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.
A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
Every year the stuffy old men and women that nominate movies and TV shows for awards nominate the same three shows and four actors for everything. Thankfully, I’m not that old – nor that stuffy – and I present to you my picks for the best of the best. Some of the very reasons we all love being Couch Potatoes are listed below.
Please be aware this article contains spoilers for How I Met Your Mother, The Walking Dead, Southland, Breakout Kings, Homeland, Falling Skies, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story.
The old fuddy-duddies nominating shows and I do agree on one thing: Modern Family is still the best 22 minutes of laughter on television. Sure there’s the feel good rom-com musings of How I Met Your Mother, the madcap geekiness of The Big Bang Theory, Suburgatory and New Girl are both much funnier than anyone had hoped for, and even Fox’s Animation is always good for a bunch of laughs (despite the combined 43 years between its four main shows), but pound for pound nothing can beat the endearing and hysterical histrionics of the Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado clan. With a cast this sizable and talented, how can any other show claim the top spot of Best Comedy?
The best drama category usually goes to a critical darling, which is quite possible here at the first ever Couchies, but no matter how many ratings and critical acclaim a series can get, I will not let that sway my decision. The Walking Dead is a triumph, especially for this comic book geek and American Horror Story is definitely not as awesome as people think it is. Game of Thrones’ parting shot of Daenerys Targaryen surrounded by her new baby dragons almost ensures that the series will win the Couchy for next year for Season Two when those dragons invade Westeros. And sadly the quality of Dexter has dropped so much in recent seasons that it slashes itself out of the running. Homeland is compelling in its tale of terror and Sons of Anarchy had its best season yet, but then there’s the little show that could: Southland. When NBC put Jay Leno on at 10 a few years back, cancelling Southland was their first stupid move. Luckily TNT isn’t that dumb and picked this gritty as hell, no-one-comes-out-unscathed cop drama. This season saw Detective Nate Moretta gunned down; his partner, Sammy going haywire over the shooting; Lydia trying to deal with new partners in the wake of her own partner’s shooting; and hardass officer John Cooper’s painkiller issues, as well as his issues with his trainee Ben Sherman. These events helped turn a good drama into a great one and TNT continues to be smart in keeping this series going – Season 4 debuts Jan. 17. Trust me, just because this show isn’t on awards ballots does not mean it isn’t every bit as great as some of the better marketed and reviewed shows. Actually, I’m wrong; Southland is far superior to the better marketed and reviewed shows.
Best Adrenaline Boost
Let’s face it, Best Drama awards are usually for character filled and character development-heavy shows. But what about when you want to let loose and watch a bunch of hellraisers raise hell? My thoughts exactly. In past years, this award would have gone to shows like 24 or Prison Break. This year, shows like Chase and Undercovers knocked themselves out of the running by getting canceled and the return of Fear Factor happened too close to this piece’s publication to truly earn the award. Peter erasing himself from the Fringe universe made for a hell of a season finale. But it’s the first season of Breakout Kings earns the Couchie. Don’t let the stupid name fool you; they even make fun of it on the show. But a pair of U.S. Marshalls teaming up a small group of convicts, who are each an expert in some nefarious field, to catch other escapees far more dangerous than our outlaw heroes is a wham-bam hour. If you need to get caught up, catch Episode 3. “The Bag Man” has the team track a convict that (once again) broke out Fox River Penitentiary – and this episode also features Prison Break’s Robert Knepper reprising his role as the sadistic T-Bag.
Shock and Awe Moment of the Year (Comedy)
Sometimes, even the sitcoms we all know and love provide use with a moment so jarring that it stays with us – and becomes a part of that show’s culture. There were plenty of big time moments in sitcomland this year: Russell married Liz on Rules of Engagement, Barney getting married on How I Met Your Mother, and Sheldon begins dating Amy Farah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory to name a few. But for me the biggest and most emotional moment of the year was Marshall’s dad dying unexpectedly on How I Met Your Mother. The January episode, titled “Bad News,” was pitch-perfect, containing a whole bunch of laughs surrounding the story of Marshall and Lily finding out if they’ll be able to have kids or not while meeting their fertility doctor – who happens to be Barney’s doppelganger, Dr. Stengel. Each scene contained a number counting down to the heartbreaking final scene, in which Marshall, who’s feeling extra jubilant and manly after Dr. Stengel tells him he has super sperm, only to have it all ripped away as Lily shows up and gives him the news that he just lost his mentor and best friend: his father. Hey, I didn’t say that the award would go to a funny scene.
