The Last Samurai

Recommended. Okay , this is “Dances With Samurai,” not a Cruise Braveheart, but it is very good. Brilliantly written script, great acting and directing etc. Should win some Oscars for sure. It’s the story of an American Civil War Hero, Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, who has fallen into drinking and despair because of his involvement in military atrocities against American Indians (namely killing innocent women and children). He gets a lucrative offer by a Japanese industrialist to come over to Japan and train the Emperor’s troops to fight against the Samurai. Turns out the Emperor loves all things Western and wants to “modernize,” eliminate the ancient ways of tribalism and the Bushido Code. But when Cruise is forced into leading the Emperor’s troops into battle before they are ready, they are decimated by the Samurai, who are born and bred warriors. Cruise is taken captured by the General of the Samurai, Katsumoto, played elegantly by Ken Watanabe. In an effort to understand his enemy, Katsumoto keeps Algren alive and has conversations with him. As Algren gets well, he is drawn in to their disciplined living, and learns the way of the Samurai. In a strange and confusing twist, the Samurai “fight for the Emperor” even though the Emperor does not want them to. And so the final battle arrives where the government troops descend upon the Samurai with Howitzer cannons and gattling guns and a regiment of 2000 men against the 500 Samurai. By now, Cruise has sided with his captors and decides to join them, sealing a sure death.

One of the themes of this film is “discipline and determination.” These are two warriors, one fallen, one noble. They learn from each other (but mostly West learns from East). The Samurai are disciplined and worship honor. The American is determined, he does not give up even when he has lost and he does not kill himself in shame. (Although he lives in his shame and in a way “kills himself” with his drinking). I loved this theme. The Samurai, with all their “nobility” and code of honor and pursuit of perfection do not know the sheer will of American determinism. We don’t give up. The disappointing thing about this film is that it is predominantly the typical “East meets West and West has a lot to learn” movie. Is American filmmaking the only self-loathing enterprise? I am sick and tired of the postmodern accusation that western civilization corrupts everything. “Western civilization is what is wrong with the world.” Anti-Western bigotry is unfortunately a part of this film. The Emperor’s problems are depicted as arising from his desire to modernize and go “western.” In the very beginning of the film, Algren muses sarcastically about American Westward expansion, “Thanks to those who died in the name of technical advancement and commercial opportunity.” Even the bad Japanese guys are the ones who are westernized “capitalists,” seeking profit from their participation in backing the Emperor. Westernism is shown as without honor, honor that is being destroyed by eliminating the ancient way of Bushido. The Emperor is shown as an adolescent, waffling over his decision of whether to eliminate Samurai or not. He is becoming westernized, which is depicted as bad, but finally at the end, when he receives the honored sword of Katsumoto, who was killed wastefully in the last battle, he “becomes a man,” with a “mature” resolution and rejects the treaty with the West that everything was building toward. He finally makes a stand, and grows up by rejecting the West. He says, “We are westernized. But we cannot forget who we are or where we come from.” So its okay to criticize western European feudalism like the movie Timeline and others, but Japanese feudalism is somehow any different? And to top things off, Algren offers himself to the Emperor as his subject by offering to kill himself if the Emperor sees fit. This is an action of ultimate dedication and worship to the Emperor that reflects the mind of a Samurai. It shows that the hero too has rejected his evil western ways and become an Eastern disciple. Interesting that western filmmakers tell a story that reinforces a belief that would negate the very freedom and rights that they treasure.

