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.
While Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan helped define the style of a modern day war film it was his HBO mini-series Band of Brothers that truly captured the World War II experience. The multi-part saga dealt with every nook and cranny of the US military's involvement in the war from large scale battles to intimate character details. The new movie Red Tails developed and produced by Spielberg's Indiana Jones collaborator and Star Wars mastermind George Lucas attempts to cover the same ground for the sprawling tale of the Tuskegee Airmen—albeit in a two hour compressed form. The result is a messy handling of a powerful story of heroism. The good intentions make it on to the screen...but the drama never gets off the runway.
Red Tails assembles a talented cast of young actors to portray the brave men of the 332nd Fighter Group a faction of the Tuskegee Airmen. The ensemble is reduced to a jumble of simplistic one-note characterizations: Easy (Nate Parker) the do-gooder with a dark past; Lightning (David Oyelowo) the suave rebel who never listens to orders; Junior (Tristan Wilds) the fresh-faced newbie ready for a good fight; and the rest a nameless group of underwritten yes men all with just enough backstory to make you interested but never satisfied. Thankfully with the little material they have to work with the gentlemen excel. Rapper-turned-actor Ne-Yo is a standout as the quick-witted Smokey overshadowing vets Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who spends most of the movie chomping on a corn cob pipe and grinning).
With the plethora of characters comes too many plot threads and Red Tails stuffs its runtime with everything from epic flyboy dog fights romantic interludes (Lightning finds himself infatuated with a local Italian woman) office politics alcoholism and even a POW camp escape. If there was a true lead character the movie may have succeeded in stringing the events together in a coherent narrative but instead Red Tails is choppy and uneven. The aerial battles for all their CG special effects nastiness are incredibly exhilarating but when the movie's not tackling the intensity of a battle (which it does often) it comes to a near halt. That mostly comes down to history standing in the way—the crux of the story focuses on how segregation caused the military's higher ups to avoid utilizing the Red Tails in true battle. Meaning there's a lot of talk on how the team should be fighting as opposed to actually doing it.Director Anthony Hemingway tries to do this important historical milestone justice but the execution flies too low even under made-for-TV movie standards. Red Tails is a dull history lesson occasionally spruced up with Lucas' eye for action. The charisma of the the main set of actors goes a long way in keeping the film tolerable but they can't fill the gaping hole where the emotional hook belongs. This is a movie about heroes yet not once are the filmmakers able to pull off a moment that feels remotely brave. Which is unfortunate—as it's a story of the utmost importance.
Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.
It takes a special film to transform an audience of movie critics highly-trained skeptics who can dismiss the most painstakingly crafted work with a mere smirk and roll of the eyes into a bunch of glowing giddy teenagers but that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when Avatar James Cameron’s extraordinary new sci-fi epic screened for the first time. Count me among the awestruck rabble; Avatar is a truly astounding piece of filmmaking a leap forward in visual effects artistry that sets a lofty new standard by which future event films will be judged.
Avatar wastes little time before unleashing the spectacle. Perhaps sensing our collective anticipation Cameron serves up the barest of backstories before shoving off for Pandora the staggeringly lush planet upon which the film’s futuristic tale unfolds. Through the eyes of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a crippled ex-marine who navigates Pandora vicariously through a bio-engineered surrogate (aka an avatar) we’re introduced to the planet’s boundless breathtaking collection of natural and unnatural wonders all created from scratch rendered with uncanny fluidity and presented in the most realistic and immersive 3-D ever witnessed on film.
Occasionally Avatar’s technical triumph is betrayed by its maddeningly derivative storyline which borrows elements wholesale from Dances With Wolves The Last Samurai and countless similar films about oppressors switching sides and going native. Sent to gather intelligence on the Na'vi Pandora’s blue-skinned indigenous population for an Earth-based mining consortium Jake becomes enamored with the proud peace-loving natives and their groovy granola ways. Soon enough he’s joined their tribe taken a smokin’ hot native girl for a wife (Zoe Saldana) and organized an army to help repel the encroachment of the rapacious earthlings.
The Bad Guys (Avatar’s moral perspective is as monochromatic as Pandora is colorful) who initiate the assault on the Na'vi are led by a tag team of grotesque absurdly one-dimensional villains: Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) the khaki-lad bottom line-obsessed corporate administrator of the mine; and Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) a bug-eyed musclebound sadist who commands the mine’s vast security force. As Pandora’s Cortez and Pizzaro they form a potent one-two punch of arrogant imperialist caricatures deriding the noble Na'vi with sophomoric slurs like “blue monkeys” and “fly-bitten savages that live in a tree.” Neither would think twice of eliminating them entirely in order to procure the exceedingly rare obscenely valuable element known as — I sh*t you not — Unobtainium.
Unobtanium? Really? It’s that kind of ham-fisted uninspired pap littered throughout Avatar that makes me want to tear my hair out. If Cameron devoted a fraction of his time and effort toward improving the script as he spent perfecting the bone structure of the viperwolf (one of Pandora’s innumerable animal species) we might have a bona fide classic on our hands. But in Avatar story and character development are treated as obstacles pockets of narrative brush that must be clear-cut to make way for construction of the next extraordinarily elaborate set piece.
