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.
Paranormal Activity’s unlikely run atop the box-office chart may have come to an end but the moviegoing public’s nascent fascination with otherworldly phenomena — the unfriendly variety in particular — shows no signs of waning. The Fourth Kind a supernatural thriller from writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi represents Hollywood’s latest attempt to capitalize on this peculiar trend.
Paranormal Activity and The Fourth Kind are very different movies to be sure but they share the same basic approach employing gritty documentary-style footage to convince us that what we’re watching unfold onscreen is more “real” — and thus more convincing — than the typical glossy Hollywood thriller.
But The Fourth Kind goes far beyond Paranormal Activity in its effort to establish its legitimacy. In an unprecedented — and exceedingly ballsy — maneuver star Milla Jovovich begins the film by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly. In a lengthy monologue she introduces herself as “actress Milla Jovovich ” explains that she’ll be portraying real-life psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler and declares that the documentary footage scattered throughout The Fourth Kind is authentic recorded during a sleep-disorder study conducted in Nome Alaska a few years ago.
Why Nome? Because we’re told its citizens are afflicted with an unusual number of nighttime sleep disturbances the bulk of which are accompanied by terrifying visions of hostile alien-like creatures. Nasty fellows these extra-terrestrials are taunting and tormenting and probing their victims as they lie helpless paralyzed with fear. Some of the otherworldly visitors even have the audacity to take possession of their somnolent subjects using them as vessels to deliver ominous warnings to Abby and her colleagues. Speaking in ancient tongues with voices horribly distorted they demand that she end her research.
But Abby won’t listen to them and her persistence effects increasingly dire consequences. One of her afflicted patients kills himself and his family; another is paralyzed after levitating during a harrowing hypnotic episode; finally the aliens set their sights on Abby herself. One might be tempted to dismiss these episodes as merely the hallucinations of a badly traumatized woman — the classic unreliable narrator — if it weren’t all captured on video.
For those willing to buy into The Fourth Kind’s claims of authenticity the experience is at times genuinely terrifying. But after a while it becomes increasingly obvious that the film’s documentary sequences are staged — and often badly so. Director Osunsanmi brought a clever idea to the table but he didn't quite have the skills — or the actors — to pull it off and the result feels like an elaborate cinematic con job.
Based on the popular children’s book by Jeanne DuPrau City of Ember is really a cautionary tale: Don’t build an underground city as a refuge for humanity against the threat of a world gone mad and forget to tell its denizens that their city will fall apart after 200 years. To be fair the original “Builders” of Ember tried to set up an exit strategy but didn’t account for the possibility of human error. Thus when the deadline comes the current Ember-ites have no idea why their giant generator powering the whole city is failing. Although he is supposed to know The Mayor (Bill Murray) has no clue--and frankly doesn’t care that much since he has his own exit strategy. The only ones extremely concerned are teens Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan) who discover an ancient document and end up racing against the clock following the clues they hope will lead them--and the rest of the people of Ember--to safety beyond their doomed city. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan best known for her amazingly sophisticated Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement has a face the camera loves. With wide expressive eyes and deep concentration she makes City of Ember that much more compelling simply by the way her face registers a moment. You can tell what she’s thinking without her ever saying a word. She’s quite something. Treadaway (Control) isn’t nearly as effective but he fits the action-hero shoes well. Murray seems to be up to his I-hate-kids tricks (shades of W.C. Fields) but has fun with his vain Mayor. But most of the other adults are somewhat wasted including Toby Jones as the Mayor’s henchman; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Lina’s ally; Martin Landau as an old laborer who works in the city’s pipes; and finally Tim Robbins as Doon’s inventor dad. They all have the makings to be interesting characters but there’s just not enough about them on screen. I suppose reading the book would help. Director Gil Kenan is a still a kid at heart it’s easy to see. Having made his directorial debut with the visually stunning Monster House he moves into familiar territory with City of Ember tackling the live-action milieu this time around. The city itself is fantastic to look at from the millions of overhead street lights illuminating Ember to Lina’s yarn-filled apartment where she lives to even the smallest details such as a door knob. Kenan takes you down deep into this underground mecca to the point you almost feel claustrophobic. City of Ember certainly isn’t a flick for the younger audiences either with dark scary things lurking in the Pipeworks of the city. Kenan however isn’t quite savvy enough yet to elicit good performances from his actors which is where City of Ember falters a bit--save for Ronan; Kenan just lucked out with her. No matter this adaptation is about the visuals and the thrill of escaping from City of Ember and it delivers the goods on all accounts.
