'Last Knights' a Well-Mounted But Spiritless Storm on a Castle

Directed by: Kazuaki Kiriya; Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: C-

47 Ronin isn't an inventive title by any stretch, but at least there's something conveyed through the wordage used, emphasizing the state of trained warriors in feudal Japan who have lost their master or experienced dishonor. It takes some effort to devise a title that's less creative or informative than that, but Casshernand Goemon director Kazuaki Kiriya manages to make it happen with Last Knights, his own under-the-radar adaptation of the historical legend built around the forty-seven warriors who sought to reclaim the honor of their lord. The hope, naturally, is that there's more imagination poured into the quasi-samurai epic itself than reflected by the title, and while that does end up being the case to a certain degree, it's not for the right reasons. Robust casting choices, a cleverly indistinguishable time period, and a degree of confidence in the lack of medieval action throughout the majority of the picture can't overcome the leaden, grim bones that comprise its skeletal rendition of an oft-told fable.

It's worth noting that Last Knights does end up being a slightly sharper and more rewarding take on Chushingura fiction than the Keanu Reeves vehicle from two years prior, 47 Ronin, which goes in a number of bizarre directions for the sake of Hollywood bluster. Instead, this version sticks more intimately to the story's core elements while making smarter alterations, focused on the loyalty of a regiment of skilled warriors -- led by a commoner-turned-leader, Commander Raiden (Clive Owen), with a checkered past -- sworn to protect the vassal realm overseen by Lord Bartok (Morgan Freeman), whose relationship with the greedy empire hits a wall after they demand a hefty bribe to reaffirm his clan's allegiance. Defiant, Bartok refuses to kowtow to their demands, which leads to a public display by the Emperor and his minister, the mustache-twirling imp Gezza Mott (Aksel Hennie), that diminishes the reputation of the lord and releases the warriors of their duty. Despite Raiden reverting to his prior careless and drunken pursuits afterwards, the others methodically plan to reclaim their lord's honor.

Many positive and negative observations can be made about Kazuaki Kiriya's previous films, but one constant among them tends to be a shrewd and intricate eye for production design, something that carries over to Last Knights. He takes the snowy, stony atmosphere of the Czech Republic and transforms the realm into one separated from both earthly time and region, crafting a new cultural structure that's a melting pot of Japanese, European, and English concepts. That carries over to the attire as well: the streamlined armor and hilt-less blades wielded by Raiden and his men nail an intriguing balance of form and function, while the ornate robes and lustrous palace dressings of the oppressive imperial reign are reminiscent of something Tarsem Singh or Julie Taymor might orchestrate in a restrained frame of mind. Crafting a grounded neutral setting like this that's still intriguing to look at isn't an easy endeavor, but the austere contrast between Clan Bartok and the Emperor's realm achieves that, if in a manner still reminiscent of other works.

Alas, those promising production elements merely go towards dressing up anemic, dated themes and shallow plotting in Last Knights, feeling more like the buildup of a videogame hero's progression to the big battle than a layered story of redemption, sacrifice, and tribute. Clive Owen works his rugged, enigmatic charm as Commander Raiden rather well, capturing both the atoned dignity of a sentinel and the down-and-out gristle of a defeatist hero, while Morgan Freeman gracefully telegraphs carefully-worded speeches of defiance against tyranny in his limited screen time. Despite the ways they accentuate the pride of the clan leader and the burgeoning darkness of the transformed antihero, they're still just working hard to bolster the blandly oppressive politics that are roughly as black and white as the lion's share of the film's visual aesthetic, where persistent dialogue about the stalwart preservation of honor manages to be both overdrawn and colorless.

By design, Last Knights revolves around the anticipation behind getting to how -- not if, but how -- Clan Bartok will reclaim their honor from the petulant minister, a manic and paranoid political villain who abuses both his power and his underlings. Despite the wait that Kazuaki Kiriya puts the audience though with Raidan's fall from grace, he admirably focuses on the stealth and subterfuge of a grand siege instead of dialing up the sword-clanking gravitas to compensate for the delay, telegraphing convincingly muted swordplay and archery only when it becomes necessary. That said, the energy of the action also never gets beyond moderate heights of spectacle, offering a subdued and predictable payoff for the bleak period following the warriors' dismissal. That's not just because of familiarity with the source, either: momentous duels go down between foreseeable opponents, traps and schemes go off without a hitch, and the ultimate price gets paid by those who almost seem destined for it. Everything's just dull in its credibility, a modest retread of medieval epic ground that clearly had the aptitude to accomplish more.