This is where the imbalance of the movie comes in. I’ve learned a bit about the Bushido Code and the Eastern worldview, having done some research for my own movie. What I didn’t see in this movie was the negatives of the Eastern way of life. Sure, they worship beauty, peace, perfection and harmony, but they also are cruel and uncompassionate because of their Buddhist belief in karma. Seeking to better people’s lives is wrong and punishable with violence because they are supposed to work out their own past life “sins.” Under their calm demeanor lies a deceiving duplicity of brutality against individual’s rights and freedom. But we don’t see that. Where is the revelation of the evil oppression of the masses by the caste system of hierarchy? And their idol worship of the Emperor also feeds despotism that enslaves the masses in a have/have not system of power and oppression. (The movie shows that the Emperor is very human and imperfect, but it does not show the evil of this belief) And by the way, the Bushido Code is no better than the Western code of Chivalry. And boy, you know, women don’t fair well in this system either. Women as servants of men. It’s funny, that movies must show the oppression of women by men in a western patriarchal society, but when it comes to Eastern society, then all of a sudden, it’s “oh, let us respect their different culture.” Oh? So it’s terrible when the west subjects women to men, but it’s somehow “unique and appreciable” when the East enslaves women to men’s power? The notion of the individual in the East is entirely negated in favor of the collective (and in this case, The Emperor as god). This results in cruelty and feudalism and ultimately Fascism that Japan resulted in during the 1930s. When the individual is negated, freedom is non-existant and tyranny results. This is the philosophical problem of the one and the many. Yes, the western mindset is individualistic and negates the community in many ways, resulting in the tribalism and tyranny of modern special interest groups. This is the many over the one. But the One over the Many in the East results in tyranny and slavery. I’ve got news for self-loathing American Westerners and America haters the world over: It was the “cruel Western America” that saved the world from the “peace-loving, harmony-worshipping, oh-so-noble” Eastern Japanese who wanted to enslave the world in the 40s. It was the “evil western technology” founded on the Christian worldview that stopped the oppression of the ancient Bushido warrior code as it plundered Europe and freedom. Yes, the “quiet and gentle” Japanese just happened to think that white boys and blacks, as well as ALL non-Asian races were inferior. America is not perfect. It’s got PLENTY of problems with it. But so does every other nation and culture. Western modernism is loaded with evils. But so is ancient Eastern monism. To neglect that two-edged sword of reality is irresponsible and a double standard. None of the Kingdoms of Man, East or West, North or South, can find the peace and elimination of war. They all either favor the One or the Many and cannot find the true balance between them. Only the Trinitarian Creator of Christianity has the philosophical foundation to maintain that perfect balance. Without the living God, they all of man’s philosophy end in tyranny, the worship of the state as god. Only the kingdom of God can bring an end to all wars and usher in the peace and harmony we say that we desire.

Isaiah 2:2-4 Now it will come about that In the last days, The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

For more on this notion of the One and the Many as well as an examination of war movies, see my article, “War Movies: The New Trend in Themes”

