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.
Yes Tim Burton has covered this milieu before in animated ‘toons like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride but there’s a certain hip-factor to this amusing flick set in the world of creepy science labs as an homage to the Frankenstein and Dracula films of the ‘30s. The film’s central character Igor (of course) is a frustrated assistant who is dying to become a scientist in his own right and knows he has the smarts for it. Finally when his very mean mad scientist dies just before the annual Evil Science Fair the humpbacked little guy gets his big moment--with the help of sidekicks Brain (in a jar--and not too brainy at that) and Scamper a bunny with a death wish after Igor saves him from the brink of becoming permanent road kill but makes him immortal. Igor unveils his piece de resistance a creation that unfortunately turns out to be less monster and more uh like Annie. She’s a gigantic aspiring actress named Eva who would rather belt out show tunes than do the things lab-created monsters are supposed to do. But there’s a lot more in store for this crazy quilt group of misfits as they uncover an evil plot that threatens the world of Malaria--unless they can use all their ingenuity to save the day. Blessed with a superior vocal cast Igor works in large part due to appealing characterizations. John Cusack brings fun and recognizable human frustration to the title role while his sidekicks are hilarious including Steve Buscemi’s nifty vocal calisthenics as the cynical rabbit and Sean Hayes as the sweet but dumb Brain relegated to life in a jar mislabeled “Brian ” the butt of a few too many jokes. The mad scientists are played to the hilt by a couple of perfectly cast English vets: John Cleese as Dr. Glickenstein and especially silly work from Eddie Izzard as Dr. Schadenfreude. Christian Slater is along for the ride as the latter’s own Igor while SNL vet Molly Shannon seems to be having a great time bringing the Broadway-bound Eva to life perfectly awful as she sings ditties like “Tomorrow” while dwarfing everyone else with her plus PLUS-sized frame. Listen also for former late night talk show rivals Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall in bit roles. Relative newcomer Tony Leondis has directed with an eye toward over-the-top humor and atmospheric surroundings making this animation entry always a pleasure to watch. He brings Chris McKenna’s smart sassy script to life in ways that won’t just appeal to kids but also their parents who may even find themselves laughing out loud a couple of times. In fact much of the dialogue is so referenced with pop culture tidbits that a lot of it will probably sail right over the young tykes heads. McKenna who cut his teeth as writer and producer of the sophisticated FOX series American Dad brings the wit with Igor. Even though iconic animation wizards like Tim Burton and Pixar (with Monsters Inc.) have been down this road before Igor feels fresh and original and that’s certainly no easy task.
In adapting a rather flimsy children’s book into a full-fledged feature film one has to take some liberties. We first meet the lovable little monkey in the wild where his curious habits wreck havoc. Meanwhile in the big city Ted (voiced by Will Ferrell)--aka The Man with the Yellow Hat--is a highly enthusiastic guide at the soon-to-be-closed Bloomsberry Museum. In order to save the museum (here’s where they pad it) he is sent on a mission to Africa to retrieve a lost shrine. But when he gets there the only thing he finds is a miniature version of it--and George of course. The lonely monkey decides to follow Ted all the way back to the city where his mischievous tendencies get him into even more trouble. George nearly ruins everything for Ted but somehow the little feller eventually grows on him. How could he not? If I can borrow a line from Madagascar little George is so cute I just like to dunk him in my coffee. When you’re reading Curious George out loud to your kids you don’t get the impression The Man with the Yellow Hat is a good-natured but geeky fellow gangly clumsy and clueless about women. Thank goodness the film has Will Ferrell to clear it up for us! You basically know what you’re in for once you recognize his voice and his natural comic timing shines through lending for some funnier moments (“OK I’m looking directly into the sun. Staring right at it. I’ve got to be honest with you it stings…”). The other voices in the film also do a fine job including Drew Barrymore as a schoolteacher who has a crush on Ted; Eugene Levy as the mad museum scientist; Dick Van Dyke as the museum’s old-time curator; and David Cross as his weasly greedy son. Based on the books and illustrations by Margret and H.A. Rey Curious George embraces the essence of the timeless stories created 65 years ago. The film apparently took awhile to find its voice. Producer Ron Howard originally conceived it as live-action film but quickly realized they could never get a real monkey as cute and fuzzy as George. Then CGI was considered but ultimately the filmmakers kept returning to the source: the late H.A. Rey’s original painstakingly beautiful illustrations. Thankfully they stuck with that idea. Curious George is lush and vibrant with all of Rey’s best efforts fully realized in Technicolor. And much like what the Piglet’s Big Movie did with Carly Simon and The Wild Thornberrys with Paul Simon Curious George is also sprinkled with original songs by hot pop singer Jack Johnson to give it a modern feel. So what if the story gets a little overblown in parts it will still introduce one of literature’s most enduring icons to the young-un’s--while allowing the adults to reminisce.
Nice guy Jerry (Matthew Lillard) is the same numbingly trite character we've seen in hundreds of other movies. He faces 30 with uncertainty. He doesn't know if he should propose to his beautiful girlfriend Denise (Bonnie Somerville). He just can't commit darn it! Oh life is so confusing! Meeting up with his best buds Tom "the rebel" (Dax Shepard) and Dan "the runt" (Seth Green) at the funeral of their dead friend Billy they reunite in the-what else?--tree house of their youth. There they discover a map of Billy's longtime obsession: The disappearance of hijacker D.B. Cooper with $200 000 cash. (Never mind that the real Cooper's flight took off in 1971 well before any of these characters would be born.) So these three friends set out on an expedition from the heart and learn a few valuable life lessons along the way. They embark on a canoe trip in the Pacific Northwest in search of Cooper's lost treasure with a very large bear and two even larger hillbillies in hot pursuit. Which is of course just a big excuse for some crazy hijinks in the woods the obligatory stoner sequence gorgeous but unshaven tree-huggers living atop a redwood a crazed mountain man the usual.
Lillard has an off-kilter charm that works in his supporting roles but not so much as the lead. One imagines the producers offering the role first to Adam Sandler and then to Vince Vaughn or Luke Wilson before finally settling on Lillard after they all refuse. His overbearing earnestness in the role recalls his work in SLC Punk straining for normalcy when something completely off-the-wall would work so much better. Shepard (from MTV's Punk'd) fares better he is amusingly annoying but at least he takes a side. Green is usually funnier than this but he doesn't usually have to lug an inhaler around with him as a prop or constantly stoop for laughs as the token scaredy cat. The three of them do have an easygoing chemistry that makes them good company. Burt Reynolds turns up with a foot-long beard as the mountain man who might know something about the treasure. It is certainly the most vanity free performance of Reynolds' career and while it doesn't amount to much it's a step in the right direction for a guy who could still be a great character actor if he could finally get over the fact that he is no longer Stroker Ace.
Steven Brill is best known as the director of the first Adam Sandler movie that didn't reach nine figures at the box office Little Nicky and he hasn't exactly advanced the art of screen comedy here. Nevertheless the pacing is brisk the timing is crisp and the repartee (credited to five writers) is snappy. Even the action comedy sequences mostly running away from the bear and the hillbillies are convincingly done. But make no mistake this is clearly the work of a man hell-bent on paying homage to The Goonies and for that miniscule target audience that not only saw The Goonies in the theater it can also differentiate the Coreys. Of course '80s music has been back in vogue for several years so it's inevitable that the '80s comedy embodied in this movie The Girl Next Door
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and others would return. But somebody had better make a good one soon or it will disappear faster than you can say Kajagoogoo.