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.
Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.
S5: E10 Whereas its Thursday night buddy, Community, manages to tread that line between heartwarming moments and zany comedy, 30 Rock continues to succeed on its ability to deliver laugh after laugh – some of which come so fast that you don’t even notice them until you give it a second viewing. (This is why it’s become my practice to watch every episode at least twice, if not more.) That’s the 30 Rock schtick – non-stop laughs. That’s why many of us groaned when the show took its unwelcome dive into the personal lives of the characters last season and partially this season; we care about them, but as much as this year’s Christmas episode hoped we would. When characters on other shows spew lines about family and Christmas, we all breath a collective, contented little Christmas sigh, but when Liz or Jack do it, we take as a joke and only a joke. The characters on the show may not be incredibly deep, but that’s not why we watch. We watch to have ridiculous humor thrown in our faces so we can work off our dinners of cheesy blasters with a half hour of belly laughing.
“Christmas Attack Zone” served up plenty of killer one-liners, but in the end we expected to have a little Christmas revelation. This worked back in season 3 when Jack and his mother (Broadway legend Elaine Stritch) closed the episode with a side-by-side Broadway style rendition of “The Christmas Song” but now, the characters are so wildly comedic that it’s hard to reign the audience back in. Still, considering all the obstacles they had against them, I think in the end they pulled off the closest thing to heartfelt that they could manage.
The episode opens on Liz “Pie-thieving Grinch” Lemon getting an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner from Jack since his mother likes her and she’ll be around avoiding her family drama – really Liz? Your aunt’s friend Alcoholism sounds like a hoot. Yikes. Back on the TGS set, there’s even less Christmas spirit – Tracy’s new bid for a Golden Globe has him wearing all black and trying desperately to be as serious as possible (no “Merry Kristmas from Kabletown?”…sad) and Jenna can’t even stop crying long enough to relish in the fact that Tracy’s act makes her the sole star for the TGS promos. Sadness overcoming narcissism? No way. And the star on this Christmas tree of sadness? Pete gets word that NBC wants promos from every show except TGS. Merry effing Christmas, guys. I guess even that giant Christmas tree outside can’t spread the cheer around these parts.
A long awaited appearance from Jack’s darling Avery (guest star Elizabeth Banks) comes just in time for the holidays and her pregnant belly is beginning to show. She’s mostly been hiding it by holding objects in front of her to avoid suspicion – cut to the ham wearing a pilgrim hat she held in front of her body on Hotbox with Avery Jessup. Avery’s off to her own family’s Christmas celebration but not before the MentaLiz works her magic (thanks to a lost TV remote and reruns of The Mentalist) to discover that Jack hasn’t told Colleen about his lovechild. Whoops. Colleen’s the only person scarier than Jack, and now she’s going to be really pissed. Avery understands his need to keep feelings down – the Jessup family crest is a knight that refuses to express his feelings, yikes – but this whole baby thing is kind of a big deal. Avery reasons that Colleen did the same thing so she should understand and once again Jack’s caught in another lie, Liz works her Mentalist magic and outs him for not telling Colleen about meeting his estranged father, Milton (Alan Alda). Of course, Colleen screams at Jack when she hears that he “knocked up a Protestant,” so he quickly jumps on the phone to get Milton to the city so he can rub Colleen’s past in her face. See what I mean about all this personal drama? These characters just aren’t built for this much inner turmoil.
Tracy is getting serious about his new thespian lifestyle – a.k.a. making people cry and stealing Steve Jobs’ favorite mock turtleneck. He’s purchased the rights to his second Chunks movie (nice dig at Eddie Murphy’s Norbit bad luck charm, writers) to avoid it interfering with his serious acting. Kenneth tries to convince him that laughter is important too, but Tracy’s not listening. It’s kind of like the comedy version of Clarence the angel from It’s A Wonderful Life…well, sort of.
