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Legends of the East
By Ann Morrow

The Last Samurai
Directed by Edward Zwick

In the first of several aston-ishingly stirring battles in Edward Zwick’s cross-cultural epic, The Last Samurai, Capt. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) fights like a man possessed, plunging into the thick of combat again and again as though he were exorcising demons—or more likely, trying to get himself killed. A sharpshooter Army veteran, Algren hardly seems aware that he’s in Japan and not the American West, where his soul was scarred by his participation in the massacres of the Cheyenne. Encircled by the enemy—rebellious samurai swordsmen who are winning a decisive victory over his troops—Algren summons the last of his strength and kills a great warrior, earning himself the privilege of being taken alive. And thus begins his spiritual healing.

Written with a solid grasp of history (from a story by Gladiator’s John Logan), and directed by Zwick with genuine, if overblown, passion, The Last Samurai is a rapturous and intelligent melodrama about honor and redemption, or more specifically, about what is, and what isn’t, worth killing and dying for. And because the story is very much under the Zwick imprimatur (Glory, Legends of the Fall), there is a lot of killing and dying. Yet it’s mostly justified: The film is set in 1876, and feudal Japan is roiling under the pressures to modernize. The American barbarians are literally at the gate, militarily pressing for advantageous trade agreements. When we first see Algren, he is drunk, and barely disguising his disgust at having become a medicine-show pitchman for Winchester rifles. Algren is recruited by a Japanese emissary, Omura (the wonderfully oily Matsato Harada), to help train the new Japanese army in the use of modern weaponry. Algren’s conscripts are mostly bewildered peasants, who are expected, with the help of rifles and howitzers, to defeat the samurai, a noble caste of warriors who are fighting to uphold the “old ways,” an ancient code of ethics known as Bushido.

Algren is captured by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the charismatic and courageous samurai leader, who takes him to his remote mountain retreat to wait out the winter. Like Algren, Katsumoto is a student of warfare, and wants to know his enemy, all the better to defeat him. But as Algren heals from his wounds, both physical and psychic, the two men become comrades, and Algren finds in the discipline and honor of Bushido a way to reconcile his career as a warrior—there is never any waffling on his true calling—with a just cause. The samurai fight only with swords and bows and arrows, which makes their desire to overturn the Japanese army and liberate the ambivalent young emperor more of a noble quest than a military maneuver. The country’s rush to Westernization is embodied by the urbane and ruthless Omura, who rules by unofficial proxy. It is to the screenwriters’ credit that the villain has a cause, too: The country must be unified to resist annexation by a Western power.

By spring, Algren has been converted to the samurai cause, and in an unsubtle but rousing bringing together of East and West, he rides out to meet Omura’s forces under Katsumoto’s banner. Zwick’s unabashedly macho, sweepingly romantic treatment of an historical impasse is carried along on a rapturous tide of gorgeous production values. The cherry blossoms (those eternal representations of Japanese culture) alone appear worth spilling blood over. And the mythic costuming plays up the samurais’ dreamlike adherence to ancient ritual. Cruise immerses himself in this role with an abandon he hasn’t shown in many of his movies. After the opening sequence, in which he relies on his hammiest mannerisms to play drunk, something clicks: Famously disciplined in his personal life, Cruise takes to the Bushido regimen with a stern naturalism. And his movie-star wattage is matched frame for frame by the classically handsome and commanding Watanabe.

The climactic battle between the old ways and the new is a shamelessly thrilling demonstration not just of courage under fire, but also of the Bushido tenet “to know life in every breath.” (Easy to do when each breath is likely to be your last.) The outnumbered but marvelously skillful samurai meet their fate with visual poetry, falling from their horses, or falling with their horses, with ferocious grace. Though this balletic style is borrowed from Akira Kurosawa, cinematographer John Toll deserves no less credit for his flawlessly focused choreography. Death in battle is glorified for both East and West, but it is, clearly, no less violent or final for being so. In fact, the film’s rigorous physicality manages to carry it over Zwick’s grandiose tendencies (only slightly reined in from the weepy machismo of Legends of the Fall), while the mechanical and soulless slaughter of the army’s gleaming new Gatling guns strike a truly horrific chord.

