The Last Samurai; Touching the Void; Runaway Jury; Girl With a Pearl Earring; The Return,

 The Last Samurai

This is both an impressive epic as well as the story of one man's spiritual journey.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Japan, which had held itself closed to the outer world since the era of the Shogun, the Catholic missionaries and the traders in the 16th and 17th centuries, began to open up. Western representatives hurried to Japan, not least the Americans. This film is set in 1876-1877, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, a decade of battles against the American Indians, symbolised by Custer and Little Big Horn. The Japanese invite military experts to come to train the Imperial Army in American strategies and tactics and to bring the new Winchester rifles, canons and Howitzers. The Americans eagerly embrace their new friends, bring them weapons and train them - and it is only 65 years away from the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Questions of American trade domination, arming potential enemies and their understanding of their 'manifest destiny' in world leadership aside, the film re-creates the period admirably (shot in Japanese and New Zealand locations) and helps us to understand what was happening in Japan and the effect of these cultural changes on the West.

The Last Samurai is Katzumoto, a Samurai leader who has taken a rebellious stand against the young Emperor and the seeming selling-out of traditional values for wealth, industrial and trade 'progress' and the manners and styles (even in clothing) of the West. He is played with great dignity by Ken Watanabe. The Samurai stand for service and protection of the people, have their Bushido code of compassion, stand for the values of honour, dignity, duty, destiny and fate indicating how they should live their lives, fight and die. The central section of the film is set in the Samurai village where we see how this works in best practice.

Into this world comes a burnt-out case, a veteran of the Indian wars, who is still tormented by the brutality of the massacres. Tom Cruise plays him with some subtlety, an alcoholic performing carnival stunts to sell Winchesters, who becomes a mercenary training the troops. Forced into early battle with the Samurai, he defends himself with courage, gains the admiration of the Samurai who take him prisoner. He begins to learn the ways of the East and discovers a spirituality among them. He begins to see them as the Japanese equivalent of the tribal Indians. The struggle between the exploitative new and the dignified old takes place within him.

This is a long film portrait of Japan, allowing time for reflection on the nature of cultural change and its pace, on whether the values of the West and its progress are what people really need.

Touching the Void

This is a skilfully put together docudrama. It tells a harrowing story of a climb in 1985 of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes that should have ended in death but, amazingly, did not. The two climbers involved, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, and Richard Hawking, a stranger they met and asked to take care of their base camp during what was supposed to be a one day climb to the peak and back, all tell their story in vivid reminiscence straight to camera. They are very frank about their tensions, the decisions made on the mountain, life and death choices, as well as how they reacted to the climbing fraternities' criticisms of Simon for cutting the rope on Joe when he saw no other alternative.

Director, Kevin MacDonald, has based his film on Simpson's 1988 account of his experiences, Touching the Void and has elicited strong statements from the three climbers and edited them dramatically. He has also employed actors to reenact the climb, filming in the Andes as well as the Alps. The hardships endured by both Joe and Simon are graphically recaptured as if we were watching the real thing - the unpredictable weather, the dangerous peaks and crevasses, snow and ice. When Simon cuts the rope on Joe, he thinks that Joe is dead and that he will die. He gets down to camp within four days. The latter part of the film is watching Joe, who has broken his leg, demonstrate a will to live and an instinct for survival that beggars belief. When people say the human spirit is indomitable, this is what they must mean. Simpson explains how he lost his Catholic faith and how it did not return during his ordeal. He thought there was nothing after death, and strove desperately to live.

Those who will never climb a mountain or experience anything like this may find the film hard to watch. For the initiated, they will be watching with a close attention to detail (and memories of their own climbs and dangers).

Runaway Jury

John Grisham usually writes a good yarn, a crime story as well as an attack on aberrations in the American legal system. Runaway Jury is no exception - and is an alarming picture of the lengths to which unscrupulous companies and individuals will go to to influence, manipulate and, if necessary, buy a jury.

The novel focused on the smoking-related cases but it has been changed here to the gun manufacturers. With The Insider in 1999 and, in fact, Grisham's own The Rainmaker, there has been strong film coverage of suits against the
tobacco industry. With the recent spate of shootings in schools, offices and restaurants, the film is immediately relevant, a critique of interpretations of the Second Amendment which allows citizens to bear arms. One wonders whether there have been cases against companies making guns for damages for those killed in such massacres.