Shattered Glass

Highly Recommended. This is the true story of Stephen Glass, who worked for the New Republic and was discovered to be fabricating most of his stories written for the magazine. It’s a powerful moral tale about the nature of deception and the importance of integrity. The kid was one of the best storytellers and he learned how to manipulate the system of fact checking and journalistic integrity to avoid being spotted for a long while. The story tells the discovery through the eyes of Chuck Lane, his editor, with the help of competitor Adam Penenberg at Forbes magazine. Like a cornered rat, as Stephen’s web of deceit is unraveled, so his deceitful and desperate manipulation of coworkers increases. He whines, whimpers, flatters, apologizes and makes more lies to cover for his first lies to make it appear he has been fooled by bad sources rather than being a lying liar himself. Interestingly his coworkers are drawn in on his side because of his flattering personality toward them. He is a master deceiver. There is a powerful juxtaposition at the end of Chuck proving the lies and receiving the applause of his coworkers and Glass creating a story in his head of receiving applause from his alma mater high school as he speaks to students. This story shows how easily we are deceived by such liars as Glass, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times and The Boston Globe’s Mike Barnicle and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, and who can forget the entire crew of CNN in Iraq who for years denied Hussein’s torture and murder in order to maintain a presence for the network in Iraq. This brings me to one of my personal hobby horses. You know, this movie really read like a metaphor for the monsters that are created by our postmodern culture that exalts subjectivity and story, and denigrates fact and rationality. It should be no surprise to us that we have an epidemic of lying, cheating and swindling amidst young people, because our institutions are creating these beasts of deception. They are being taught that there is no absolute truth (lying isn’t really wrong), there is no objective reality (only subjective prejudice) and there is no ultimate truth, everything is fiction, everything we believe is merely metanarrative stories that we make up to create reality. Story is all there is and none of it is ultimately or universally true. To these people, language is a prison house that we use to create reality, not discover or communicate it. So many schools of journalism are bastions of activist propaganda, teaching students that the purpose of journalism is “to change the world,” with their agenda because “truth” is a social construct anyway. “Making the news” is not merely a marketing tagline anymore. So of course, more and more people are going to start taking these ivory tower rants against modernity and actually apply them to life and become LYING STORYTELLERS who “construct” their truth for the good of the ignorant masses (that’s you and me, folks). When you teach children to lie, they will lie (duh). CS Lewis wrote, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” In the movie, Chuck tells a colleague who has been too dullheaded to recognize the seriousness of Glass’ fraud: “He fed us fiction after fiction. And we printed it as fact. Because it was entertaining. That’s indefensible. Don’t you know that?” A culture that foments relativity and storytelling as ultimate should not be shocked at the traitors and monsters it creates. This relates a bit to my blog on Second Hand Lions below. Okay, so the world has always been full of liars since day one, I know, but the point is that people do live out what they ultimately believe and some worldviews (postmodernism, relativism, atheism) LOGICALLY, philosophically lead to evil behavior because they negate objective absolute morality, you know, those nagging little Ten Commandments (or the seven deadly sins as the movie Se7en). The hypocrisy of those promoting traditional morality while living a lie is not the same as the consistency of those who promote relativism while living like scoundrels. The former is a contradiction in values and lifestyle, the latter is a fulfillment of promise (duh again). As Voltaire, the atheist even admitted, “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, and I think that then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.” That infamous libertine knew one thing, people act upon their beliefs, and he full well knew the ugly result of his own humanism. He didn’t want others to do to him what he so willingly would do to others.

The Passion of the Christ

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Opening in February 2004. Let me say right out that this is, for me, the most profound and true movie ever made about Jesus Christ. “true” because it captures what no other Christ movie has in regard to his suffering. And it is Christ’s suffering that is the essence of atonement for sins. It focuses on the “Passion” of suffering that Christ had to experience in his last 12 hours on earth. The reason why I believe this is so crucial to its greatness is because the depth of the suffering is a reflection of the power of the redemption. The verse that is shown at the beginning of the movie says it all and sets the context for understanding everything that follows. Isaiah 53:5 “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities, by his stripes we are healed.” This movie is about understanding just what that means. So it starts with the Garden of Gethsemane and ends with the Resurrection. Well, let me tell you. All I can say, is “it’s about time.” It’s about time someone captured the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death in a dramatic way that touches the soul beyond words. I think of all the other films about Jesus, and how they all include his doctrinal teaching along with a third act about his death and resurrection. Well, that is good and I’ve liked them all in one way or another, but for movies, I have to say that the preaching part can get a little preachy and drawn out. The teachings of Christ are just not as suited to visual dramatic storytelling. Not that there’s not a place for them. But what the Passion of Christ does is capture the essence of his teachings through a visceral experience. I wrote in my article about “Jesus in the Movies” that all Jesus movies tend to reflect the era they are made in, the prevailing zeitgeist. So, the first Jesus movies, made more in an era of belief, tended to emphasize his deity, and the later movies, made in an era of skepticism tended to emphasize his humanity or worse, make him out to be sinful. The Passion is brilliant in that it is a postmodern experience of Christ. It is gritty and realistic in its portrayal of what Christ suffered — I mean what he really suffered. Very human, very Existential. All other Jesus movies are revisionist candy coated schmaltz compared to this one. But that is good for this generation. This pomo GenY yada yada generation speaks with gritty, in your face attitude. REALITY, baby, that’s what we want. Well we get REALITY all right, we get it all, from the flesh ripping scourging to the actual nails pounded into the hands (most movies cut away at the pounding, but Gibson does not) Rather than focusing on the didactic teaching as a modernist movie would have done, The Passion has almost none of the teaching and goes straight for the gut. It captures the experience of Christ for people. This is not to say that rational teaching is not appropriate, but merely that Mr. Gibson is achieving a communication of the Gospel of redemption in a way that transcends other Jesus movies and meets the postmodern where he is at. I almost believe his original intent to not have subtitles would work, the images are that central to the story. Of course, I am thankful that he did have subtitles, because truth be told, I do believe that words fill out what image cannot. Image without word is incomplete. So the balance between word and image here is astounding and profound. EVERYONE MUST GO SEE THIS MOVIE.