Jenna is uncontrollably emotional, but Liz thinks it’s all because she missed Paul. They were supposed to think of a joint costume for Tom Ford and Elton John’s super gay New Year’s party, but now she’s left to go by herself. Of course Jenna is a delusional space cadet and has convinced herself that she’s illogically crying for no reason over a party that she’s invited to and plans on attending. MentaLiz swoops in to save the day, catching Paul at his roller skating tranny restaurant to get Paul to come back. The best part of Liz dropping by a transvestite bar? The Lemon lookalike rolling by on roller skates. Win.
Liz makes it to Jack’s Christmas dinner, which has since become a “Christmas Attack Zone.” Happy holidays, y’all. Jack is stoically stirring as he awaits the giant ambush he’s planned. Liz tries to prevent it all, spilling the secret about Jack’s plan to anger Colleen. Milton’s on board: he’s angered by Colleen’s hypocrisy. Avery shows up and she’s seeing red and she plans on giving Colleen a piece of her mind. Jack’s just received the best present he could hope for: a room full of people who hate his mother. Liz tries desperately to stop the whole process and she insists that this can’t happen at Christmas (says the women who wanted to spend it at the corner café at the Penn Station Kmart) and she heads off to find Colleen in the Escher wing of the house. (They may not be big on character development at 30 Rock, but there’s nothing quite like a well-placed shout-out to M.C. Escher.)
Colleen finds her way out of the Escher wing, and comes down to dinner in time to take a stab at Avery for carrying a bastard child. Milton surprises her and berates her for depriving him of hippie road trips with Jack (“Yeah…or other stuff.”) With that, Jack gets his second present of the year: Colleen’s total silence. Of course, like father like mother, Colleen’s got her own Christmas Attack Zone planned.
Jenna is still in pain, flipping through pictures in a photo album that looks suspiciously like the one my 12-year old self dedicated to Justin from *NSYNC, when she finds a picture that sets off an idea in her head. Of course, she has no one to share it with and Liz shoes her off the phone so she can deal with Jack’s drama, so she has no choice but to return to Paul. He shows up at her door to say hi, but he can’t stay for an absinthe enema and he just wants to get something off his chest (no not his fake breasts, he seems to have left those back at his apartment this time). They simultaneously announce their tandem idea to dress at Natalie Portman from Black Swan and Lynn Swann – two black swans, one slightly uncomfortable racial reference, and an excuse for Jenna to cross dress and offend some people by donning black-face make-up at the Tom Ford party.
Tracy is still on his serious warpath – ruining Ludachristmas with his Darfur slide show – and now he’s doing his Christmas Eve charity work: showing his film Hard to Watch to a group of battered women at a shelter while donning a diamond encrusted chain with the word “Poverty” dangling from the bottom. Pardon my language, but holy shit. Kenneth his hiding behind a doorway and whispers about laughter being the best medicine and just like that Tracy changes his mind and shows the sad women his DVD of The Chunks 2 instead. All is well again.
Back at the Christmas Attack Zone, Colleen fakes a heart attack to win everyone over again and it works. Avery melodramatically pleads with her to hang on so she can meet their daughter, little Colleen. (Enjoying this little taste of General Hospital?) They all join around Colleen at the hospital and determine that they should share all their secrets (sorry, Liz, your crush on The Mentalist wasn’t that much of a secret). Avery and Jack decide to have a wedding with family instead of eloping, Liz decided to hop on a bus so she can handle the misery of Christmas amongst her own family, and Jack basks in the glory of both his parents yelling at him at the same time. Jack places some carefully chosen insults to inspire even more joint berating as Liz retreats to New Haven. (See, even the writers are uncomfortable with letting this end with too much sentimentality.)
A befitting end to a 30 Rock Christmas comes as Jenna and Paul sing “Night Divine” – a decidedly religious Christmas carol – while donning their cross-dressing and slightly inappropriate swan costumes. And where they should have ended on that high note, the tag takes it too far, giving us more of Tracy’s Chunks at the Christmas dinner table. If I wanted to see more of that, I would have gone back to the original Eddie Murphy movie that inspired it all.