Undermarked Oversights: Vanilla Sky

Pay closer attention to the opening sequence in Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise's then-unidentified character speeds through Times Square -- both on foot and in a gorgeous Ferrari -- without a soul in sight. The dreamlike nature of the scene isn't easily overlooked, of course, but there's more underneath and beyond the surface than seen at first blush, revealed in whispered voices and quick flashes as he hysterically spins at the heart of New York City. It's a hell of a thing to start a narrative with false bearings on reality like this, later revealed to be the first musings that David Aames has divulged to his psychological evaluator, Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell), before the start of a murder case. So begins Cameron Crowe's reverent remake of Alejandro Amenabar's Abre Los Ojos, one whose attention to style and emotion justifies its existence while smartly expanding on the mentality of the man in question. What results is a provocative descent into unreturned desire, authentic love, and the power of the subconscious.

Not to give it excuses or anything, but Vanilla Sky didn't really have it easy in the year of its release. On top of being a Hollywood remake of the critically-acclaimed Spanish film, it also had to contend with the debut of Lynch's Mulholland Drive and the wider distribution of Nolan's Memento -- both of which generated buzz by accomplishing similar things in superior ways -- earlier that year. Therefore, the field was crowded in the psycho-puzzle subgenre, and the twisted story of David Aames' conflict of romantic pursuits and amnesiac murder mystery wasn't, in a literal sense, anything new. Crowe tweaks the narrative, though, by emphasizing the protagonist's legacy as the heir to a publishing empire, accentuating his recklessness with the business end of things and a general self-awareness of the tools at his disposal: charisma, wealth, and appearance. That makes it all the more intriguing to watch his casual tryst with clingy actress Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) evolve beyond his control, and to see it all deconstructed by a beautiful but comparatively commonplace dancer, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), who immediately steals his heart.

Having Tom Cruise in the central role adds a degree of meta-context to Vanilla Sky, whose pop-culture stature merges with David's grasp on vanity and mortality. Already displaying a versatile dramatic side in Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, Cruise admirably embraces the understated commentary on his persona through his character's carefree place of power and his thorny relationship with his father, with his easy charm and building anxiety driven by writer/director Crowe's good-natured style of human interaction. An immediate spark ignites between his character and Sofia within, unsurprisingly, a cluttered celebration of the greatness of David on his birthday, and it stays credible throughout the film due to how Penelope Cruz's down-to-earth wit and allure drags him out of the clouds, shaping into a poignant love story. The standout performance, however, emerges in Cameron Diaz with arguably the best turn of her career (second, perhaps, to Being John Malkovich), encapsulating obsession and one-way affection in a beautiful shell that's both sympathetic and unsettling, the cloud over David's happiness.

Infusing ethereal tracks by composer (and wife) Nancy Wilson and Icelandic band Sigur Ros with classic and contemporary melancholy pop songs, director Crowe again uses his musical awareness to heighten the visual and dramatic tempo in Vanilla Sky. Instead of directly enveloping scenes in the feel of a time period or the clear emotional state of a character, however, his musical selection here transports the audience through the complicated space of David Aames' mind, guiding the film in both similar and differing tonal directions to that of Amenabar's original intents. Crowe's attunement to sound mixes intriguingly with the growingly abstract nature of David's telling of the events, embracing an attitude that's somewhere between the earnest warmth of the director's previous pictures and the disappearing grip on reality within David's psychosis. Overt sentimentality does get in the way of establishing a consistent suspenseful mood, but that duality also becomes one of the film's distinguishing attributes as the tone shifts between those margins.

Along the way, Cameron Crowe never lets the viewer forget that this is a narrative being spun by an imprisoned man in a latex mask, divulged to an inquisitive psychiatrist as he builds a case for David's mental state surrounding a murder accusation. Paired with the evocative perspective of Braveheart and Almost Famous cinematographer John Toll, surreal cues emerge through the film's visual language that suggest there's more to everything than what we're shown, where little details scattered about -- photographs, drawings, even the mole on someone's body -- begin to play with the perspectives of both David and the audience's trust level in him. It's at this point where Vanilla Sky pulls the curtain back on what it's really about, descending into the pandemonium of nightmares and unreliable narration through warped science-fiction that recalibrates just about everything that's transpired thus far. Crowe doesn't get carried away with it all, either, keeping a firm grip on what's safe to be deduced and not as the film shapeshifts into a psychological thriller.

Vanilla Sky tumbles down that rabbit hole in a wild, slyly unsettling climax to the tragic mysteries of David's life, both revealing the truth of what's going on and inviting different interpretations to what it all means through layered clues, more flashes of images and whispers in the distance. It's unsurprising that heavy emotion speaks louder than thematic lucidity in Crowe's ending, the most divergent part of the film from the original; however, the bittersweet nature in how it feeds into the choice between moving on with one's life or perpetuating an illusion says enough. Despite tiptoeing around some rather dark elements, it leaves the audience with a degree of cathartic optimism hanging in the air alongside swelling atmospheric music and painterly surroundings, yet there's also the lingering sensation that everything hasn't been, and won't be, fully answered. Whether repeat viewings will bring that more into focus depends on the viewer, but thankfully experiencing the sweet and sour of David's life is compelling enough to continue doing so anyway.

