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.
The remake of Total Recall never escapes the shadow of its Arnold Schwarzenegger-led predecessor — and strangely it feels like a choice. With a script that's nearly beat-for-beat the original film Total Recall plods along with enhanced special effects that bring to life an expansive sci-fi world and action scenes constructed to send eyes flipping backwards into skulls. Filling the cracks of the fractured film is a story that without knowledge of the Philip K. Dick adaptation's previous incarnation is barely decipherable. Those who haven't seen Paul Verhoeven's 1990 Total Recall? Time to get a few memory implants. 2012 Recall makes little sense with the cinematic foundation but it does zero favors to those out of the know.
Colin Farrell takes over duties from Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid a down-on-his-luck factory worker hoping to escape his stagnate existence with a boost from Rekall a company capable of engineering fake memories. Quaid calls the damp slums of "The Colony" home (one of two inhabitable parts of Earth) but he dreams of moving to the New Federation of Britain a pristine metropolis on the other side of the planet. When the futuristic treatment goes awry — caused by previously existing memories of our blue collar hero's supposed past life as a secret agent — Quaid emerges from Rekall with lethal power hidden under his mild-mannered persona. He quickly goes on the run escaping squads of soldiers robots and his assassin "wife " Lori (Kate Beckinsale) all hot on his tail. Total Recall turns into one long chase scene as Quaid unravels the mystery of his erased memories.
But when it comes to answers and heady sci-fi Total Recall falls short. Farrell isn't a hulking action star like Schwarzenegger but he's a performer that can sensitively explore any human crisis big or small. Director Len Wiseman (Underworld Live Free or Die Hard) never gives his leading man that opportunity. Farrell makes the best of the films occasional slow moment but the weight of Recall's mindf**k is suffocated in a series of fist fights hovercar pile-ups and foot chases pulled straight out of the latest platformer video game (a sequence that sends Quaid running across the geometric rooftop architecture of The Colony looks straight out of Super Mario Bros.). When Jessica Biel as Quaid's former romantic interest Melina and Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as the power-hungry politico Cohaagen are finally woven into Farrell's feature length 50 yard dash it's too late — the movie isn't making sense and it's not about to regardless of the charm on screen.
The action is slick and the futuristic design is impeccable but without any time devoted to building the stakes Total Recall feels more like a HDTV demo than a thrilling blockbuster. The movie's greatest innovation is the central set piece "The Fall " an elevator that travels between the two cities at rapid speed. The towering keystone of mankind is a marvel but we never get to see it explore it or feel its implications on the world around it. Instead it's cemented as a CG background behind the craze of Farrell shooting his way through hoards of bad guys.
Science fiction more than any other dramatic genre twist demands attention to the details. New worlds aren't built on broad strokes. But Total Recall tries to get away with it in hopes that audiences will recall their own movie knowledge to support its faulty logic. The movie repeatedly prompts viewers to think back to the 1990 version with blatant fan service that's absolutely nonsensical in this restructured version (no longer does Quaid go to Mars but there's still a three-breasted alien?). The callbacks may have given Total Recall a "been there done that" feel but rarely is it coherent enough to get that far. By the closing credits you'll be struggling to remember what you spent the last two hours watching.
The trailers for the upcoming In Time may have you believing that stars Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried are stuck in one giant "there's no time!" chase sequence. You'd only be partially right. This couple of beautiful people are most definitely on the run, but with a greater purpose.
Every human on the planet, including the sprinting duo, is born with a ticking clock, an implant that acts as both their life's countdown clock and their wallet (in this world, time is currency). Nefarious circumstances force the duo to constantly search for a few more minutes, but the danger also inspires them to Robin Hood the rich (who have centuries worth of time on their clocks) and spread the wealth. Er, hours. They're bank robbers—and the newfound occupation elevates them to what is known in the movie world as "Bonnie and Clyde" status. Thanks to the lawless world of movies, two turn-of-the-century criminals have been immortalized, with Timberlake and Seyfried being the latest to keep the thieving dream alive.
