Monday, January 26, 2009

NASA Lab

I've been fascinated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) organization since childhood. Sadly though, I never got to make the trip to see a launch, even though I lived just 3 hrs. south of Cape Canaveral. I hope to remedy this.

I also love watching the NASA channel, available on satellite subscription services. Very calming, therapeutic even. Yes, the educational programs are stimulating, but I'm speaking of the lengthy static shots of space stations, s-l-o-w-l-y panned. Another time, we are treated to a long shot of a runway, where nothing at all happens, other than the occasional golf cart drifting by. You might see the Ares I-X rocket as it sits, waiting for parts. No soundtrack, just silence. Love it.

Then there are the segments that manage to engage the brain and be oddly soothing, such as this mesmerizing video. Yes, let the geek fly his freak flag a bit here...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=487fnnjAgZM

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Naked Kiss

Some movies build with exposition, deliberately revealing layers of characterization, plot arcs. Others explode on the screen, grab you by the lapels and don't let go. Writer/director Samuel Fuller's 1964 THE NAKED KISS falls firmly in the latter category. How can a film that opens with a drunken pimp getting the living crap beaten out of him by one of his "employees" be otherwise? Especially when the attacker's wig, in the heat of scuffle, falls off to reveal she is bald! Does camp come any more potently? Announce itself any more clearly?

Fuller has a favorable reputation among many cineastes for his balls-to-the-wall honesty and deliriously cinematic approach. His works always deal with unconventional protagonists who find themselves in impossibly difficult circumstances, the kind that usually (and often do) spell certain doom. A Samuel Fuller film also provides the viewer with a gaggle of laughs, regardless of subject matter, whether they are intentional or not. Scroll back to my review of Fuller's 1982 WHITE DOG for reference, if you like.

It's hard to tell with this one, though. The straight faced narrative, the ominous score, the earnest acting all scream early 1960s. It is so far beyond dated as to be a bona-fide artifact. So of course the very ingredients of this film will seem hilarious to contemporary audiences. Even Grade A pics of long ago, classics like EAST OF EDEN and (gasp!) CITIZEN KANE often seem hopelessly melodramatic to our irony saturated selves. One must consider the time period, especially for those born after the fact. Tone may be everything to some, and for those used to the more detached and bemused sensibilities of today, watching an older film becomes tricky in determining its merit.

But even by low budget 1964 standards, THE NAKED KISS is pretty lurid and strange. Our heroine, Kelly (Constance Towers, oddly Joan Crawford-like), the one beating up the pimp in the opening scene, drifts to a small town to continue to hawk her wares. After an evening with a very popular local cop named Griff (Anthony Eisley), Kelly suddenly has an epiphany. Done is she with selling her feminine wiles. She wants to be a productive member of society! Why, she'll even take a job at the local hospital for handicapped children! She'll play mother hen to some of the troubled women who work there! In her bid for respectability, she'll even accept the marriage proposal of the local tycoon (after whom the entire town is named)!

Of course, you just know that Kelly's sordid past will come to roost, and it does, but other factors sabotoge her attempts for transformation, namely the underbelly of dirt which lurks beneath the Beaver Cleaverish fascade of Grantville. Sounds like David Lynch may have been inspired for BLUE VELVET, eh? Without question. Speaking of Lynchian, one must also consider the band of impaired kids at Grantville Hospital, who inexplicably always seem to be wearing pirate costumes and singing. The song the kids sing with Kelly (repeated in a few scenes) is one of the most bizarrely disturbing I've seen/heard in a movie. Not since "Teddy Bears' Picnic" in Peter Greenaway's A ZED & TWO NAUGHTS have I laughed so uncomfortably.

I mentioned Fuller's reputation. The rawness of his films have earned him decades of respect. This despite the hysterical presentations of films like THE NAKED KISS and SHOCK CORRIDOR. For me, a Fuller film only comes together a while after viewing. While they run, they seem overwrought and frankly silly. Then you ponder things. The themes and subtext are always probing, nagging at you while you try to go about your day. I enjoyed THE NAKED KISS in a junk entertainment sorta way while watching it. It is filled with exploitation elements: lecherous characters, cheesy one-liners, hilarious close-ups and reaction shots, red herrings. But if you take your brain out of neutral, you will recognize the howls of a tortured artist, manifest in social document and frequently scathing satire. This is what separates a Fuller film from that of a thousand others who only desire to shock and amuse.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Valkyrie

As presented in VALKYRIE, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler seems far from airtight. Too many variables are not controllable. Most notably, the physical properties of a site where a certain bomb will detonate. To say nothing that perhaps the target himself will decide on a late hour change of venue. For all of the meticulousness in planning, so many other factors were subject to volatility (for one, co-conspirators' cold feet), and the plot, which apparently did not consider a millimeter of deviance from strategists, potential victims or any dependent variables whatsoever, was in turn carried out rather hastily, sloppily. Or so it seemed to this viewer, who is admittedly no expert on battle strategies or WW II history.

