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.
Previously, on The X Factor: Steve Jones disappeared without a trace. A giant, neon "X" fell from the sky and exploded onto the streets on Manhattan, killing thousands. Britney Spears' troubled, possibly drug-addicted old duet parter Don Philip was painfully exploited for the sake of good TV. L.A. Reid danced in his chair. Talent was discovered, maybe.
Now, it's time for day two of the audition round, and for some reason we're back in San Francisco — that Godless town populated by drag queens and Joey Gladstone. (Seriously, did anyone count the number of drag queens they showed between tonight and last? San Francisco's homophobe travel rate is about to go way, way down.) We essentially learned two things tonight: First, that you can't be pretty, talented, and from San Francisco all at the same time. Second, that this show is doing everything it can to make Britney Spears uncomfortable. Last night we suffered through Philip, and tonight her "biggest fan" was made to look like a psychopath in front of the entire X-Universe. I mean, he acted like one, but that's probably why they shouldn't have let him onstage. God, I'm getting too old for this.
Thankfully, we started with some good: 16-year-old Johnny Maxwell and his MILF had a cute little pep-talk in their Honda Accord or Toyota Land Cruiser or whatever. "There's hecka people here, Mom," Johnny mused. Johnny was right: Auditioners were packed outside the "Cow Palace" like, well, cows going to the slaughter. Lucky for Johnny, he was a special cow — even though his energy seemed to initially scare Britney, who is quickly becoming the queen of facial expressions, his original song "All These People" was a hit.
According to Johnny, "All These People" is about "doing it big, and not letting, like, what anybody says that's negative or anything get in the way of your dream." Kind of a basic message, but the crowd still treated him like Bill Clinton at the DNC. It's hard not to compare him to last season's Astro or Chris Rene, because he's sort of a mix of both, just not as good. Still, everyone stood up and freaked out, and L.A. Reid even sang along. One of my favorite recurring motifs on this show is how L.A. acts like he disapproves whenever someone says they're doing an original song, then he sings along and chair dances like me when I'm at a bar and a song comes on that I like but I'm too lazy to get up and dance. He fools me every time! "It's all feeling sooo good right now," L.A. cooed. "You have swag," Demi Lovato agreed. AAAnnnnd he's through!
Next: Unattractive and/or untalented people take the stage!
The next cow to be slaughtered was 22-year-old dancer Alexa Berman, who, like most of America's Millennials, felt like she has something special — something unnamed — that made her deserve all the fame and all the riches. (Boobs?) "That's what the X Factor is," she explained. "There's not a word for it for a reason." Okay! She also said that she was going to marry rich if she didn't get past the judges, and at that point we officially knew she wouldn't get through. Still, she was super hot — we were treated to a fun montage of pimply boys oogling her Fergalicious curves. To get a taste of Alexa's affect on men, please see below:
"You're Jersey Shore meets the Kardashians," Simon Cowell said with wonder. (Aside: In some circles, like Simon's, this is meant as a compliment.) Unfortunately, Simon's words were more than just your standard Cowell-esque pervy praise — they were also a premonition. Because once Alexa started singing "Too Close" by Alex Clare, it became clear that, much like the cast of Jersey Shore and the Kardashians, she was all looks and no talent. "It was like one tone the whole time as you were singing, and it was just really boring," said Britney. Simon tried to get her through, but everyone else said no. Still, he did get the chance to check out her junk in the trunk as she dejectedly marched offstage. I love silver linings :)
We were then treated to an epic montage of attractive but utterly untalented people offending the judges with their terrible-ness. How dare they be attractive but not have the voice to back it up!?!? Dylan Osborn was cute, but terrible. Ezekial McCarter had a six-pack, but no pipes. "We need someone hot who can sing," bemoaned our judges. Generically hot girl group? Nope. Ripped dudes wearing practically no clothes? Sorry. Hot twins? Maybe next time. "You can't destroy that song, sweetie," Britney said to our final hot, talent-less contender. What is wrong with you, San Francisco? Is it the water?
Then, finally, we found our hope: Jason Brock, a 34-year-old tech support guy slash gothic Elton John who was just so excited to be there. Brock was a total queen and seemed really sweet, so naturally I was really nervous that X Factor would use this to exploit him. "You are really excited right now," Demi said when he first took the stage. (Understatement of the night.) He was kind of nervously obnoxious when he rambled on about dreams and concerts and glitter explosions, but his rendition of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" was flawless. L.A. went so far as to leave his chair/dance studio for a standing ovation, then said, "Every songwriter wants a guy like you to sing their song." You guys — this was adorable. My sad, icy heart almost melted for this lovely guy. I hope to see him during the live shows.
NEXT: An extreme high, and an even lower low
Ugh, Patrick Ford. Can we just skip talking about Patrick Ford? No, we can't. "I can't believe I'm meeting Britney Spears," said 20-year-old cashier Patrick, to his fellow auditioners. "It's like meeting God. I think she might be my sister. Do I look like her at all?" He was being serious, you guys. His demeanor was wildly unsettling, he needed some serious dental work, and his mom clearly dressed him for the audition. Awful. Awful! Mentally, this guy was so not all-there. He came out with a bouquet of flowers for Britney, and she looked only slightly less uncomfortable than she did during Philip's performance last night:
But this performance was like, 3,840,834 times worse. There was squawking, there were awkward white boy at his first middle school dance dance moves, and the whole thing was set to Britney's own "Circus." Unlike last night, with Philip, Britney's fellow judges didn't ask her to respond. "I won't even bother you," L.A. said. "It's like you had an argument with Britney Spears, got drunk, and decided to scream the song at her," Simon added. Simon's words were admittedly funny, but not when they were directed at someone who is clearly mentally unstable. "That's all you've got for me, Britney?" Patrick said, with horror. "Just a no?" You guys, she didn't even acknowledge him. Then the producers added this suspenseful thriller-flick music while Patrick just stood there, frozen, and it looked like he was going to start shooting. I know this is supposed to be fun, but it's not cool to exploit mentally unstable people on national television. Just — no.
But, again, we ended on a high note: 13-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar was adorable, and her parents were sweet and supportive, and, most importantly, normal. There is nothing I love more than well-adjusted people on reality television. Maybe that's sad, but it's rare. Carly sang "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone, and it was spectacular. Within the first 20 seconds, you knew this girl was a front-runner. She has it, guys — that factor of X that has no name. It was the best audition we've seen so far. It was an audition that is literally impossible to snark on. All of the judges, and even her backstage competition, were standing up and cheering. I know the judges said they might have found their winner in Providence, and I'm thinking Carly could be it. My only hope is that they don't pluck her and primp her and turn her into some Disney-fied overly-sexualized teen dream, because right now Carly is a delightful, refreshingly normal looking 13-year-old. And I think that's what we really need. Plus, her parents are ADORABLE! They're totally September's Raismans.
NEXT WEEK: We meet someone who isn't here to make friends.
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: FOX]
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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.