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.
Maintaining the fantastical but dropping any semblance of whimsy Snow White and the Huntsman transforms the classic fairy tale into a bleak Lord of the Rings-esque hero's tale full of sword fights monsters and forces of evil bent on wiping out humanity. Instead of creating a unique world or conflict for its revamped characters to explore SWATH plays it safe and sticks to the familiar beats coming off like an amalgamation of every fantasy film that's ever graced the silver screen. Director Rupert Sanders sticks to flashy special effects (some of which are truly stunning) over his greatest asset: the charismatic cast. Kristen Stewart Charlize Theron Chris Hemsworth and eight familiar-faced dwarves try their best to elevate the thin material on display but the film is under a sleeping spell — and no one steps in to wake it up.
Once again an evil queen manipulates her way into the castle and heart of a widower king only to cut his throat and throw his beautiful young daughter Snow into the tower to rot. Years later a magic mirror reveals to the wicked Ravenna (Theron) that the now-of-age Snow White (Stewart) is the answer to her waning magic and wrinkly skin. But as Ravenna's slimy brother Finn comes knocking at Snow's door the imprisoned princess pulls a fast one escaping and opening the door for a large-scale adventure through the forests mountains and swamps of the mystical kingdom.
SWATH's action feel particularly shoehorned in each set piece drifting by without any weight or purpose. After fleeing the tower Snow takes shelter in The Dark Forest (there wasn't a better name? or a name at all?) where she's tracked by the Queen's freelancer The Huntsman (Hemsworth). A few fleeting character moments later the two are on the run together duking it out with otherworldly trolls and joining forces with a group of pint-sized ex-gold miners who believe Snow White is "the one." The epic speak commonplace in fantasy films plagues SWATH — without any details as to how or why the world works the way it does most of the dialogue amounts to characters screaming about "destiny." The lack of specifics filters into the journey too: at one point Snow White stumbles upon a forbidden forest bustling with fairies moss-covered turtles and an antlered creature that's never been seen by humans. The beast is a sign that Snow is savior of their world. Why? Anyone's guess.
The generic quality brings down the talent on screen namely Theron's delightfully wicked Ravenna who goes full on Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest as she pulls strings to entrap Snow White. Naysayers of Kristen Stewart will have plenty of fuel after SWATH but it's the material that fails to serve the actress in this case. The actors in the film barely get to smile — the drab overcast look of the movie clouding even the performances — but the moments when Stewart's Snow brightens up things suddenly come alive. Hemsworth lightens the mood too showing off a sliver of his comedic prowess from Thor. Between the movie's instance for doom and gloom the patchwork script and Sanders' overuse of up-close-and-personal shakycam there's rarely a moment for the actors to do their thing. It's barely worth mentioning the handful of British character actors who pop up as the Dwarves who hobble around mumbling unintelligible quips. They quickly form a bond with Snow White — or so the movie strong-arms us into believing.
Snow White and the Huntsman is stuffed with imaginative spectacle but the artistry is lost on a hollow story. Crystalline mirror shard warriors the Queen's youth-sucking powers or landscapes that look like live-action Miyazaki animation — it all looks amazing but they're never more than spiffy special effects. The movie wants to be above the visuals teasing a smart tough Snow White but the potential is squandered by never allowing the heroine to stride beyond the conventional world. If Snow White's tale is a shiny red apple then modern tropes of fantasy are the poison.
In over two-and-a-half decades as a director of films, plays, and operas, Julie Taymor has never been afraid to tread upon sacred ground — or to bulldoze her own her own path through it, if necessary. It’s a trait that served her well on her last film, Across the Universe, which used the music of the Beatles as the foundation for a soaring, luminous ‘60s love story. Her interpretations of various classics from the band’s oeuvre (including a rendition of “I Am the Walrus” by a mustacheod, mutton-chopped Bono that’s precisely as strange as it sounds) won praise from Fab Four fanatics and agnostics alike, and even earned the endorsement of the band’s surviving members. More importantly, for yours truly, it helped repair some of the psychic damage caused by this abortion.
Recently, however, Taymor’s yen for tinkering with greatness has found its share of detractors, most notably among members of the fanboy orthodoxy, many of whom regard her new stage play, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, as nothing less than heretical. They’re not the only ones who’ve targeted the troubled $65 million musical; everyone from Broadway denizens to late-night talk-show hosts have joined in the frenzy to kneecap a show that doesn’t even open for another month.
If Taymor is troubled by such travails, there was scant evidence of it when I met her earlier this week to discuss her film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Brimming with heavy metal guitar riffs, psychedelic imagery, and slapstick humor, and featuring Helen Mirren as Prospera (nee Prospero), a role heretofore portrayed exclusively by men, it’s sure to raise eyebrows among The Bard’s loyalists. In other words, it’s 100% Taymor.
