24 Lies A Second

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The 'Love Is Blind, And So Is This Incredibly Dangerous Guy With A
Sword' Issue

Hello everyone, and welcome once again to the film review column that cares not one jot for your
opinion. This week we look at the latest outings for two well-loved characters, one of which is a
rip-roaringly off-beat adventure promising fun for all the family, while the other is a cartoon.

One Man And His Ass

The original Shrek won such notable popular and critical acclaim (even to the point, it's
rumoured, of AMPAS creating a new 'Best Animated Feature' Oscar just to stop it winning in the
main category) that the arrival of a sequel - imaginatively entitled Shrek 2, and directed by
Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon - shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone.
Nor, really, given the quality of said sequel, should the fact that it's already crowbarred its way into
a spot high up on the all-time box office smash list. This, coupled to the fact that it seems to be the
most widely pirated film in history, leads me to believe that you've probably already seen it and
don't need me to tell you what I think of it and whether or not it's any good.

And so let's move on to a much less ubiquitous movie from Japan... hmm, well, on the other hand, I
suppose I may as well say a few words about Shrek 2, just for the benefit of those
visually-impaired h2g2 members who never actually go to the pictures but still enjoy having film
reviews read out to them. Let no-one say I ignore minority interests in this column!

Shrek 2 picks up pretty much where the original concluded, with curmudgeonly ogre Shrek
(an uncharacteristically muted performance from Mike Myers) on honeymoon with his new bride
Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). However, the dread moment soon arrives when Shrek must meet his
in-laws, the King and Queen of the distant realm of Far Far Away (John Cleese and Julie Andrews).
And so off they set, in the company of the faithful (and deeply annoying) Donkey (Eddie Murphy).

Shrek and his bride's parents do not hit it off. And things deteriorate still further when Fiona's
Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) shows up, very unhappy with the King. Her son Prince Charming
(Rupert Everett) is the one Fiona is supposed to marry. So the King is forced to hire the feared
swordskitty Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to dispose of his new son-in-law...

Well, with a cast like that and a willingness to go just about anywhere in search of a punch line, it's
no surprise that Shrek 2 is very funny indeed. This time around, however, there seems to be a
bit less interest in lampooning fairy-tale clich├ęs and a lot more enthusiasm for more contemporary
satire. Far, Far Away is, of course, a dead spit for modern Hollywood, with a Starbucks on every
corner, while the film and TV parodies come thick and fast throughout: Lord of the Rings,
Zorro, Cops, Alien, and many more (for me, the Cops spoof - along with
the opening titles - was the funniest bit of the movie). The fact that this is a million miles away from
the average family cartoon is only reinforced by some very off-the-wall gags and presence of a
Buzzcocks cover on the soundtrack.

CGI animation has now reached a point where a film like this can cover the whole range of comic
possibilities: rather than just sticking to cartoonish slapstick and sight gags, the facial expressions
are now subtle and inflected enough for genuine character-based wit and interaction to be possible.
Maybe this why even the performances seem a bit of a step up from the average film of this type.
(The UK release of this film has actually re-voiced a couple of minor characters using local celebs
rather than their US counterparts, a slightly odd undertaking as the presence of Jonathan Ross in an
American blockbuster is, let's face it, deeply incongruous. I notice the filmmaker's haven't bothered
amending the credits to reflect this manoeuvre either.)

But, having said all this, there are a couple of sequences which don't quite gel as well as they might,
and the more contemporary style does detract a bit from the original Shrek's charm. It also
seemed to me that this time round the emotional core of the story seemed a little bit forced, rather
than arising solely from the characters. However, these are quibbles and quibbles only (and it would
be extremely anal of me to start pointing out plot holes in animated comedies).

I don't think there's another current film genre where the average level of quality is as impressive
as it is where CGI features are concerned. Sure, they're not going to change your life, they're very
rarely subversive, and they're not exactly deep, but when it comes to technical ability, performances,
and just stringing very decent jokes together non-stop for ninety minutes, the only objective reaction
is to be deeply impressed. And Shrek 2 is amongst the very best of the lot. Recommended (like
it matters).