I discussed this afterward with my friend, a serious history buff, who accompanied me to a screening of director Bryan Singer's 2008 film. He somewhat agreed, citing that the anxiousness of Stauffenberg et al perhaps got the better of their otherwise cool, rational selves. After General Trescow's (Kenneth Branagh) failed attempt to off der fuhrer with a bomb laden wine case, tensions ran high amongst the Resistence. Enough so for Trescow to recommend Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), who had just lost an eye following an ambush of a base camp in Africa. Stauffenberg had had his doubts about the dictator for some time, seeing the ravages to his German homeland. He was the man for the job.

Operation Valkyrie was an existing plan that utilized the Reserve Army to keep order in the country if anything would impede communcations of orders from Hitler, or if the dictator were killed. It was seemingly perfect. Stauffenberg would reengineer orders to exclude the SS from taking control, leaving the head of the Army, one General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson, more or less stealing the film) in the driver's seat for the country. Stauffenberg and his hand picked mutineers attempt to recruit Fromm for their noble treason. The plan sees its first hitch.

You can see VALKYRIE, or better yet, bone up on your studies to discover how the plot fails. And fails it does, infamously. What eventually happens is not a mystery to historians, but the road leading to it (should) provides the meat of any recounting. Singer does an adaquate job in his storytelling, providing a reasonable amount of suspense with each morsel of information. My friend was quick to note how many facts were left out, but this is a film, not a miniseries. Still, having him fill me in on some lateral details made the story more reverberant, and provided a stark revealing of the failings of the film. Unavoidably, perhaps.

The viewer also gets some interesting minitiae on weaponry and inter (and intra) office politics of the time. Some meeting scenes with the principals draw us into the miasma of infighting, doubts, and eventually, denial. Technically, Singer also frames some impressive long shots of perfectly lined up swastika flags, artfully unfurling in the breeze. The director might have some sort of fascination with Nazis, having explored the subject previously in 1998's APT PUPIL.
There are some solidly cinematic moments, though curiously, when the plot is eventually carried out, this particular scene is not among them. Mostly, we get a fairly compelling meat and potatoes narrative, involving but far from profound, even with its devastating final scenes. It is the sort of unassuming film you'll ending up catching several dozen times on TNT on weekends. It seems ready made for small screen popcorn munching, albeit one with some intelligence.

Cruise and an impressive supporting cast do justice to their portrayals of martyrs, but they are just tools, much like the screenplay (co-written by longtime Singer cohort Christopher McQuarrie) and any technical attributes. Everything services a decent entertainment that never becomes anything more than a grade B programmer, reminiscent of so many movies that were actually produced during this time period. Someone said that "B" war movies are about war and "A" war movies are about people. VALKYRIE tries to have it both ways, and splits the difference. That said, probably more of a B+ than an A-.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Much like the main character of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, I felt this nagging sense of deja vu. Here we have a wannabe epic, a story spanning some nearly 90 years, filled with a myriad of fantastic events and emotional mountaintops and vallies. Brushes with fame, and famous people, occur with calculated regularity. Serrendipitus meetings, a love for a wayward woman, a yearning, melanacholy narrative, a wide-eyed perspective. Yes, it all reminded me of several Big Movies of Hollywood's recent past.

Mainly, FORREST GUMP. That one loomed very large over this project. One of the screenwriters of BUTTON was GUMP's Eric Roth, so that's no accident. His tale follows much the same formula, as a somewhat naive man floats through life. There is a slight twist this time. Benjamin is born with an elderly man's face and physical limitations (though unlike the F. Scott Fitzgerald story upon which this is based, he is still the size of an infant and has the brain development to match). He begins his life in a nursing home after being abandoned by his natural father. His early years are denoted by arthritis and a variety of impairments. As he ages, strange things happen. He gets stronger. His face becomes more youthful. The lines fade. His formerly brittle, grey hair lightens and becomes fuller. He gets younger as he gets older. Along the way he meets a girl who ages in the traditional way. They part, rejoin, separate, reunite. They have many rendevoux of increasing emotional resonance, until an effective weepy finale.

