Category Archives: Political

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Sicario (2015) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77
Genre: Crime
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro

Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.

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Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) 3.73/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.1
Genre: Drama, Satire
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.

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Under Fire (1983)

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.1
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris

Slightly above average war-drama from Roger Spottiswoode and starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy as war correspondents who rush from one third world country to another in order to get the scoop on the latest skirmish between despot and the poor. Landing in Nicaragua in time to document the final days of the Somozoa regime, the three find themselves caught up in a love triangle, bombings, and the political machinations of spies and government officials alike. Not quite as subjective and daring a film as Missing or as cavalier a film as Salvador, Under Fire falls in between as a safer and more mainstream examination of the South American political climate of the 70’s/80’s. That said, it’s an interesting story with solid performances and some decent action thrown in to boot.

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All the King’s Men (1949) 3.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.5
Genre: Drama
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Robert Rossen
Stars: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru

John Ireland takes a rare centre billing as the passionate young reporter who is determined to make it without the help of his step-father’s wealth. When he learns of a local hick come political candidate standing up to the power brokers of a small town, the journalist and that politician’s paths become one, not to mention, a cautionary tale of the temptations of power. A more gritty and serious take on the subject matter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King’s Men is a pull no punches look at the yearning for power and the Shakespearian demise inherent in its pursuit. Broderick Crawford is the headstrong politician Willie Stark with the baseball bat ambition and total absence of scruples and he dominates the film. Ireland is unsurprisingly weak in the lead and is probably the primary reason why this movie’s popularity failed to display the longevity of other classics. But outside of the acting and Robert Rossen’s (adapted from Penn Miller’s novel) cynical screenplay which simply exudes unapologetic exploitation, it’s Rossen’s cultured touch behind the camera that marks this movie above most. Allowing context to breathe and grow, his film is defined by the power of setting-influenced perspective. This is best seen in the contrast between Ireland’s childhood home, Burden’s Landing, an island of wealth and security aloof from the sharp consequential world of politics which its most wealthy inhabitants still manage to determine. Rossen strikes a fine tuned balance between the otherworldly qualities of Burden’s Landing and the cut throat political scene. The former hazy with childlike mythos and naive optimism, the latter strewn with the grit and deceit of the great noirs. With an island named “Burden’s Landing”, it will come as no surprise that metaphor plays a sometimes heavy handed role in exacting the movie’s themes but it seems to curiously resonate with the naivety of the place rendering their harshness more forgivable. On the dramatic front, Rossen’s film is flush with political intrigue and offers a an up close and personal examination of the mechanism of US politics that probably hasn’t changed much since the era of its making.

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Syriana

Syriana (2005) 3.97/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer

For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.

An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.

And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.

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MASH (1970) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.4
Genre: Satire, War
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt

Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”

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schindlers-list

Schindler’s List (1993) 4.81/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.7
Genre: War, History
Duration: 195 mins
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Steven Spielberg’s most personal film about the attempt of a German industrialist to save 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling, bribing, and manipulating the greedy, preening officers of the SS camp in which they worked. There are few subjects so in need of honourable treatment than the Holocaust of WWII and that might explain why there are precious few cinematic accounts out there. That the most moving came from the master of the big screen adventure is both unlikely and likely. Yes, he is better known for movies aimed at younger audiences that leave little if anything to the imagination (because he succeeds so completely in getting it all up there on screen) but by the early 90’s, Steven Spielberg had already shown us he was capable of crafting touching broad-scale dramas with the likes of The Colour Purple. He had also demonstrated a cultured understanding of moviemaking with masterpieces like Jaws. That said, his experience with the ‘in-your-face’ cinematic techniques of the Hollywood emotional payoff is as much responsible for the effectiveness of this film as his more deft qualities. For the holocaust is a piece of history that requires in-your-face type confrontation. The cruelty and horror of what happened to the Jews needs to be shoved down our throats every now and then so we truly don’t forget. Yes, the artistry of the more subtle scenes elevates this film to the echelons of cinematic greatness and that is edifying for its status as a film, and yes, the more mature examination of the complexities of cruelty, guilt, and mass hatred can culture our understanding of humanity. But it’s the refusal to shy away from the raw horror of what happened that gives this film it’s universal resonance and that is imperative.

