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.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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The Five-Year Engagement is an ambitious film by Hollywood rom-com standards. The script by director Nicholas Stoller and lead actor Jason Segel aims for charm and pain and laughs and truth. The presentation is slick with the beauty of San Francisco and small town Michigan backdropping the comedy captured with above-average photography that screams "This isn't your run-of-the-mill Katherine Heigl flick!" Five-Year Engagement is a shotgun blast of grand ideas every element spread so thin it ends up being not that charming not that painful not that funny and not that truthful.
Tom (Segel) a professional cook and his girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt) a hopeful psychology student have been dating for one year before the question is finally popped. They seem perfect for one another understanding the other's perspectives sharing sensibilities and helping each other loving life to the fullest. The couple's wedding planning process is slow and steady but when the date is finally in sight Violet finds herself with an offer to attend the University of Michigan. The wrench in the life plan sets the nuptials back much to the chagrin of Violet's mother (Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver) who pushes her daughter to tie the knot before all the grandparents are dead. The potential move doesn't sit well with Tom either — leaving San Fran means quitting a high profile cook job and saying goodbye to his best bud Alex (Chris Pratt) and Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie). But the compromise is eventually made and Tom and Violet find themselves driving into the cold snowy unknown of Michigan.
Five-Year Engagement maximizes Segel's and Blunt's inherent charisma (and really they're two of the gosh darn nicest on-screen people in recent years) by making them kind loving and flawless. To give the movie a reason to exist problems for their relationship are then randomly conjured up. Slowly but surely their relationship suffers strain from all the bending over backwards. The archaic conceit of why these two actually need to get married to profess their love isn't really addressed — they just have to and life is standing in their way. Tom can't find a cooking job; Violet's professor plays devil on her shoulder about marriage; Tom hates Michigan but turns out to be too nice to say anything; Violet sees shades of her psychological experiments ripping apart Tom's exterior. After meeting them in the beginning the hurdles the central couple faces throughout their five year engagement are nonsensical. They're perfect for each other they're just written to have rom-com problems.
The movie earns a few chuckles. Pratt and Brie steal the show as the friend and sister who quickly fall in love tie the knot have kids and foil Segel and Blunt's relationship. The two leads are comedically proficient too — a conversation between Blunt and Brie performed with Cookie Monster/Elmo voices is pure genius. But it's a movie of moments diluted by a non-action arc that's simply a bore. Halfway through the movie Segel's Tom goes full-on cartoon character embracing a mountain man persona who's obsessed with venison and brewing his own honey mead. The jokes could work in another movie but not in Five-Year Engagement which strives for something more.
Time is essential to Five-Year Engagement but it's unclear how many months have passed between the movie's scatterbrained scenes. Alex and Suzie visit Tom and Violet with kids then magically they're all grown up when a year (maybe) has passed. And when did Tom go crazy? How quickly did they put their third marriage attempt together? The film's timeline is key but never feels established — even with a run-time of over two hours. Much like Tom and Violet the audience waits and waits and waits and waits for the couple to finally tie the knot in Five-Year Engagement. Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part.
Disney's new movie Mars Needs Moms suffers from a classic mistake: focusing too much on one aspect of a production -- and in this case it's the visuals. The result is an unbalanced mess that looks terrific but doesn't have enough substance to leave the audience with anything more to "ooh" and "ah" at other than all the pretty colors. As we all know from that one really really hot girl/guy in high school who's now overweight and working a dead-end job looks can only go so far.
Adapted from the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon Wells Mars Needs Moms follows Milo (acted by Seth Green voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) as he chases after his mother who's been stolen by Martians just a few hours after he told her he'd be better off without her. Once he arrives on Mars (by sneaking on the ship) he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) who informs him of his problem: the Martians are ruled by a ruthless queen-like Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who's decided that the hatchlings (babies who sprout from the ground like vegetables) must be divided: all males are thrown away into the dump and the females are raised by "nanny-bots" -- robots programmed by the "discipline" energy of good moms like Milo's from Earth. Milo and Gribble buddy-up and with the help of a rebel Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) the three of them venture to save Milo's mom before it's too late.
And venture on they do. Coming from producer Robert Zemeckis and utilizing the same motion-capture technology as The Polar Express A Christmas Carol and Beowulf Mars Needs Moms rushes forward embracing its visually stunning universe without taking a moment to stop and breathe. The characters never have a chance to do anything significant that would make the audience think they're substantial or important -- especially Gribble whom the filmmakers really really want us to care for. On top of that it relies on a plot line that we've all seen before and instead of diving into the parts that made it interesting (like the question of why men were thrown in the garbage and not women) it skims safely along the surface doing its best to avoid anything deeper than basic themes.
But that may be a little too picky. After all the movie is just supposed to be a fun little child's tale right? In that vein it succeeds. We feel like we're on an amusement park ride thanks to Ki's vibrant '60s flower-power paintings and the adventures on the Red Planet's surface. Even the moments that aren't super fast-paced present environments that are beautiful. Plus Fogler's performance as Gribble (as Jack Black-esque as it was) gives us some fun enjoyable moments and one-liners that kids will no doubt love.
Yet at the same time Mars Needs Moms' visuals aren't all glorious. In fact some hurt the plot because frankly the humans aren't animated very well. There's no life in their eyes. Simple movements like walking look awkward and too often characters facial expressions don't match the urgency found in their voices. Instead the animation just turns all the characters into weird cartoony versions of themselves that look so "almost human" they appear fake. And as always it's difficult to care for fake people.
Children will definitely enjoy Mars Needs Moms but from a filmmaking standpoint Wells really missed an opportunity to deliver something other than neat visuals and one-liners.
