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.
There isn't much of a twist to The Woman in Black's haunted house tale: man goes to a creepy old house runs into an angry ghost and mayhem ensues. That standard horror plot would be fine if the execution were thrilling every scare sending a chill down the spine. But star Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Potter outing has less life than its spectral inhabitants with impressive early 20th century production design sharp cinematography and solid performances barely keeping it breathing. Much like the film's titular spirit The Woman in Black hangs in limbo haunting the quality divide.
Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is barely holding on in life having lost his wife during the birth of their child and struggling to stay employed as a lawyer. To stay afloat Kipps reluctantly takes on the job of settling the legal affairs of a recently deceased widow. Living in her home the you-should-have-known-this-house-was-haunted-by-the-name Eel Marsh House Kipps quickly realizes there's more to the woman's life than he realized unraveling her mysterious connections to a string of child deaths and a ghostly presence in the home. Even with pressure from the townspeople Kipps continues his investigation hoping to right any wrongs he's accidentally caused by putting the violent Woman in Black to rest.
Radcliffe bounces back and forth between the dusty mansion made even more forbidding by the high tides that routinely cut it off from civilization and a town full of wide-eyed psychos who live in fear of the kid-killing Woman in Black. Even after losing his own son Kipps' neighbor Daily (Ciarán Hinds) is convinced the "ghost" is a fairy tales while Daily's wife (Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) finds herself occasionally possessed by her dead son scribbling forbidding message to Arthur about future murders. Arthur wrestles with the two extreme points of view but Woman in Black doesn't spend much time exploring the hardships of a skeptic quickly slipping back into standard horror mode at every opportunity. When they have time to play around with the twisted scenario all three actors are top-notch but rarely are they asked to do anything but gasp and react in a terrified manner.
Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) conjures up some legitimately spooky imagery leaving the space behind Arthur empty or cutting to an object in the room that could potentially come back to haunt our befuddled hero all in an effort to tickle our imaginations. But like so many "jump scare" horror flicks Woman in Black relies heavily on the "Bah-BAAAAAAH" music cues obtrusively orchestrated by composer Marco Beltrami. A rocking chair a swinging door and the reveal of a decomposing zombie ghost lady could work on their own especially in such a well-designed environment as Eel Marsh House but Woman in Black insists on zapping a charge of musical electricity straight into our brain forcing us to shiver in the least graceful way possible.
The script by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass X-Men: First Class) tries to throw back to the slow burn character-first horror films of classic cinema while injecting the sensibilities modern filmmaking. The combination turns Woman in Black into visually appealing dramatically bland ghost story. Radcliffe still has a long career ahead of him as Woman in Black does suggest but this isn't the movie that get people thinking there's life after Potter.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Based on Noel Coward’s 1928 play and set in that period Easy Virtue is about John Whittaker a young Englishman who falls madly in love with a flamboyant American woman named Larita whom he immediately marries and brings home to meet his stuffy all-airs English family. What ensues is a battle of wits that turns to war between the visiting yank and her new mother-in-law who is determined to prove to her son that he has made an egregious mistake.
WHO’S IN IT?
Jessica Biel takes a flying thespic leap and holds her own in the middle of a sterling cast of fine British talent as Larita the feisty young wife of a naïve young man who has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and expects his stuffy upper-crust family to fall in line. Biel is a delight as this thoroughly modern miss and shows she can adapt to the witty rhythms of Noel Coward’s rapid-fire repartee with the best of ‘em. And the best of ‘em includes the wonderfully talented and woefully underrated Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) as the doubting Mrs. Whittaker who doesn’t quite welcome the American intruder with open arms. Thomas’ performance is reminiscent of the haughty English societal roles she began her career with but she adds a dollop of vinegar to this one and appropriately glams down for full effect. Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian) is at once smitten and perplexed as the impressionable new groom while the ever-reliable and appealing Colin Firth steals it all as his cynical and dour father the only other family member who sees the spark in Larita.
Shot entirely in some stunning stately mansions in the environs around Berkshire and Cambridgeshire Easy Virtue expertly captures the flavor of a sophisticated late-'20s British romp. The fresh and inspired casting of Biel in her first English foray should also find contemporary audiences responding. Although he occasionally opens things up a bit (including a very funny fox hunt) director Stephen Elliott wisely lets his cast take center stage with Coward’s constant zingers and spicy dialogue.
There’s nothing really new here that will make you go “Wow.” Though it’s all “been there seen that ” Easy Virtue is still done with verve and style. It’s a hoot for those who miss this kind of theatrical experience on the big screen.
When the others have retired to the patio Biel’s character accidentally sits on Mrs. Whittaker’s prized little pooch sadly squashing the poor little bugger to death. Her subsequent Lucy-esque attempts to cover up the crime are slapstick silly fun giving Biel the opportunity to display the kind of comic chops she didn’t get to show opposite Adam Sandler and Kevin James in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Netflix. The widescreen cinematography is nice to look at but this little trifle will play just fine at your own estate.
September 25, 2004 11:24am EST
Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an ambitionless electronics salesman whose idea of grabbing life by the throat is chugging beer at the local pub the Winchester. After three years Shaun's ennui starts to grate on his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) who presents the 29-year-old slacker with an ultimatum: Set some goals or get ready for the single life. Of course it isn't long before Liz dumps lazybones Shaun who drowns his sorrows in a pint of cold ale at--where else? The Winchester of course along with his out-of-shape and equally lethargic buddy Ed (Nick Frost). What Shaun and Ed are too wasted to realize however is that the good people of London are turning into zombies all around them. When Shaun is almost bitten by a strange pale lady lurking in his garden he realizes something's up--namely that the dead have risen and are feasting on the living. A newly-inspired Shaun springs into action and comes up with the perfect plan to thwart the undead. With the help of Ed he rounds up Liz her roommates his mom and stepfather and takes them to his idea of a safe haven: The Winchester!
As Shaun Pegg who had a small roles in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and the comedy 24 Hour Party People is quite endearing. Although he's shiftless Shaun is someone everyone can relate to--stuck in a comfort zone with no plan to change in his life. But Pegg brings some complexity to the character giving Shaun a sympathetic edge. Of course the film tends to overplay the sympathy card complete with shots of Shaun's fake tears after he splits with Liz. But in the end Shaun is not the lazy loser Liz and her friends all thought he was--just an easy-going guy who enjoys the simpler things in life. Ashfield who has starred in several British feature films is also impressive as Shaun's disapproving girlfriend. The on-screen chemistry between the two stars is surprisingly sweet and almost too down to earth for a parody; sure it's silly at times but incredibly believable. Frost meanwhile nails the sidekick role of Ed--a character you'll first despise but eventually grow to almost love.
In vein of his 1995 spaghetti Western spoof A Fistful of Fingers writer/director Edgar Wright uses his parodying skills once again for his second feature Shaun of the Dead--this time lampooning George Romero's 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead. Like Romero whose zombie films take a satirical look at American counterculture of the late 60s Wright's Shaun takes aim at the dreadful idleness plaguing the underachieving Gen-Xers. The film's first 30 minutes are undoubtedly its best as Shaun and other young Londoners mechanically go through the motions of life without ever taking the time to smell the proverbial roses; they schlep to work traipse to the pub and slump into bed never fully appreciating their lives. While anticipating the imminent onslaught of zombies Wright takes pleasure in blurring the lines between the undead and the just plain lethargic. But the film loses its focus once Shaun's character takes a heroic turn and we are forced to endure several poignant moments with his mom and stepdad. Remember Shaun is suppose to be a zombie satire not a Lifetime movie of the week.