But the similarities to GUMP continue. Too many to list, really. I won't even mention that magic dragonfly that hovers around ala that magic feather from the earlier pic. I'm not saying that this reminder soured the film for me, but, I found BUTTON to be more of an Eric Roth film than that of director David Fincher.

Expectations are high for any Fincher film, especially one of this magnitude. The wide canvas was ripe for his unique visual sense, his inventiveness. While there are individual moments of greatness, evidence of his wizardry, the weight of the project was just too great. The seeming efforts to achieve grandeur make this film feel like a latter day warm over of juggernauts like TITANIC, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and of course, FORREST GUMP. Fincher just seems wrong for this sort of fantasy; he's far better at grim heightened realism. ZODIAC, as an example, was a stunning epic, not quite as grand scale as BUTTON (financed by two studios) but certainly a major work. BUTTON might've been better helmed by Spielberg, Burton, Zemeckis, Darabont, and others.

That is not to say that BUTTON is free of some dazzle. The "chance" sequence, detailing a series of seemingly unrelated events that lead to one of the characters being hit by a taxi, is an enjoyably dizzy bit of cinema magic (even as it reminded me of the opening of MAGNOLIA). Precise editing and typically meticulous Fincher direction make the sequence memorable.

A recurring memory of one of the other nursing home residents-being struck by lightning 7 separate times-also allows Fincher to have a little fun (if perhaps one too many times), namely with film stock-like appearances, even though BUTTON itself is shot on high definition digital. The camera moves just as freely as in other of the director's films. Nonetheless, I had the sense that certain restrictions kept the director from really cutting loose. Restrictions of script, and perhaps the iron fists of the studios? Despite the latter, this movie is a nearly 3 hour challenge to the kidneys.

Brad Pitt is fine in the title role, looking appropriately glum and perplexed at first. As his situation points toward inevitability, his disposition gives way to a resigned sadness. Cate Blanchett alternatively delivers one of her few disappointing performances as Daisy, Button's "childhood" crush who becomes a vital part of his middle age. The complexity her scenes with Pitt in the later decades requires is only somewhat realized. Strangely muted. She seems more adrift in the part, not really completely emotionally invested. If she isn't, how can the audience be? I did find more to appreciate in Tilda Swinton's brief role as a Russian countess with whom Benjamin has an affair. Her effect on Benjamin's life seemed more genuine to me.

I was also disappointed at how the film rushes through the closing scenes, as Benjamin enters old age, appearing as a child. As I mentioned, his cerebrum ages just like that of a normal human, and having this child suffer dementia is an intriguing idea, but not satisfactorily developed. To me, these scenes could have really been the crux of the story, a fine point of ideas discussed earlier on. BUTTON could have ended as an emotional powerhouse, simultaneously stirring the heart and mind of the viewer. As the closing scenes play out, I was nonetheless moved, but I wanted more. I did (and do) think about age progression a little more pointedly, but I wanted still more from this movie.

Another debit is the framing device: we begin the story in a hospital room in New Orleans as hurricane Katrina threatens. A 40ish woman is reading from her mother's (who lies dying) diary, recounting a life story. Benjamin's. How does the old woman figure in the Button saga? Shouldn't be too difficult to crack that one. Devices like this are meant to provide a latter day wistfulness, an emotional wellsping of nostlgia. Instead, it marred PRIVATE RYAN, THE NOTEBOOK, FOR THE BOYS and does much the same here. Just unnecessary, and un-Fincher-like to boot. Perhaps he was merely a director for hire? I felt like this after watching Scorsese's remake of CAPE FEAR too.

Seeing how many other movies I referenced in this review, it occurs to me that maybe I would've thought more highly of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON if I'd not seen so many.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Frost/Nixon

Virtually no one turned down an interview with David Frost. Not even disgraced former Presidents. It was easy to see why; non-confrontational style, a refusal to ask sensitive questions, an avoidance at seemingly all costs at making the interviewee uncomfortable in any possible way. Frost was therefore extraordinarily popular amongst the cultural elite. His birthday parties were filled with notables. Isn't that Hefner over there? And look, Neil Diamond is holding court with a song especially written for the guest of honor.

