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 ABCs of Death, an anthology of 26 short films about people being killed in spectacularly gruesome, farcical, and universally disgusting ways, is scary in a way its makers may not have anticipated: it shows how deeply uninspired and visionless horror-movie filmmaking has become.
Ever since the genre stopped caring about bottling the sensation of fear in favor of shock and gore, it’s gotten away from true horror, a format that works best when deeply invested in the psychology of fear. Movies like the Saw franchise and its various torture-porn imitators have become less and less interested in messing with their audience’s brains than moving the goalpost of the grotesque ever further, an objective that ensures obsolescence. There are only so many severed limbs and plucked eyeballs you can see before you’re irrevocably desensitized. What haven’t we seen that could still shock us? The list of possibilities grows smaller and smaller. Tom Six actually managed to horrify us in a whole new way with The Human Centipede, but even that nightmare concept became commercialized, sequelized, and stale.
Twenty-seven directors, all supposedly luminaries in the horror movie world, were brought in to film two-to-four minute segments for The ABCs of Death, in an attempt to show the diversity the genre still posseses. Sadly, rather than expand the parameters of horror, these twenty-seven filmmakers mostly converge on the same tropes. There are three conditions for each short: they must begin and end on an image of red (guaranteeing that at least half of the shorts begin and end with a shot of blood), there must be one death, and they must correspond to a letter of the alphabet — meaning we get titles like “F is for Fart,” “L is for Libido,” and “W is for WTF.” That ensures the audience will experience acute B for Boredom on account of L for Laziness.
Anyone who’s made short films can tell you that cinematic storytelling in under 10 minutes tends toward heightened emotions, with narrative twists that seek to compress a feature’s worth of sensation into a tiny window. Add a requisite horror element and you get a succession of Jack in the Box effects. “D is for Dogfight” is transgressive, I suppose, in its depiction of a man graphically biting a dog, but it's diminished because, in the end, that short is entirely about how transgressive it is. And most of these films are just wafer-thin hooks for startling images. The opening salvo of a segment, “A is for Apocalypse,” about a wife taking care of her bedridden husband who reaches a drastic decision regarding his care, should play like a more gruesome version of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Instead it is robbed of any resonance because director Nacho Vigolondo provides no context to the couple's relationship.
However, the filmmakers here who successfully answer the question “What can still scare us?” locate that answer where great artists before them did: in real-world fears. Eli Roth’s Hostel movies stand as credible horror unlike the Saw flicks because they tap a uniquely insular (and uniquely American) fear of the rest of the world beyond the United States. In The ABCs of Death Hobo with a Shotgun auteur Jason Eisener does just that in “Y is for Youngbuck,” which translates a very real fear of childhood sexual abuse into cathartic revenge.
Similarly Simon Rumley’s “Pressure” taps a mother’s uncertainty about how to provide for her children, and shows just how far she is willing to go to support them. Lee Hardcastle’s “T is for Toilet” finds horror in what used to be an old standby in the heyday of Polanski: plumbing, and its function of keeping us blissfully unaware of where excrement goes. Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), possibly the most original American horror maestro of the last decade, dives deep into the realm of body horror with “M is for Miscarriage,” as do Amer masterminds Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet with the ode to David Cronenberg “O is for Orgasm.”
These shorts are the ones that actually get inside our heads. If our brains are our biggest erogenous zone, so is it also the nexus of our fears. Not our stomachs, nor our adrenal glands. That’s why you need story to fuel and contextualize the greatest scares. Without story giving context to sex, you’ve got YouPorn. Without story giving context to horror, you’ve got much of The ABCs of Death.
What did you think of the film? Let Christian Blauvelt know on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films]
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War epic 300 and sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest are leading the nominations for the 2007 MTV Movie Awards with five and four nods apiece.
Both films have been nominated for the Best Movie award, alongside Blades of Glory, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Little Miss Sunshine.
300 star Gerard Butler is up for Best Performance and Best Fight, while Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro have been nominated for Breakthrough Performance and Best Villain, respectively.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest actors Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley have also both picked up nods for Best Performance, while Bill Nighy is up for Best Villain.
The full list of 2007 MTV Movie Awards nominees is:
Blades of Glory
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Little Miss Sunshine
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Johnny Depp--Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Keira Knightley--Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Will Smith--The Pursuit of Happyness
Emily Blunt--The Devil Wears Prada
Abigail Breslin--Little Miss Sunshine
Columbus Short--Stomp the Yard
Jaden Smith--The Pursuit of Happyness
Justin Timberlake--Alpha Dog
Best Comedic Performance:
Emily Blunt--The Devil Wears Prada
Sacha Baron Cohen--Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Will Ferrell--Blades of Glory
Ben Stiller--Night at the Museum
Cameron Diaz & Jude Law--The Holiday
Will Ferrell & Sacha Baron Cohen--Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Columbus Short & Meagan Good--Stomp the Yard
Mark Wahlberg & Elizabeth Banks--Invincible
Marlon Wayans & Brittany Daniel--The Little Man
Tobin Bell--Saw III
Jack Nicholson--The Departed
Bill Nighy--Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Meryl Streep--The Devil Wears Prada
Jack Black & Hector Jimenez vs. Los Duendes (Wrestling Match)--Nacho Libre
Gerard Butler vs. 'The Uber Immortal' (The Spartan/Persian Battle)--300
Sacha Baron Cohen vs. Ken Davitian (Naked Wrestling)--Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Will Ferrell vs. Jon Heder (Ice-Rink Fight)--Blades of Glory
Uma Thurman vs. Anna Faris (Super Girl Fight)--My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Best Summer Movie You Haven't Seen Yet:
Evan Almighty (released June 22)
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (released June 15)
Hairspray (released July 20)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (released July 13)
Rush Hour 3 (released Aug. 10)
Transformers (released July 4)
MTVu Best Filmmaker on Campus:
Robert Dastoli--Southwestern Orange County vs. The Flying Saucers (University of Central Florida)
Maria Gigante--Girls Room (Columbia College, Chicago)
Josh Greenbaum--Border Patrol (University of Southern California)
Alexander Poe--Please Forget I Exist (Columbia University)
Andrew Shipsides--Bottleneck (Savannah College of Art & Design)
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