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.
David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
The great thing about The Good Wife is that you think it's a procedural, with each case being wrapped up nicely every week, but by the end of the season you always figure out how everything has been working in conjunction the whole time. The events of each case always have consequences and the actions of one character always have consequences for the other, and all of those things always dovetail nicely into something that puts our protagonist, Ms. Alicia Florrick, into some dicey spot. That's what we got last night in the third season finale when Juliana Margulies and crew tied everything up and made us wait for a resolution next year.
Things didn't fall into place as seamlessly as they have in the past, but thanks to a lawsuit from the firms co-nemesis Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) and Patti Nyholm (Martha Plimpton) it kicks everything into high gear. This is like the moment in every Batman comic when the villains finally figure out that while they can't defeat the superhero together, but if they team up they might have a shot. The two have been hired by a drug company and an insurance company to put them out of business, because they've been such a nuisance to their clients. From Deus Ex Machina land, we find out that Lockhart Gardiner has big balloon payment on their office and their biggest client is late with his payment, so they're practically on lawyer food stamps.
Everything comes up in the suit: Kalinda's troubles with the law, Will's suspension because of potential judicial bribery, Cary hiring that annoying daddy investigator while at the state's attorney's office, and even Alicia's separation, which finally goes on the record. Yes, it's Peter who saves the firm from the lawsuit and shuts down the allegations of any inappropriate behavior between Lockhart Gardiner and any judges. He wasn't working on behave of his wife's firm because he hasn't worked with what's firm on his wife in a long time. (Sorry, that was one bad pun.) But the lawsuit was just a ruse to distract the firm while Canning and Nyholm steal their main client and potentially put them out of business. Oops! Should have been paying more attention to something other than Will's whining and Diane's wishing she was singing showtunes at some piano bar near Broadway.
Meanwhile, things are going pretty well for Alicia, who goes to see her harpy of a mother-in-law in the hospital for her to apologize and learns that Jackie is sort of losing her mind. Still, the death specter of Jackie signs Peter and Alicia's house over to Alicia's kids for safe keeping. In fact, she and Peter are seeing eye to eye and treating each other like reasonable adults again. On this show, that is akin to having sex, so these two are totally doing it.
What's scary is the evil voice that is on the other side of Alicia's phone. While trying to cash a bunch of old checks for Kalinda, she calls the number on the check and there is a very mean man on the other end. He knows what just called him and is determined to find Alicia. This makes so much sense because, who gets a check for $21,000 and doesn't cash it but keeps it around in a manilla envelope like a bomb that could go off at any moment. Everyone has a least three of those in their junk drawer, right? We find out that Kalinda is on the run from her husband, which, also, duh. Seriously, she always moved to Chicago to get out of Canada for some shady reason (like leaving Canada isn't reason enough) and we never knew what it was, but it was always going to be her husband. That's the big shock, but the shock never came. It was like the shock of Kalinda having like 9 guns and $30,000 hidden in the wall of her apartment behind a mirror. Of course, she has that there. Where else would she put it? Isn't that a standard feature of most apartments where the hallways are lined in birch tree wallpaper (which, I'm sorry, is a million times scarier than The Voice.)
Anyway, Kalinda is trying to leave town, but when she finds out The Voice (which is, indeed, scarier than that Christina Aguilera singing competition) knows where Alicia lives and knows her name. Instead of leaving she decides she's going to pull up her Laz-E-Boy and cuddle up with her gun and wait for company. It arrives but, of course, we don't see who it is.
Who is behind The Voice? Will Kalinda shoot him? Will Lockhart Gardiner Gold Florrick Agos go out of business? Will Alicia get back together with Peter and live in their old house and pretend like he never slept with a hooker? What is going to happen? We have no idea, but this season's finale and its indecision is nicely contrasted with last season's. A year ago we were left with the scene of Peter and Alicia going up in an elevator and stopping at every floor and each time the door opened, we got a glimpse of them making out harder and harder. (Cue having "Love in an Elevator" stuck in your head for the rest of the afternoon.) They were on the rise and we knew just what was going to happen when the show returned in September.
This year we went with Alicia and Will going down in an elevator talking about their relationship. Will asks if it was a mistake and Alicia says no but you know that the romance between them is over. What a great way to deal with the tension but yet still keep it alive in case the show needs a good sweeps week stunt in a year or two. The elevator lands and Alicia says, "Goodbye Will." It's done (until next May!). And that's how we're left, with the end of Willicia (Alicill?) but a ton of other questions that we just can't wait to solve, an elevator going down instead of up. I don't know about you, but I'm loving this sinking feeling.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
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