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.
There's a level of expectation that you afford to anything you see on the big screen — you go to the theater to hear new stories and experience new adventures. These standards might not be so high when it comes to, say, a made-for-TV flick you catch on cable one Sunday afternoon. So while Phantom, which feels like an extended crime drama from the cutting room floor of TNT (probably because writer-director Todd Robinson has a long history of small screen movies to his name), might serve as a perfectly valid two hours of entertainment from the comfort of your fluffy sofa, you want more out of your cinema outings. Something that feels like somebody actually tried to make it feel original.
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There are a few things that Phantom seems boast as creative triumphs: the film is a Cold War psychological drama told from the perspective of the Soviet military (which we only learn a few leagues into the movie — the American cast speaks in English, with no attempt at Russian accents... probably for the best), delving into the haunted mind of submarine captain Demi (Ed Harris) with sporadic flashbacks and visions while manning an apocalyptic mission teamed with a reluctant crew and a legion of strong-arm bureaucrats whose motives grow more nebulous as the film proceeds.
But ambitious themes and a setting to spark interest in war movie freaks and anyone with a few Freudian theories under his or her belt, all placed in the capable hands of Harris and the eh-he's-not-so-bad hands of David Duchovny (one of the chief antagonists to Harris' despaired antihero) pipe in little more than a few moments of first act optimism. As the film peters on and we come to realize that the hokey dialogue and high school drama club performances don't get any better, that the tension isn't in fact building to a catastrophic conflict but is in itself all that the movie is founding its entertainment on, we lose hope.
After this revelation that the delivery of the film far undercuts its conceptual promises, there aren't really any dips. In fact, submitting to the idea that what you're in for is nothing you wouldn't find elsewhere or — more than likely — be able to predict two scenes before it actually happens, Phantom becomes extremely watchable. Where it sets itself up as dark and challenging, it is in fact breezy and effortless. The twists and turns are cinematic snack food, satisfying your instant gratification for quick movement and high stakes scenarios, but never reaching further for a lasting positive impact or an installment of anything new or particularly interesting.
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Still, it's hard to find Phantom too much a flawed project as it isn't so much bad as it is lacking in anything particularly good. It's not the gritty, intriguing dive into the ocean, the war, and the minds of a troubled man as it is a simple romp from the beginnings of a high anxiety maritime mission to the end. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a time-killer. Something that won't offend, and probably won't even bore, you for 90 minutes. But why go to the theater for that when you can get the same exact thing in an episode and a half of NCIS?
What did you think of the film? Let Michael Arbeiter know on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
[Photo Credit: RCR Distribution]
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No one is more surprised than I am that I liked Dark Skies, only because when the trailers are inscrutable and studios keep it away from critics, well, we can connect the dots. This isn't the case. Dark Skies is well written and executed, with effective sound design, good performances from the cast, and eerie creatures that are left mostly to our imagination. Frankly, it's baffling.
Keri Russell (The Americans) and Josh Hamilton (The House of Yes, Kicking and Screaming) play the believable, likable Barretts, a couple that's hit a rough patch in their marriage. Daniel lost his job, Lacy's struggling as a real estate agent, and the marriage bed is a little chilly. Their two kids Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rockett) are smart, sweet kids who are the first witnesses to the weirdness happening at their house. Jesse and Sammy have a cute bedtime ritual where Jesse reads Sammy scary stories before they fall asleep using walkie-talkies. Their latest scary story is about the Sandman, whom Sammy blames for the pranks that the Barretts begin finding in the morning. As these occurrences escalate, it's clear there's no way that Sammy could be the perp.
Like most good supernatural thrillers, the weird things happening can be ascribed to stress or nightmares or overactive imaginations. The Barretts become increasingly isolated from their friends and neighbors, which only adds to their stress. The way the Barretts experience this internal/external strife can be read as an interesting bit of social commentary; the family unit that stays together and remains strong is the only thing that can defeat whatever threatens them. Daniel is upset and ashamed he can't take care of his family, either financially or from whatever is stalking them. Jesse is mad at his parents for fighting and acting weird and making being a teen even more awkward than usual. Lacy thinks something out of this world is terrorizing them — or maybe it's her husband. This theory about the strength of the family unit is made even clearer later in the film when they meet with a sort of specialist in extraterrestrial phenomena.
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This specialist, Edwin Pollard, is played by J.K. Simmons, who brings a gentle intelligence and mellow resignation that works really well. He could be a wild-eyed kook who wears X-Files shirts and "wants to believe," but he's not. He's just a bachelor with a bunch of cats who has given up fighting. (He has cats because dogs can sense, yes, aliens, and the barking used to keep Edwin up at night.) His performance is a good example of what makes Dark Skies a surprisingly solid sci-fi film.
