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.
It's rare that a sequel trumps the original but The Expendables 2 manages to do just that with a steady stream of one-liners and welcome weathered faces as well as a few new ingredients. E2 seems even more self-aware of its own silliness especially with Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain (named Vilain of course) and Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger popping up in smaller roles alongside previous Expendables Sylvester Stallone Jason Statham Jet Li Dolph Lundgren Bruce Willis Terry Crews and Randy Couture.
Then again The Expendables wasn't any sort of action classic; it was like writer/director/star Stallone threw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall to see which would stick then added massive amounts of weapons and the occasional hand-to-hand combat. It was popular but it definitely not the kind of awesome actioner that the stars were able to make 10 or 20 years ago. There's the rub actually; like women actors who have written or directed their own projects because nothing else was available or satisfactory Stallone created The Expendables because Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with him and his fellow action stars as they got older. It's easy to criticize Stallone et al for not doing the same amount of stunt work or hand-to-hand fighting that for example Statham is capable of but the whole thrust of the movie is that they're expendable -- to themselves to the world and until Stallone kickstarted these movies to Hollywood.
E2 is still clumsy but it's a little more adventurous and a little more introspective. Two new additions to the crew seem to throw everyone for a loop in one way or another. Liam Hemsworth shows up as Bill the Kid a sniper who left the military after a raid in Afghanistan went horribly wrong; his age and hopefulness not to mention physical prowess is a foil the Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross and one that Barney is well aware of. Nan Yu joins the team as Maggie who is apparently the only person who can disarm the safe that holds whatever secret thing Church (Willis) has sent them to retrieve. And if the Expendables don't get her back alive Church will make them pay because even though Maggie is some sort of multilingual computer genius with a vicious roundhouse she's a lady. On one hand perhaps we're supposed to gather that this group of old dogs is learning new tricks by having to deal with a smart capable woman in their midst; the attempts Gunner (Lundgren) makes to flirt with her are clunky and goofy and she's obviously way too smart for fall for that claptrap. On the other when she whips out some instruments of torture Barney cracks "What are you going to do give them a pedicure?" And of course her role also devolves into an incredibly stilted and unbelievable romantic interest for Barney. One point for trying but two points deducted for falling into the romantic interest trap.
At times it's hard to tell whether or not we're laughing with the crew or at them. Plus because of how jam-packed the cast is some actors get the short end of the stick. Statham is the most charismatic of the bunch and he also has the most impressive hand-to-hand fight scenes but the emphasis in E2 is sheer firepower so he doesn't get nearly enough screen time. Couture is fairly forgettable while Lundgren plays the lunkiest of lunkheads; the running joke is that he has a chemical engineering degree from MIT and was a Fulbright Scholar which is supposed to be funny... except it's also true. (We're to assume he's mended his evil ways between the first Expendables and the second.) Is Lundgren agreeably poking fun at himself the same way Schwarzenegger hams it up at every turn? Or does E2 have shades of JCVD which stars Van Damme was a washed-up action star? Are the emotional moments supposed to fall so hilariously flat on purpose? For some reason it seems important to tease out which parts of these movies are earnest and which are tongue-in-cheek.
There's a weird melancholy about watching this group of aging action stars that has the same tang as watching someone you love grow older especially as they try so very hard to fight the ravages of time. If you dig a little deeper maybe deeper than E2 warrants you could find a well of sadness below the back-slapping antics. The world has changed and even though Stallone and his crew have muscles so hard and juicy they could pop out of their skin like grapes they can't compete with Bill the Kid and Maggie and others like them. They know it and we know it and while it's good fun to see old friends or onscreen enemies kill scores of bad guys (led by JCVD sporting a truly horrible fake Baphomet-style neck tattoo) there are better smarter more exciting and more interesting action films on the horizon.
And there's also The Expendables 3.
Why on earth would anyone want to remake Straw Dogs? Sam Peckinpah’s original film released in 1971 is a provocative disconcerting examination of man’s basest impulses. Its violence a source of some controversy when it was released seems relatively tame by today’s standards; its core assertion – that we’re all capable of the most extreme barbarism if pushed far enough – still unnerves. But it was very much a product of its time borne out of the social unrest and political upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The appeal – commercial and otherwise – of a modernized re-telling would seem perilously limited.
In the new version director Rod Lurie (Resurrecting the Champ The Contender) partly refashions Straw Dogs as a ham-fisted allegory for the increasingly acrimonious red state/blue state divide. It is exceedingly clear which side he’s on.
James Marsden plays David Sumner a Hollywood screenwriter who moves with his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) to her hometown of Blackwater Mississippi after her father’s death. Their stay is intended as only temporary long enough for them to prepare the family home for sale and for David to finish his latest screenplay about the siege of Stalingrad.
Blackwater presents more or less the prototypical (i.e. clichéd) Hollywood vision of a rural Deep South town populated with scruffy churlish yokels who instinctively recoil at anything resembling sophistication. Gun racks and confederate flags and “These Colors Don’t Run” bumper stickers abound. David with his vintage Jaguar credit cards and polysyllabic vocabulary incurs immediate resentment. David’s thinly-veiled condescension doesn’t help matters.
