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.
Have you been avoiding The Bridge (Wednesdays at 10 PM ET on FX) because you heard it was a dark, creepy mystery with sociopolitical overtones and a fair amount of sudden, shocking violence? Well, okay, it is. But it's also a black-humored gem, with some of the wittiest laughs of the summer TV season, something you'd never guess from a promo like this.
The Office: Homicide Division
American detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) and her Mexican counterpart Marco Ruiz (Demian Bichir) may be trying to solve a series of increasingly baroque homicides, but the overall vibe of the El Paso Police Department's homicide unit is closer in spirit to The Office than The Wire. Sonya has Asperger's Syndrome and does not pick up on emotional or social cues, which makes her maybe not the best choice to question a grieving husband shortly after he learns of his wife's death. Marco is the walking embodiment of Elvis Costello's old line "I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused," greeting each new twist with a philosophical shrug and a wry one-liner. Lt. Hank Wade (Ted Levine) oversees the squad with the kind of managerial spirit that knows exactly when to take the team out for greasy Tex-Mex diner food and when to profess ignorance. "I just Google-searched 'dialectics' and I still have no idea what it means," Hank grumps after the killer gives the detectives a hint about his motivations.
On The Other Side
Meanwhile, at the other end of an underground tunnel that connects Juarez and El Paso, there's diminutive drug cartel overlord Fausto (Ramón Franco) and his oversized henchman Obregon (Daniel E. Mora), or as I've come to think of them, Mutt and Jefe. Their conversation about the difference between serial killers and their own line of business, in which Obregon awkwardly explains that serial killers also tend to do...y'know...sex stuff...to their victims, as opposed to their own efficient gangland slayings, made my wife giggle so hard I had to stop the DVR until she composed herself. Mind you, they're very polite savage killing machines: if they pass you in the aforementioned underground tunnel carrying a dead body wrapped in a blood-stained carpet, they'll nod and say hello. Their mothers didn't raise them to be rude, after all.
Hey! It's Bobby Cobb!
Okay, this will only be funny if you also watch the sitcom Cougar Town, but really, you should be watching that anyway. The tunnel is on the property of new widow Charlotte (Annabeth Gish), whose first act after the death of her rich rancher husband -- other than sleeping with Marco, that is -- is to invite her sleazy, no-account ex-boyfriend Ray to visit from Florida. Ray is played by Brian Van Holt, who gives him the same mannerisms and line readings as his dim-bulb layabout Cougar Town character Bobby Cobb, only without Bobby's innate kindness. Don't get too attached to Ray, though: he immediately started running automatic weapons into Mexico in partnership with another Juarez crime figure, the imposing Graciela (Alma Martinez), and man, he is in way, way over his head. He's gonna die, violently. And possibly hilariously, knowing this show.
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
Mooseport is an idyllic little Maine town populated with equally idyllic folk including Handy Harrison (Romano) who owns the local hardware store and his veterinarian girlfriend of six years Sally (Maura Tierney). But Mooseport is also the vacation home of the former president of the United States Monroe "Eagle" Cole (Gene Hackman) who after two successful terms in office decides the sleepy community would be a great place to quietly live out the rest of his days. But the people of Mooseport delay the president's retirement when they convince him to run for Mayor which doesn't sit well with Handy. Unbeknownst to the town council he's also put in a bid for mayoral candidacy. Certain he could never beat the former president in an election Handy nearly backs down--but when the ex-prez makes a move on Sally unaware she is Handy's significant other he decides to stay in the races for both mayor and boyfriend. Regrettably it might be too late for the latter since Sally resents Handy's commitment phobia and has accepted a date with the president in retribution. Oh but who will she choose? The campaign gets thorny when Eagle's ex-wife Charlotte (Christine Baranski) arrives in town to help with Handy's campaign and the president's chief advisor of 15 years Grace (Marcia Gay Harden) discloses she has feelings for him.
All eyes are on Romano known to TV viewers since 1996 for his portrayal of New York City sportswriter and father of three Ray Barone on the CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Welcome to Mooseport is Romano's big-screen acting debut and he does a fine job shedding his popular television persona for that of a small-town handyman. But while Romano successfully crafts a character devoid of any Barone family attributes that character Handy is as one-dimensional as a blank script sheet. His love interest in the film played by Tierney (ER's nurse Abby Lockhart) gets fleshed out a little more and--unlike Handy--her character actually shows thoughts and feelings. A dedicated veterinarian Sally is a tough and outspoken woman with a heart of gold and she's impossible to dislike. More engaging is the relationship between Hackman and Harden two veteran actors who make the most of their cookie-cutter roles. As the charismatic onetime leader of the free world Hackman does his best Bill Clinton while Harden seemed more inspired by Condoleezza Rice a consummate professional and the president's indispensable right-hand woman. Welcome to Mooseport doesn't tap into its supporting talents as well: Baranski as the president's ex-wife and Fred Savage as his fresh-faced PR director deliver the film's rare laugh-out-loud moments but they're brought in for a couple of zingers and then left out to dry.
Donald Petrie who made his directorial debut in 1988 with the Julia Roberts starrer Mystic Pizza has a flair for helming fluffy comedies that succeed because of their star power rather than their stories (read: 1993's Grumpy Old Men starring Jack Lemmon Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret; Sandra Bullock's 2000 comedy Miss Congeniality; and last year's How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey). Now Petrie can add Welcome to Mooseport to the list. Although scribe Tom Schulman's (Dead Poets Society) screenplay is pretty imaginative his characters are unexciting and too goody-goody. Unfortunately the clever dialogue has been reserved for the supporting characters rather than its stars Romano and Hackman. Thus there are no bad guys to loathe (Eagle a career politician refuses to fight a dirty campaign) and Handy the underdog is too uninteresting to root for. Then there are all the unanswered questions: Where and how does Handy live? We only see him stacking shelves in the store and driving around in his truck. And why he hasn't made a commitment to Sally after so many years? While we find out somewhat at the end of the film why Handy has never proposed the revelation comes too late for us to care and until then the most personal thing we know about him is that he has a dog named Plunger.