of all TV shows.

The premise for this science fiction tale is good enough to make a good story out of it.  But instead the filmmakers want to re-create some kind of animation, or animation effects on celluloid.  That never works for me, but I know a couple of (British) fellows who love this kind of movie.  They are animation afiionados, and they appreciate the computer graphics used in this film and others like it.  I do not. This film especially over-uses the split-screen effect.  Several times, the screen was subdivided into several different frames at once so that we could see simultaneous action in different locations.  I didn’t dig it but, again, my friends did.  There is some manner of comfort in knowing that I have friends that I can predict and depend on, even if it is to disagree with.

Grant http://www.live-english.com/

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About Schmidt 映画評論

About Schmidt

starring Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Len Carion, Howard Hesseman and Kathy Bates

written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

directed by Alexander Payne

Based on a novel by Louis Begley, I thought this was an excellent film and Jack Nicholson did a good job of acting the pathos of human life as a retired person in America today.  I can only imagine about the life that he is acting.  But it may hit a much more poignant mark with older people like my parents and their generation.  The movie is set in Nebraska and features a lot of scenes of the recently-retired and widowed insurance company actuary, Warren Schmidt, traveling around these awful, bleak, flat prairie landscapes in the motor home that he and his wife bought for their retirement fun.  I thought the opening scenes of the film were especially depressing, and successfully set the tone of the movie by showing the cement-and-steel modern office skyline of downtown Omaha, Nebraska rising out of the flat prairie.  Cold, gray and dull.  And this is Warren Schmidt’s life  -  cold, gray and dull.  That does not mean that his life is not a good life, nor question that he is an intelligent, honorable and worthwhile man.  But at the end of his career when he has a lot of time on his hands Schmidt has to face the big issues of the meaning and value of his life, and I think in his mind he finds himself coming up short.

These are questions that all of us naturally have from the time of adolescence, and we may think that we resolve them satisfactorily by the time we move into the busy, responsibility-laden life of adults.  But that is probably only a cosmetic cover-up:  one of the polite fictions of society that allows us to get on with the business of making money and paying taxes.  I understand the fictions that we live with in society.  But I do not think they are ‘polite’ at all.  As working adults and parents we are so busy that we can easily put aside further contemplation of those big questions for decades.  Maybe we even welcome being allowed to put them aside.  But then retirement comes, pushes us out of the activities that occupied us for so long and we discover the Big Questions again, still there, waiting for us to come home to brood on them again.

In the case of Schmidt, whose wife suddenly and unexpectedly dies early in his retirement, he has to face the Big Questions again even without the companionship of his wife.  A terrible thing:  the loneliness of the human condition  -  in Omaha, too.  But this is why About Schmidt is such a great human drama.

As a hobby, Schmidt decides on a whim to sponsor a needy child in Africa through an organization he discovered on television.  His information package about the program arrives in the mail and he is encouraged to write to the child, talk about himself, etc.  So he does.  A 66-year-old man writing to a five-year-old African boy is hilarious, the great comic element of the film, but also Schmidt’s salvation in the end.  With his wife gone and his failure to find meaning in his life, his foster child becomes proof of his worth, hence his salvation.  The movie ends with Schmidt sitting at his desk at home shedding all the cathartic tears that he kept inside throughout the film.  It’s sweet.

Some great lines and scenes: in his first letter to Ndugu in Tanzania, Schmidt starts writing a normal, conversational letter. But within moments all his anger about his life, his wife, and his daughter’s dopey boyfriend come pouring out.  He goes into intimate details of his marriage and complains about is wife, “Who is this old woman who lives in my house?”  After his wife’s passing, Warren rediscovers the freedom of a bachelor and tries it out by urinating on his bathroom floor  -  postmortem defiance of his wife, Helen.  There’s a little boy in every man.

There is a great collection of weird characters:  the boyfriend Randall Hertzl (Dermot Mulroney) sporting a 1970s mullet haircut; Kathy Bates, the libidinous, uninhibited divorcee; and, Howard Hesseman, the gregarious divorced man who still eats at his ex’s house.   When I saw Howard Hesseman I recognized his face but forgot his name.  “Hey, it’s the WKRP From Cincinnati guy!  Dr. Johnny Fever.  Boy has he got old.”

