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 a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
It’s that time of year again, when the worst movies are behind us and all that remains is December’s slate of Oscar bait and innocuous family fare. Granted, we still have to endure the likes of Gulliver’s “Jonathan Swift Will Be Rolling in His Grave” Travels and Yogi “Hanna and Barbera Will Be Rolling in Their Graves” Bear -- but still, it’s pretty safe to say that neither will compare to some of the monstrosities that came between January and November. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we present the turkeys of the year (aka the worst movie of 2010).
The Bounty Hunter
With Jennifer Aniston’s steady flow of rom-com failures, it’s almost as if millions of Friends fans have declared, “You’re not getting a dime from us until you do the Friends movie!” And following the God-awful Bounty Hunter, she simply has to be closer than ever to taking part in, if not flat-out begging for, a big-screen version of the beloved sitcom. Hasn’t she?! Bounty Hunter wasn’t just her fault, however; frankly, no one should be proud of this ill-conceived (it’s like a reimagining of the unimaginably bad Bird on a Wire), terribly cast (Dear Hollywood: Gerard Butler is not the next Hugh Grant) mess (director Andy Tennant wants his mainstream, PG-13 romantic comedy to be gritty -- At least that’s funny). Killers and Sex and the City 2 have Bounty Hunter -- and our decision to limit this list to five movies -- to thank for not making the cut.
It’s hard to hate Adam Sandler. He’s shown off serious acting chops in movies like Punch Drunk Love and even Funny People, and he seems like such a good friend -- I mean look at the way he continues to find roles for his otherwise unemployable fallen-comedian buddies. (And WTF would director Dennis Dugan be doing if the Sand Man didn’t get a $20 million itch every year? A straight-to-OnDemand Benchwarmers threequel?) BUT, that doesn’t mean each of Sandler’s “Adam Sandler” movies is anything less than atrocious, and this summer’s Grown Ups was no exception. Sure, it wasn’t quite Chuck and Larry bad, but the easy, crude, broad gags were again in overabundant supply -- and again not even chuckle-worthy. It was the logical next step in Sandler’s manchild shtick, whose regression has truly reached its trough but whose box office numbers haven’t yet peaked. Translation: We get TWO Sandler movies next year. Tally-hoo-hoo! (Or some other Sandleristic show of excitement by way of baby talk.)
Quantity of A-listers is not proportional to quality of movie. Aside from reminding us of that, Valentine’s Day was utterly useless -- and very, very, VERY bad. The rom-com enlisted everyone from Julia Roberts (whose screen time could [mercifully] be counted on one hand) to Taylors Swift and Lautner, but veteran cheeseball director Garry Marshall’s sole focus seemed to be on making all the pretty faces on the roster look pretty on the screen -- which is a shame because there was actually some borderline talent available. Nothing much goes on in the movie, a kitschy, superficial joke under the guise of a quasi-intertwining love polygon. It reeks of a Hollywood scam: Just feed moviegoers a bunch of big names and dare them to resist a rom-com event like this on Valentine’s Day! Story? Eh, who cares? And with a sequel already on the way … well, I guess we all lose?
Almost every movie disaster qualifies as a failure in only one category: financially or critically. This summer’s Jonah Hex (remember it?), however, bombed in both departments, to an almost historic degree. It had the makings of a surefire hit: great lead actor (Josh Brolin); hot starlet/gossip fodder du jour (Megan Fox); and lucrative hook (“based on the comic book”). Then the trailer hit the Internet. Soon thereafter, the movie had to come out, too, and when it did … just … yikes. Hex simply had no identity, and nothing really made sense -- from the weird accents to the erratic editing to the unintentionally hilaaaaarious dialogue. And that says nothing of director Jimmy Hayward, whose uncertainty and nerves you can almost feel. At least it’ll be appreciated by the Razzies.
Co-writers/-directors/-schmucks Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer make Uwe Boll look like Orson Welles. That’s right -- after a criminal amount of attempts, they can safely be considered the worst filmmakers around, less talented than the runner-up by a margin of roughly infinity. The film that cemented the duo’s position, Vampires Suck, was their most abysmal yet, and that’s downright impressive. It poked, er, tried to poke fun at the phenomenon mentioned in the title (namely Twilight-mania) and, you know, any other pop-culture target with a gigantic bull’s-eye on its back. The result was typical of Friedberg and Seltzer’s “work”: lower-than-lowbrow, astoundingly unfunny and insulting to the spoofs of yore and any human being with the slightest sense of humor. If cockroaches had a sense of humor, it’d be insulting to them, too. But my hyperbole digresses … Bottom line: Vampires Suck was as lazy as filmmaking can get. Until the directors’ next movie, that is.
Chief Perpetrators of Crap, 2010
M. Night Shyamalan: The Last Airbender AND Devil (which he co-wrote and produced)?? Jeez, Night -- you didn’t have to give your career its deathblow in the span of a few months; coulda parlayed The Sixth Sense into a few more movies/millions. But thanks for the mercy.
Josh Duhamel: Holy mother: Life as We Know It, Ramona and Beezus, When in Rome and The Romantics -- all in 2010! And a cheating-on-Fergie scandal!
Jennifer Aniston: We already picked on her for starring in The Bounty Hunter, but we cannot, in good conscience, neglect to mention The Switch. If we pretend it never happened, bad-movie terrorism wins.
Forest Whitaker: Hate to bash a revered Oscar winner, but he had his hand in a whopping eight various projects this year, and those projects included Repo Men, Our Family Wedding and some that never even saw the light of day.
Nicholas Sparks: He brought us the vomit-inducing Dear John, The Last Song and The Ego of Nicholas Sparks: A Comedy (working title).
The Following Directors (and Their Crimes)
Kevin Greutert (Saw 3D), Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City 2), Robert Luketic (Killers), Colin and Greg Strause (Skyline), Christian Alvart (Case 39), Alan Poul (The Back-Up Plan), Burr Steers (Charlie St. Cloud), Roger Kumble (Furry Vengeance) and Brad Peyton (Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore).