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Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Last Samurai (2003) - starring Tom Cruise

The Last Samurai is set during tumultuous times in both the United States and Japan. The movie is set during the 1870's, a decade after the American Civil War, a time when the United States fought an intense internal war between the forces of the Union and the Confederates. Similarly, there were dramatic changes going on in Japanese society at that time. The 'samurai' (warrior class) that were a major elements in Japanese society were losing their position and influence, and a proper military was starting to form. This was the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1868 (wikipedia).
The story of the movie is about an old warrior, named Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who is a veteran of the Indian wars (where the United States Army fought the Native Indian tribes), and who is traumatized by his role in a massacre of Native Indians. He is wandering around pretty aimlessly, making a living by recounting his adventures in gun shows, something that earns him a living, but does nothing to enliven his life.

Movie poster - The Last Samurai (2003) - starring Tom Cruise

However, he is a perpetual drunk, and is finally fired from his job; now he has pretty much no options other than to accept an offer to train the Imperial Japanese army (part of the growing western influences in Japan post the Meiji Restoration). This offer is made to him by his former commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn). Algren pretty much blames Bagley for his transgressions during the war, and has no love lost for him. This offer from Bagley is made on behalf of a Japanese businessman who has stakes in the restoration, called Mr. Omura (Masato Harada).
Algren goes about this task, training peasants and farmers in how to handle rifles as part of this training. However, in their first conflict, they come into battle with a group of rebel samurai warriors, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe); the army is unequal to the battle and gets defeated by the samurai. One of Algren's colleagues is killed in this attack, and Algren himself fights valiantly, defeating and killing the brother-in-law of the samurai leader. In this fight, he uses a spear with a flag of a white tiger, and Katsumoto believes that to be an omen, and spares Algren's life and takes him prisoner.
Algren is now prisoner at a remote village, living in the house of Hirotaro, whom he had killed. In this village, Algren finally starts to become more at peace him himself, and also starts to really learn the art of wielding the samurai sword as well as learn the Japanese language. In a fight with ninja assassins who had attacked the village, Algren fights along with the samurai, and manages to give a good account of himself even though the samurai take several losses.
With spring, Algren is now back in Tokyo, but now refuses to support Omura in his battle with the samurai, and at the same time, Katsumoto is arrested even after offering advice to the emperor. Algren manages to help Katsumoto regain his freedom, even though in this effort, Katsumoto's son, Nobutada (Shin Koyamada) is killed. After regaining his freedom, Katsumoto learns that a better equipped army unit is going to attack a much smaller samurai force, and it is there that Algren recalls the Battle of Thermopylae, where a much smaller force used better technology and the advantage of terrain to defeat a much larger army.
This comes true as the samurai are able to lead the larger army into a trap, however, soon the samurai realize that the army will get backup units, and another such battle will mean defeat. They resolve to make an attack of their own. However, they face canon fire, something that proves murderous, and then a second unit of infantry. In a battle, Algren kills Bagley when Bagley attacks Katsumoto; but then the second line of Gatling guns hit the samurai as they advance. The Japanese army, then ceases fire in respect of the samurai. Katsumoto ends his life.
In the end, as the emperor prepares to sign a deal with American ambassadors that would make the US as the exclusive dealers for firearms, Algren presents Katsumoto's sword to the emperor; the emperor understands the message and refuses to sign the deal, and also reduces Omura's powers and influence when he objects. Algren returns for the peace he finally found to the small Japanese village.

Track listing:
"A Way of Life"– 8:03
"Spectres in the Fog"– 4:07
"Taken"– 3:36
"A Hard Teacher"– 5:44
"To Know My Enemy"– 4:48
"Idyll's End"– 6:40
"Safe Passage"– 4:56
"Ronin"– 1:53
"Red Warrior"– 3:56
"The Way of the Sword"– 7:59
"A Small Measure of Peace"– 7:59

