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.
Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.
If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.
In this latest doomsday pic Earth's inner core has stopped rotating a situation that will eventually cause the planet's electromagnetic fields to collapse. If it isn't fixed pronto static charges will create "super storms" that will generate hundreds of lightening strikes per square mile and cause microwave radiation to ultimately cook the planet. Government and military officials conjure up a team of scientists led by geophysicist Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) to travel to the planet's core and get it spinning again. Accompanying them are geophysicist Dr. Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) atomic weapons expert Dr. Levesque (Tchéky Karyo) "terranauts" Major Childs (Hilary Swank) and Commander Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Dr. Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo)--the renegade scientist who built the subterranean vessel. Their mission is to travel to the center of the earth to detonate a nuclear device that will hopefully jump-start the core and save the world. Like the "terranauts" grinding their way through Earth's layers to get to the planet's core The Core laboriously plods through the storyline to get to its climax--and both are equally uneventful.
Despite a really corny scene in which he demonstrates what will happen to the planet by torching some sort of fruit on a fork Eckhart (Possession) is believable as the sensible Keyes. Co-star Swank (Insomnia) meanwhile brings intensity to the role of fledgling astronaut Childs. It is Tucci (Big Trouble) however who creates the film's most interesting character the arrogant Dr. Zimsky. The diva-esque geophysicist heads to the center of the earth in style with his Louis Vuitton monogrammed canvas bag and an endless supply of cigarettes--making him politically--and refreshingly--incorrect. You'll love how he pompously records the mission's progress in a Carl Sagan-style narration. Back at mission control D.J. Qualls' computer-hacking character Rat mirrors a recent report describing the characteristics of computer virus writers: Male. Obsessed with computers. Lacking a girlfriend. Aged 14 to 34. Capable of sowing chaos worldwide. Qualls (The New Guy) couldn't be more suited for this digital graffiti artist role.
Director Jon Amiel helps define the film's main characters by weaving vignettes of their everyday lives throughout the first half of the film but so much effort is devoted to exploring their individual backgrounds that relationships among the team members are never established. The minor characters are like extras in a Star Trek episode--they're just onscreen to die. The Core also fizzles as a believable disaster movie because of its flimsy scientific reasoning even if you try to suspend your disbelief for the sake of cinematic "escapism." While I can make myself believe for example that a government-created weapon of mass destruction is to blame for the planet's imminent annihilation I cannot buy into the notion that this high-tech vessel was built by a renegade scientist in his backyard and is able to withstand the rough trip to the center of the earth. Although the film's original November release date was delayed because more time was needed to complete the special effects don't expect to be visually dazzled by the voyage. Most of what we see is what the "terranauts" see on their screen: spotty black-and-white renditions of sharp jagged rock. Scenes of the Roman Coliseum getting zapped by lightening and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge melting aren't convincing either.