If you have ever been embarrassed by your big loud family then you will certainly relate to Toula (played by Nia Vardalos) the narrator and main character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. After all her suburban home is modeled after the Parthenon and her father (played by Michael Constantine) believes a squirt of Windex can cure anything--including bursitis--and that every word in the English language derives from a Greek root. At 30 Toula is still living at home and kowtowing to her strict father--who believes that every Greek woman's ambition should be to marry a Greek man have Greek children and feed everyone until she dies. Suffice it to say he is less than happy when Toula becomes engaged to Ian (played by John Corbett)--a non-Greek. What ensues is a hilarious tale of what happens when two families--one loud Greek Orthodox the other conservative Episcopalian--must reconcile their differences for the sake of their children's happiness. Vardalos' narration of the events that are occurring--and how she feels about them--helps draw the viewer into Toula's world.
Vardalos is great as Toula and presents her character's traits and peculiarities fittingly well like her low self-esteem and the way she slouches. More importantly Vardalos made Toula's character believable. When Toula begins taking classes at a local college her confidence improves she puts on a little makeup combs her hair and voila! She's transformed into a beautiful person oozing happiness. It's quite charming. Corbett is well cast as the sweet and accepting fiancé but he comes across as a little bland. That really dated haircut certainly doesn't win him any points either. Constantine as Toula's strict father is chauvinistic and thick-headed but he plays his cards just right so you can never really hate the character straight out even though he treats his wife and kids like a Neanderthal would. As Aunt Voula Andrea Martin is by far the most hilarious of the bunch and she delivers each line with zany conviction. For all you 'N Sync fans Joey Fatone has a small role as Toula's cousin and has maybe three lines in the film.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is based on comedy writer Vardalos' one-woman show. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson saw the show and apparently liked it so much they decided to produce it through their Playtone studio. Directed by Joel Zwick the film is not the first to deal with big weddings and what happens when too many family members get involved. Ang Lee did it better with the 1993 romantic comedy The Wedding Banquet about a gay Taiwanese-American man who marries a young Chinese woman to satisfy his parents as did Mira Nair with last year's Monsoon Wedding about an arranged Indian marriage. But Zwick who has directed a slew of TV shows from Happy Days to The Wayans Brothers keeps things fresh and funny despite the tired storyline. Set in Chicago but filmed in Toronto the film feels authentic especially the scenes in the family's diner Dancing Zorbas their house and their neighborhood. But the movie could have done without the cartoonish old-world granny with anti-Turkish sentiment.
Steve and Terri Irwin are crocodile relocators in Far North Queensland Australia. They spend a lot of time well relocating crocs--saving a baby kangaroo and charming a few snakes along the way. But all that's about to change. A U.S. satellite has exploded in space and its black box has re-entered the atmosphere and ended up in the gut of a nasty 12-foot croc the Irwins are about to relocate. The FBI CIA and goodness knows what other agencies are out to find the box at any cost because it contains data that could change the world's power structure. When the agents cross paths with the Irwins they become convinced that the two croc hunters are actually spies mainly because as one agent says toward the end of the film "You don't make that kind of money in cable television." That's for sure and that's probably the reason the producers turned The Crocodile Hunter cable show into a movie. It definitely wasn't because the script was irresistible: The plot is as transparent as shed snakeskin and the acting (if it can be called that) is as stiff as the spikes on a croc's back. I'm sure this is the kind of movie that a critic shouldn't take seriously but from its lizard-pooh opening to its crocodile-pooh finish The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course really stinks.
Director/story writer/producer John Stainton was working with Irwin long before The Crocodile Hunter TV show became an international hit. In fact he wrote a movie script for Irwin in the mid-1990s that was scrapped because he didn't think Irwin should be acting. It's a shame he didn't take that thought process one step further; we'd all have been spared an agonizing guided tour of a good idea gone very very bad. The film's stars while appealing enough in the one-hour documentary format simply can't sustain a full-length motion picture and Mr. Irwin would have done well to heed his own advice--"Don't muck with it." Granted at least Stainton was smart enough to present the Irwins doing what they do best--enthusiastically working with wild animals while talking straight into the camera. The task of plot development is left to the other cast members--mainly Australian actors doing caricatures of Americans--who overdramatically play out the goofy spy plot in scenes that are completely separate from the Irwins' animal antics until the last 10 minutes of the film. The Irwin family dog Sui is probably the best actor of the bunch--and the smartest too. Most of the time she looks like she'd rather be just about anywhere else which is the most intelligent thing anybody in this film does.
As if anybody needed it The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course is proof that what works on TV doesn't necessarily make a good movie; the Crocodile Hunter documentary routine quickly grows frustrating in the film because the Irwin scenes do nothing to further what little plot the movie actually has. Plus the reason why the Irwins continually talk into the camera goes unexplained until the very end of the film--and when someone finally mentions the fact that the Irwins have been "filming" their show throughout the movie it's so offhand that it's easily missed. At the same time the spy storyline that drives the plot is trite and because of the movie's bizarre structure it's played out by actors the audience couldn't care less about rather than by the ones they came to see. The spy scenes separate the Irwin segments like commercials--and like commercials when they come on you just want to get up and go to the bathroom grab a snack or feed the dog. The best thing that can be said for Stainton's direction is that at least he's not afraid of the film's ridiculousness. Bad though the movie is in every way Stainton puts it all out there as enthusiastically as Steve Irwin wrestles crocs and that's saying something. The film also gets across the Irwins' admittedly important message about conservation loud and clear but that probably won't be enough to keep its audience from becoming extinct.