In other words, David Frost was not the most likely inquisitor of Richard M. Nixon, thirty-seventh President of the United States. It was the mid-1970s, and Nixon had retreated to his seaside California home in shameful exile. Free to obsess and self-loathe in private for once. The country moved on after Watergate and the eventual pardon, but the wounds and disillusionment would not heal so quickly. Even a "fluff" interviewer like David Frost (Michael Sheen), an Englishman who helmed entertainment shows in London and Australia, in his world of celebrity frivolity, was affected by what appeared to be great human drama. To cop an interview with Nixon would redefine his vacuous (though profitable) career. Perhaps some credibility would be lent to his narrow shoulders.

It wouldn't come cheaply. After some negotiations with legendary Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar, Frost would come to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit with Nixon for several days of face-to-face before the cameras. Most of the money would come out of Frost's own pockets. It became do or die.

The first day does not go well for the Frost team, comprised also of his television producer (John Birt), a veteran journalist (Oliver Platt), and a fiery James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Nixon is a master at the art of, not deflecting a tough question, but rather using it as a launching point for non-sequitir tangents that eat up valuable tape, enough to render the first session a disaster. Why? It seems that FROST/NIXON is telling the story of a lightweight showman from across the pond who, in his bid for respectability, attempts to wring from his subject a confession of guilt that will likewise rattle and satisfy the souls of a country completely sold out in the name of National Security. Anything short of a damning confession from Nixon would just not be good drama, good T.V.

So what was Frost's intention? What drove him to continue the interviews even as his backers pulled out? Even as his Australian program is canceled? Was it truly a noble calling to facilitate a man coming clean (for Nixon), or a selfish pursuit of a more respectable sort of fame (for himself). Peter Morgan's original play and this adaptation allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. Director Ron Howard, on the other hand, seems to be firmly in the Frost camp. I think he bathes the team's cause in nobility, i.e., it becomes David Frost's duty to draw out the words. Provide the trial that Nixon was spared by Gerald Ford's pardon.

But what about Nixon, played beautifully on stage and here by Frank Langella? Did he take this opportunity merely for the money, or to unload a universe full of guilt? Here was a man weighed upon by hours of damning tapes and hearings, mountains of evidence that lead to his resignation. I'm sure he confessed to God and the walls many a night after 1974 but in 1977 he finally had the chance for a public mea culpa.

FROST/NIXON is a tense, thriller-like drama detailing the lead up to and the famous interviews in question. I could nit pick the script, complain of how at its essence we have yet another come-from-behind-victory piece, complete with the requisite bottoming out scene, the motivation scene, and the inevitable celebration. I'm speaking of David Frost, as he suffers through the early lackluster sessions as Nixon blathers through his answers to tough questions about Cambodia and Vietnam. His ace team berates him. Frost shrugs it off but then has the Moment of Realization, and the Rising to the Occasion. But in this film, it's a doozy, coming in the form of a drunken late night call from Nixon himself to Frost, as the latter despairs around his apartment. Nixon lets his guard down and delivers a strident, profane motivation speech to his younger charge. "After this interview, one of us will be the victor, the other will be in the wilderness," he more or less concludes. We know who would eventually walk in said wilderness. Long after the interviews.

Langella overcomes his lack of ressemblance to the President (though he has the hunch and profile down) by inhabiting his mannerisms, his nuances. By the end he really is Nixon. His big speech recalled Philip Baker Hall in SECRET HONOR, a most favorable comparison. Sheen also reprises his stage role as Frost, easily portraying a casual style that gives way to focused determination. The entire cast is quite good, though I question the necessity of the character of Caroline (Rebecca Hall), a woman Frost picks up on an airplane and who becomes his girlfriend. She does little other than to smile and provide encouragement. Aside from Jennifer Connelly in A BEAUTIFUL MIND, I can't recall a really strong part for a woman in any of Howard's films.

Howard directs sparingly and wisely so, as the material is so compeling any trickery would've been gratuitous. He frames it with style though, deftly slow zooming at the right moments, allowing the principals' faces to fill the screen when needed. If you look closely, both Frost's and Nixon's faces tell their stories before either of them opens their mouths. That's some seriously fine acting.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

White Dog

Anyone who has ever owned a dog can attest to the awe-inspiring, unconditional love that flows through them. You come home after several hours to be greeted by longing eyes, a wagging tail, and paws pressed against your calves. Vessels of love, these creatures. Free of prejudice and bias.

Not always. Some canines will as soon tear out your jugular as lick your face. Sometimes, it's because you are unfamiliar to them. Might be your gender, your clothes. Even the color of your skin. What made them that way? Personality disorder? Something innate? Or was it taught?