Everywhere he goes David is eyed with suspicion and made to feel unwelcome.
Hoping to ingratiate himself with the townsfolk he hires a local construction crew headed by Amy’s handsome ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair a barn damaged during a recent storm. The men prove less-than-stellar workers drinking on the job leaving early to go hunting and brazenly treading about the house as if they own it. Equivocal by nature David is loath to confront them and Charlie and the boys seize on his timidity. Their provocations soon adopt a more sinister face.
Straw Dogs like its predecessor is built around a climactic final “siege” of the Sumner house when David surrounded on all sides by men intent on taking everything he has is finally driven to fight back. But whereas Pekinpah’s film filled the preceding minutes with scene after scene of troubling moral complexity Lurie’s version can only offer unremitting tedium. His Straw Dogs is more than anything else a terminal bore. At 110 minutes it is actually shorter than the original but it feels a good deal longer. Even a pivotal rape scene – in which the victim’s consent is ever-so-briefly implied – and some virtuoso scenery-chewing from James Woods playing an alcoholic ex-football coach can’t breathe much life into this empty mundane film.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
On the surface Stay seems to be a straightforward psychological drama about a psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to keep a mysterious patient Henry (Ryan Gosling) from killing himself. But the deeper we get into it the decidedly weirder it gets. And not necessarily in a good way. Sam and Henry seemed to be inexplicably connected. While his girlfriend and former patient Lila (Naomi Watts) looks haplessly on Sam’s lightly held grip on the rational world begins to melt away. He can no longer figure out what is true and what is happening only in his head--all climaxing in a titular confrontation between life and death. Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling would have loved this one. Although he was surprisingly good as the romantic lead in The Notebook the usually somber Gosling is best known for playing quiet psychotics in such films as The United States of Leland and Murder By Numbers. In Stay he’s back to his old tricks as the suicidal Henry. Pale with mournful eyes and a perpetual cigarette in his mouth Henry is certainly a tortured soul looking for some relief. On the flip side Watts brightens the otherwise dismal surroundings as Lila but there’s also a tinge of sadness about her. The only weak link is McGregor. He can’t quite pull off playing the dedicated psychiatrist slowly losing his mind--but the Scottish actor sure has mastered the American accent (ditto for the Australian Watts). Director Marc Forster (Monsters Ball Finding Neverland) seems a bit out of his league with this jumbled-up hard-to-understand psychological fare. Granted the visuals are arresting. Forster strives to create a world which at first seems real but then little by little turns into a wildly shifting dreamscape in which scenes blend into one another seamlessly. The real problem here is the script by David Benioff (25th Hour). It tries to say “Look how clever!” by throwing you for loop after loop--except the loops don’t make much sense. You eventually stop saying “What the hell?” and start to get a pretty good idea how Stay is going to end up. And when the final twist is handed down it’s surprisingly not all that disappointing.
Tornados, floods and hail the size of toasters couldn't stop one jolly green ogre from taking the top spot this Memorial Day weekend--the highest grossing in history.
With a whopping four-day total of $92.2 million, DreamWorks' animated comedy Shrek 2 reigned at the box office for the second week, surpassing the global-warming disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, which debuted at $86 million.
Bolstered by Shrek 2, this year's top 12 films grossed $233.5 million, making it the No. 1 Memorial Day weekend ever, beating 1997's record, which saw The Lost World: Jurassic Park open with a four-day total of $90.1 million.
Don't feel too sorry for Day After Tomorrow, though; it still managed to become the second best Memorial Day opener of all time, right behind The Lost World: Jurassic Park and besting last year's Bruce Almighty, which premiered with $85.7 million.
Other newcomers to this week's top 10 include the tear-jerker Raising Helen, starring Kate Hudson, which debuted in fourth place with $14 million, and the raucous comedy Soul Plane, which opened in the fifth spot with $7 million.
With the healthy chunk of change from the top 12 films this week, box office numbers were up 20.66 percent from Memorial Day weekend last year, when they totaled $193.4 million.
The top three last year included: Universal's PG-13 rated Bruce Almighty, which opened with a heavenly $85.7 million in 3,483 theaters, averaging $24,615 per theater; The Matrix Reloaded, in second in its second week with $45.6 million in 3,603 theaters, averaging $12,659 per theater; and Sony Pictures' PG rated comedy Daddy Day Care, which fell to third place in its third week with $18.1 million at 3,472 theaters with a $5,217 per theater average.
BOX OFFICE TOP 10, ESTIMATES: Memorial Day Weekend Four-Day Totals (Source: Exhibitor Relations, Inc.)
No. 1: Shrek 2 (Dreamworks, PG)
Gross: $92.2 million (-33%)
Weeks opened: 2
Theaters: 4,223 (+60)
Per-theater average: $21,833
Cume to date: $257 million
No. 2: The Day After Tomorrow (20th Century Fox, PG)
Gross: $86 million
Weeks opened: NEW!
