Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Media Watch:
Ron Howard’s ‘The Missing,’ Edward Zwick’s ‘The Last Samurai’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 18, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Ron Howard follows up his recent masterpiece A Beautiful Mind with a new variation on the classic Western. The film is titled The Missing.

The good news is The Missing has some fine acting by the likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. It also introduces a new 10-year-old-actress, Jenna Boyd, who is so good she “knocks your sox off.” Salvatore Totino’s cinematography of rugged New Mexico is incredibly beautiful.

The bad news is that the movie, at two hours and 15 minutes, is way too long. Director Howard had trouble cutting his film back to a more watchable length. The story that combines typical Western themes with overtones of horror films is too convoluted and unbelievable. The horrific violence is non-stop.

Maggie Gilkeson (Blanchett) runs a ranch in New Mexico Territory in 1885. She is able to do basic medicine for the people living around her ranch. Early on her Dad, Samuel Jones, who has long lived with the Apaches, appears on the scene after having had no contact with Maggie since her childhood. She will not even fix him a meal as she is still so angry and unreconciled. He moves on but Maggie’s beloved hired hand Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart) is killed by a renegade group of Indians. Maggie’s older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) has been kidnaped to be sold into slavery in Mexico. Her younger daughter Dot (Boyd) is found alive amid the trees shaken by the events.

Maggie prepares to follow her abducted daughter and the Indians. Dot demands to go with her. Maggie’s Dad appears again and she asks him to help her trail Lily. Her attempts to appeal to the authorities have met with little help and lots of frustration.

The Missing, in the tradition of John Ford’s The Searchers>\ (1956), is the rather complicated search for the daughter Lily and the seven young women with whom she is being held captive.

We have dangerous canyon scenes where the rains force rampant flooding that threaten our band of three. Then the film goes back and forth to Lily and her band being led by an evil and ugly sorcerer named Chidin (Eric Schweig). At one point Chidin finds a lost hair brush of Maggie’s. He then casts a spell on her at some distance. It takes the prayers of Samuel’s old Indian friend Kayitah (Jay Tavare), Samuel himself praying in the Apache tradition, and Dot reading the genealogy of Mathew’s Gospel, beginning with Abraham, to save Maggie. Here the film with its elaborate voodoo-like spell feels over the top.

The rousing attempts to save Lily at times are reminiscent of the old Hollywood serials. You don’t believe there is a way out of the seemingly insurmountable situation. But somehow there is a way. We are asked to believe these “can you top this?” rescues time and time again have any sense of being in the real world.

The Missing gives us a real insight into how difficult it was to live on a dangerous frontier in the 1880s. The acting by Gate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones is as powerful as we would expect from these fine actors. Seeing Jenna Boyd play Dot is almost worth the price of admission. She is terrific.

The Motion Picture Association of America gives The Missing an R rating – Restricted (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Be warned: The Missing is extremely violent. The United States Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates The Missing L – limited adult audience whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.

*****

Edward Zwick, who years ago gave us the TV series Thirtysomething, has just directed the new Tom Cruise epic The Last Samurai.

The Last Samurai is beautifully photographed by John Toll in New Zealand and Japan.

Tom Cruise plays burnt-out Civil War hero Nathan Algren, who fought in various Indian Wars under General Custer. As the film opens in 1876 we find a disillusioned military hero at exhibitions singing the praises of Winchester rifles. An old friend from his military days invites him to a meeting where he and other veterans are hired to update the Japanese army in its battles with the samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

The going is tough in teaching peasant farmers modern military ways of warfare. The army of the Meiji emperor is not ready to go into battle. But Algren’s nemesis, Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), forces the army to go forth to meet Katsumoto.

The result is a battle in which Algren fights to the last ounce of his being. He is captured by the samurai forces after killing one of their most beloved warriors. Katsumoto saves his life. He admires Algren’s fighting spirit and wishes to improve his own English by speaking with him each day. Algren is brought to a remote village in a high mountain valley where he is nursed back to health by the wife of the warrior he killed. Taka (Koyuk), the wife, also happens to be the sister of Katsumoto.

Here begins a slow realization on Algren’s part of the beauty and order of an idyllic world. He begins to see the strengths in the samurai culture. In a real sense he begins to fall in love with it.

Algren learns samurai fighting methods and is impressed by their Buddhist traditions of meditation and prayer. He also is attracted to Taka in a series of rather longing glances. Algren reflects on her children; because of his actions, they no longer have a father.

Algren gains skill in fighting with samurai techniques. He eventually goes over to Katsumoto and the samurai. He will save and protect Katsumoto from overwhelming danger.

All this leads up to a several epic battles at the end of film. They are powerfully photographed, extremely violent and panoramic. We are told that no animals were hurt in filming The Last Samurai. But the animals that fall are so well-trained it is really hard to believe that statement.

There are three or four places where The Last Samurai could have ended very nicely. But all loose ends are tied up before we have the final ending.

Tom Cruise does a credible but rather two-dimensional job of acting. With his good looks and fine teeth it is rather hard to believe he is a bitter alcoholic at the end of his rope. He does a very fine job with all the heavy-duty physicality of his character.

The bright light on the acting side is the Japanese star Ken Watanabe as the heroic samurai leader. He infuses his character with nobility.

The Last Samurai is a beautifully filmed painting of a world long ago. It is flawed. And yet if you can buy into the story it has an epic grandeur of East meeting West. Admittedly more warts are shown on the West side. Its battle scenes are either glorious or sickening, depending on your point of view. If you find fairly unremitting violence disturbing, stay away.

The Last Samurai is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America, for very violent war scenes and ritualistic bloodletting. The Last Samurai is rated A-III – for adults – by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press. Past editions of his Inland Register reviews are available on the Spokane Diocese web site.)


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