Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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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.
This review was originally printed as part of Hollywood.com's Comic-Con 2012 coverage
A reimagining of the 2000 AD label comic book that inspired Judge Dredd the 1994 Sylvester Stallone action flick that took sci-fi wackiness to new heights Dredd scales back on the futuristic elements and puts an emphasis on the brutality in store for the Judge's criminal victims. In this not-so-distant world a Judge has the power to decide your fate right upon capture — and usually the sentence involves some type of ammunition being fired into the offender's skull. Dredd is a grimy smoldering relentless 90 minutes that manages to inject its in-your-face fight scenes with an unexpected bit of humanity. Shocking considering the buckets of blood spilled during Judge Dredd's warpath which begins from his very first appearance.
This time around Dredd is played by Karl Urban a chiseled beast of a dude who balances the machismo with a healthy dose of one-liner comedy. A great central hero. To investigate a series of murders connected to one of Mega City 1's most notorious crime figureheads Dredd is partnered with an exact opposite: Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby) a new recruit who makes up for her lack of killer instinct with a mutant psychic power. She may not have the throat-ripping capabilities of Dredd but once this girl gets in a baddie's head it's over. Dredd is wary of his new sidekick potential — even more so when the challenge they face reveals itself. Cooped up at the top of a 120+ story building is Ma-Ma (Lena Hedley) whose operation will soon put a new drug — dubbed "Slo-Mo" — in the hands of every Mega City 1 citizen. To stop her Dredd and Cassandra must slay her goons as they ascend the skyscraper. Simple premise lots of bloodshed.
Unlike this year's The Raid which took a similar approach to the non-stop antics of a martial arts film Dredd opts for the slow burn approach. Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) wants us to take a big whiff of every musky apartment in Ma-Ma's "Peach Trees" tower; he wants us to feel every drip of sweat that trickles down Dredd's stubble while the law enforcer waits patiently to attack; he wants us to feel the complete stop of time when the Slo-Mo drug kicks in and even droplets of suddy bath water hang in the air from a splash; and he wants us to feel like we're in the front seat of a Gallagher show when Dredd fires an explosive bullet into the mouth of a henchman and watches the head explode into bits (all in clear and crisp 3D). Dredd is near-fetishistic in its approach to gore – I found myself mouth agape making audible "EEEEEEEEAAAAH" sounds throughout the film — but plays well to the lead character's ferocious nature.
The hyper-style doesn't end with Dredd's unique array of finishing moves either; Cassandra's telepathy is a weapon of the senses that Travis mines for every flashy montage sequence he can squeeze out of it. In one sequence Cassandra uncovers an important clue by subjecting one of Ma-Ma's assailants to mental torture a terrifying whirlwind of imagery of saturated nightmares (if you've ever watched Saw after scarfing down an undercooked burrito you know what I mean). Travis amps "MTV editing" in these sequences an assault to the senses that's just as purposefully grating as the gritty fight sequences.
What makes the whole thing worth watching are the film's two leads. Urban has the thankless task of playing Dredd under the Judge's signature mask — someone obviously forgot to tell the police force of the future that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Urban makes up for it with a spectrum of snarls and a voice that sends chills down the spine. He also knows his way around comedy timing (as evidenced by his equally-impressive performance as Bones in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) delivering kitschy zingers that click with Dredd's rough and tough world. The yin to his yang Cassandra could have been another helpless female costar who steps in with magical powers when the time is right but Thirlby is the real heart and soul of Dredd breathing compassion into a dimly lit situation and reflecting the grey morality of the entire Judge program. Why are people cool with cops coming in and blowing them away when they see fit? Why is that the new definition of heroism? The script by Alex Garland (28 Days Later Never Let Me Go) is smart to ask those questions and Cassandra is the perfect proxy. Thirlby as adorable as she is plays the gal fierce a sensible kind of Judge that can live side by side with Dredd.
There are a lot of people who won't be able to stomach Dredd partly for the level of violence partly for the consistency and pace of how that violence is unleashed. The small scale and singular location of the action don't allow Dredd to keep the surprises coming. After awhile watching human heads splatter like water balloons becomes taxing and unenjoyable (which some psychologists may say should have been the case in the first place). Hedley does a decent job of making her psychotic Ma-Ma into a wicked villain who deserves her due but without a fleshed out cause and bigger picture implications it's hard to care. Her squad of faceless men are more like punching bags then characters. But over-the-top mayhem has its place and when accompanied by a badass like Dredd and a pumping electronica score it's hard not to cheer when the Judge lays down the gruesome law. Dredd isn't a great film but it's a great Comic-Con film — one worth catching at midnight and screaming your lungs out all in good absurd fun.