'Lazarus Effect' Shows Life At First, Soon Loses It In Daft Horror

Directed by: David Gelb; Runtime: 83 minutes
Grade: C

As scientific research furthers our understanding of the secrets behind the way things work, so too does it provide fodder for science-fiction to explore current impossibilities in more credible -- or, at least, more informed -- ways. That even trickles down to schlocky indie flicks like The Lazarus Effect, an update on the theme of botched human resurrection popularized by the likes of Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft. In the case of this biological horror-thriller from David Gelb, the director of the wonderful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi of all things, updated scientific gibberish leads into fairly interesting moral grounds as a group of med students "play God" by experimenting with reanimation of mammal bodies, creating an eerily morbid setting as the possibility of applying that research to humans creeps up. Alas, despite a promising start, the film ultimately uses the setting for feeble jolts and the outlandish exacerbation of scientific hokum, devolving into something that's as unscary as it is inane.

In the depths of a medical university, a group of students have been working on a series of funded experiments, appropriately titled Lazarus Project, that have taken them close to solving life's greatest dilemma: bringing something back from the dead. Led by engaged doctors Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) who have set their lives aside until completion, the demanding project has progressed to a degree that they feel comfortable inviting a photojournalist, Eva (Sarah Bolger), to the lab in order to document their next steps. Eventually, they reach success in their experiments, but it comes at a price: the reanimated subjects come back with a hostile temperament. Before they're given a chance to pursue these new developments, the dean of students at their school demands them to shut down the research, forcing them into a rushed situation where they need to duplicate their findings. In the scramble, an accident claims the life of one of the researchers, Zoe, putting the others in the desperate position of testing their work on a human subject to reverse the damage ... and see what state she's in afterwards.

While some might be quick to pick apart the science involved in this resurrection process laid out by writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater, the grounded mad-scientist concept in The Lazarus Effect generates a pulse of interest early on. Crafty scientific technobabble finds a way of transforming something similar to Herbert West's glowing green serum into a method that's ... uh, mildly conceivable, while the researchers discuss the breakthrough on philosophical terms befitting more sci-fi tendencies. There's nothing really new in their chats about science vs. religion and the morality behind bringing organisms back from the dead, save an interesting theory about DMT and its association with moving to the afterlife, but it establishes capable B-movie surroundings for an eerie climate. In fact, it would've been preferable to just see these sensibilities extend from start to finish, focused on lower-key, morbid scenarios and conflicts that would've sparked overzealous hubris in some and conservative resistance in others.

Unfortunately, David Gelb and his writers seem to think that The Lazarus Effect required a blatant catalyst to keep things moving along. A contrived mixture of school intervention and corporate maneuverings promptly weakens the film's foundation, relying on a capable cast to elevate the sloppy move through frantic developments. Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde both commit to the scenario and display fine chemistry as the almost-married doctors with conflicting moral barometers -- especially Wilde's handling of the tormenting skeleton in her character's closet -- while Evan Peters and Donald Glover temper their idiosyncratic personalities into credible brainiacs with endearing personalities. Working against the holes that mount up around their availability to continue practicing their research, they all do a reasonable job of acting like intelligent individuals who are coerced into abandoning their intelligence for the sake of a morbid emotional cause. There's only so much that can be done with a comparatively mild situation that must produce a dead body, though, to which all involved are obligated to relinquish their ethical concerns.

Up to this point, most of everything about The Lazarus Effect could've been tolerated had they justified those problem areas with an intriguing climax to their research, but that potential quickly dies once the extent of Gelb and Co.'s real objectives are revealed. Rote jump-scares, nonsensical dream sequences, and profoundly screwy logic transform the film into a zany twist on Luc Besson's Lucy with the "subject" changing into a puzzlingly spiteful antagonist with both psychic and telekinetic powers, armed with just enough unlocked capability to be menacing but not enough to breach the PG-13 limitations on this horror film. As a result, the fury unleashed by Zoe and what she "brings back" from the grave reduces the clever setting from a cautionary tale about science gone wrong to yet another disposable victim countdown in an isolated environment, one where the scares it attempts to deliver never get more effective than a scene earlier on featuring a pig mask and someone yelling "Boo!". Things were far more intriguing when The Lazarus Effect manipulated scientific principles and dabbled in the messiah complex.