And you thought the Frog Prince had it bad. Our cruelly taunted “pig-faced” damsel in distress (Ricci) requires more than just a knight in shining armor. He must also be a blue blood--like her--who wants to marry the heiress. Then and only then will a generations-old family curse be reversed and Penelope’s snout be magically transform into a nose even a supermodel would covet. Hidden away from the world by her loving but slightly embarrassed parents (Richard E. Grant and Catherine O'Hara) Penelope now wants to lead a normal life. But despite the best matchmaking efforts of Penelope’s mother she remains young not so free but definitely available. Prospective husbands line up to meet Penelope in the hopes of claiming her sizeable dowry but as soon as they lay eyes on her that’s all folks. Then there’s Max (James McAvoy). Not that Max has seen Penelope. In an effort not to scare him off Penelope remains behind a one-way mirror while she’s courted by this kindhearted suitor. What she doesn’t know is that Max--who’s gambled away his family’s fortune--is also only in it for the money. He’s being paid to take Penelope’s photo by a sleazy tabloid reporter (Peter Dinklage) with an ax to grind. When all is revealed a hurt Penelope trots off to the city to live the life she’s always wanted to experience for herself. Only she doesn’t realize that Max harbors feelings for her. If you were Max how much would you bet that true love prevails? Admit it you’re curious as to how Ricci--one of Hollywood’s most unconventional beauties--looks like as a freak-show attraction. After a few minutes with her face hidden from view Ricci’s prosthetic snout is revealed in all its porcine glory. Honestly she’s adorable in a Miss Piggy-gone-Wednesday Adams way. But a sunny Ricci rightfully portrays Penelope as a wounded soul whose confidence and resourcefulness masks the pain caused by her physical abnormality and the rejection she endures. Sparks do fly between Ricci and McAvoy who reveals a roguish charm that for obvious reasons are absent from the more dramatic performances he gives in Atonement and The Last King of Scotland. Penelope suggests McAvoy has what it takes to pull off a Hugh Grant-style rom-com. O'Hara is hilariously harried as Penelope’s well-meaning but unintentionally interfering mother though she does manage to make her somewhat sympathetic. Dinklage’s post-Station Agent career has found him playing many nasty fellows but he slowly and slyly reveals that there’s more to his vindictive eye-patched journo than we first suspect. Perhaps in an attempt to protect her investment Penelope producer Reese Witherspoon makes a fleeting appearance as Ricci’s motor-mouthed gal pal. She’s quite amusing but her role is superfluous. Penelope also does it bit to keep many familiar British faces gainfully employed but that’s not to say Richard E. Grant Nick Frost Lenny Henry and Nigel Havers have much to do. The oddest thing about Penelope is not that Ricci has a pig’s face. No it’s the strange world that director Mark Palansky halfheartedly creates around her. You don’t need to be an Anglophile to spot that Penelope was filmed in London. So why is the city overrun with Americans? Worse everyone uses retro-futuristic contraptions--from phones to spy cams--that look like they were pilfered from wherever Terry Gilliam keeps his props from Brazil. But they clash with the contemporary sensibility that Penelope projects. If you’re going to place the heroine in a world unlike our own one in which magic exists be committed to doing so. Otherwise it’s just confusing and off-putting as proves to be the case with Penelope. That said Palansky knows what makes a fairy tale work even one that feels a bit stale and predictable in this Shrekian era. He presents us with a spunky heroine we can love and admire a flawed Prince Charming whose redemption hinges on the love of a good woman and villains deserving of our loudest boos. He keeps things light and fluffy and there’s an undeniable innocence to Penelope that should make it quite appealing to young girls who adore Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Unlike Shrek though Penelope may leave the Princess Barbie set somewhat confused by the mixed messages it sends on body image. For a fairy tale that takes pride in its heiress’ graduate realization that she loves herself for who she is not how she looks Penelope’s happily ever after seems sadly and shamefully obsessed with the skin deep.