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.
Ever since Hurricane Sandy reared her nasty head on the Eastern seaboard, celebrities, politicians, and everyday citizens have rallied to support New York City and its surrounding areas. We've seen the MTV commercials that claim that we can (and will) rebuild Seaside Heights, and our hearts were warmed when President Obama and Chris Christie crossed the political divide to focus on helping New Jersey. But amidst the media storm, we've heard very little about the devastating damage to the proud community that lives in New York City's oft-forgotten fifth borough — and this brought Staten Island native and Sons of Anarchy star Theo Rossi to action.
On Thursday night, I attended a gala thrown by Rossi and his hard-working friends at Staten Strong — a project with no overheads, that puts all donations directly into the pockets of those who need it, in the form of gift cards, clothing, generators, and more. As a native of New Jersey and someone who has directly benefited from community outreach (my own small town rallied to support my family when our house burnt down in '93), I was touched by the spirit, pride, and generosity I saw in Rossi and his friends (who include, among others, SoA stars Ron Perlman and Kim Coates, Twisted Sister, and Real Housewife Jacqueline Laurita). These are people who are hitting the ground running — giving back to their community with no sense of ego, and no expectations to receive anything in return. They simply, and righteously, want to see their communities thrive.
As Perlman explains, Staten Strong began as a simple grassroots organization, formed by citizens who didn't like what they were seeing. "I checked in with Theo [during the hurricane], because he was back here doing a family visit," he said. "He said everything seemed cool. Then about two days into the coverage, I started finally seeing coverage of Staten Island, and how devastated it was. I called Theo back and I said, 'Dude, doesn't look cool to me.' That's when he started telling me how heartbroken he was by what he was seeing, and how angered he was at how lugubrious the response was."
Rossi may have been angry — and readers/viewers may know him as the king of tears — but Juice was nothing but smiles last night, when he spoke of everything he and his friends have accomplished so far. "We just met somebody outside and gave them $1,000 in gift cards to Target," he said. "We're helping families out, directly, at a street level. I don't care what anybody else is doing, all I know is that this is the town I grew up in. Every time I walk around, nothing has been done. A lot of people didn't want to accept help... people have a lot of pride. Now they're realizing nobody is going to help them. That's where we step in — at StatenStrong.com they can fill out forms and put in applications, and we have people there the next day. We're trying to keep it as basic as possible, because we're not that smart."
Love that self-deprication, Theo. But while Rossi doesn't care what anybody else is doing, Perlman does — the New York native expressed a lot of anger towards an agency he used to support, and he's using Twitter to spread the word. "I got about 100 responses [from Twitter followers], and 100 percent of them were negative towards the Red Cross," he said. "In all of the time I was touring Staten Island, I didn't see one piece of evidence that Red Cross was even on the scene. I have anecdotal stories that they were selling cups of coffee for $1 to those who had lost everything. I'm doing a lot of research, but nothing that I've uncovered so far has led me to believe that the $188 million dollars [raised to Red Cross] went to anybody who needed it."
Coates added another organization that did little for Staten — the news media. "My little brother [Rossi] is here, and his mom is here, and his beautiful sisters... they're okay, but when he started walking the streets with his buddies, looking at the devastation, it was mind-blowing," Coates said. "Finally CNN did a story, maybe six or seven days later. [But] Theo got on his horse immediately."
As Rossi said, the Staten Strong website makes it easy for Sons fans or just general concerned citizens to make a difference, but Perlman had one more suggestion on how to spread the word — and it involves a very notoriously outspoken (and frequently profane) showrunner. "Lobby Kurt [Sutter]," he says. "Kurt's got a lot of Twitter followers. I'm sure whatever efforts he tries to put himself behind could make a big difference."
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Follow Staten Strong on Twitter @StatenStrong
[PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Mack/Getty Images]
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.