What inspired you to change Prospero to Prospera?
It was really very simple. I wanted to do the movie of The Tempest and I didn't have an actor at the front of my mind when I was ready to do it. I just didn't have one person that I said, "I have to do it with that actor." And I think at that time I had just seen The Queen — or was it Elizabeth? That thing on HBO that she did. And I had always dreamed of working with Helen Mirren. And then started to think, what would happen if we made Prospero female? And it worked. When I went through the text and I thought about it and the relationships and I changed the backstory a little bit, and then there was this absolutely fortuitous moment where I ran into her at a DGA meeting in New York, and we were talking about Shakespeare and I was mum, and she came out with the fact that she thought she could play Prospero. And so I said, "Do you want to?" And she thought I meant for the stage, and I said "No, as a film." And she said, "Absolutely."
Certainly if anyone can pull if off, it’s her. Few actors, male or female, boast a stronger screen presence. And she can be quite intimidating when she wants to be.
That's the thing. You could believe that she could be the master of that island. You could believe that. The way she walks around her brother in that circle and looks at him, the way that her eye and her face. No, not every woman could play that role, just like how not every man could play the role of Prospero. So, I think that when I thought about who could do it, there were maybe two or three women in the entire world who I think could do that — of that certain age. And Helen was the top of my list, so I was just blown away when I ran into her. Because it felt fated.
Looking at your career, you seem to have this tremendous respect for classic artists and works, and yet also this desire to tweak them a little bit and present them in a new light. Is that a fair appraisal?
I understand what you're saying. I’m trying to think ... because you're thinking of Beatles?
I think what it is that ... like when I do operas, classic Wagner or The Magic Flute. Because I've done five operas. When I did the Beowulf legend, Grendel, the new one that Elliot [Goldenthal], wrote, it is the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view. So even that, it's like taking the old Wagner operas and turning it on its ass and saying, “I don't want to do the hero story, I want to do the monster story.”
It's more compelling, usually.
I definitely agree. And I think that, I've done The Tempest three times with men — the same male, actually, who was my original Titus in Titus Andronicus. He was very good. I like to go sometimes to places where I don't know what's going to happen. I find that journey — if I'm going to spend two or three years on a movie — I don't want to know in advance how an actor is going to play it or what the result’s going to be. This felt like it was exciting territory — without disrespecting the original. And I feel the same way with Spider-Man. Or with anything. I have tremendous respect for Stan Lee and the origins of Spider-Man and I've read all the comics and I found my idea for it — for Arachne and the new development — in the comic book. That's where I found it. And it goes back to the Greek mythology, the origin of the spider. And Stan and those guys, [Steve] Ditko and all of them, they knew where they were getting their source material. So I feel like, every artist, your job is to interpret the material in a way that you believe in, not to mock it or throw it to the side. Titus Andronicus, I think, is a great play. Most people send it up as Grand Guignol. But I don't believe that. I believe it's one of the greatest plays ever written about violence. And very honest and very difficult for people to take, but brilliant poetry. So I have to, almost, be in love with the piece. How many years have I been on Spider-Man? Seven? Eight? I stick with it and I stick with it. And I work with great artists in collaboration with me; they're always really interesting, whether it’s Bono, The Edge, Elliot Goldenthal, Wagner, Mozart. I've been lucky with the composers and my collaborators.
And so we get on this train, and we have an idea of where we're going, but it isn't to deconstruct. Like The Beatles — to me, Across the Universe is the essence of The Beatles, from through the "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" generation through "I Am the Walrus." In seven years, you go from this naive, high school kind sweetness, "All My Loving" and all of that, right into the psychedelic, anti-war revolution. And the living Beatles and their wives all loved it. I sat and watched it with Paul McCartney. It was unbelievable. It was a great experience.
There had to be some trepidation there, too.
Of course there's trepidation. Of course. And a lot of music producers didn't want to come near it and then Elliot and T-Bone Burnett did the producing of the music and Elliot did a lot of the arrangements. And if you love it, which I do, I know those songs, I grew up with those songs, I'm going to do it with the upmost respect. There’s fear, in the sense of I hope I get it right. There are going to be a lot of people who don't even like the concept. Those aren't covers. The thing that I think is disrespectful to The Beatles is to think -- first of all, it's John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They're singer-songwriters, and they deserve to be sung by many artists, as they are. That's how great they are. So they're not covers for a band. These are songs written by Lennon and McCartney, and occasionally Harrison wrote a couple of great ones there. So their music can be done, whether it's by Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles or Jim Sturgess or whoever; it just has to be done viably and done well and anybody can have their opinion about that.