The result is a gruelling watch that will turn your face to stone yet in some small way do justice the suffering. Technically, there’s barely a false note played from the set and costume design to the sound production. But standing out is without doubt Janusz Kaminisk’s stunningly lit monochromatic photography. Spielberg’s use of his work here is nothing short of sublime from the moment he introduces his main character to the his final scene. In retrospect it seems now that nobody could inhabit this carefully constructed space better than Liam Neeson. He brings all the gravitas of an A-lister to the film but with the daring of an actor who has had to work for a living. It’s a tightrope of a turn that requires capturing all the ego, manipulation, caring, and bravery of the man. As his right hand man, Itzhak Stern, Ben Kingsley is beyond praise. Ralph Fiennes is to be commended too for giving what could’ve (and may well have been in reality) a mono-dimensionally evil character enough layers to, not excuse his actions (and those of many others like him), but to explain them.

However, whether the conversation be the acting, the editing, or John Williams deeply moving score, one always comes back to the director. It may have been a personal project but that in no way comprises his clarity. Despite the broad scale of both the story and the emotions it evokes, Schindler’s List is as focused a work as anything that has graced the medium and made with a level of skill that at times is breathtaking. The varied manner and innumerable methods that Spielberg uses to lay bare the cruelty and indignity with which the Jews were treated is as chilling as it is ingenious and it’s through these contrasts or critical junctures between the surreal and real that this indictment and essential analysis of one race’s inhumanity to another is enacted. And while one race in particular will be forever under scrutiny for these actions, the film’s greatest achievement is that it rises above the primal tendency to point fingers. That Spielberg chooses a German to be the hero in this tale is of course his essential message – the Jewish Holocaust was and is a human problem not a German one.

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RoboCop (2014) 3.64/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 117 mins
Director: José Padilha
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson

An audacious and laudable remake that takes the opportunity to look at a central concept of the original film from a fresh perspective. In other words, it does exactly what a remake should! Whereas most modern remakes simply use the name recognition of the original as a basis for spewing out a series of CGI action sequences and nothing more, this one takes the most fascinating ideas underlying the original RoboCop and teases them out one by one. And that it does so on a level that would put many academics on the subject to shame is even more impressive. The scenario is only roughly similar to the 1987 movie. An America of the future where OmniCorp (who are restricted to non-domestic military applications like the ED209) are eager to overcome a congressional bill by getting the American public to accept robot law enforcers on their streets. Their villainous CEO (a brilliant Michael Keaton with a performance so utterly untouched by cliche that we spend most of the movie liking him) comes up with the idea of putting a man in a machine. Unfortunately, an immediate conflict between the robotic components and his free will raises financial, political, and philosophical implications that place pressure on the scientists to separate the two when in reality they may share a much more dynamic and inseparable relationship.

In a further gutsy move, the man to play the hero was picked from relative obscurity. Far from an obvious choice, The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman nonetheless cuts a decent Murphy. He doesn’t have the booming presence of Peter Weller but his character is conflicted from the moment he’s awoken and thus less assured as the cyborg law enforcer. In truth, with everything that’s going on, he isn’t as central as Weller’s RoboCop was in the first place and while he, like the plot, could’ve had a little more room to breathe, the “secondary” characters, representing as they do the film’s wider questions, are just as important.

Keaton may not be playing a machine himself but he’s no less electric. There’s a genuine substance to his character’s actions like tiptoeing into his underling’s office out of concern for bring rude. Gary Oldman as the scientific mind behind the robot interface is just as complex and terrifically realised on screen. Of course, much of the credit must go to Joshua Zetumer and Edward Neumeier’s (yes, the same man responsible for the glorious satire of the original film) well nourished script (though much was added by uncredited James Vanderbilt). A less satirical screenplay but even more cynical, in this RoboCop humans are human, whether they be bad or good. Caricatures are few and far between in this remake – and there’s a sentence for you!

