The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
S11E2: Stop two on the American Idol audition train is Pittsburgh – and because of Fox’s new series The Finder we only get an hour of auditions. I’m going to go ahead and assume the shortened timeslot is the reason behind the lack of the usual dose of crazies. We’re introduced to the steel city the only possible: with Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” playing over the montage of contestants. Ryan Seacrest’s voiceover tells us that this is the “city of champions” and he may be right about the sports teams, but as for Idol, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. These are just the auditions, if anything, Pittsburgh is the city of people waving crinkly, yellow pieces of paper (with promise)!
“I think you could be an American Idol.” –Steven
This poor guy comes in, sees the other great singers and immediately feels inadequate. That typical Idol goofball music was playing in the background, so I feared they were starting the night off with a joke, but then again he was so humble. The people they make fun of are rarely humble. The Korea native sang “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton and he was wonderful and even a little soulful. Clearly he gets the ticket to Hollywood.
”You are crazy.” –Randy
Age 26 This guy is a born and raised performer, singing onstage with his family since he was two, so of course he’s going to be a complete and total ham. He sings the theme song from Family Matters because he’s just that cocky. It would seem he has license to be cocky because the guy can sing – and scat. He gets a golden ticket, so maybe we’ll get to see him sing the theme song from Full House next.
“She sings better when I’m planking.” –Patty the Pittsburgh Planker
Some woman who claims to be famous in Pittsburgh for planking attempts to steal her sister’s thunder by planking all over her audition. Patty even planks while her sister sings because she’s either insane or she thinks they’re beating the system and getting her sister more air time, which might be true. Good thing Samantha can actually sing. She does “Like I’ve Never Loved at All” by Faith Hill and it’s pretty, plain, and simple. She’s strong and Randy calls her voice pure, but I call it average. She gets a yes as Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on The Floor” plays in the background because the producers have been waiting to use that song in a literal sense and Patty The Planker answered their prayers.
“That was like Jamiroquai and Justin Timberlake had a baby?” –JLo
This jobless kid from New York spends time he could use to get a job singing silly songs in Union Square. So naturally, he spends 9 hours on a bus to get to Pittsburgh and audition for American Idol with a diddy he wrote on that same bus. He’s got serious pipes, but the tone is obnoxious and screechy, still they love him and he gets a ticket through to Hollywood. I fear he’s going to be the James Durbin of Season 11.
“He’s cute, look how cute he is.” –JLo
Apparently, all you have to do to “look like Justin Bieber” is get the right hair cut and be 15 years old with a decent singing voice. But, Eben is sweet and humble, calling the audition a privilege (you mean taking off days of school or work to audition for a singing contest that doesn’t guarantee financial success simply because you have a dream to sing is a luxury? Imagine that). I keep raining on this kid’s parade, but he was actually a pretty decent, sweet little singer. He tries out “Ain’t No Sunshine” and while he doesn’t really have the ability to give it any soul, he does pretty well. He gets a ticket to Hollywood.
“I dropped out of high school. This is an all or nothing thing.” –Travis Orlando
I can’t remember why Travis didn’t make it originally, but the judges insist his voice has gotten stronger, and that they need to hear more of what he’s got. But wait, you can’t dismiss him that easily; he’s got a sob story. His mother ditched his family and now he, his sick dad and his brother live in a shelter. His dad is on dialysis, his brother is in college and he quit high school to do Idol. Personally, I think that auditioning for a show that hasn’t turned out a real star in years instead of finishing one last year of high school is just a little misguided. Luckily for Travis, he gets a “yes.”
“Some kinda magic.” –Steven
Erica Van Pelt
This girl is a Mobile DJ and Wedding Singer, the first of which is a career I didn’t think was actually a thing. There are no gimmicks here, so let’s just get to the goods. She sings “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and sounds a little Joss Stone. She does a little too much of the Christina Aguilera hand and matching head bob, but that usually dies out eventually. She also gets a yes, and continues the streak of winner after winner.
