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.
Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
After decades of moviemaking years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion reeling in audiences with drama adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest War Horse isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.
The titular equine is Joey a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war and the real adventure begins.
Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war Joey miraculously sees it all all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.
Spielberg avoids any over-the-top Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse but amazingly the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.
But even with a stellar cast working at full capacity War Horse falters thanks to its episodic nature. It is a movie of moments—awe-inspiring breathtaking and heartfelt—stuffed with long stretches of underdeveloped characters guiding us through meandering action. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the varying environments visually enthralling—from the dark blue hues of war to rolling green hills backdropped with stunning sunsets—and John Williams' score matches the film's epic scope but without Albert in the picture's second half War Horse simply gallops around in circles.
Spielberg is a master craftsman and War Horse a masterful craft but the movie lacks a necessary intimacy to hook us into the story's bigger picture. The ensemble's devotion and affection for Joey sporadically resonates—how could it not? Look at that adorable horse!—but even those emotional beats border on goofy (at one point Hiddleston's character decides to sketch Joey a moment I found eerily reminiscent of Jack sketching Rose in Titanic). War Horse really hits its stride when Spielberg pulls back the camera and lets his keen eye for picturesque composition do the talking. Or from Joey's perspective neighing.
If you thought a San Francisco police detective (Michael Douglas) was hard to break imagine how tough it is to sway a London shrink (David Morrissey). Leave it to Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) to try. The sinful author has resurfaced and--in the nearly decade and a half since the first Basic Instinct--moved to London. Old habits die hard however and she’s again being investigated for a sex-gone-awry homicide. This time it’s renowned shrink Michael Glass who’s charged with keeping a watchful eye on the elusive seductress--and does he ever! He tries to maintain his professional ethos but what’s a platonic doctor-patient non-relationship to him is the ultimate aphrodisiac to Tramell whom Dr. Glass diagnoses with “risk addiction” and delusions of omnipotence. And so begins the Freudian chess match: How long can he resist the femme fatale and how long can she resist him resisting her? In Basic Instinct 2 Stone makes us feel naughty--and not a “good” naughty. She looks great and there aren't any uh extra close-ups but subtly put almost 15 years have past since the first installment and Stone is no spring chick--er rabbit as it were. For her to still be oozing sex as if it’s only been a sequel-standard couple of years is creepy even though she looks nowhere near her age. The accompanying smolder and breathy voice make it hard not to laugh; she’s actually too regal an actress for this stuff. Morrissey--who strangely resembles the Smiths singer of the same name--does fine work with an unenviable role of a steely bloke intrigued by the seedy London underworld his patient enjoys. But it’ll take repeated broodings for him to be the next Clive Owen. The biggest waste of talent comes from Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) as Glass’s mentor. She has no place here and that’s meant solely as a compliment. In some ways Basic Instinct 2 is such a shame: When the film operates purely as a murder mystery--at least for its first half--it’s somewhat engaging. Sadly the only reason there’s any interest in this long-delayed sequel at all is the prospects of sex to outlast its original. Thus it is clear to see how cantankerous a film this must’ve been for director Michael Caton-Jones but he does the best he can with all the sexual innuendo that leads up to all the sexual (anti-)climaxes. The completely absurd opening sequence gives it all up without even playing hard to get. It immediately feels like a traditionally slick dull and revelatory film whereas the first one offered us foreplay first before moving on to no-holds-barred sex; there’s neither that brand of foreplay nor sex here. More ridiculous still is the second half as the film eventually feebly attempts to hide improbable twists behind the sordid mind of a writer.
Painfully estranged from his daughter old-school boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) hasn't let anyone get too close to him in a very long time. Even his best friend and former trainee Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who manages Frankie's rundown boxing gym has a tough time getting through. Everything changes however when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. A spitfire looking for someone to believe in her Maggie also has a painful past. But with unshakable willpower along with some tremendous raw talent Maggie has found that her love for boxing could be her ticket to a happy life--and she wants Frankie to turn her into a champion. Naturally he doesn't want to have anything to do with her and doesn't want to take that risk especially with a girl.Yet Frankie is soon won over by the young boxer's dogged resolve to be the best. The road to glory isn't easily paved for these two stubborn mules but Maggie and Frankie rediscover a sense of family they both thought they'd lost long ago. Theirs is a bond that will carry them through one of the hardest journeys either one of them will ever take. Oh yeah you're going to need a wad of tissues for this one.
Swank once again sheds her girlishness to tackle the roughhouse world of female boxing and she delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as Maggie. Not only does the actress embody the physicality of such a role--achieved after months of hard training--she also captures the spirit of a woman who defies the odds by breaking away from her dirt-poor trailer-trash upbringing to become a champion. Some may liken the plain no-nonsense Maggie to Swank's Oscar-winning role as the girl-turned-boy Brandon in Boys Don't Cry but Swank has matured in her acting abilities giving Maggie a very definite feminine edge. Still Swank might consider a nice romantic comedy for her next project. As for the men of Baby Eastwood and Freeman have never been more on top of their game. Frankie is tailored-made for Eastwood who plays a man tortured by his past and reluctant to let anyone in. It's a persona he has adopted many times but as the boxing trainer the craggy face gravel-voiced actor-director truly gives one of the better performances of his career. The same goes for Freeman as the soft-spoken but oh-so-wise Scrap. And watching the two Unforgiven veterans bicker and banter in Baby is like watching an old married couple.
Like a fine wine Clint Eastwood's movies just keep getting better and better the older the director gets. Following last year's intense Mystic River which some saw as a bit heavy handed Eastwood seems to have gone back to a quieter simpler more personal tone with Million Dollar Baby. The film starts out along the lines of such great boxing films as Raging Bull and the recent Girlfight as it highlights the competitive world of female boxing. It's in your face and gritty showing the punches the blood and the pain in glorious Technicolor. But just as it starts to turn into Rocky-style sap when Maggie rises to the top against all the odds the film subtly shifts into a love story about two people hurt by their pasts only to find each other and decide to hold on in a deeply familial way. Then just when you think how sweet that all is Baby throws you for an even bigger albeit darker loop. Eastwood expertly and gently guides you through the film's wondrous maze of revelations. Baby could very well creep in as a surprise Oscar contender.