(In theaters, December 2003) There is something very, very curious in this film, in the way it tries to sell us a romantic vision of pre-industrial Japan, complete with a rural fantasy, impeccable honour codes and a shaggy Tom Cruise. It’s a beautiful film, no doubt about it: The “Samurais in the mist” sequence is simply astonishing. But eventually, even the lush cinematography fails to hide a growing discomfort with the story as portrayed on screen. There are other annoyances too, such as the plot shortcuts taken as our stalwart warrior-hero is able to learn pretty much all there is to enjoy about the samurai way of life (including the katana) in one short winter. Still, The Last Samurai ranks highly on the year’s list of film through sheer competence. The battle scenes are immersive, Cruise once again makes a likable protagonist, and the Japanese are portrayed honourably. It’s a pretty good time-travel film in how it easily wraps up its audience in late-nineteenth century rural Japan. Certainly not a waste of time.