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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We should consider ourselves lucky Nikki McKibbin, Corey Clark, Scott Savol, Sanjaya Malakar, Danny Gokey, Tim Urban, Jacob Lusk, and Elise Testone were contestants on American Idol. And that's coming from an Idol superfan who absolutely despised Nikki McKibbin, Corey Clark, Scott Savol, Sanjaya Malakar, Danny Gokey, Tim Urban, Jacob Lusk, and Elise Testone.
And five weeks into Season 12's finals, we should consider ourselves lucky that Lazaro Arbos has not only managed to outlast four more talented male contestants, but also attract an astonishing number of votes for a contestant so far out of his league, you might as well name him Kit. Because without Arbos, we'd be left with a crop of singers talented enough to sit alongside Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood on the Billboard charts. We'd be left with a crop of singers with interview packages charming enough to help us develop an unhealthy obsession with their Twitter feeds. But mostly, we'd be left with a crop of talented singers and no villian.
As much as the Idol viewing experience revolves around rooting for your favorite contestant, it also revolves around rooting against your least favorite contestant. What's the fun of loving a Tamyra Gray, Jordin Sparks, or an Adam Lambert if you can't hate a McKibbin, Malakar, or Gokey? (Heck, Season 6's ratings dropped a whopping nine percent after Malakar's elimination.) American Idol is a reality series without built-in twists, smack talk-inducing confessionals, and camera-ready weave-pulling. (That is, unless you count this.) If not for each season's anointed villain, it would be a reality series devoid of drama.
And, boy, is Arbos drama. Though his ability to sing through a speech disorder is certainly inspiring, the past few weeks have proven Arbos is as arrogant as he is ill-prepared. Just see his inability to remember lyrics in multiple performances and his dismissive response to negative feedback from Randy following his disastrous "For Once In My Life": "No problem, boo." And don't even get me started on his excuse that he had learned "In My Life" a mere 24 hours before his middling performance, a claim rebutted by Jimmy Iovine, who said he had been working on the song with Arbos for several days. I could go on — for paragraphs, and probably even days — about how much I dislike this Idol contestant... and that's exactly what Idol needs. Candice Glover, Angie Miller, Kree Harrison, Amber Holcomb, and Janelle Arthur are five extremely talented women with a real shot of making it in the music industry. I can only pray to the AT&T gods that they're rewarded the top five slots they so deserve. But I'm also ashamed to admit I'd be a bit disappointed to let go of Arbos, a contestant who is just so much fun to hate.
True, there have been a couple Idol seasons that were extremely enjoyable without the presence of villains. The dueling Davids was enough to carry Season 7, and Season 2 hit Idol's first televised sweet spot with the sweet friendship between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken. But Season 12's fabulous five females don't quite boast the innovation of Season 7's contestants, or the advantage of being members of a fresh new reality series like Season 2's singers. Season 12, with all of its undeniable talent, runs the risk of being boring. And while some Idol fans would point to Arbos' mere presence as evidence of the existence of the Rule of Three (every third Idol season is a terrible one), a drama-free season could very well put it over the edge.
Do I hope Arbos sings his farewell tune soon? Of course. Will Idol's top five girls make it in the industry regardless of their placement? In the name of Jennifer Hudson, I do believe so. Do I hope Arbos makes it as far as the top three? Absolutely not — I have ears, don't I?
But as fun as it is to hear Glover belt a serious note or Holcomb nail an impossible run, our Internet-trolling generation is addicted to hating on the most obnoxious of Arbos quotes. No doubt we'll even find something to hate in this one — Arbos tells Hollywood.com the sympathy vote is not responsible for his existence on the show. "It's getting a bit old and people have to let go of that," he says. "They keep saying that that is the only reason why I'm on the show, and I would just like to say that I haven't talked about my speech since day one, and the people that love me love me for my songs, and they also love me for my speech, but they don't say, 'Oh, I love the way you talk so much.'"
Unfortunately for Arbos, until he's let go from the show, fans eager to cling onto their five favorite girls won't stop blaming his success on the sympathy card. Nor will they let go of their desire to send him packing. But these same fans will undoubtedly be disappointed when Arbos is gone, no matter how ardently they watch in the coming weeks, hoping that he finally sings his swan song. And that's why Idol, as its ratings continue to decline, desperately needs its villain: Fans are riled up, but they're still watching, aren't they?
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The four-year love affair is over. Daily Variety reports today that MTV has canceled the late-night series “Loveline” after a four-year run.
MTV gave no reason for deciding not to renew the advice show for another 15 episodes.
“Loveline,” hosted by Adam Corolla, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Catherine McCord, has accumulated 369 half-hours since its MTV debut in November 1996.
THE $10 MILLION MAN: Recent Emmy winner James Gandolfini has signed a renegotiated contract that will give him $10 million for the next two seasons of the HBO hit drama “The Sopranos,” Variety says. The deal signed last week is said to include future obligations as actor and producer in television series for “Sopranos” partners Brad Gray Television and HBO.
UPN’S CASE OF ‘RAGE:’ UPN has picked up six hours of the reality series “Road Rage,” a mix of demolition derby and wrestling, from Mandalay Sports Entertainment and Scott Sternberg Prods., Variety says. “Rage” is being prepared for midseason and might air on Fridays.
MAMET AND MORROW ON THE BEAT: Playwright David Mamet and TV veterans Rod Holcomb and Tom Fontana are joining forces to develop a drama series for CBS and Artists Television Group, Variety reports. The show, tentatively titled “Bradford,” would star Rob Morrow as a big city police officer who returns to his small hometown.
NBC SAYS NO TO SPIELBERG: The Hollywood Reporter says today that NBC has decided not to pick up Steven Spielberg’s boot camp drama “Semper Fi” as a midseason replacement. DreamWorks Television has sent tapes to CBS and Fox, and if neither network picks up the show, NBC would air the pilot as a television movie.
KINISON BIOPIC IN THE WORKS: Universal Pictures is in talks to acquire feature film rights to late comedian Sam Kinison’s life story and a biography about him published in 1994, the Reporter says. “Brother Sam: The Short, Spectacular Life of Sam Kinison” follows Kinison’s life from high school dropout to his successful career as a profane, screaming comic. Kinison was 38 when he was killed in a head-on collision with a drunken driver in 1992.