But what tips this movie into the net is the movie’s intellectual ambitions. Fascinatingly and indeed admirably informed debates regarding the nature and constituency of human consciousness and self-determination lie at the centre of the story and even the plot so that the film coheres like almost no other modern blockbuster. That it’s cohering around the most complex of subject matters is fairly impressive when practically every other tentpole movie can’t even balance the most trite themes of the human condition. Contrary to movies like Inception which have absolutely no bearing on the reality of human psychology, RoboCop 2014 is framed around cutting edge considerations in the science from the neuropsychological basis of free will to its fundamental interdependence with unconscious action. Similarly sophisticated is its glancing swipe at the role of the right wing media in the politics of fear through reduction, simplistic disingenuousness, childish anger, and naked hypocrisy.

Where the movie undoubtedly runs flat, however, is in its action sequences. Here, Jose Padilha’s direction (which by some accounts was beset with studio interference) needed a little more elegance and much more punch. The set pieces smack of tokenism and an overuse of the Call of Duty PoV attenuates their cinematic quality. That the original scored as high in this department as it did on its satire places it firmly above this remake. But then again, action is not what this remake is about. The ultimate twist here is that RoboCop 2014 isn’t an action sci-fi at all but a cerebral sci-fi with just a little action sprinkled on top.

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The Informer (1935) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 82.3
Genre: Drama
Duration: 91 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster

John Ford’s early feature was made only 14 years after the Irish won their War of Independence against the British so there’s a real sense of authenticity to the characters and events depicted here. Victor McLaghlen headlines as Gypo Nolan, a big lug too fond of the drink, whose recent expulsion from the republican army and desperation for money leads him to inform the whereabouts of his wanted friend to the ruthless Black and Tans and claim the reward on his head. However, when the Tan’s kill his friend, his ensuing guilt combined with his continued drinking throughout the night reveal more and more clues to those around him that he might have been the informer.

The Informer is a dark film shot beautifully by Ford whose eye for staging and lighting imbued it with a heavy tension. The emotional trials faced by the main characters are real and engaging and for the most part the acting is top drawer. McLaglen is unfortunately extremely wooden and the decision to give a non Irish man the central role in a cast full of actual Irish actors was regrettable as his stereotyped accent and mannerisms are exposed all the more. If you can ignore that however, there are plenty of big names from the Irish stage to give the rest of the characters the right tone and thus retain that intimate sense of authenticity.

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Gattaca (1997) 4.57/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.1
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law

Andrew Niccol’s feature debut is a lesson in how science fiction film’s should be made. Ethan Hawke excels as the natural born genetically imperfect Vincent who must contend with a world tailored for the genetically modified where his ambitions of becoming an astronaut in the elite Gattaca programme are hampered by a culture of discrimination which proclaims him too mentally and physically weak to do so. The film becomes a profound meditation on the timeless mind/body debate as Vincent assumes the identity of the genetically ‘superior’ Jerome (brilliantly played by Jude Law) only to successfully infiltrate Gattaca and become its best and brightest astronaut. Like all great sci-fi, this film succeeds on both the technical and conceptual levels. Niccol’s vision and Slawomir Izdiak’s sumptuous cinematography give the drama a distinctly modern nourish feel using shadow and light as majestically as the great film makers of the 40′s did. They also use a perfect mixture of predominantly blue, yellow, or green lit scenes to set the various tones of the film. All this is accompanied by Michael Nyman’s haunting score which will stay with you forever.