Grant (http://www.live-english.com/)

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Reign of fire 映画評論

Reign of Fire

starring Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Isabella Scorurco

written by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka and Matt Breenberg

directed by Rob Bowman

Christian Bale was the young boy in Steven Speilberg’s Empire of the Sun.  More recently, he starred in the movie version of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.  Currently, Bale has two movies on video and in the shops:  Reign of Fire, and another futuristic film, Revolution.

Reign of Fire is an apocalyptic vision of Earth’s future, set in the year 2020, that features dragons.  Basically, it is discovered that the mythical fire-breathing creatures of the past are not/were not mythical fancies of our pre-industrial/pre-literate/pre-technological forebears at all.  They really existed.  They were the true cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the ash from the fires they caused with their napalm breath was the true cause of the Earth’s ice ages.  But once the animals had destroyed their entire potential food source, they went into long hibernation and are accidentally discovered and revived in modern times by a London underground construction crew.  (The movie was filmed in Ireland.)

Humankind’s best technology cannot stop the swarm of dragons.  They reproduce and multiply faster than can be explained.  They burn everything and then feed off the ashes.  Humans finally resort to our ultimate weapons  -  nukes  -  which only aggravates the problem rather than extinguishing it.  We are reduced to prehistoric living conditions.  Once again, the dragons’ food source is destroyed and they themselves are starving and once more on the brink of returning to long hibernation.  Discovering this, an intrepid group of human survivalists (led by an American, naturally) in northern England is preparing for a final assault on the original London nest.  It seems that destroying the dragons’ sole alpha male will spell the end of their reign of terror  -  pardon me, I mean fire.

Matthew McConaughey, whom you might recall from his co-starring role opposite Jodie Foster in Contact, inexplicably appears in northern England in a big tank, calling himself Van Zan of the Kentucky Irregulars.  Seeing a large tank approaching their fortified habitat, the British at first fear marauders.  But when they recognize Van Zan’s American accent one of them utters my favorite line from the movie, “Only one thing worse than a dragon:  Americans.”  I thought, “Right on!”

Fire seems to be the single biggest element of the story.  Everything is either burning or burned.  People, hair, clothes, are all scorched black.  Watching the film I expected that I should be experiencing an accompanying odor of soot, because that is how it looked.  I thought, this is either an American nightmare, or else it is life as usual in Britain.

Grant http://www.live-english.com/

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Catch Me if You Can 映画評論

Catch Me if You Can

starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye and Amy Adams

written by Jeff Nathanson

directed by Steven Spielberg

Another great performance by Tom Hanks, and a fair one by Leonardo DiCapiro.  Based on the true life story of 1960s American conman Frank Abagnale Jr., considered the most successful bank fraudster in U.S. history.

The story of Frank Abagnale is interesting and engrossing in no small part because it is true, and because he was so young when he lived a runaway life of fraud.  Between 1964 and 1967, before he was even 19-years-old, Abagnale successfully impersonated a PanAm airline pilot, a pediatrician in a Georgia hospital, and an assistant prosecutor in the State of Louisiana.  He forged and cashed about $4 million in fraudulent checks, which is what led the FBI’s Financial Crimes Division to pursue and apprehend him.

Teenage crime is noting new today, but being a teenage criminal in the 1960s was probably much more uncommon/unusual (and deviant).  Especially so because Abagnale was a white-collar criminal, not a car thief, a vandal, or a drug offender.  He gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “juvenile delinquent.”

How could a teenager  - 17-and-18-years old at the time  -  succeed so long, fooling so many people so completely in professional occupations?  Couldn’t people tell just by looking at him and listening to him that he was a boy, not an adult man?  First, Abagnale was a quick thinker and a quick talker. He could put on a convincing show.  Second, and more significantly, is that people believe what they are told more than what they see with their own eyes.

People believe what you tell them,” he says on the telephone to the FBI agent pursuing him, Carl Handratty (Tom Hanks).

I have found this myself, and I sometimes play the lying game just to see if people will believe me.  Or, to see what they will believe from me.  Surprisingly, people will believe almost any outrageous thing I say if I make it sound convincing (not too far from the truth), if I say it with a straight face, and if I appear honestly to stick by my story.  (Note to the reader:  I never part company with a person and leave them believing a lie I told them as a joke.)

