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.
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If you're part of the Oscar conversation, you've already heard proclamations about this year's "shoe-ins" for the big awards. 12 Years a Slave is said to have Best Picture down pat, Cate Blanchett is being heralded as the year's Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron is a leading contender in the Best Director category. All likely winners, and all deserving of this sort of praise. But there are a number of movies and performances that we might feel to be stronger, films that we worry won't get the Oscar attention they warrant. That's what some of the smaller circuits are for — specifically the Gotham Awards, which announced its big winners on Monday night.
The Gotham's picks included the Coen Bros' terrific folk music exploit Inside Llewyn Davis, a poignant movie about failure of all kinds, and the big talking point that was this summer's Fruitvale Station. In terms of performances, we might be seeing Gotham's Best Actor Matthew McConaughey snag an Academy win for his Dallas Buyers Club role, but we're less likely to witness the stellar Brie Larson earn her due come March, despite her monumentally heartrending turn in Short Term 12. Check out the list of winners below, and make sure you catch each and every title ASAP... whether the Oscars tell you to or not.
Best FeatureInside Llewyn Davis
Best DocumentaryThe Act of Killing
Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director AwardRyan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Best ActorMatthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best ActressBrie Larson, Short Term 12
Breakthrough ActorMichael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Film Audience AwardJake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings
Spotlight on Women Filmmakers 'Live the Dream' GrantGita Pullapilly, director of Beneath the Harvest Sky
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Anderson's quirky drama Moonrise Kingdom scooped the Best Feature Award, making it hotly tipped to win big at next year's (13) Oscars.
The Gotham prizegiving traditionally kicks off the film world's awards season, and winners often go on to nab Academy Awards nominations and trophies.
Leto picked up the Audience Award for his film Artifact, a documentary about the making of his band 30 Seconds to Mars' album This Is War.
Beasts of the Southern Wild landed the Best Director title for Behn Zeitlin, who was also honoured with the Bingham Ray Award.
Emayatzy Corinealdi took home the Best Actor nod for her breakthrough performance in Middle of Nowhere while Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt and Mark Duplass received the Best Ensemble Performance for Your Sister's Sister.
Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell and Oscar winners Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard were also feted with Career Tribute statues for their contributions to cinema.
Bingham Ray was at the Park City event in Utah when he reportedly suffered a stroke on Saturday (21Jan12). He passed away aged 57 two days later.
Ray was the former president of United Artists studios and oversaw the production of several independent film hits, including Hotel Rwanda and Death At A Funeral.
A spokesperson for the Sundance Institute says, "On behalf of the independent film community here in Park City for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and elsewhere, we offer our support and condolences to his family. Bingham’s many contributions to this community and business are indelible, and his legacy will not be soon forgotten."
He is survived by his wife and three children.
Kathryn Bigelow made Oscars history when she became the first female to land the top director honour, beating ex-husband James Cameron in the process.
Calling the huge win "the moment of a lifetime," Bigelow dedicated the award to "the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world."
The gritty film also claimed the night's sound awards, film editing and original screenplay prizes - as it collected six of the nine accolades it was nominated for.
Avatar, the world's biggest grossing movie ever, was a triple winner and Up, Crazy Heart and Precious won double.
All the pre-show favourites won the big acting prizes with Jeff Bridges claiming Best Actor, Sandra Bullock Best Actress, Mo'Nique Best Supporting Actress and Christoph Waltz Best Supporting Actor.
Bigelow led what became a great night for firsts - Bullock became the first star to land a Golden Raspberry dishonour the same year as an Oscar - she picked up the Worst Actress Razzie for All About Steve on Saturday (06Mar10); Bridges won his first Oscar for Crazy Heart after five attempts, and 33 of 39 Academy Award winners took home their first Oscars, with The Hurt Locker trio of Bigelow, writer Mark Boal and sound editor Paul N.J. Ottosson picking up their first and second accolades at the 82nd annual prizegiving.
The full list of winners at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood is:
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
Best Animated Feature Film: Up
Best Original Song: The Weary Kind by Ryan Bingham & T-Bone Burnett (Crazy Heart)
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker)
Best Animated Short: Logorama
Best Documentary Short: Music by Prudence
Best Live Action Short: The New Tenants
Best Make-Up: Barney Burman, Mindy Hall & Joel Harlow (Star Trek)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire)
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire)
Best Art Direction: Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg & Kim Sinclair (Avatar)
Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell (The Young Victoria)
Best Sound Editing: Paul N.J. Ottosson (The Hurt Locker)
Best Sound Mixing: Paul N.J. Ottosson & Ray Beckett (The Hurt Locker)
Best Cinematography: Mauro Fiore (Avatar)
Best Original Score: Michael Giacchino (Up)
Best Visual Effects: Andrew R. Jones, Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum & Richard Baneham (Avatar)
Best Documentary Feature: The Cove
Best Film Editing: Bob Murawski & Chris Innis (The Hurt Locker)
Best Foreign Language Film: El secreto de sus ojos (Argentina)
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.
Joined L.A.-based production company Sidney Kimmel Entertainment; served as president of Kimmel Distribution and president of creative affairs over the next three years
Named a member of the dramatic jury at the Sundance Film Festival
Co-founded October Films; distributed films such as Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies," Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," John Dahl's "The Last Seduction," Robert Duvall's "The Apostle," and David Lynch's "Lost Highway"
Made feature acting debut as a bartender in Wes Craven directed "Shocker"
Appeared in the documentary feature "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"
Sold October Films to USA Networks
Resigned from United Artists
Named president of United Artists, the specialty films division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
Named executive director of the San Francisco Film Society
Ray died on Jan. 23, 2012 in a hospital in Provo, Utah after suffering a stroke the week prior while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City.