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.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
January 31, 2002 5:51am EST
A group of high school seniors put a boy who is eager to become part of their clique through a cruel initiation prank that involves jumping off some sort of high scaffolding into a cloudy pool at a local cement factory. When one of them Landon (Shane West) gets caught the principal decides Landon needs to hang with a different crowd and assigns him to tutor kids on the weekend and take part in the drama club's spring play. Surprise-the plan works! In over his head with the play Landon seeks help from Jamie (Mandy Moore) a dowdy bible-thumper who apparently only owns one ratty cardigan. Jamie however is not your run-of-the-mill unpopular girl. Rather than being introverted and weird she is smart witty and confident-in fact that grubby sweater of hers seems to be the only thing branding her as an outcast. The two grow closer and Landon eventually sees her inner beauty forgoing his own A-list status to be with her. But Landon learns that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him that inevitably blocks their path to happiness.
Moore the underdog of the teen pop stars dyes her hair brown and dulls herself down for the role of Jamie a simple girl that loves to gaze at the stars in her spare time. She did a great job transforming herself into her character but in the process extinguished most of what makes her sparkle on screen. Mind you the script might be to blame for creating a character so unbelievably mundane and one-dimensional. Under all of Jamie's goodness and perfection is well nothing. West does a great job portraying his character transformation. Even while Landon runs with the bad crowd West conveys a sense of humility in the character. Peter Coyote plays Reverend Sullivan Jamie's over-protective father without being too overbearing which is refreshing. An almost unrecognizable and weathered Daryl Hannah has a small but convincing enough role as Landon's mother. Maybe it was her now-brunette hair but I didn't realize it was Hannah until I saw the credits.
In A Walk to Remember director Adam Shankman steered away from being overly sentimental. The relationship that develops between the teens is actually very sweet and interestingly enough the film ends up being more about Landon's transformation than about Jamie's faith. While the film is not as flaky as the rash of recent teen movies it still manages to fall into the same clichés. Though the story is very-dare I say-poignant characters like Jamie's in trying to be different have become a stereotype: The plain Jane whose personality and convictions win over the popular guy. Remember Andie (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink? Or more recently Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) in She's All That? And though Moore has a beautiful melodic voice her singing scenes are too drawn out. We are not just treated to her crooning a chorus or two of a song during a church scene but the songs in their entirety. Even Mariah Carey spared us that much in Glitter.