She must be an angel: Alba in Honey.

Heaven Help Us

Directed by Bille Woodruff

Honey packs enough clichés into its slight 90-plus minutes for a film twice its length. This proves oddly effective, however: The film is so divorced from reality, and moves with such lightning speed, that nothing is ever dwelled on long enough to become annoying.

Honey Daniels (an impossibly cheerful Jessica Alba) is the nicest, kindest person in the history of the Bronx. Maybe even the entire world. When someone drops their bankroll on the street in front of her, she returns it. A part-time bartender, she buys drinks for customers. She’s a diligent store employee, too, wearing the required dorky uniform without complaint. She has a cute dog. Honey’s dream, however, is to dance professionally in music videos. A fabulous hiphop dancer, she’s not even obnoxious about it when she steals all attention from her no-talent club rivals. In what’s left of her spare time, she teaches dance to the kids at the after-school center run by her mother (Lonette McKee); she even finds a sliver of a moment to fall for the neighborhood barber, Chaz (Mekhi Phifer).

She’s discovered by slimy video director Michael Ellis (David Moscow), who, in a matter of weeks, puts her talents to work for the likes of Jadakiss and Tweet. (The music video scenes are among the best in the film—along with all the other dance numbers.) Simultaneously, Honey takes an interest in two troubled-but-cute kids, brothers Benny (Lil’ Romeo) and Raymond (Zachary Isaiah Williams).

From these two plot threads, the filmmakers wind a tangled skein of classic clichés: Busy with hiphop superstars all the time, Honey neglects both her friends and the kids; left to their own devices, the kids start hanging with thugs; and the roof literally falls in on her mom’s center. As soon as Honey puts a down payment on another building for a new center, the slimy director gives her an ultimatum: Sleep with me or your career is over. What’s a girl to do?

The virtuous thing, of course, because Honey is more than just nice or kind. She’s perfect. She never changes—like an angel, Honey has a divine effect on everyone. Her kids forsake thug life to put on a show to save the center, and Missy Elliott serves as a last minute deus ex machina to save her career. It’s really a wonder she isn’t taken up to heaven in the final scene.

—Shawn Stone

Friendly Ghost Movie

The Haunted Mansion
Directed by Rob Minkoff

OK, I’m not going to dwell on what’s become of Eddie Murphy’s career. So what if the guy who was once touted as the soul renaissance of the glory days of SNL is now doing kiddie movies? Have you checked out his fellow SNL alums? Drug addicts, suicides, Master of Disguise. . . . Besides, I submit that there’s a need for the post-Fred MacMurray-type family film, as time killers for crappy-weather weekends and all.

The Haunted Mansion is by no means a family classic. This is not one of those movies you watch thinking, “I’ve got to get this on our list of must-buys for the family archives.” Slick realtor Jim Evers (Murphy) can’t resist a deal, to the point that wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) is fed up. What’s the point of having the kids and a nice income if you can’t enjoy them? So she convinces Jim to forego business one weekend, that is, just after they take care of one last listing—the title entity, to be exact.

Turns out, of course, that the house is haunted, and that the ghost in charge has a jones for Mrs. Evers, and it’s up to Jim and the kids—who heretofore haven’t been too keen on his limited attempts at parenting—to save the family. It’s mild stuff, to be sure, but the effects are really neat, and Murphy, when he’s playing from character, can be really fun. Then again, the script requires him mostly to react to situations, which is a huge downfall. It sounds trite, but this is one of those movies that you won’t regret having seen but doesn’t rev you up in any way, shape or form. The kids will have a mildly exciting time, and depending on your schedule (and the weather), this could have its benefits.

—Laura Leon

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