“You ever seen Shrek? I’m going to sing the Hallelujah song that plays right through there.” –Shane Bruce
But it had to end somewhere. Next we meet a young guy who actually likes working in a coal mine. They ruined the surprise of whether he was going to be able to sing or if he’d sound like a monkey being beaten with a feral cat by showing him singing to his work mates, but that doesn’t mean he’s good. He says he’s going to sing some song from Shrek - oh that “song from Shrek” that was written by Leonard Cohen and famously sung by Jeff Buckley and later Rufus Wainwright? His knowledge of music history isn’t the only fumble, he screws up the high notes in the song. Jennifer and Randy tell him to work on it and come back, but Steven tells him sometimes “routine is the secret of life” going on about how being a rock star is his path, but it isn’t for everyone else.
“Music and my husband saved my life.” –Hallie Day
The last contestant of the night is a waitress and a newlywed. She’s bubbly and blonde, so it seems this will be an easy little trip to yellow, crinkly paperville, but nope. She’s the last contestant, and typically these folks have terrible problems in their lives. She moved to New York at 15 to be in a girl group, but she ended up broke and drug addict. Her parents were absent, and the result was extremely low self esteem. She tried to commit suicide, but she lived and then met her husband, Ryan, who gave her the will to live. Normally, I’d say this is overkill, but it’s pretty hard to say a story like that is sensationalized. A story like that just is. She sings “I Will Survive” and while I appreciate the sentiment, the song choice was a little cheesy. Still, she’s a real singer with a strong, smoky voice. The judges all agree that she’s Idol material – and so do I.
All in all the judges handed out 38 tickets in Pittsburgh and snagged a potential winner. It’s a pretty good showing if you ask me. Who do you think was better, Savannah’s Phillip Phillips or Hallie Day? (I can certainly tell you which one has a better stage name.) Let me know in the comments or get at me on Twitter. @KelseaStahler
What do you call a bunch of Australians tossed down a hole? A good start. I kid of course – “a mediocre movie” is more like it. And that’s precisely what you get with Alister Grierson’s Sanctum a 3D thriller in which a crew of cave divers struggle to survive after a monsoon-driven flood pins them thousands of feet underground.
Sanctum is set in Papua New Guinea but was mostly shot in the sprawling caves of South Australia. The cast is dominated by local actors many of whom will prove unrecognizable to moviegoers residing above the equator – which frankly isn’t all that much of a hindrance since the lot of them will be killed off long before the closing credits roll.
The cast’s lone non-Aussie – and the film’s most familiar face – is Welshman Ioan Gruffudd who plays Carl a gratingly cocky American industrialist whose wealth funds the whole caving (the word “spelunking” is never used much to my chagrin) expedition and whose extreme-tourist bent compels him to come along for the ride. He also brings his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) whose strong-mindedness you just know is going to become a liability when the sh*t hits the fan.
The sh*t in the case of Sanctum is an apocalyptic storm that arrives days before it’s supposed to triggering an avalanche of boulders that effectively seals off all possible exits. With the water level rising and a near-zero chance of rescue the group’s hardened no-nonsense leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) decrees that their best hope of survival lies in finding an alternate means of escape via an unexplored stretch of tunnels thought to lead to the ocean.
The situation grows gradually more desperate and characters succumb one by one to the hazards of the deep in fairly predictable disaster-flick order. (The aging female is first to go followed by the ethnic guy etc.) Sanctum cycles through a series of grisly fatalities – including one delightful bit in which a shock of hair caught in a climbing apparatus results in an impromptu scalping – until finally the last man standing is Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) a moody 17-year-old who has heretofore spent most of the film acting out with childish spite toward his neglectful dad. Out of supplies exhausted but with his exquisite surfer-dude haircut thankfully still intact Josh must complete the remainder of the harrowing journey alone.
Director Grierson packs Sanctum with some truly breathtaking visuals. The underwater cinematography shot with 3D cameras Grierson spent six-plus years developing is particularly stunning. But the film’s script clearly didn’t receive as much care and attention as its cameras. The action is occasionally gripping but the story lacks suspense and its tone largely fails to evoke the gnawing claustrophobia that presumably festers in such a dark musty subterranean labyrinth. Moreover it’s littered with truly execrable dialogue made worse by ADR that sounds as if it were recorded in a cozy basement studio.
Executive producer James Cameron is featured prominently in Sanctum’s advertising campaign but the film itself bears scant evidence of his involvement save perhaps for the splendid underwater scenes. I half-suspect he viewed the project as a tool to develop and test his 3D technology in preparation for his amphibious Avatar sequel. He certainly didn’t use it to brush up on his storytelling skills.