Here is an important lesson about human psychology and personality.  We are succeptible to tricks.  We watch a magician performing tricks.  The magician tells us that he will saw the lady in half, or pour water into his hat, or make the rabbit disappear, but he never fails to admit that it is a deception.  And yet the audience still marvels at the convincing look of it, temporarily forgetting that the performer just admitted that it is a performance and not real.  Maybe people want to suspend their belief in reality.  The professions of airline pilot, doctor andlawyer are so marvelous in people’s eyes (or were, anyway) that the magical glow of the job obscured the reality of the boy putting on the show.  Amazing!  Could I spot a convincing fake?

The Financial Crimes Divsision is not sexy crime fighting.  It is a lot of tedious desk work, and does not feature car chases through the city, violent gun battles, or leaps from one rooftop to another.  But financial crimes do carry a lot of punch.  They are what put famous Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars.



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Pirates of the Caribbean:The Curse of the Black Pearl 映画評論

Pirates of the Caribbean: 

The Curse of the Black Pearl

starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom,Jonathan Pryce and Jack Davenport

written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossia

directed by Gore Verbinski

Ever since the end of summer vacations I have been asking people, “Did you see Pirates of the Caribbean?” or, saying to them, “I saw Pirates of the Caribbean” and then hearing them confirm that they saw it, too.  And everybody’s reaction to it is positive and excited.  Everyone loved it.  I did, too.

This is a fun action film and I recommend it if it is fun you want.  It is a swashbuckling pirate movie that reminded me of the Geena Davis pirate movie Cutthroat Island from a few years ago.  I eagerly waited for Pirates to come out in theaters in Tokyo, but it came out on the very day that I was going abroad on vacation to my hometown.  Then, when I got home, I found it playing in movie theaters there.  Lucky me!

As you might recognize from the name, “Pirates of the Caribbean” is taken from the Disneyland amusement park ride.  But any comparison between the two ends there, I think.  Far from being a slow, tame amusement for children, Pirates is fast, non-stop action:  sword fights; ship-to-ship cannon battles; pirate raids on coastal hamlets; kidnapping; romance; treasure.  (I was told that Disneyland is now planning to renovate and spice up its stodgy old Pirates of the Caribbean ride to bring it more in line with the feeling of the movie.)  The script is written by a pair that produced animated hits such as Antz, Aladdin, and Shrek, so perhaps their cleverness alone was enough to propel the movie to summer time hit-dom.

The biggest drawback that I can thin of is that the seventeenth century pirate costumes are over-done.  I mean, the costume designers/managers/directors might have gone too far and created campy pirates.  But then I have to remember it is based on a Disneyland ride, after all, so maybe it’s okay.

Johnny Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate trying to reclaim his old ship, The Black Pearl, currently captained by Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).  The crew of The Black Pearl have stolen an Aztec Indian treasure that put a terrible curse on them  -  they are zombies who cannot be killed, but at the same time cannot enjoy any of the benefits of living (like eating and drinking, tasting, sleeping, etc.).  In the light of day they look like normal men.  Well, pirates, anyway.  But under moonlight their true condition becomes evident in some really great, ghoulish scenes. (I won’t describe them. You must see the movie yourself.)

Over time the Aztec treasure has been dispersed here-and-there.  To lift the curse from themselves the captain and crew of The Black Pearl have to locate and retrieve all the original treasure.  The last piece of gold belongs to Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), daughter of the local British Governor (Jonathan Pryce).  The Governor intends his daughter to marry a local naval officer, but she prefers a poor childhood friend and commoner, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom).  But when Will teams up with Jack Sparrow to re-take The Black Pearl he becomes an outlaw.  So there are at least two conflicts at play.  There is the love conflict.  Then, there is the conflict of interests:  Captain Barbossa wants the girl while Jack Sparrow, to whom the girl is tied through their relationships with Will Turner, wants only the ship.  Here lie grounds for a double-crossing deal among pirates.

I look forward to it coming out on video so I can watch it again at my leisure.