When you spend this much time on a project — like the seven years on Spider-Man — does it strike you as unfair, or frustrate you, the amount of criticism it's getting now before it's even opened?
Well, right now I'm wanting to talk about The Tempest, so you can switch back.
Well, the question can apply to any work, not just Spider-Man.
Yeah. I don't know about the word fair or unfair, I think it's the way that it's happened now with the internet. And I think for the most part, journalists are a little bit lazy in picking up other journalists' stories and that becomes it. The truths are really hard to find in most of this stuff. The state where we are is we’re in the first week of previews. Now we're starting the second week. We have five weeks of previews. It's a normal time to be able to work out your kinks. Audiences who pay money for previews know exactly that they don't have to come to previews. They can come after it opens. And I think that it is a shame that we're under a microscope. Even Women on the Verge opened with the same -- maybe not exactly the same — microscopic scrutiny. Which is not the way it used to be. With Lion King, we were in Minneapolis. No one batted an eye. There was no internet. And we stopped for weeks. We couldn't get the mountain to rise. We had to write new scenes because we couldn't get the stampede. And finally, we came in to New York two months later without anybody seeing or batting an eye. So it’s difficult.
What strikes me is the profound disincentive for the kind of thing that you like to do and have done well, this bold way of looking at something and reinterpreting it.
It is. It's hard. Let's hope that we prevail in making a show that people like and want to see. And that it can outlive the unbelievable amount of yap, basically, talk about it. So far, I've been to three or four shows and they all been standing ovations at the end, even though from my point of view, it's still got a long way to go to be the way we all imagined it. And we need this time to fix it.
So back to The Tempest.
Yes, thank you.
You have actors like Russell Brand who are legendary improvisers and then they come to a movie that doesn’t allow for much of that. How do you nurture their need to put their own stamp on a character without betraying the text?
This is a really good question. Russell came to rehearsals in London. We had two weeks of rehearsals in London, then another week of rehearsals in L.A. In London, we just worked on text and improvisation. Because the clowns in Shakespeare, we don't even have a good word for them because they're not really "clowns"; they're low-lifes, they're fools, whatever. They were probably great actors during Shakespeare's day because they're not in verse. They're in prose. And they're often kind of horrible parts. People are like, "Ohh, the clowns." Because it's not the great poetry. But the situations are great. And probably in Shakespeare's day, these were wonderful actors who made it up as they went along. So, Russell comes in and I know Russell's talent not very well. I'd only met him once and seen one of his movies, I think, but I followed him on the Late Night chat shows online, and I went, "Oh my god, this guy is amazing." And his first improvisation in London as Trinculo — you know, we talked about the verse and the world and what it's coming from — his first improv was so genius I couldn't believe it. And I actually, personally, thought it was better than the Shakespeare. In a way, if he had been a well-known actor, he might have wanted to improvise on the spot. But being a stand-up comic, he absolutely did not because of his respect with the other actors and the language and Shakespeare and because he would've been killed. Right?
So he was word perfect right away. But the improvs I always do — with all actors, you improv — and he happens to be the best I've ever seen in my life at improvising. So we had a ball in L.A. when Fred Molina and Djimon Hounsou came — I think we’re going to put this online sometime this week — and we just turned the camera on and I said, tell me who you are, Trinculo. And he went on for five minutes absolutely, deeply entrenched in this character. Never strayed.
He's just a living genius comedian, but in a way that the fools in Shakespeare were always smarter than their kings, he is that. I think he would've been Shakespeare.
That's one of the interesting things about him. There’s a keen intelligence there, beneath the exaggerated gestures and costumes and comic routines.
Which is great! Because that means he's bringing this to a young audience and they're listening to the language, the way he puts his words together. We all envy that. It's brilliant the way that he speaks, how quickly his mind goes. How he can speak about religion, spirituality, the Tower of Babel, it's so mind-boggling. I did an interview where he played Shakespeare last week. We dressed him up in the clothes of Alonzo the King, and he wore his black t-shirt and his jewelry and he had his hair, and I went, “You know, just be Shakespeare. And I'm going to interview as Bill Shakespeare.” And it's awesomely brilliant. It's so much fun. They may use clips here and there, but it's got obscene moments, which is his trademark, but even they are deep. The obscenities and the way he can talk about life and put it into “labial terms,” as he would say. He’s just brilliant. I didn't know much about him, and he's become much more famous since we shot this. And Reeve Carney became Peter Parker since we shot this. So I feel like, okay, I have a knack for finding good actors.
The Tempest opens in select theaters Friday, December 10, 2010.