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 first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Pedro Almodovar's Volver picked up five honors at the Goya Awards in Madrid last night, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress for Penelope Cruz.
The movie, which had received 14 nominations, also won Best Original Soundtrack for Alberto Iglesias.
On collecting her Best Actress award, Cruz said, "This award is very important, very special for me. I am going to try not to cry because I'm a disaster, and these 30 seconds are not going to be enough."
Pan's Labyrinth, which is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at next month's Oscars, collected the most awards--seven in total, including Best Original Screenplay for Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro.
Del Toro said, "My relationship with Spain as a filmmaker is one of profound admiration and respect... that began with the hand of Pedro (Almodovar)."
Elsewhere, Juan Diego won Best Actor for Vete de Mi, while Stephen Frears’ The Queen won Best European film.
The full list of winners is:
Best Actress--Penelope Cruz, Volver
Best Actor--Juan Diego, Vete de Mi
Best Director--Pedro Almodovar, Volver
Best Original Screenplay--Guillermo Del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Adapted Screenplay--Lluis Arcarazo, Salvador
Best First-Time Director--Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, DarkBlueAlmostBlack
Best European Film--The Queen
Best Foreign Spanish-Language Film--Las Manos, by Alejandro Doria(Argentina)
Best Supporting Actress--Carmen Maura, Volver
Best Supporting Actor--Antonio De La Torre, DarkBlueAlmostBlack
Best Breakthrough Performance, Actor--Quim Gutierrez, DarkBlueAlmostBlack
Best Breakthrough Performance, Actress--Ivana Baquero, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Animated Feature--The Hairy Tooth Fairy, by Juan Pablo Buscarini
Best Art Direction--Benjamin Fernandez, Alatriste
Best Cinematography--Guillermo Navarro, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Line Production--Cristina Zumarraga, Alatriste
Best Documentary Short--Castanuela 70, El Teatro Prohibido, by Manuel Calvo and Olga Margallo
Best Animated Short Film--El Viaje De Said, by Coke Rioboo
Best Live-Action Short Film--A Ciegas, by Salvador Gomez Cuenca
Best Visual Effects--David Marti, Montse Ribe, Reyes Abades, Everett Burrell, Edward Irastorza and Emilio Ruiz, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Costume Design--Francesca Sartori, Alatriste
Best Documentary Feature--Cineastas en Accion, by Carlos Benpar
Best Film Editing--Bernat Vilaplana, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Sound--Miguel Polo and Martin Hernandez, Pan's Labyrinth
Best Original Score--Alberto Iglesias, Volver
Best Original Song--“Tiempo Pequeno,” Bebe and Lucio Godoy, from The Education of a Fairy
Best Make-Up and Hair Design--Jose Quetglas and Blanca Sanchez, Pan's Labyrinth
Lifetime Achievement Award--Teddy Villalba
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For one family whose true survivors are all women Madrid’s stiff “east wind” blows around much more than just leaves. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is just trying to make ends meet for her young daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her deadbeat husband (Antonio de la Torre) who tells Paula during a moment of lust that he is not her real father. Raimunda’s sister Sole (Lola Duenas) is a hairdresser who tends to walk in the shadow of her older sister. They both however walk in the shadow of their deceased mother Irene (Carmen Maura) with whom Raimunda had unfinished business. Irene supposedly died in a fire a few years ago but the sisters’ neighbor Augustina (Blanca Portillo) claims otherwise saying that their mother has returned to care for an ailing aunt (Chus Lampreave). Augustina who’s terminally ill has a family-history mystery of her own that involves the fire and Irene. She begs and pleads with Raimunda to help her get to the bottom of the matter before she dies but in due time all questions will be answered by an unexpected visitor. Cruz has long been able to sustain the rare successful bilingual movie career and never has it been more apparent why than in Volver: her looks and acting keep one-upping each other. Her hypnotizing curvaceous beauty is accentuated by director Pedro Almodovar (even though it doesn’t need to be)--who often cites the actress as his muse--but it’s her acting that shines maybe more than ever in her career a career whose quality is--literally--foreign to most of her American fans. In the film’s most mesmerizing and moving sequence Cruz sings the song “Volver” (“Coming Back”) to a crowded restaurant. That “restaurant” will likely be millions of viewers worldwide when come February it’s used as her Oscar-nomination reel. Frequent 1980s Almodovar collaborator and long-time actress Maura makes her relatively few scenes count. As the matriarch of the family and movie she provides the sharpest poignancy and comedy in this undeniable dramedy. For veteran actress Duenas who last worked with Almodovar on 2002’s Talk to Her the tone is different but no less affecting and she more than holds her own against the star and the stalwart. Those anticipating having their minds bent by Volver might be disappointed to leave the theater with a warm heart instead. But in true Almodovar fashion even that makes you think and ultimately you’ll come to appreciate his departure from gi-normous twists and altogether seedier fare. Even with Volver’s relative tameness by comparison he still exhibits the perfect transitions between supernaturalism and reality. Some directors have no idea how to intertwine the two and it shows but Almodovar his brain clearly consumed by such weighty subject matter (and his long history of directing and writing such themes to prove it) can never be charged with ambiguity. His brain is also clearly occupied by strong-willed women who have come and gone throughout his life as seen in many of his films to which he pays tribute in his latest offering. Which doesn’t make for anything especially urgent but it’s still beautiful to watch and listen to--and even if only because you spend the whole movie expecting to be fooled it has its thrills.