WHITE DOG, Co-writer/director Samuel Fuller's all-but-forgotten 1982 drama, examines this question primarily through the eyes of a striking white German Shepherd. One night, a Hollywood actress named Julie (Kristy McNichol) is speeding through the Hills and accidentally hits the pup. After rescuing the dog, she decides to keep him. The decision turns out to be wise, as a few nights later she nearly gets raped by an intruder. The dog mauls the perp sufficiently to keep him grounded until the cops show up.

Julie's boyfriend is suspicious of her new roommate. The dog disappears for a few days, then returns covered in blood. This is because the Shepherd had just attacked a street cleaner, as we're shown in a rather chaotic sequence. A little while later, the dog strikes again, while Julie is filming a scene on a movie set. Her unfortunate co-star is ripped and scarred by the white beast. Like the earlier victim, her skin is black.

Eventually, Julie seeks out an animal trainer. Perhaps an obedience school. She meets Carruthers (Burl Ives), who runs a camp for potential animal stars. The old coot lectures her for awhile, bemoaning how cute robots will replace live animals in movies (as he says this, he throws tranquilizer darts at a poster of R2-D2). "Mark my words," he growls, "by the time your kids turn 25 there will be no animal actors." Of course, neither Ives nor likely his character lived long enough to see MARLEY & ME, but I digress yet again.

As Carruthers sends Julie on her way, the pooch sees a black man on the lot, and proceeds to attack him. "That's a white dog," Carruthers screams, now even more intent on sending the young lady away, "trained to kill black people!" Meanwhile, another black man happens by. Keys (Paul Winfield) is an animal trainer who specializes in the dangerous sorts. He even un-trains certain creatures, sometimes those who attack and kill black folks. He accepts the new challenge against Carruthers' warnings. Thus begins a long effort of deprogramming, and perhaps, re-training? If successful, if the dog is "cured", will he merely be a benign friend who chases sticks and gnaws on rawhide? What if the hatred cannot be expunged, but rather re-directed?

The one-on-one, man vs. dog scenes are fascinating. Keys dons heavy layered protection to cover his skin. At first. Gradually, he reveals his arms, his abdomen. The dog seethes with anger, ready to sink his teeth. Wear him down. It seems to work, but then the dog escapes and kills again. This time, a very unfortunate man of color. Chases him into a church no less. When the dog again returns covered in blood, even Julie thinks it's time to put the monster down. Keys, even through his devastation with the scenario, disagrees. How can we stop hate by just putting a band-aid on it? One must get to the root, or the cycle will continue.

There's also another problem. Julie, Keys, and Carruthers are now accessories to murder. All the nobility of the un-training will not spare the trio of legal repercussion if it is discovered that they did not turn over the four legged killer. Such a dilemma reveals that some thought went into the screenplay. Keys ultimately decides to bring the dog back and resumes the un-training. We are led to a finale that cannot be described as triumphant.

The plot here is rife with potential. Writers Fuller and Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) adapt Romain Gary's (to whom the film is dedicated) 1970 novel, based on a true incident. We learn that white dogs are molded. A racist will hire a black man, usually a street person/wino/drifter, to relentlessly beat and starve a puppy within an inch of its life. By the time the torture ceases, the dog will have grown into a beast that will chew up any African-American he sees. Conditioning. Toxic learning. Lack of positive exposure. It doesn't take a genius to discern the larger statements of this screenplay. What a powerful indictment this film could be!

Unfortunately, instead of a bitter little classic, we get an often laughable, overwrought B-movie filled with abysmal acting, numerous unintentional laughs, and an overbearing score by no less than Ennio Morricone! Fuller originally wanted Jodie Foster for the role of Julie. McNichol instead plays it with a solitary expression of blankness throughout. The nadir comes near the end, an absolutely vital confrontation scene of such great importance that it may well be the thesis of the film. McNichol's acting is so flagrantly bad it almost completely destroys the mood until the climax sets things back on course for a rightfully disturbing final statement. But the script doesn't get off scot free, either. Poor dialogue, as bad as any sexploitation slasher of its time, riddles the film. While there are several inventive camera shots, others are just as campy as what might have been seen in the later dog horror show, CUJO.

