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    Sunday, August 15, 2004

    Movie: Zatoichi (2004)

    For a while, it seemed as if Takeshi Kitano (aka ‘Beat’ Takeshi) would take over the world the way he’d conquered Japanese TV. His crime dramas HANA-BI (FIREWORKS) and SONATINE were released to great acclaim; both deservedly turn up on the Online Film Critics Society list of Overlooked Films of the 1990s. Their combination of formal discipline, graphically minimalist violence and deadpan comic sensibility seemed to herald a new style in filmmaking.

    But Kitano’s American debut BROTHER never really took flight, while KIKUJIRO saddled him with a kid. A TV vet should have recognized that as one of the telltale signs of shark-jumping. He’s probably best known now as one of the dubbed hosts on Spike TV’s MOST EXTREME CHALLENGE. Which, admittedly, is not the worst thing in the world to be known for.

    His latest film isn’t a complete success, but it does represent several steps in the right direction. The blind wandering swordsman Zatoichi is a legendary figure in Japanese pop culture, appearing in some 20 films. Kitano plays him as a man of few words but shockingly blond hair. There’s certainly enough story to play with: rival gangs, a ronin with a dying wife, siblings close to achieving long-sought revenge. But the movie is indifferently plotted. Elegantly composed but languid scenes are punctuated by the director’s trademark pokerfaced comedy, along with weirdly beautiful mayhem. (All of the bloodletting is rendered digitally, so the fight scenes look like image captures from a video game recreated on rice paper.) The movie exerts a peculiar fascination without kicking into high gear.

    And then, with forty minutes to spare, you can feel Kitano take the reins and say, “OK, enough screwing around.” The various plot lines coalesce, the action comes fast and satisfyingly furious, and everything ends with a full cast tap-dance number. ZATOICHI may lack the control or elegiac beauty of Kitano’s ‘90s films. But it shares their unique spirit. And it’s unlike any samurai movie you’ve seen before.

    Miscellaneous: Overlooked Movies of the Past Five Years

    Speaking of the OFCS list, we might as well stay on top of the current decade (what are we calling it again? The aughts?) and name a few movies that have already slipped under the radar. Let me start with two from 2001: the Australian drama LANTANA, with a top-flight ensemble cast including Anthony LaPaglia and Geoffrey Rush, and Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of the Graham Swift novel LAST ORDERS. David Hemmings is marvelous in one of his final performances, fully embracing the blustery lion character actor phase of his career. You can also see how much son Nolan, playing his father in flashback, resembles Dad in his BLOW UP glory days. Both of these films were victims of the year-end awards hype folly; they were held back by their respective studios in hopes of Oscar attention that never came, and as a result went through theaters quickly. Now is the time to catch up with them.


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