Movie fans protest: Stephanie Zacharek is wrong about "The Last Samurai"! Beatles fans protest: Thomas Bartlett is wrong about "Let It Be ... Naked"!

By Salon Staff
Published December 10, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

[Read Stephanie Zacharek's review of "The Last Samurai."]

I'm not a Tom Cruise fan. In fact, every time I see him in one film or another, I tend to cringe and pass on it as long as possible. While I'm still not a big fan of Tom Cruise, "The Last Samurai" made me forget my distaste for him for an entire two hours and 23 minutes -- not a small feat.

Ms. Zacharek called the film "belabored and lumbering" and pointed out what she thought were inconsistencies in the plot and character development. But anyone with the ability to pay attention like an adult would see the subtle ways in which character was beautifully developed in this film and how the way Cruise's character transforms throughout the course of the plot is completely based on that development. She also seems to know painfully little about Japanese culture, as her less-than-astute observation of "a man stirring a pot, or something" was actually a reference to the ancient Japanese art of making tea. Even if she didn't get this reference, it seems obvious she went into this film expecting to dislike it and looking for evidence to support that theory.

The point of the film is learning about honor and comparing the colonization of the West to the westernization of Japan. Any person with an ounce of knowledge of American history will see the references to Wounded Knee and the comparisons to the treatment of Native Americans to the treatment of the samurai. Is it so hard to believe that a beleaguered soldier who participated in a horrific massacre, despite his personal objections to his orders, might find peace in the traditional ways of Japan? Sure it's Hollywood, but overall the characters were rich and alive, and the development thoughtful and well-wrought. The few problems I had with this film were well overcome by its beauty and skilled execution in all areas. It was certainly trying for an Oscar, but it deserves one, if not more.

-- Erin Johansen

I read Stephanie Zacharek's review about this movie that basically tore into Tom Cruise and in general left the reader with the impression that this is a shallow, overproduced film. Although it is assuredly "well-produced," as one would expect from a film with the current No. 1 male lead actor (whose films I usually avoid), I found it a truly uplifting "death and glory" film of the old breed, and the story was not bad at all when all is said and done, even if not super-original either.

Essentially, a battle-wise, soul-weary U.S. Army captain goes over to Japan in 1876 to help Emperor Meiji create a modern army whose first mission is to stamp out a rebellion by a group of recently outlawed samurai. After a brave fight scene in which our hero, armed with naught but a flagstaff, faces off six or more ferocious samurai, our captain is captured and ends up spending the winter as the guest of the woman and children of one of the samurai he killed in the battle. During this sojourn in a charming Japanese village hideaway in the mountains, he comes not only to appreciate the culture of his "savage" captors, but also to train and master the way of the sword, picking up how to fight with "no mind" and other such tricks, and becoming friends with the impressive samurai lord who is leading the rebellion.

Our hero captain ends up joining the rebels and fighting a Custer's Last Stand-type battle against a two-regiment-strong modern foe armed with howitzers and 200-rounds-per-minute machine guns. The 500 or so samurai put up a magnificent and almost victorious fight, only to be gunned down at the end. Because of their soul-stirring courage, however, the emperor later decides not to forget the samurai heritage and refuses a badly crafted treaty with the Americans. Of course this whole story is completely unrealistic, but if you allow it to, despite being clearly a Hollywood epic, it will engage you emotionally. Since when is an epic-type tale supposed to be realistic, and is that what we want at the movies anyway?

This brief synopsis leaves out other emotional subplots involving the captain and his hosts -- the children and ex-wife of the man he killed in the first fight -- as well as his journey from despised barbarian to honored clansman-samurai. There are many scenes in the village that, apart from being exquisitely beautiful, are touching if one is willing to go to the movies to be so moved, if not necessarily persuaded. No matter what your feelings about it, this is most definitely not your average run-of-the-mill action film and Ms. Zacharek's review was unfair to the spirit of the film even if some of her criticisms were accurate in highlighting certain surface inconsistencies.

Yes, it is only a film, and yes, the story is highly unbelievable if you analyze it overmuch, but when I left, even though I am a partly Jewish, middle-aged white boy, I was truly proud to be part of a Japanese samurai warrior clan. When I then went out with friends to a local Japanese restaurant and ordered sake and we playfully imitated the warriors in the film, the owner came over and, in recognition of the warrior spirit emanating from our table, offered us a glass of his very best sake from Japan, which is hard to get over here even for Japanese. That spirit came from the film, not from our play-acting.

In short: The film is good. Go see it no matter what others who don't like it might say. And see if you can get some of that good sake afterward.

-- Ashley Howes

I am a lifelong movie lover/film buff. Whether it's at my local art house or the cineplex, if a movie is made with sincerity and, dare I say, a bit of love, then I happily go along for the ride and let the filmmakers work their magic. Sure, there's a lot of dreck being produced, but when Hollywood gets it right is it too much to ask that you drop the highbrow, film-snob ennui crap and just enjoy a good movie?

"The Last Samurai" is a remarkably well done formula film filled with grand landscape shots, wartime heroics and of course a love interest. But the handling of these components, the lovely cinematography, the earnest performances and the attention to detail are what set this movie apart from Hollywood's heavy-handed epic flops ("Pearl Harbor," anyone?). And where Ms. Zacharek's attention span waned ("snow, robes, boring") I happily took in the pleasant, quiet scenes of the isolated village and the softly lit interiors of the sets. Stephanie Zacharek's review smacks of elitism and undergraduate film class snobbery -- disappointing stuff considering Salon's commitment to quality journalism and writing.

-- Janice B.

[Read "'Let It Be ... Naked': Nudity Isn't Always Pretty," by Thomas Bartlett.]

Thomas Bartlett's review of the "new" Beatles album is one man's opinion, and since it is not my opinion, it's naturally wrong.

The stark beauty of this stripped-down collection is breathtaking. Most especially "Across the Universe," which finally achieves the Lennon-esque quality that eluded it with all the Spectorizing it suffered on first release.

Phil Spector was playing George Martin when he did this project, and he failed miserably. His lack of finesse and elegance shows blatantly on the tracks he produced. It was a good idea that failed. Now at least we have a record of the Beatles playing at the top of their game, together live and having fun.

I am celebrating this release. It's been far too long since I went out and bought a new Beatles album.

-- Jim Caroompas

Thomas Bartlett gets it completely wrong in his review of "Let It Be ... Naked." The great thing about the Beatles was how incredibly well they played together as a band. When you analyze "Let It Be" or an early Beatles recording (anything up through "Rubber Soul"), they are doing individually pretty much what any other rock band has always done. The magic comes from two things: the songwriting and the way they play together. When the Beatles group mind applies itself to a song, the playing transcends that of virtually every other rock band. It's spooky.

And "Let It Be ... Naked" highlights how fantastic they are in this regard. "Dig a Pony" is just unreal. "Across the Universe" blew my mind, and I was a big fan of the original. I've always hated "The Long and Winding Road," but here it sounds like a good song. I like everything about the record. The mix is not overly bright; it's been done in the modern mixing idiom and sounds a lot fuller than most modern recordings. Perhaps Bartlett needs to get a new playback system. And by the way, if it's John Lennon asides he wants, the album includes a second CD called "Fly on the Wall," which is filled with plenty of this stuff. Lennon's off-the-cuff remarks are not what made the original "Let It Be" a great record. It's the music. And that music shines much brighter in this new version.

As I listened to this record, I kept thinking that most modern bands would gladly give their genitals to be able to make a record like this.

-- Mark Schleunes

Salon Staff

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