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.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
Two of the most prestigious independent film communities have recently each given their stamp of approval on independent cinema both past and future. Nominees for the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards were announced as was the lineup for the independent feature film and world cinema competitions for next year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Although each organization acknowledge and reward independent filmmaking, the two fetes are quite different. The Spirit Awards are more of a conventional awards show, which will be handed out March 4 in Santa Monica, California [for full coverage on the Spirit Award nominations, click here].
The Sundance Awards are the culmination of the 10-day festival (Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah) that showcases the films in contention for awards. Next year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup marks a return of sorts to the fest’s roots, by giving way to more fresh faces. The total number of submissions increased, resulting in a different and exciting format--the expansion of the world competition to include more international films.
Below are the films to be shown in the four competition sections:
American Dramatic Competition A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (Director, screenwriter: Dito Montiel) Come Early Morning (Director, screenwriter: Joey Lauren Adams) Flannel Pajamas (Director, screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky) Forgiven (Director, screenwriter: Paul Fitzgerald) Half Nelson (Director: Ryan Fleck; screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck) Hawk Is Dying (Director: Julian Goldberger; screenwriters: Harry Crews (novel), Julian Goldberger) In Between Days (Director: So Yong Kim; screenwriters: So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray) Puccini for Beginners (Director, screenwriter: Maria Maggenti) Quinceanera (Director/screenwriters: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) Right at Your Door (Director, screenwriter: Chris Gorak) Sherrybaby (Director, screenwriter: Laurie Collyer) Somebodies (Director, screenwriter: Hadjii) Stay (Director, screenwriter: Bob Goldthwait) Steel City (Director, screenwriter: Brian Jun) Stephanie Daley (Director, screenwriter: Hilary Brougher) Wristcutters: A Love Story (Director: Goran Dukic; screenwriters: Goran Dukic, Etgar Kerett)
American Documentary Competition:
A Lion in the House (Directors: Steven Bogner, Julia Reichert) American Blackout (Director: Ian Inaba) An Unreasonable Man (Directors: Henriette Mantel, Stephen Skrovan) Crossing Arizona (Director: Joseph Mathew) God Grew Tired of Us (Director: Christopher Quinn) Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (Director: Patricia Foulkrod) Iraq in Fragments (Director: James Longley) Small Town Gay Bar (Director: Malcom Ingram) So Much So Fast (Directors: Steven Ascher, Jeanne Jordan) Thin (Director: Lauren Greenfield) 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (Director: Raymond De Felitta) The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg) TV Junkie (Director: Michael Cain) Wide Awake (Director: Alan Berliner) Wordplay (Director: Patrick Creadon) The World According to Sesame Street (Directors: Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Linda Hawkins Costigan)
World Cinema Dramatic Competition 13 Tzameti (Director, screenwriter: Gela Babluani), France Allegro (Director: Christoffer Boe; screenwriters: Christoffer Boe, Mikael Wulff), Denmark The Aura (Director, screenwriter: Fabian Bielinsky), Argentina The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Director: Auraeus Solito; screenwriter: Michiko Yamamoto), Philippines Eve & The Fire Horse (Director, screenwriter: Julia Kwan), Canada Grbavica (Director, screenwriter: Jasmila Zbanic), Bosnia-Herzegovina The House of Sand (Director: Andrucha Waddington; screenwriter: Elena Soarez), Brazil Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (Director, screenwriter: Jocelyne Saab), Lebanon Little Red Flowers (Director: Zhang Yuan; Screenwriters: Ning Dai, Zhang Yuan), China Madeinusa (Director, screenwriter: Claudia Llosa), Peru No. 2 (Director, screenwriter: Toa Fraser), New Zealand One Last Dance (Director, screenwriter: Max Makowski), Singapore The Peter Pan Formula (Director, screenwriter: Cho Chan-Ho), South Korea Princesas (Director, screenwriter: Fernando Leon de Aranoa), Spain Solo Dios Sabe (Director: Carlos Bolado; screenwriters: Carlos Bolado, Diane Weipert), Brazil/Mexico Son of Man (Director: Mark Dornford-May; screenwriters: Mark Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama, Pauline Malefane), South Africa
World Cinema Documentary Competition 5 Days (Director: Yoav Shamir), Israel Angry Monk--Reflections on Tibet (Director: Luc Schaedler), Switzerland Black Gold (Director: Marc Francis, Nick Francis), U.K. By the Ways, a Journey with William Eggleston (Directors: Cedric Laty, Vincent Gerard), France Dear Pyongyang (Director: Yang Yonghi), Japan The Giant Buddhas (Director: Christian Frei), Switzerland Glastonbury (Director: Julien Temple), U.K. I is for India (Director: Sandhya Suri), England/Germany/Italy In the Pit (Director: Juan Carlos Rulfo), Mexico Into Great Silence (Director: Philip Groening), Germany Kz (Director: Rex Bloomstein), U.K. No One (Director: Tin Dirdamal), Mexico The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez (Director: Heidi Specogna), Germany Songbirds (Director: Brian Hill), U.K. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (Director: Gillian Armstrong), Australia Viva Zapatero (Director: Sabina Guzzanti), Italy