Massage in a Battle

And so let's move on to a much less ubiquitous movie from Japan, starring, written, and directed by
near-legendary Japanese performer Takeshi Kitano. Kitano has something of a following over here,
mainly due to his appearances in cult favourites like Sonatine, Battle Royale, and (ahem)
Johnny Mnemonic. Asian cinema is, of course, quite popular just now, with the likes of
Tarantino and Tom Cruise toying with Samurai chic recently with quite variable results.

Kitano shows these gaijin how it really should be done in Zatoichi, a Samurai movie
for the new millenium. This is really just the latest in a series of films going back over forty years,
all featuring a lead character who's become something of a folk hero in Japan: Zatoichi, a blind
swordsman who wanders 19th century Japan righting wrongs. Such is the popularity of the series that
years ago there was even an attempt at an American remake, starring Rutger Hauer: you can probably
guess how that one turned out.

Anyway, Kitano's movie opens with Zatoichi roaming the countryside in the guise of an itinerant
masseur, minding his own business and keeping an ear open for an honest game of dice (yes, his hearing
is so good he can tell how the dice land just from the noise they make). However, he wanders into a
town in the grip of a power struggle between two rival gangs of criminals. Also in town is a once-noble
but still very lethal samurai (Tadanobu Asano) forced to become a mercenary in order to pay his
wife's medical bills, a gambling-crazed idiot (Gadarukanaru Taka), and two geishas who are not what
they seem to be. All these characters are drawn together in a plot mixing thoughtfulness, large
quantities of arterial splatter, and a surprising amount of tap dancing.

In many ways this is very much a homage to the classic Samurai films of the fifties and sixties. As
you may have noticed, the plot bears a passing resemblance to that of Kurosawa's hugely influential
Yojimbo (the Italian remake of which launched Clint Eastwood's movie career), and the
production values and cinematography have a subtle but definite authenticity to them. There's no
attempt to play up the nobility of Japan's warrior caste: mainly because they're not a particularly
noble lot. The story is a fairly simple one, but Kitano tells it in a relatively sophisticated way, opting
to use long, slightly discursive flashbacks to fill in the histories of many key characters. This
occasionally makes the film a little hard to follow but never for long.

Kitano himself is weirdly magnetic as Zatoichi, a hunched figure dressed in black with strikingly
pale hair (possibly a homage to Rutger Hauer's adverts for a well-known Irish tipple, but I doubt it).
But all the performances are good: particularly Asano, and Taka, who gives a nicely-judged
comic-relief turn.

However, this isn't just a nostalgic throwback: it does new and very peculiar things with the genre.
The fight sequences are on the face of it very traditional, extremely well choreographed and striking.
But - and this is the first time I've noticed this done, certainly outside of a Hollywood blockbuster -
Kitano makes liberal use of CGI effects in the fight scenes, so blades erupt through backs, blood
sprays everywhere, and severed body parts spin towards the camera in a quite startling way.
Unfortunately the effects aren't that good, and the computer-generated elements are often
glaringly obvious.

There's a lot of quirky comedy going on here too, a lot of it quite broad and seemingly at odds with
the general tone and theme of the film. (Having said that, how seriously can one take a film about a
blind sword master?) This is matched by a striking, percussive soundtrack, which borders on the
mesmeric in places and leads us quite neatly to the oddest part of the movie: the dancing.

Yes, given that this is a samurai flick, there is an awful lot of tap dancing in Zatoichi. To
begin with it's quite subtle: some peasants are tilling a field in the foreground, and the rise and fall
of their picks matches the rhythm of the soundtrack. Later on, they're back again, and now they
really are just tap dancing, in a muddy field, while it rains. No reason is given for this, nor for why
the climactic scenes where Zatoichi confronts the villains and metes out justice are intercut with a
full-on dance routine involving the rest of the principal cast and about thirty other people. It's
bizarre. It isn't explained in the context of the film. Maybe it's a Japanese thing. But it doesn't half
make for a memorable movie. Zatoichi: very weird, slightly wonderful, and well worth a
look.

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