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.
The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
In the final days of the Iraq War members of an elite commando unit were sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from four maximum security prisons to take revenge on the man who framed them. If you are having a boring summer at the movies if Sex and the City 2 left a bad taste in your mouth and if you can find a theater playing it you need to see The A-Team.
It’s no overstatement to declare that The A-Team is the first great action film of the summer. Say what you will about Iron Man 2 but the degree and multitude of insane sequences in The A-Team trump the more narcissistic Marvel sequel -- at least in that particular category. It is no innovation that a summer blockbuster would employ action as its primary tool for separating you from your cash but The A-Team does so with an entirely different mindset than most brain-dead popcorn fare.
Instead of assaulting us with nonstop action and then having the audacity to mask itself as being high art The A-Team embraces just how ludicrous the action sequences are and makes absolutely no apologies for it. That’s not to say though the movie has nothing to offer beyond the explosions and midair collisions. In fact what makes The A-Team such a damn good film is the clever underscore that complements every moment of mesmerizing destruction. Joe Carnahan along with the other writers gives us moments that subtly poke fun at the outlandishness of what we’re seeing that not only makes the absurd action forgivable but immediately elevates the material above the typical summer fodder.
Carnahan recognized that given the tone of both the series and his last film (Smokin' Aces) the action scenes needed to flow uninterrupted and here it's very streamlined only pausing briefly to give us hilarious interactions between the larger-than-life characters before diving head-first back into the explosive fray. Until the very end of the film each plan is carried out before our eyes as it is being hashed out to neutralize any lacking in the pace. It would be easy to then accuse The A-Team of being front-loaded given the slow build to the final sequence but I would argue that is merely a nod to the evolution of Face’s character as a leader and that it never really loses steam.
What really sells this film however is its cast. Like the original quartet of chaos each actor brings something fantastic to the table. Bradley Cooper as Face has that inescapably charming swagger and confidence we’ve come to expect from him; Liam Neeson unsurprisingly is the perfect blend of in-the-trenches badass and cool-as-ice leader. Even Rampage Jackson in the role made famous by a guy donning the entire payload of Ft. Knox around his neck (that'd be Mr. T) turns in a respectably tough performance with a few moments of decent hubris. But it’s Sharlto Copley who really steals the show as Howlin’ Mad Murdock. True to his character's moniker Copley cranks up the lunacy and plays Murdock with a hilariously reckless abandon that mirrors the tone of the entire film.
Though not without fault (the less-than-thrilling CG near the end of the film is amateurish at best and many will find the over-the-top action too silly to appreciate) all in all this movie rocks hard. The interplay between our heroes is at the heart of the film's entertainment value and is what you will probably like the most about it. Personally I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at the movies. The A-Team is far better than it has any right to be mainly because it is as much a four-sided character piece as it is a balls-out actioner.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Eighteen-year-old Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin) has been for reasons too convoluted to go into left for dead. But his body’s still alive and his spirit – stuck in limbo – continues to interact with those around him desperately trying to communicate his existential plight before his body – hidden in a storm drain - expires. Being caught between life and death is probably a scary place but it’s likely more compelling than depicted here. The cause of Nick’s current dilemma is Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva) a juvenile delinquent and classmate of Nick’s whose troubled upbringing turned her into such a teen terror. Nick must try and compel Annie to locate his body but it takes an inordinate amount of time to do it during which the story – and the film as a whole - falls apart. After awhile it’s difficult to work up much sympathy to say nothing of any interest for what happens to these characters. Chatwin (Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds) scores his first big-screen lead here and does about as well as can be expected under the circumstances which are fairly dire. With better material this might have been a decent showcase for his leading-man qualities. Better luck next time. Not nearly as fortunate is Levieva playing the prettiest leader of a high-school crime ring in recent memory. One minute she’s playing it tough and thrashing Nick within an inch of his life. The next she’s tearfully admonishing her little brother (Alex Ferris) not to make the same mistakes she made. It’s a terrible role and worse an inconsistent one. The biggest name in the cast Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden plays Nick’s domineering mother. Like many of the roles in the film it’s strictly one-note. Still it’s nice having a pro like Harden on hand – even if the film goes out of its way to squander her talents. Only Callum Keith Rennie as the obligatory detective on the case manages to bring a little credibility to the proceedings. So naturally the film ignores him for long stretches. David S. Goyer is better known – and rightly so – for the films he’s written (Dark City Batman Begins and the Blade films) than the ones he’s directed (Blade: Trinity anyone?). But the true blame here falls on screenwriters Mick Davis and Christine Roum whose attempt to combine a supernatural storyline doused with teen angst fails miserably. At times The Invisible feels like leftovers from The Sixth Sense Ghost Jacob's Ladder The Butterfly Effect (yikes!) any number of Twilight Zone episodes and even Groundhog Day. The Invisible is based on a Swedish novel and a previous film but like the many Asian chillers that undergo an “Americanized” remake something has been lost in the translation – starting with credibility even on its own terms. So many movies undergo reshoots these days but rarely has an entire movie felt like a reshoot. The Invisible has that dubious distinction.