Obviously, they aren't the first (but may be the most futuristic?). Here are a few examples of couples who make doing bad oh so good:
Pulp Fiction's Pumpkin and Honey Bunny
We don’t know a good deal about who “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” are, or what brings them to the Hawthorne Grill that eventful morning. But aside from an offhanded remark about not particularly wanting to kill anybody, we can tell that the two of them are none too averse to a life of criminal activity (they might have undergone a change of heart after a run-in with Jules Winnfield, however). It seems the two are most amorous when they’re about to pull a job. In fact, it might be this life of crime that is, in fact, holding their love together. Thus, a more Bonnie and Clyde-esque pair you’d be hard-pressed to find.
Duplicity's Ray and Claire
Ray and Claire may be just as confused by one another's hazy allegiances as the audience watching this mind-bending romantic thriller. Throughout the movie, their relationship intertwines, doubles back and disintegrates over many years and many cooperate invasions. By the end, they're working together (or are they?!) to infiltrate and profit from their big business employers—but find themselves screwed by another unseen force. Thanks to Julia Roberts and Clive Owen's genuine chemistry, the only thing that doesn't feel like an espionage maneuver is the two's lust. But even then…
Fun with Dick and Jane's Dick and Jane
Dick and Jane Harper begin their cinematic adventures as your average married couple—their financially well-off, passionless, hardly the criminal type. Once Dick’s evil conglomerate lets most of its employees go, the two resort to robbery—ranging from quiet stickups at the ATM to the carefully-plotted takedown of Dick’s billionaire ex-employer—which, incidentally, ups the ante in their own personal zests for living. This simple suburban married couple, played by Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni, get a healthy dose of Bonnie and Clyde in Dean Parisot’s Fun with Dick and Jane.
Natural Born Killers' Mickey and Mallory
When it comes to couples who fuel their love life with crime, you’re bound to expect a little darkness. But even Bonnie and Clyde themselves would shudder at the activities of Mickey and Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. From the moment of Mickey’s romantic—wait, no…horrifying—rescue of Mallory from her abusive parents, the two spend their life on the run from the law, committing murder after murder in the name of whatever they claim to believe in. It may be even beyond the wheelhouse of cinema’s most iconic criminal couple, but the roots of Mickey and Mallory are certainly planted in Bonnie and Clyde: they’re the bad guys. But they’re the bad guys together. So it’s kind of sweet—wait, no…horrifying.
Knight and Day's Roy and June
Roy and June may not pilfer the innocent, but they are a couple that spends a majority of their time on the run, firing guns amongst bystanders and escaping from sticky situations just in the nick of time. Sounds like a Bonnie & Clyde duo if there ever was one.
And they do do quite a bit of stealing: The secret agent and his blonde bombshell captive hunt, nab and protect a tiny trinket called the Zephyr, a never-ending battery capable of powering pretty much anything. The tricky part of their renegade romance is that neither really knows when one is going go backstab the other. Being a couple's a lot easier when both people have the same agenda, even if that agenda's robbing banks.
True Romance' Clarence and Alabama
Clarence and Alabama are guilty of plenty: prostitution, drug possession, murder, Sonny Chiba fandom. But their intentions are never quite criminal...it's all just a means to the truly romantic end of spending their lives together. Caught up in a runaway life, the couple portrayed by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in this Tony Scott film exemplify the downward spiral that is the Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle. At the beginning of the film, Clarence is a simple video store clerk—but his love for Alabama, and possibly impassioned sensibilities over this new life of danger, have launched him and his call girl soul mate into an inescapable life of crime.
Bonnie and Clyde's Bonnie and Clyde
We're certainly not going to compile a tribute to Bonnie and Clyde couples and not include the definitive Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway inhabited the notorious crime couple and helped define the pair as symbols of counter culture. They were in love…but they also shot tommy guns and stole people's hard-earned cash. Back in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde shocked the nation. Now, anti-heroes are perfectly acceptable—to the point that Bonnie and Clyde may not even deserve the "anti" in their label!
If a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.