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.
If you've been following my posts on Green Lantern over the past few months, you're probably aware that I'm pretty excited about it. Not just because it's another summer superhero spectacular, but because it's the next chapter in the ambitious expansion of the massive DC Comics universe in mainstream media and, on a more personal note, the Emerald Knight has always been my favorite. Still, even though I'm a die-hard fan of his interplanetary adventures I've got to admit that I never thought ole Hal Jordan would be the first DC hero to get his own movie (apart from Batman and Superman). Why? Well, any GL enthusiast will tell you that he's not exactly the easiest character to crack. His mythology is more or less a universe unto itself, and the fact that mainstream audiences aren't at all familiar with his back story, rogues gallery and allies like they are with the Caped Crusader's or the Man of Steel's makes it a tough sell in a season that boasts sequel after prequel and reboot after remake.
That's why it was so important for Warner Bros. to send a handful of film journalists down to New Orleans, Louisiana where the movie was being shot last year. We scoured the set to get all the details of the production so that we could let you know all about the first chapter in this brand new franchise that could be around for a very long time. In the following set visit report, I'll be featuring excerpts from interviews with a few of the film's key players, including director Martin Campbell, stars Ryan Reynolds and Mark Strong and production designer Grant Major to give you an in-depth look at what's in store on June 17th. But before you hear about Green Lantern from the horse's mouth, allow me to elaborate a bit on my experience in the Big Easy. First, check out my set visit preview here, which was unveiled last October. Then read on below for a description of what we saw on-set:
My journey started out in a sizable but largely empty sound stage on the NOLA set, where three makeshift walls were set up and emblazoned with hundreds of pieces of concept art that outlined the ENTIRE film. We were taken through the story with Major, producer Donald De Line and Geoff Johns of DC Entertainment, who answered all our questions about everything from being faithful to the source material (which they were) to the Big Easy experience (which was awesome for everyone, including we bloggers). Though I've been given the okay to tell you about the movie in great detail, I'm going to leave most of that kind of information out of this report, as you deserve to explore the world of Green Lantern and its story on your own. What I will say is that the film utilizes a traditional three-act narrative structure, beginning with the origins of the energy source at the heart of the Green Lantern Corps. and culminating in a cataclysmic event that brings the entire intergalactic police force to our world. In between, we'll meet dozens of extraterrestrial characters, including fan favorites Tomar Re and Kilowog, but also slightly more obscure Lantern's like Bzzd, Boodikka, Lin Canar, M'Dahna, G'Hu, Salaak and Hannu as they show Hal the ropes of the power ring. We also will learn a great deal about the history of the Corps. itself through the Guardians of the Universe, who are omnipresent wraith-like beings responsible for the safety of the whole universe.
Another highlight of the story walk-through included an in-depth look at the evolution of "construct creation" within the production. This is a term that you should learn well, because it sums up Hal's abilities. Take a look at the photo below: That green gatling gun you see Reynolds sporting? It's a product of the power of the ring and Hal's own imagination, and ultimately it's what makes the Green Lantern's unique compared to other heroes of the DC Universe. Throughout the film, you'll see the members of the Corps. conjure anything they can think of to aid them in battle, from a big pair of fists or swords to attack to a giant net or shield for defensive maneuvers, but what was so interesting about this was seeing how naturally the filmmakers planned to show Hal's growth as a Lantern. When he first gets the ring, he's sloppy and unable to properly control the vast amount of power at his disposal. This is visually conveyed through erratic spurts of green energy flowing from his ring. As he becomes more comfortable controlling its power, however, we see the energy become more concentrated. It may seem like a minor detail, but those familiar with the comic book source material will find it to be an authentic addition to the look of the film.
And speaking of the look of the film, did I mention that we got to screen a few select scenes from the picture? Well, we did, and though at the time of the set visit most of the visual effects were incomplete, director Campbell prepared a reel of less-flashy sequences for our viewing pleasure. The first was from early in the movie, where Reynolds is being scolded by Carl Ferris (the aviation magnate who employs Hal and his father before him) after crashing an experimental aircraft that his company had designed. After they have words, Ferris' daughter Carol (who also happens to be a fellow pilot and BFF with Hal) gives him an earful as well. As the maverick flyboy Hal, Reynolds is his usual charming self, but he instills a sense of familial nobility and honor into the character as well, which is fittingly appropriate as Jordan's back-story is marked by the tragic death of his father in a flight-related accident not unlike the one he was just in. I think that Reynolds may surprise audiences with how stoic he can actually be. On the other hand, I have to admit that Blake Lively's performance wasn't all that inspired. Carol is supposed to be sweet but strong, and I didn't get that impression in this short scene. I'm not saying that she's not going to deliver on June 17th, but her turn is the one I'm most skeptical about at this juncture.