Sunday, July 12, 2009

El Cid (1961) - The story of a hero

El Cid, the legendary hero of Spain was a real person named Don Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar ((c. 1040, Vivar, near Burgos – July 10, 1099, Valencia)). He lived around 1035 A.D. Although he spent much of his time fighting on the side of the Moors, he became identified as the best incarnation of the true Castilian Christian spirit. His name came from the Arabic "sayyid" meaning "lord" or "chief." He was a nobleman, who was educated in the royal court of Castile, and was one of the leading warriors of Alfonso VI against the Moors. He is considered the national hero of Spain.
As is expected, a movie made on such a hero is always made more romantic than reality, with acts of heroism and valor magnified, and when the movie has such actors such as Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, the movie seems much more romanticized than the original. The movie was released in 1961 and earned 3 Oscar nominations, but was unable to win any Oscars.

El Cid, the 1961 Oscar nominated film starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren

The movie was directed by Anthony Mann, and was shot primarily on location in Spain (including the historic castles of Belmonte (Cuenca) and Peñíscola (Castellón)), with a smaller number of scenes being shot in Rome. The movie used real swords during the shooting, so you would expect that the action scenes needed a much better control and thorough safety measures.
El Cid was part of an aristocratic family, but not very powerful or high in the Spanish royal court. However, he became famous as a man who was a warrior at the same time as he was a peacemaker, willing to spare enemies if they swore their allegiance to his king. This was a time when there were many royals, with many of these royals fighting for power, and fighting for the throne. And this was also a time when the Moors were fighting for gaining space in Spain, in their quest to introduce the power of Islam inside Spain.
He was to fight back charges of treason, and eventually loses favor at the royal court, becoming a mercenary when his king Alfonso abandons him. He even fights on the side of the Moors, but eventually comes back to support his king when he is called back. He also came to command much more influence among the common people, earning their respect, and forming his own army composed of both Christians and Moors, forming his own fiefdom comprising the city of Valencia and its neighboring regions.
The book had some great scenes, such as the fight between two single warriors to get control of the city, which was a great fight. Shooting on location imparted some incredible majesty and splendor to the movie.

12 Angry Men (1957) - One man's fight for justice

The title above may seem like it is describing a man fighting for justice for himself, but in fact, the story is about a man fighting to get proper justice for an accused. In the United States, decisions for criminal cases are supposed to be evaluated by a jury made up of fellow citizens, who listen to the evidence, and its presentation by the prosecutors and by the defense; in the end, the jury has to reach a verdict that the judge follows. The movie hinges on the fact that for serious crimes, the verdict of the 12 member jury has to be unanimous, and if even one juror objects and does not agree to a unanimous verdict, the jury is called a hung trail, with the case being declared as a mistrial. There is pressure on the minority jury members to reach a verdict, else the jury has to sit for as long as it takes to reach a verdict; it is only if the foreman reaches a decision that a unanimous verdict cannot be reached, does the jury get dismissed.

12 Angry Men (1957), English film starring Henry Fonda

The movie is about the murder trial of a teenager from poor and disturbed circumstances, who is accused of killing his father. The presentation of evidence is over, the lawyers have made their arguments, and the jury is now deliberating on the judgment. They have been instructed by the judge that they need to reach a verdict of whether the defendant is guilty of murder or not, and if they do reach a verdict of guilty, then the defendant will be sentenced to a mandatory sentence of death.
When a quick vote is taken, it is found that 11 of the jurors (all 12 are white men) are in favor of a death sentence, only Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda) does not vote guilty. In fact, Henry Fonda is not sure about the guilty or not, but believes that some of the evidence presented is circumstantial, and that the jurors must do a fair deliberation before judging the accused to be guilty (and sending him to his death). And thus, you have an excellent movie where you can see the mood of the jury (and individual jurors), as they go through the evidence, deliberate, and review their vote. Jurors change their votes depending on the evidence they hear during the discussion, with a few of them reversing their votes, and one of them voting guilty only because he is bigoted. Eventually, all of them change their vote to Not Guilty.
The movie was based almost entirely in one room, through the deliberations by the jury members, excepting for a couple of scenes in a washroom, and beginning and closing scenes on the steps of the courtroom. The movie did not so well commercially, but has now been recognized as a classic movie, with the role of Juror # 8 being one of the top 50 heroes.