Shock and Awe Moment of the Year (Drama)
Every year, a slew of dramas give us a ton of powerful scenes to chew on. This year was no different, we saw Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) begrudgingly join the aliens during the season finale of Falling Skies, Opie shooing Clay for the murder of his wife and father on Sons of Anarchy, and Ned Stark’s head rolling through the streets on Game of Thrones. For my money, the reveal (which I’m sure a lot of you saw coming) that Sophie is a zombie on The Walking Dead was harrowing to witness. After spending half of a season searching for the lost little girl, she creeps out of Hershel’s barn, which was filled with walkers. Shane screams about the world they all live in now and that the hardest choices have to be made before breaking the barn door open an annihilating every zombie member of Hershel’s family. With barely a few seconds to catch our breath (yes, the scene actually makes you care about the walkers and the people they once were), little Sophie walks out, hungry for brains and leaving Rick no other choice but the hardest one: a bullet to her head in front of everyone. Every bit of hope zapped away in one jarring sequence. Feb. 12 and the beginning of the second half of Season 2 can’t get here quickly enough.
Be Our Guest
They might not be the stars of the show, but whether they were part of the supporting cast or stopped by for a few episodes, these actors left an indelible mark on the shows they visited. Now of course there are always plenty of guest stars and supporting players, from the incomparable John Lithgow on How I Met Your Mother to Mayim Bialik’s Amy Farah Fowler coming into her own on The Big Bang Theory. The aforementioned Robert Knepper terrorized the Breakout Kings and Law and Order SVU was stuffed to the brim with memorable guest-stars as always, but it was supporting actress Jessica Lange who made American Horror Story decent enough to watch. I know a lot of people who enjoyed the show’s first season, but I just thought it was paint-by-numbers of classic horror movie tropes. I don’t think it’s a bad show at all, and I do think that the anthology aspect of the show can only make it better, but I don’t get the heaps of praise that are showered on it by mainstream Hollywood. But whenever Lange’s eerie neighbor, Constance sauntered into the scene, she not only stole it, but she made an often unbearable episode worth watching. And for that, there could be no better guest or supporting actor. Note to Ryan Murphy: make sure Ms. Lange returns in some capacity for Season Two.
What Were They Thinking?
Like any fun-filled year in our tweet-filled, mile-a-minute news cycle, we saw some interesting stories. From the Kardashian Wedding debacle to Ashton Kutcher’s divorce from Demi Moore (not to mention his lackluster turn on Two and Half Men) and the PTC crying out against NBC for choosing Howard Stern to join America’s Got Talent; there’s always something to pique our interests. In fact, there are just too many news bits to list here. But miles ahead of any story this year was the entity known as Charlie Sheen. The guy had the biggest salary on television and was the star of TV’s most watched show. But at some point, Mr. Carlos Estevez (as he was known before fame) either snapped or got tired of the sitcom grind. I doubt anyone will truly know, including Teflon Charlie. But Sheen proceeded to lambast the producers and creator of Two and a Half Men as well the network boss. He aired videos and tweets that went from the incomprehensibly hilarious to “the should we all stage an intervention?” point. One could even assume that he just got sick and tired of hiding who he really is and began the Violent Torpedo of Truth tour, which subsequently violently torpedoed his career. Since his month long tirade, Sheen has cooled off greatly. He made fun of himself at the Emmys, and sat, squirmed and laughed as comedians roasted him on Comedy Central. While many fans await his return to TV, in the form of the show Anger Management for FX, there’s also no telling what antics the Vatican Assassin Warlock from Mars will be up to next.
Best New Show
Every year, a slew of new shows debut to win us over our hearts and minds. This year we've seen new comedies like Suburgatory and New Girl, as well as fantastical dramas like Once Upon a Time. But pound for pound the single best reason to skip work and avoid phone calls this season was Homeland. Starring the incomparable Claire Danes and Mandy Patankin, Shotime's newest cloak-and-dagger drama plays like a cerebral 24. I guess that's what happens when 24's creator, Howard Gordon takes the high stakes out of the one day at a time concept and plunges deep into the meticulous planning and plotting of the good guys and the bad guys. Danes and Patankin are joined by a cast that rises far above its capabilities. There's Morena Baccarin (previously best known for playing the alien queen on V) as Jessica Brody, the wife of a recently freed POW; British actor David Harewood as the steely-eyed CIA Director, David Estes; and of course Damien Lewis (previously seen on NBC's Life and HBO's Band of Brothers) as Sgt. Nicholas Brody, an American POW who was held captive in Iraq for eight years, only to return home and become the prime suspect in Carrie Matheson's (Danes) investigation. Lewis does a marvelous job at portraying a man who is trying to put his life back together while being at the forefront of a recruitment campaign – and a man who may or may not be a traitor to America.
Well that's it, the first ever Couchies, and in well under three hours. I could bore you with best actor and best actress but it's New Year's Eve and you probably have a lot of drinking to do in between The Walking Dead and Twilight Zone marathons.