The Last Samurai (2003)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall, Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki
Before I get into the review, I must state this point very clearly: I like Tom Cruise movies. Or, at least, post-Far and Away Tom Cruise movies (as I've missed a lot of his big-time 80's films). So to those of you who are apt to immediately reject a film based on its Tom Cruise involvement, this review won't be for you.
It's not even so much that I like Tom Cruise, because I usually don't really care about actors one way or another. But since he's the biggest movie star in the world, he gets to choose the best big projects in Hollywood, meaning that movies that he's in have a good chance at being entertaining, at the very least.
The Last Samurai is very entertaining (albeit languid at points, sometimes to the point of detriment). It is a beautifully-shot movie of epic scope, with some some very impressive battle scenes and convincing acting from Cruise, and co-stars Ken Watanabe, Billy Connolly, Koyuki, and Hiroyuki Sanada. Watanabe earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of the samurai Katsumoto, putting him in the long line of Tom Cruise co-stars to find themselves nominated for Oscars. He earned it, as Katsumoto is easily the best part of the film (well, either that, or the battle scenes).
In terms of story, the film is easily "Dances with Samurai". The style is also very reminiscent of director Edward Zwick's earlier film Legends of the Fall and very much influenced by the works of Kurosawa (I'll leave the discussion of how well it holds up to Kurosawa to people more qualified than me. For me, it doesn't matter whether or not The Last Samurai is as good as earlier movies, I think it's pretty good on its own). Like Dancing With Wolves, Samurai attempts to tell the story of another culture through the eyes of a white American observer (Cruise). And if that offends you, or comes of as condescending, well, there's nothing I can tell you. It's the choice the film made, there's no getting around it, so if it bothers you than you'll hate this movie.
If you can get past that, and the fact that it's a Tom Cruise movie, then you might be able to find yourself enjoying an entertaining movie, beautifully filmed, with epic battles and solid acting. However, the movie isn't as good or epic as it tries so hard to be. Some of the dialogue falls flat, the themes of the movie aren't at all subtle, and the ending is very Hollywood. In short, it's a very good movie disguised as a great movie.