Highly Recommended. This wonderful little sentimental heart-tugging true story stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as the real life James “Radio” Robert Kennedy. He’s a mentally handicapped young kid who is taken under the wing of a high school football coach played by Ed Harris in a small South Carolina town. It’s a story about what really matters in life (second most), loving your neighbor. Cuba is so good you forget you’re watching Cuba. The story is a bit weak and episodic, but it doesn’t hurt it that much because the characters are so compelling and the heart of this story rings so true. One complaint: They set up a problem with Ed Harris’ family, his daughter in particular, because he spends more time with Radio than his own daughter. She starts to get a bit perturbed at it. But then they don’t really pay it off. They never really resolve this issue. It just disappears. I can only imagine how deep and powerful this story could have been had the love of one’s neighbor been rooted in the grace of the foremost commandment, the love for God.

Beyond Borders

Not Recommended. This was a potentially great idea ruined by Romanticism. It follows the path of Sarah, played by Angelina Jolie as a married woman in the English high society who awakens to the true plight of the third world one day when an activist doctor, played by Clive Owen, crashes a high falutin dinner party that is raising money for such projects. He brings a real kid who is really suffering and chastises everyone for their fraudulent “help” because the plug is being pulled on his project and lives are going to be lost. SO Sarah is inspired and gets involved in relief work. She travels around the world to the Sudan, Cambodia and eventually, Chechnya to help the suffering in the midst of political and military upheaval. Of course, she meets Clive, the doctor and they fall in love, but do nothing because she is married. The Romanticism of this movie lies in making Angelina stay with her husband for the sake of her child, even though he is an adulterer. But as she gets more involved in her work, she keeps seeing Clive and eventually falls for him. They consummate (read: fornicate), but realize they can never be together because they are in different worlds and can neither of them leave their own world for the other. So they are doomed to seeing each other every few years in different lands. This sets up the Romantic notion that doing the right thing versus following your passion leads to tragedy. Angelina and Clive are created as characters of true love and passion and connection who cannot be together because she stays with her family. Her husband’s adultery becomes the pragmatic justification for her embracing her adultery. Hey, after all, they weren’t really in love anyway, right? And hey, he’s an adulterer too, so there! This movie reminds me of the despicable Bridges of Madison County, that justified Meryl Streep’s character in her adultery as the only true experience of love and passion in her life. And even though she stayed with her husband, even though she “did the right thing,” she treasured her adultery all her life as the one true experience of life and love from which she thrived. Rather than work out the issues and grow to love her lifelong partner LIKE AN ADULT, no, she had to follow illicit passions and treasure those experiences of lust as love. What a selfish child, if you ask me. At least in Beyond Borders, her husband was an adulterer. In Bridges, the husband wasn’t even half bad. Well, same story in Beyond Borders. They even have a tragic ending where Angelina gives her life to save her lover so he can be with the baby that resulted from their union. Very epic and melancholic sadness. Great acting, good emotional writing and storytelling. It’s all very epic feeling and grand, and a compelling story. Unfortunately, it is immoral Romanticism.