Indeed, the studio (Paramount) wanted a horror film, an exploitation cheapie ala their very successful slashers of the day. Fuller, of course, had something far more serious and ambitious in mind. Always an auteur who commented on the breakdown of race relations, Fuller imagined WHITE DOG to be an opportunity to make a contemporary pic on how far we hadn't come. It didn't quite work. To add salt in the wound, Paramount shelved the film before a proper release due to (completely unwarranted) fears that the film itself was racist. After running on HBO, the film was doomed to obscurity, with no video release and only a brief revival during a Fuller retrospective in the early 90s.

Criterion to the rescue. But was it necessary? Worthy of the trouble? Despite my numerous reservations, I am glad this important film was given a new lease. As I mull over the themes, cumulatively recalling it, it works a little better. WHITE DOG is one of those films that seems better than it is when you discuss the themes later, the very relevant poisons that set so many on a course of hatred. If this film un-trains anyone, perhaps it was worth the effort.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Zatôichi

The blind swordsman known as Zatoichi wanders rural 19th century Japan with seemingly pained vulnerability. His permanent hunch, ambled along with a benign appearing walking stick, is barely noticed by the dreaded Ginzo gang, who has the villagers shaking in fear as they hand over "protection money" to these gangsters.

The swordsman passes through, making acquaintance with the regulars of the mountain hamlet: a ne'er do well gambler and his aunt, a pair of siblings seeking venageance on the Ginzos for the earlier slaughter of their family, some elderly watering hole proprietors, and even the lightning fast bodyguard for the Ginzo clan. Zatoichi uses his other senses to intuit the score at an given moment, be it to win at the dice table or to cut his current opponent to ribbons with that special walking stick, which is revealed to be something a bit more lethal.

Is Zatoichi truly blind? Why does he tell everyone he is merely a masseur? What's the deal with those siblings who disguise themselves as geishas? Is the bodyguard just a shell of a man with no morals? I'll skip to Inquiry #3, as some of the surprises in the 2003 film ZATOICHI are quite enjoyable.

Hattori, said bodyguard, also wanders in town, with a very ill wife in tow. Apparently, that sword of his has severed many limbs. It pays the bills. When the opportunity arises to protect the slimy, extorting gang members from rival gangs and the occasional citizen who has the courage to fight back, he takes it. But why? Writer/director Takeshi Kitano (who also portrays the title character) suggests that he will use the money to help his wife get well. Or, maybe the guy just can't seem to serve any other purpose.

This is an interesting, if familiar, notion, as the same could be said for Zatoichi himself. But what's his story? We don't learn much about his history. Perhaps viewers familiar with this decades old character can fill in the blanks. The blind swordsman was seen in films and television programs for years before Kitano took a whack. His contemporary film retains much of the general plotline, adding some rather artistic CGI bloodletting. The fight sequences are choreographed much like many a previous entry in this genre. If you've ever caught the LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH series from the 70s, you'll see the similiarity. In the earlier movies, the arterial sprays of gore in breath-taking Shawscope looked very real, often earning the pics X-ratings for violence alone. ZATOICHI instead frames the blood as pigment on a canvas. Over-the-top swordplay and slashes beget fountains of magenta and rose. It looks somewhat beautifully phony.

I remember such use of blood in Kitano's previous HANA-BI and SONANTINE, two crime sagas well worth the time. It's as if the action isn't intended to seem hard and real. The character motivations, the human drama, the bittersweet taste of vegeance draws us in with their visceral familiarity. Then comes the mythos. The Zatoichi character was always the laconic stranger who cleaned up the town ala Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone epics. Here he becomes even more mythical. The drama leads where we often suspect, simulataneously presenting everything as if it were a moving painting. Even when "good guys" fall on the sword, it compels the art. Not intellectually. Like Zatoichi, we should use alternate modalities (for us, other than intellect) to appreciate and analyze the information. Arguably, that's what we should do with any film.

It generally works, though frustratingly Kitano tries to have it both ways: searing action sequences and a more meditative approach. Both can be implemented in the same film; Kitano tries to do both within the same scene! He'll open with clanging swordplay, then edit out the more potentially exhilirating shots, cutting to another character hunched over a mat in introspection. The audience is being set-up, then jerked in another direction. A climax that is anticipated is quite cavalierly truncated. Kitano here is sort of like an Asian Victor Borge, beginning to play a few keys on the piano, only to stop and talk, play a few more notes, then crack an anecdote, never resolving the piece.

ZATOICHI is mostly fun, though. Don't expect strict reverence to Japanese folklore, or the grim seriousness of earlier Kitano pics. Do smile widely at the tap dancing musical finale. Kinda unavoidable anyway.