Per-theater average: $25,109
No. 3: Troy (Warner Bros., R)
Gross: $15 million (-50%)
Weeks opened: 3
Theaters: 3,411 (unchanged)
Per-theater average: $4,400
Cume to date: $109.6 million
No. 4: Raising Helen (Buena Vista, PG-13)
Gross: $14 million
Weeks opened: NEW!
Per-theater average: $5,162
No. 5: Soul Plane (MGM, R)
Gross: $7 million
Weeks opened: NEW!
Per-theater average: $4,470
No. 6: Mean Girls (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)
Gross: $6.3 million (-30%)
Weeks opened: 5
Theaters: 2,618 (-436)
Per-theater average: $2,259
Cume to date: $73.5 million
No. 7: Van Helsing (Universal, PG-13)
Gross: $6.2 million (-54%)
Weeks opened: 4
Theaters: 2,891 (-527)
Per-theater average: $2,145
Cume to date: $100.1 million
No. 8: Man on Fire (20th Century Fox, R)
Gross: $1.9 million (-48%)
Weeks opened: 6
Theaters: 1,426 (-678)
Per-theater average: $1,701
Cume to date: $73.3 million
No. 9: 13 Going on 30 (Sony Pictures, PG-13)
Gross: $1.1 million (-56%)
Weeks opened: 6
Theaters: 1,164 (-864)
Per-theater average: $1,203
Cume to date: $54.5 million
No. 10: Super Size Me (IDP Films/Roadside Attractions, NR)
Gross: $1 million (+9%)
Weeks opened: 4
Theaters: 197 (+49)
Per-theater average: $6,873
Cume to date: $4.8 million
Saved! (United Artists, PG-13)
Weeks opened: NEW!
Per-theater average: $22,000
Baadassss! (Sony Pictures Classics, R)
Weeks opened: NEW!
Per-theater average: $4,456
Move over, Grinch, for Mel Gibson is in the house.
That said, looks like Jim Carrey's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" will finally meet its match this weekend in the form of Gibson's romantic comedy "What Women Want."
With a big opening (playing on 3,000-plus screens) and "The Grinch's" natural decline, Mel and his "Women" should be able to take the box office crown this weekend.
Here's a look at the films opening this weekend .
"What Women Want"
THE SKINNY: After playing a stuffy revolutionary-type in this summer's "The Patriot," Mel Gibson switches gear in a comedy about a guy (Gibson) endowed with the ability to hear what women think. Helen Hunt plays one of those lucky females he mind-reads, and the cast also includes Marisa Tomei, Bette Midler and Delta Burke. THE UPSIDE: Pun intended: Women want Mel Gibson. And don't just take our word for it: "I think 'What Women Want' is pretty much guaranteed the No. 1 spot. The star and the premise should be strong enough to carry the picture. It's a high-concept movie, I say high teens to $20 million is quite feasible," Brandon Gray, editor of boxofficemojo.com, told Hollywood.com. THE DOWNSIDE: 'Tis the season not so jolly for the movies. Gray explains, "It very rare for a movie to have a huge opening at this time of the year, and that is what the film has going against it."
"The Emperor's New Groove"
THE SKINNY: Disney's newest venture to regain the crown in animated features. This particular one has to do with a young emperor who fights to return to human form after he is transformed into a (yes) llama in an act of treason committed by his adviser. THE UPSIDE: It's a Disney animated film. And everyone loves that! THE DOWNSIDE: Or, do they? Let's not forget that recent Disney flicks -- "Dinosaur," for one -- have not fared so well in the new animation game.
And then there's "The Grinch."
"The Grinch" is its only competition, but that's a behemoth," Gray said. "I will place my bet in the low teens, less than 'The Grinch' probably. It could be in the No. 3 spot, depending how 'Vertical Limit' do. We have a bunch of movies here that are very close this weekend, including this one, ''Vertical Limit' and 'Dude, Where's My Car?'"
"Dude, Where's My Car?"
THE SKINNY: "That '70s Show" hottie Ashton Kutcher and "Road Trip" and "American Pie" guy Seann William Scott are a couple of stoners a la "Beavis and Butthead" who wake up one day and can't remember where they parked their car. And yes, the rest of the film is about them looking for it by retracing the night's events. THE UPSIDE: It has got the dedication of a core audience, namely the type of boys embodied by lowbrow fare such as the "Bill and Ted" flicks, "Road Trip" and "American Pie." THE DOWNSIDE: "There's no indication that this would be another "Road Trip" and "American Pie," but it's certainly not going to be another 'Whatever It Takes," Gray says. "It could come within range with 'Vertical Limit' and 'Emperor.' It's definitely going to be in the Top Five, but which movie is going to do better is a flip of the coin. But I'm leaning toward the fifth place for this film."
Also, if you happen to be in Los Angeles or New York this weekend, check out Chocolat with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, and Pollock, about the life of Abstract Expression painter Jackson Pollock, with Ed Harris as both the star and the director. Both films are opening in those cities today.
And don't forget holdovers such as "The Grinch," "Vertical Limit" and "Proof of Life."