The film keeps quite close to the book, John Cusack and Rachel Weisz playing the enigmatic juror and his associate being just as the novel presented them. In casting Gene Hackman as the expert brought in by companies to read juries and help them in their selection to win their case, the film-makers have moved from a clever but obnoxious Danny de Vito style fixer (akin to the role he played in The Rainmaker) and gone for elegant and supremely self-confident domination of all around him. Dustin Hoffman, playing the prosecutor, is lower-key but nonetheless persuasive as the ethical lawyer who is tempted by the manipulators. With such a good cast, as well as interesting performers like Cliff Curtis, Jennifer Beals and Luis Guzman as jurors, it is hard to go wrong.

Director Gary Fleder has a flair for crime thrillers having made Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Kiss the Girls and Don't Say a Word.

Briskly paced, intelligently written and well played, this is fine popular entertainment.

Girl With a Pearl Earring

If ever a film re-created its period in loving and lavish detail, it is Girl with a Pearl Earring. It is the story of the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, his work, his family, the patronage for his portraits and his painting of the masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

While the attention to the life of Vermeer in his particular time and place, Delft 1665, is based on historical fact, this story of his painting his household maid, Griet, is the invention of novelist, Tracy Chevalier. By the time the film is over, one believes that this is what really happened.

The film is a set designer's paradise. It is also beautifully lit. One reviewer remarked that each frame of the film could be taken separately and put in an art gallery the compositions are so elegant, the realism so real, it enhances reality - it is a moving picture version of Vermeer paintings. The same reviewer, however, was not charmed by the film itself and felt that it was like watching paint, no matter how skilfully and beautifully applied, dry.

While the film is a constant delight to the senses, it also has a great deal to communicate about art, artistic appreciation, the style of painting in the 17th century (with the help of the camera obscura). It is also a telling portrait of Dutch society at the time, a contrast between Calvinist rigour and Catholic colour and chaos, a hierarchical society where even middle-class snobs lorded it over their servants who were taught to know their place. It is especially revealing on how women in service were trapped by powerful men and treated as sex objects unless they had the strength and shrewdness to escape the continual pressure and snares.

Scarlett Johannsson really does look like the girl in the painting and gives and extraordinary performance which is frequently wordless, intensely introverted but communicating by presence, glances and body language. Colin Firth portrays Vermeer as a conscientious craftsman who was a serious, even stolid personality. Tom Wilkinson is his arrogant and lascivious patron. Among the supporting cast, Judy Parfitt stands out as the stern but realistic matriarch of the family as does Essie Davis as Vermeer's continuously pregnant wife, insecure, jealous and irascible.

A fascinating way of communicating the genius and work of a painter in his times as well as bringing the story behind a painting (even if it is fiction) to life.

The Return

The Return is the first film by the director, Andrej Zvjagintsev, and won the Golden Lion and several other awards at the Venice Film Festival, 2003, including the SIGNIS Catholic prize. Comments were made about how the film related to the tradition of Tarkovski. In fact, the film draws on classic cinema traditions from Russian cinema, a great deal of introspection, some mysticism, a focus on the Russian soul. The photography is both beautiful and bleak, a journey in the Russian countryside, side roads, lakes, finally, an island.

The film was also a powerful road movie, tense and symbolic where two boys, one who is devoted to his father, the other stubborn and resentful, travel with their father who has been absent from the family for twelve years. The tensions along the road make demands on the father who disciplines his children. The older boy tries to please. The younger boy is very angry. The film explores the demands of trust, the difficulties in communication, forgiveness and grief. There are overtones of biblical commentary (the photo of the father contained in the Bible, the relationship between fathers and sons, the sacrifice of Isaac). There are also symbolic echoes of the journey of the dead on the River Styx.

Water is used as a symbol throughout the film, opening with an underwater scene which in fact is the end of the film, the boys in the town jumping into the water, there is a lot of rain, voyages on water, storms. Another dimension is height where the young boy is afraid to jump - while his father, trying to rescue him from a tower falls to his death.

The film is a multi-layered look at relationships, set firmly in a Russian context and mood, but with enough universal values to interest world viewers.LONDON - 19 January 2004 - 1,904 words

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