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John Q 映画評論

John Q

starring Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin, Kimberley Elise and Ray Liotta

written by James Kearns

directed by Nick Cassavetes

Not a great Denzel Washington effort, I thought, but a gripping story of a father struggling for his son’s life against the bureaucracy f the U.S. health care system.  It was okay, but not superb.  The acting was competent, no more.

Washington plays a middle class, blue collar factory worker.His only child, a son, suddenly falls ill at a minor league baseball game and is diagnosed with an eventually fatal heart condition. The cruel choices for the parents are either to waste time aiming for the unrealistic, out-of-reach expense of a heart transplant, or else resolve themselves to the inevitable death of their son and just try to enjoy his remaining time together, making him as comfortable as possible.

Tragically, these are choices that some parents really have to make, even in the United Staters today  -  the richest country in the world  -  because so many people do not have adequate health insurance, or because the fantastic cost of high technology medicine exceeds whatever health insurance they do have.

The parents cannot raise the money for surgery.  The boy’s condition deteriorates. His death is imminent.  To forestall disaster, John takes a gun to the hospital  -  possibly with the intention of forcing the heart surgeon to perform a transplant.  But it is clear that the father is neither clear nor decided in his own mind what his intentions are when he begins his craziness.  If worse comes to worse, his intention seems to be to kill himself and let his own, compatible heart be used in his son.  “John Q” is the name that he gives over the telephone to police negotiators who eventually arrive at the hospital, seal it, and prepare to defuse a textbook hostage situation.

John Q’s action is vengeance on a monstrous health care system/hospital bureaucracy that appears immovable towards, an unconcerned  with the tragedy overtaking his child.  For this reason, John Q reminded me of another movie about parental vengeance on an uncaring health care system, Ben Kingsley’s film The confession, which I reviewed in the January-March 2001 edition of this newsletter.

But this is a happy story, not a tragedy.  John Q doesn’t kill himself.  A suitable donor heart becomes available just in time through the hands of Fortune plus the intervention of a suddenly sentimental and sympathetic hospital administrator (Anne Heche).

Canada’s health care system, like Japan’s, is government-run socialized medicine.  There are a lot of inherent problems with socialized medicine, namely long waiting times, high taxes, and limited services.  America, by comparison, has capitalist, free-market health care offering more services, faster, but at excruciatingly high cost.  I prefer the socialized health scheme.  I will tolerate the slowness and the bureaucracy for the knowledge that the politicians who are charged with administering it are responsible to me through the ballot box.

Parents must sometimes wonder, “What will we do if our child becomes gravely ill?  How will we react?  How will we pay for treatment?  How can we live without our baby?”  John Q might not be a really exceptional film, but it has an emotional punch to it.


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The Ring 映画評論

The Ring

starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderseon, David Dorfman, Richard

Lineback and Daveigh Chase

written by Ehren Kruger

directed by Gore Verbinski

I looked forward to seeing this movie because it was talked about so much when it came out in movie theaters last year.  Now I have seen it and I am satisfied.  I watched the original Japanese movie of the same title, and while I was watching the American movie on video with my wife and daughter I was often distracted by their complaining shouts, “That’s different!”  “That’s not the same as in the real movie.”

I tried to point out to them that any discrepancy between the American Ring and the Japanese Ring might be accounted for by the fact that the American movie is based on the novel of the same title by Koji Suzuki and not on the Japanese film itself.  But it is hard for me to tell because I have not read the novel -  yet  -  and my Japanese is too weak to understand much more than the gist, or the story line of the original.

One thing is correct, though.  The Ring is not really that scary.  It remains a good story.  But I thought it could have been scarier. I think Japanese are highly emotional, really not inscrutable like what racial stereotypes once described, and they like a good scare as well as a good cry.  (Consider the popularity of haunted mansions, or obakeiyashiki at summer and school festivals.)  But the Japanese Ring was not stark raving scary, I thought. Neither was the American Ring.  To me the Japanese film felt too much like it was following a form defined as “horror movie” (regardless of whether or not it was really spine chilling), and that the actors were always holding back, while the American film felt too much like a copy of something (which it is).  So all-in-all it was a good film with some scary moments.  But not enough to give a person nightmares.  That is what I want form a horror movie.  I want nightmares to prove to myself that I am really alive.


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