The true power of this film, however, is in the writing. There is an array of deeply layered characters, the motivations of whom reflect their different personal perspectives on the moral issue of genetic engineering. From Alan Alda’s older police man who is all too willing to believe that an “invalid” could infiltrate Gattaca’s elite to the motivations of the genetically engineered detective he answers to, who is twenty years his younger and also Vincent’s brother Anton. He is not so keen to believe even though he knows in his heart that there is an infiltrator and that it’s his brother. Though they live in a world foreign to us technologically speaking, each character comes across as completely real. This is down to the writing, the superb ensemble acting, and the cultural parallels that this story draws with our own world. Though Vincent’s relationships with Jerome and Uma Thurman’s character are themselves fascinating, the film is about Vincent’s determination to overcome or simply disprove biological predetermination. This is encapsulated beautifully in the scene where he races his brother across a moonlit bay as he turns to his floundering brother and explains how he has done what he did: “I never saved anything for the swim back”. Near perfection.

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Citizen X (1995) 3.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 105 mins
Director: Chris Gerolmo
Stars: Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow

Stephen Rea excels in this true life dramatisation as a Russian forensic investigator, Viktor Burakov, who in the 1980′s found himself charged with tracking down the country’s most prolific ever serial killer. This is a captivating tale about moral and personal fortitude as much as is it about a deeply disturbing serial killer. Burakov was almost entirely hampered by bureaucratic squabbling, political influence, and desperate lack of resources which for years prevented him from getting close to his man.

Rea brilliantly captures the quiet steel-like determination of his character, his emotional exhaustion, and utter exasperation at the endless obstacles he recurrently faced. He carries the film with an almost indescribable ease which feeds into the strength of Burakov’s character perfectly and in the moment when Burakov finally breaks down, the payoff is immense. Donald Sutherland is on hand as his unlikely ally, Colonel Fetisov, and provides a great foil to Rea’s more intense role.

Director Chris Gerolmo is to be commended for giving this one the appropriate time to breathe and not rushing any part of it. Not shying away from the horror of the events, the grizzly killings are shot in an almost unbearable fashion. But Gerolmo doesn’t attempt to gloss them up either. In fact, the film’s style is very much in keeping with the feel of Soviet Russia at that time thanks to the aforementioned pacing and some subtly excellent production design. Made as it was for TV, Citizen X never really got the credit or praise it deserved but it doesn’t just compete with the majority of bigger budget theatrical features toiling in the same genre, it overshadows them. In fact, Citizen X is easily one of the best serial killer films and it probably only stands second to the seminal Manhunter.

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Samurai Rebellion (1967) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.8
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa, Gô Katô

Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion is a lesser known feature from the jidaigeki genre but one of its most impressive examples. Set in the 1700’s, it tells the story of a dutiful vassal Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune) who has spent his life obeying both his objectionable wife as well as his clan’s elders for the sake of peace and quiet. As the most accomplished swordsman in his lord’s fief, he gets his small pleasures in life from discussing martial arts with his friend and closely matched rival played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Things change when his son is ordered to marry one of his lord’s former ladies, Ichi. Although, reluctant at first, things go well as his son and new daughter-in-law develop a proper bond and give him his first grandchild. However, when the lord demands the return of his daughter-in-law, he decides he and his family have taken enough and refuses to send her back. Things inevitably come to a head and a mighty showdown ensues between his clan and the lord’s men.

The story is a remarkable one and even more remarkable is how seldom we have seen it anywhere before or since given its obviously compelling and universal themes. It brings the best out in all the actors and truthfully, this is one of Mifune’s best performances, even if it is less explosive than some of his more famous roles. It’s also a slow burner as the first 90 minutes are spent building the pretext for the action that is to come. However, when it does come, we are not disappointed as Samurai Rebellion offers up some extraordinary action choreography and direction. Equally impressive are the cinematography and lighting which really come to the fore during the dramatic scenes and combat sequences (two scenes in particular to look out for are the moment when Ichi is grilled by the clan’s elders and the final showdown as Isaburo hunts down the musketeers in a breezy meadow).

In many ways, Samurai Rebellion is a spellbinding film. The actors are perfectly in sync with the directors’ immaculate pacing and as good as Mifune and Nakadai are, they are well matched by Gô Katô as Isaburo’s son and Yôko Tsukasa as Ichi. Above all, it is the heart-rendering story of love, family, strength, and courage which we remember best as this is one film that can be appreciated by fans of any genre and by people of any nation.

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