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.
Mad Men loves to take characters from past seasons and bring them back around in surprising ways, just like they did with Freddy Rumsen helping Peggy get a new job and Paul Kinsey returning as a Star Trek-writing Hare Krishna this season. But still, every year, I wait by the TV hoping that they'll have to fire an art director so that Don will have to reach deep in his Rolodex and hire back Sal Romano, who he fired because of a Lucky Strike exec with a case of the hots for Sal.
Since that hasn't happened yet, we have to imagine what life is like now for Sal and a few other colorful characters who have gone MIA since their storylines dried up. When will we get them all back?
Sal Romano: After getting fired, Sal calls his wife Kitty from a pay phone in Central Park and tells her he is going to be home late. In the background, a big, strong man in a leather hat and jacket is stalking the phone booth. He has his eye on swarthy Sal and as soon as he hangs up the phone, Larry, the leather daddy, walks up to Sal and says, "What's wrong, stud?" rubbing his big, rough hand along Sal's arm. Sal tries to be aroused, to get what he came there for, but he just can't, breaking down in tears. Larry takes him to a diner nearby and Sal tells him everything, about his life, his job, his firing, Lee Garner Jr., everything. It's the first time he's ever gotten these things of his chest and he has Larry to thank for them. He shows his appreciation with a night of vigorous lovemaking.
In the morning he goes home and tells Kitty that he's been fired and that he's moving out of the house. After some confusion and tears and an expensive divorce, Sal moves into his own apartment in the West Village, right down the street from Julius, his favorite new hangout, and three blocks from Larry, who he has been seeing a lot of. He used his reel directing commercials to find a new gig quickly, not as art director, but in the television department of another ad agency. He's still not out at work, but his life is gayer and gayer. He never divorces Kitty and he never tells her about Larry, and he still sees her for lunch every Sunday, often with her crying and him apologizing. He'll never make it right, but finally he's living the life he wanted.
Rachel Menken: We know that she got married to Tilden Katz, but we never saw her give birth to her first son, which Tilden wanted to name after himself, but Rachel told him it was an awful name. How about something like Donald? And it worked. She has a baby named Don, who is growing up big and strong and handsome. She looks at him, not with lust, because that's creepy, but with longing. What if he were Don's? What if it all turned out differently? Oh, but it never could. It never could. She still runs Menken's Department Store, though it always bothered good old Tildey. When G. Fox & Co. make a bid to buy the store from the family for a huge amount of money, Tilden forces Rachel to take it so that she can devote all her time to raising Donald. They move to Westchester and she spends all of her days trying not to drive the station wagon to Ossining.
Suzanne Farrell: This teacher took a long time to get over Don leaving her and not taking her on vacation. She didn't want to love him, but she did. She continued living over her little sad garage, spurning the advances of all the eligible men (and ineligible men) in town. Eventually she was promoted to working at the high school teaching English to juniors and helping them find their way through The Grapes of Wrath. That's where she met her soulmate. Henry was strong and handsome and passionate and had a bright future ahead of him. He loved Suzanne so much and would visit her nearly every afternoon in her classroom pretending to need help when really he just wanted to sit with her and figure out her sadness. He wanted to find a way to cure it. She played coy at first and didn't appreciate his advances, but as the day wore on, she fell madly in love with him and eventually carried his baby. And then she served a few years in prison for sleeping with a student, but now she's out and raising the baby and everything is just fine.
Jimmy Barrett: After a rocky relationship with his wife following her affair with Don, Jimmy decided that it was time they get a divorce. He relentlessly pursued Ann-Margret, who wanted nothing to do with him. After a few bum appearances and some horrible shows in Vegas, Jimmy's career went into free-fall. He tried to get Bobbie to take him back and to be his manager once again, but she had moved on to another star, a ventriloquist act they both knew was going nowhere, but at least he wouldn't cheat on her. Jimmy started appearing on The Match Game and other game shows as his career got worse and so did his drinking. Then even those gigs dried up, but Jimmy never did. He died drunk and alone in a Motel somewhere in L.A. No one is sure where he's buried.
Dr. Faye Miller: Once her marriage failed and Don chose Megan over her, Faye had had enough of men (mad or otherwise) and enough of New York. She needed a new start, somewhere she could put her psychology degree to work. She hopped on a plane to Los Angeles and got herself a bungalow in Laurel Canyon and an office in Beverly Hills. Faye was always a sympathetic listener for her all-star clients and was known for her candor, discretion, and the hard line she took even with the most famous of psychologically disturbed celebrities. While she was professionally successful, she doesn't want another relationship. At night she sits on the patio over looking a small pool that she could skim a little bit more often. It's lined with hanging plants that she forgets to water until the leaves start to brown. Sometimes she's capable of bringing them back to life, but so often she just had to throw them out, their hooks swinging fallow until she bothers to get a replacement. She would sit out there, by the pool, on her metal furniture and just look out into the yard, dipping off toward the neighbors before falling into oblivion and she would think about how the sun is so different here, the slant of the light somehow reconfigured from how it was back east. She would take her hair out of it's bun and let it fall swinging to her shoulders as the breeze tickled its way through and onto her neck and the dry leaves dragged their rusty claws against the concrete. Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan More: 'Mad Men' Recap: Harry's Krishna 'Mad Men''s Jessica Paré: Why Megan is Better Than Betty 'Mad Men' Preview Predictor: "You Can't Tell Anymore"
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.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) doesn't like to call attention to himself. He flies under the radar of his small town only leaving his garage apartment to go to church and work. He's not much of a conversationalist in general and talking to women--even sweet co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner)--leaves him utterly tongue-tied. Until the advent of Bianca that is. Long-limbed silken-haired and angelically selfless Bianca is also a mail-order sex doll. But to Lars she's the living breathing embodiment of his feminine ideal. After local doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) pronounces Lars delusional and advises his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to humor him until he works through whatever issues have prompted his break from reality the whole town gets on board accepting Bianca as one of their own to help make Lars happy. Gosling--who's earned a reputation as one of the best actors of his generation in films as diverse as The Notebook and Half Nelson--continues his streak of impressive performances in Lars. Tremulous tentative and tenderhearted Gosling ensures that Lars is never ridiculous...which isn't an easy feat when you're having imaginary conversations with an inanimate latex mannequin. You can see why everyone wants to help/humor him; crushing Lars' happiness would be like swatting a scared puppy with a newspaper. But Lars isn't the only character in the movie; he's surrounded by several excellent "real girls." Clarkson is both confident and vulnerable as Dagmar offering Lars the infinite patience and understanding he needs; Mortimer is earnest and funny as Karin; and Garner is charmingly authentic (and impressively understanding) as ever-hopeful Margo. It would be all too easy for a movie like Lars and the Real Girl to fall victim to its own quirkiness. But director Craig Gillespie--in his feature-film debut--keeps things just grounded enough to be believable. Somehow you buy the fact that the townspeople would not only accept but embrace Bianca. A lot of that is thanks to the talented cast and writer Nancy Oliver's script which balances moments of silly humor and absurdity with scenes of heartfelt drama (her time as a scribe on Six Feet Under probably helped in that regard). But Gillespie deserves credit too. Like its hero Lars isn't perfect--it feels a bit long and the central concept may be just a little too off-beat for some--but it has a good heart and means well and you'll want to stick around to see how it turns out.