And yet despite its flaws Avatar represents one of those exceedingly rare instances in which style triumphs over substance — and by a landslide. I don’t know if Cameron has revolutionized the movie-watching experience (as he famously promised) but he’s surely improved upon it.
In the summer of 1977 disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) sat down with British TV talk show host and interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) for a series of interviews that Nixon hoped would resuscitate his Watergate-tarnished image and Frost hoped would lift his own career to another level. While it made for good TV at the time it certainly didn’t seem likely fodder for a hit Broadway play and now a major motion picture. Peter Morgan (The Queen) wrote the play and adapted it for the screen turning it into a riveting cat-and-mouse game between these two made-for-television adversaries. Director Ron Howard emphasizes the behind the scenes machinations and all the negotiations between both camps. The off-camera material is priceless based in large part on speculative research. Whatever the final truth of the story the film gains its real power from it’s the telling. Ron Howard turns to the two original stage stars of Frost/Nixon -- a wise casting decision that almost never happens in Hollywood. It’s true everyone including Warren Beatty reportedly wanted to play Nixon but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Langella in recreating his Tony-winning interpretation of the infamous Tricky Dick. He has all of Nixon’s mannerisms vulnerabilities and caginess down pat. Sheen certainly captures the confident nature of Frost but also his insecurities and the realization that this whole enterprise is one big roll of the dice. And two actors work in perfect concert with one another. Supporting roles are well played including standouts Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s trusted Chief of Staff Jack Brennan and a hilarious Toby Jones aping the inimitable book agent Swifty Lazar. As key Frost aides and researchers Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell do a nice job as kind of the Greek chorus to the situation. On the surface Ron Howard -- better known for his large scale Hollywood productions like The Da Vinci Code and Apollo 13 -- doesn’t seem the right fit for this smaller scale drama but his approach transfers what could have been a flat Broadway screen into a highly cinematic and stimulating two hours. He captures the rhythms of this chess match perfectly and chooses camera angles that catch the sweat behind the cool facades of his two principals. Special mention should go to the beautiful nuanced work of his cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Howard is such a gifted filmmaker he makes it all seem effortless easily coaxing two equally superb performances from Langella and Sheen. Frost/Nixon is a first class achievement.
Yet another in a LONG line of teenage sex comedies this one manages somehow to be fresh and appealing -- despite the formu-lay-ic premise. That’s right another horny 18 year-old boy (Josh Zuckerman) is determined to lose his virginity any way he can. Ian can’t seem to become a “man ” upstaged by a Lothario of an older brother Rex (James Marsden) and his even more successful 14 year-old younger brother. He is constantly humiliated by the giant donut costume he wears for his job at the mall and can’t even get to first base with Felicia (Amanda Crew) a girl who thinks of him only as her best friend and nothing more. With the pressure of going to college as a sexual outcast what’s a hot-to-trot young dude to do? In this case -- using encouragement from pal Lance (Clark Duke) and with Felicia along for the ride -- the threesome take off in the unsuspecting Rex’s prized Pontiac GTO for a cross-country drive Ian thinks will end with the payoff of sex with a hot blonde named Ms. Tasty (Katrina Bowden) he met on the Internet. Unfortunately the one-day outing turns into a three-day nightmare for the trio with brother Rex on their trail and friend Lance getting a little too cocksure for his own good. Oh and did we forget to mention the Amish farm they manage to work into the tour? In the obligatory Jason Biggs role Josh Zuckerman is totally winning as a sex-starved high school graduate looking desperately to tame his out-of-control libido. With sharp comic timing and no end to the ways he is willing to humiliate himself for the sake of his art Zuckerman should have a bright future. Although the casting of his friend Lance played by the pudgy Duke would seem to be an attempt to emulate the Michael Cera/Jonah Hill teaming of Superbad Duke’s go-for-the-big laughs approach feels like we are seeing this kind of goosed-up sex maniac act for the first time. As the female “best friend” Felicia Amanda Crew is very appealing and thankfully grounded in reality. Marsden is hilarious as dopey Rex who prizes his vintage GTO and his own sexual prowess even more than the love of little bro. Seth Green has some funny bits as the sarcastic Amish man who somehow seems to know how to fix hot rods. Bowden is gorgeous and devious as the Internet hottie who may not be all Ian hoped for. Special mention also to Charlie McDermott and Mark Young who as a recurring kind of geek chorus playing two inept high school girl magnets. NOT. Director and co-screenwriter (with John Morris) Sean Anders manages to infuse what could have been a stale leftover piece of American Pie with new life and that’s largely thanks to some very funny VERY raunchy situations he dreams up for these likeable and recognizable characters. The premise of a so-called Sex Drive also offers ripe opportunities in this genre and Anders gets a lot of play out of it particularly from Duke whose uninhibited acting grabs most of the big laughs. Although they crank the gross factor way up the film doesn’t lose sight that it’s mostly a coming-of-age comic look at a rite of passage most young guys -- and girls -- will identify with. Although much is predictable Sex Drive has a strong sense of what it wants to be and in the end even turns sweetly romantic something most films of this stripe rarely do.