The premise is straightforward and simple, even though we're trained to expect all sorts of twists. It's not that the Barretts are dumb or exasperating, it's that they don't want to believe it's possible for aliens to exist or be interested in them. They don't want to be those people, the kind of people like Edwin who have totally isolated themselves from society because of what they've seen and experienced, even though they are quickly becoming exactly that. The weakest character is Jesse's putzy friend Ratner, the kind of obnoxious teen boy who talks about "bitches" and encourages his shy friend to be a little bit naughtier, but he has his place in the story as well. If the performances had been a little more exaggerated or the music a touch more dramatic, Dark Skies could have easily tipped into silly territory, but it very carefully walks that line. It takes these possibilities seriously and earnestly, which convinces the audience to do the same. There's a groundedness to the whole enterprise that's satisfying.
There are one or two scenes that are simply jump scares or perhaps a little silly, but they're not so egregious that they take you out of the movie. (And, I'll be honest, jump scares work on me.) In the end, Dark Skies is a wholly enjoyable film that genre fans will enjoy.
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Selling a 6'5", former wrestler dubbed "The Rock," as an "everyman" is no easy feat, yet writer/director Ric Roman Waugh's Snitch manages to organically knock Dwayne Johnson down a few notches. Johnson gracefully accepts the challenge, delivering his best performance to date as a dad grappling with a drug cartel in hopes of saving his son from imprisonment. The twist is that Johnson is anything but a superhero — he doesn't know how to work a gun, he can't drive a car at 300 mph, and he has no clue how to kick ass. What he does have is compassion for his family, and that's enough of a backbone to turn Snitchinto a better-than-average thriller.
After being caught at the center of an ecstasy-dealing sting operation, Jason (Rafi Gavron) is hauled away by the DEA and faced with 10 years in prison. His father, John (Johnson) begs a local politician (Susan Sarandon) for leniency, but he finds no luck: the only way around the mandatory minimum sentence laws in the U.S. is to "snitch" for the government, helping the feds find and capture bigger drug dealers. Since Jason isn't actually connected to the drug world, John proposes the next best thing: he'llgo hunting.
Waugh takes his time introducing us to the world of Snitch, carefully laying the tracks with research and character, so when the action picks up, it doesn't fly off the rails. Make no mistake: this is not a Faster sequel, a script giving Johnson the go-ahead to plow through faceless bad guys for two hours. There are stakes, and Waugh rips them from the headlines, the first third of Snitch feeling more like a newspaper exposé than an action movie. It all works to Johnson's favor, who settles in nicely in the imperfect suburban life and the dangerous underbelly he uncovers. With lots of whos, whats, and wheres to juggle, Snitchwinds up erring on the side of exposition too often, but it's all to add gravity to Johnson's insurmountable task.
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Snitch kicks into gear when John enlists his employee Daniel (Jon Bernthal) to break him into the world of drug smuggling. John makes Daniel, an ex-convict looking to stay out of trouble for the sake of his family, a deal he can't refuse, and the two embark on a mission to put ring leader Malik (Michael Kenneth Williams) in the crosshairs of the cops. With natural camera work and a welcome lack of ham (no "GIVE ME BACK MY SON!"s), Johnson and Bernthal capably build tension by fostering quiet moments that explode in their faces. Daniel routinely has to explain to his wife that he's out of trouble — a straight-up lie that ends in meltdown. In a scene early in the film, John heads to the wrong side of the tracks to dig up information, resulting in a gang of kids beating him to the round and stealing his car. Johnson as a low status character is a real shock in Snitch. When The Rock falls, he falls hard.
As teased in the trailer, Snitch does escalate, and the stuntman-turned-filmmaker Waugh competently stages his set pieces. It's a rarity: the shootouts and car chases in the movie feel like a backdrop for drama, not randomly placed moments of bombastic chaos. Snitch is high-octane in every department. The movie has rough edges — in an effort to complicate the situation, the movie steers away from the main plot to show a clash between Sarandon's morally-depraved politician and an undercover DEA agent (Barry Pepper, sporting a wild beard and another energetic performance). It's interesting, but not as captivating as Johnson's material, which builds momentum and remains gripping to the final moments. Snitch presents a terrifying scenario, worsened by the fact that it's really happened to guys a lot smaller than Dwayne Johnson.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
[Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment]
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.