The next scene was even shorter, but brought an entirely different mood to the presentation. It showed Peter Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond and Angela Bassett's Dr. Amanda Waller inspecting the body of Abin Sur, the extraterrestrial who crash-lands on Earth and gives his ring to Hal. It's a cold, quiet sequence that plays up the mystery of the unknown and presents a tonal contrast between Sarsgaard's scenes and Reynolds. It won't be that hard to tell who the villain of the film is once you see it...The final sequence we saw was part of a pre-viz presentation from the middle of the film, when Hal heads to the center of Oa for a big confab with all of the Lantern's. You've already seen parts of this in the more recent trailers, so I won't hark on this too much other than to say that it's the piece de resistance of the second act, it's colorful, it's powerful and moving and features a defining monologue from Mark Strong's Sinestro, a character of great importance to the movie's mythology.
Believe it or not, that more or less sums up the set visit. There were some other highlights of the trip, including getting to hold Hal's Lantern and wear one of the rings that Ryan actually used during filming, but there's not much else I can say about that other than it was AWESOME, just like the movie is going to be when it flies into theaters on June 17th. However, as promised I'm going to leave you with excerpts from the various interviews we conducted with the cast and crew so you can get their take on making the film.
Q: What kind of architectural influences bled into the creation of Oa?
M: Oa is of course in the center of the universe, so it's an extremely old place. It's been around since not too long after the big bang, I assume. Since it's function is that of a UN/military compound in the middle of space, you imagine that with 3600 different sectors there must have been a lot of influence from a lot of different cultures over time. So what we’ve tried to do is introduce a plethora of different types of architectural styles to give a feeling that over the millennia there’s been building on building on building and this whole huge history of culture has collected here.
Q: Did you look toward the comics and even other comics or other superhero movies for some as a visual guide?
M: No, I have not. Of course it's a comic book story we’re making here and we can’t help but be influenced by a lot of what came before. But I also wanted to give it a sort of broader aspect. I really wanted to make it a place that you'd want to go back to and have a big look around. In the interest of the film maybe giving birth to subsequent films we’d get to have an opportunity to go back to Oa and look at it in a different place in a different way. So you try to give it a lot of depth.
Q: One of the cool things you did with Abin Sur’s ship is that, if you look at it from the front, its got that sphere and two wings and looks like the Green Lantern symbol.
M: There’s a lot of little sub themes and a lot of circles and the symbol does appear quite often. We tried to tie together the technologies that we see in spaceships and architecture. It's also tying together this energy thing which we’ll get to in a moment. It's about giving the energy some sort of purpose and history and dimension.
Q: How do you navigate the filmmaking technology to make these characters like Tomar Re and Kilowog lovable and empathetic in the way they’re supposed to be? They cheated in Avatar by giving everyone giant cat eyes, but here you can’t do that.
M: There’s an answer for anthromorphizing things that need to be relatable on a human level even though they’re not humans. The characters are based on the comics, and they all have this slightly humanoid-ness to them even though they’re not human. Most of them have heads, most have bodies, most of them have arms and legs, even though some of them have multiples of that. It's sort of about finding something people can connect to but also making it exotic enough to be different. It's tempting to make it more exotic and have them be so out there that you can hardly recognize them but I don’t think a 12-year old would be able to connect to that. So we’ve been putting a lot of work into making them different and exotic but also the top of the evolutionary chain on their own planets.
Q: When you come up with these concepts, do you take into account the fact that you’re dealing with the possibility of 3D?
M: Oh yeah, we try to look for those moments. Production designer is a 3D job anyway. Even though it's projected in 2D we design it in such a way that you have to get a feeling of this geography and the way that spacial systems work. And obviously we’ll think, "okay how do we make 3D moments eye popping from that moment to that moment," but it's story telling first and foremost.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.