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.
Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.
The 58th Annual Golden Globe Awards is shaping up to be one heck of a testosterone-charged run.
Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" and Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" have emerged as the frontrunners in this year's race for the Globes, each receiving five nods apiece as nominations for the annual bash were announced this morning by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in Beverly Hills, Calif..
Trailing closely behind are Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical rock flick "Almost Famous," "Chocolat," "Wonder Boys" and Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich," each earning four nominations.
Soderbergh's drug trafficking drama (which has yet to bow in theaters) picked up almost all the prized loot with a nod for best picture (drama), best director, best screenplay for scribe Stephen Gaghan and a best supporting actor and actress (drama) mention for Benicio Del Toro and Catherine Zeta-Jones, respectively.
Soderbergh and company will go up against Scott's brutish epic "Gladiator" in three other fronts: best picture (drama), best director and best supporting thanks to the lascivious performance by Joaquin Phoenix.
The Roman decadence film has also earned its rugged Australian star Russell Crowe a best actor (drama) nomination. Crowe was long favored by critics to receive a nomination for his performance. Rounding out the film's fifth nomination is a nod for best original score.
The usual suspects also turned up for the best actor (drama) category. Besides Crowe, there's Javier Bardem for his role as a gay Cuban poet in "Before Night Falls," Michael Douglas playing a mid-life-crisis-prone writer in "Wonder Boys," Geoffrey Rush as the decorum-defying Marquis de Sade in "Quills" and Tom Hanks -- who avenges his "The Green Mile" shutout last year -- with his turn as the modern-day Robinson Crusoe in "Cast Away."
But the most interesting race to watch is when Soderbergh goes up against himself. His "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" are nominated in both the best director and best picture (drama) categories. (Soderbergh, we might add, has also been named best director by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association on the strength of both flicks).
Besides going head-to-head with Scott, Soderbergh will also have to fend off Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Istvan Szabo ("Sunshine"), also contenders in the best director race.
Joining "Traffic," "Brockovich" and "Gladiator" in the best picture (drama) race are boy ballet film "Billy Elliot," the Douglas late bloomer "Wonder Boys" and the surprise dark horse "Sunshine."
As everyone suspected, Julia Roberts secured a best actress (drama) nom for her bosom-enhanced role in "Erin Brockovich." She's up against Joan Allen ("The Contender"), Bjork ("Dancer in the Dark"), Laura Linney ( "You Can Count On Me") and a somewhat surprising nomination for Ellen Burstyn for what some folks thought was more of a supporting role in "Requiem For a Dream."
In the best supporting actor (drama) race, the HFPA picked "The Contender" co-star Jeff Bridges, Willem Dafoe as the stoic bloodsucker in "Shadow of a Vampire," Albert Finney from "Erin Brockovich" and, as mentioned before, Del Toro in "Traffic" and Phoenix for "Gladiator."
Their female counterparts in the best supporting actress (drama) are: Oscar and Golden Globe winner Judi Dench for her work in "Chocolat," Julie Walters for "Billy Elliot," Zeta-Jones in "Traffic." In that category, "Almost Famous" yielded two noms -- one for Frances McDormand and one for ingenue Kate Hudson.
Perhaps to show that drama is really different from comedy, the HFPA also has separate categories for films that are in the lighter and decidedly happier vein.
That said, "Almost Famous" was tapped a best picture (comedy) nom, along with dog show spoof "Best in Show," DreamWorks' "Chicken Run," "Chocolat" and the Coen brothers' epic laughfest "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
The Golden Globes continues to smile on annual Oscar snub Jim Carrey as the actor picks up his Globe nod for his interpretation as the Dr. Seuss miser the Grinch in "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (he won a Globe for both "The Truman Show" and "Man on the Moon" the past two years). Going up against Mr. Rubberface himself will be George Clooney ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?), John Cusack ("High Fidelity"), Robert De Niro ("Meet the Parents") and Mel Gibson ("What Women Want").
And if Carrey is the Globes golden boy, then Sandra Bullock might be the awards' dream girl. However uncannily, the actress (who was nominated for "While You Were Sleeping") picked up a best actress (comedy or musical) nom for "Miss Congeniality." Juliette Binoche from "Chocolat," Brenda Blethyn from the marijuana-minded "Saving Grace," Tracey Ullman from "Small Time Crooks" and Renee Zellweger from "Nurse Betty" are also nominees in the category.
Besides Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the best foreign film category is filled with titles that are obscure at best, unknown in the least. Going fist-to-fist against Lee's martial-arts flick (which failed to nab a best film nod) are "Amores Perros" from Mexico, "The Hundred Steps" and "Malena," both from Italy, and the French flick "The Widow of St. Pierre."
On the television front, the best series (drama) race will pit ratings buster "ER" (NBC) against "CSI" (CBS), "The Practice" (ABC), "The Sopranos" (HBO) and multiple Emmy winner "The West Wing" (NBC).
And "Ally McBeal" (Fox), "Frasier" (NBC), "Malcolm in the Middle" (Fox), "Sex and the City (HBO) and "Will & Grace" (NBC) will duke it out in the best series (comedy) realm. "Will & Grace" is this year's Emmy champ.
The Globes, in somewhat of a surprise move, nominated Sarah Michelle Gellar for the WB's "Buffy the Vampire" and Jessica Alba of Fox's "Dark Angel" in the best actress (drama) category. Joining them are Lorraine Bracco (HBO's "The Sopranos"), Amy Brenneman (CBS' "Judging Amy") and Edie Falco (also HBO's "The Sopranos").
Of special note is Robert Downey Jr.'s nomination for best supporting actor for "Ally McBeal." His future, however, on the Fox comedy series has been hanging in the balance since his recent run-ins with drugs and the law. Downey is nominated along with Sean Hayes of "Will & Grace" (NBC) John Mahoney and David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier" (NBC), Christopher Plummer of "American Tragedy" (CBS) and Bradley Whitford of "The West Wing" (NBC).
Winners of the 58th Annual Golden Globes will be announced Jan. 21 in an NBC telecast.