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.
Before this week, the five most embarrassing words you could ever utter were: I have Blake Lewis' album. Scratch that — the five most embarrassing words you could ever utter were: I love Blake Lewis' album.
Still, I found myself defending the American Idol Season 6 alum's debut effort, A.D.D. (Audio Daydream), on a daily basis back in 2007. "Break Anotha," "Gots to Get Her," and "Know My Name" — tracks off of the album were catchy gems, embarrassing spelling be damned. To fans of Lewis — who has never been given the credit he's deserved for revolutionizing Idol by transforming into an artistry-based competition — there was little reason why the beat-boxing musician couldn't top the charts alongside the buzziest acts besides a very uncool association with the worst season worst of Idol of all time. (Sorry, Season 9 — you're still the winning loser.)
But Lewis is now getting the opportunity to have the last laugh. The Idol alum has not only scored a contract with Republic Records five years after getting dropped by Arista Records, but he's landed the soundtrack to Microsoft Internet Explorer's "Explore Touch" ad campaign. (Also known as the same company that forced Alex Clare's "Too Close" into your head for months straight.)
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The musician, however, isn't the only Idol alum to experience a career rebound years after their appearance on our television screens. Here are some other singers from the reality series who found surprising success after they missed out on a confetti shower.
Kimberly CaldwellSeason: 2 (2003)Post-Idol Struggles: Caldwell parlayed her Idol experience into various hosting gigs for FOX Sports and MTV's P. Diddy's Starmaker. In fact, the singer seemed to abandon singing altogether, instead making bit appearances on TV programs.When It Turned Around: In 20011, eight years after she was eliminated on Idol, Caldwell released a record uner Vanguard/Capitol Records. Unfortunately, even after being given a chance to rebound, Caldwell failed to impress, selling just 3,000 records, and returned to television to host Oxygen's Best Ink.
Jennifer HudsonSeason: 3 (2004)Post-Idol Struggles: The poster woman for post-elimination success failed to make a splash with her first first singles, "Over It" and "Stand Up"... When It Turned Around: ...which is exactly why Idol fans were shocked to hear the singer scored the role as Effie in the big-screen Dreamgirls adaptation. One Oscar and a successful acting career later, and we're starting to think that Elton John is freakishly prescient.
Constantine MaroulisSeason: 4 (2005)Post-Idol Struggles: The sixth place finisher became more well-known post-Idol for his performances of the National Anthem at sports games than his self-titled album released in 2007. When It Turned Around: But, O say, we didn't see his massive Broadway success coming. After a turn in the short-lived Wedding Singer Broadway show, Maroulis appeared off-Broadway before scoring a role in Rock of Ages in 2008. And the Rock of Ages stint came complete with something even better than a confetti shower: a Tony nomination.
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Kevin CovaisSeason: 5 (2006)Post-Idol Struggles: Really, did you expect Chicken Little do to anything after placed 11th in the reality competition series?When It Turned Around: Though he never scored a record contract, Covais', ahem, interesting looks caught Hollywood's attention two years later in 2008. The Idol alum scored roles in Drake Bell's College, Lindsay Lohan's Labor Pains, and, most recently, Identity Thief. And Chicken Little, against all odds, continues to act to this day.
Katharine McPheeSeason: 5 (2006)Post-Idol Struggles: The singer, who some found to be as unlikeable as she was talented, found only modest success as a singer. Singles off of her first album, Katharine McPhee, didn't quite hit as hard as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and other Idol performances. One year later, she was dropped by RCA Records and in 2010, released Unbroken, which sold just 15,000 copies.When It Turned Around: Turns out audiences liked McPhee... just not as a singer. After acting alongside Anna Faris and Emma Stone in The House Bunny, McPhee scored the starring role on every musical theater's favorite hot mess, Smash. Though ratings for the series are still leaving something to be desired, McPhee has managed to at least make herself more likeable than Ellis.
Chris SlighSeason: 6 (2007)Post-Idol Struggles: Season 6's David Hasselhoff-loving funny man had everything going against him. Sligh finished in the unenviable 10th place, poised for little more than a footnote in American Idol's history of memorable auditions. After his season wrapped, Sligh recorded a solo album, but failed to gain attention outside of the Christian charts.When It Turned Around: The contestant, whose sense of humor clearly proved he had a talent for words, scored a No. 1 hit on the country charts with 2009's "Here Comes Goodbye," written for Rascal Flatts. Surely, that was enough to help him fulfill his goal to make Hasselhoff cry.
[Image Credit: Brian Dowling/PictureGroup/AP Images, Will Hart/NBC, Joseph Marzullo/WENN]
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Dylan McDermott is Being Held Hostage:... From Ryan Murphy? The American Horror Story star has been cast opposite Toni Collette in CBS' high profile political thriller pilot, Hostages. McDermott will play Duncan, an FBI agent who is caught in the middle of a conspiracy involving... duh dun dun... the President! Also, he's Bloody Face. Sorry, R-Murphy... looks like one of your go-to guys has fled the asylum. [EW]
Accio Ron Weasley: CBS has just hired Rupert Grint — a.k.a. Harry Potter's BFF Ron Weasley — to play the lead in its single-camera comedy pilot Super Clyde. Grint's Clyde is a mild-mannered fast food worker who decides to become a super hero. Garcia is the mind behind Fox's Raising Hope and the NBC sitcom My Name Is Earl. [Deadline]
Ryan Seacrest is Having a Ball: You know what Ryan Seacrest needed more than anything else in this whole wide world? Another TV show! And you know what? Thanks to A&E, today that little boy's wish came true. Seacrest has nabbed a six-episode series order for a project tentatively titled Montecito. The show will focus on wealthy women and their ballroom dance instructors. I mean, of course. [Hollywood Reporter]
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More News From the Dome: Well, from under it at least. Stephen King's much abuzzed CBS summer series has found its lead in Mike Vogel, formerly of Pan Am, currently of a recurring arc in Bates Motel. The series will focus on a small town called Chester's Mill, which is suddenly sealed off from the world by a massive dome. Vogel's character is an Army vet outsider, named Barbie. Yep. [Deadline]
Scandal Nabs an Ugly Guest: Former Ugly Betty star Eric Mabius has been cast in a guest spot on the growing hit Scandal. He'll appear on the Feb. 21 episode as Senator Peter Caldwell, a member of a powerful political family who turns Olivia for advice. [Hollywood Reporter]
Camp is in Session: You'll be seeing a little less of NBC's summer dramedy, Camp. The network has decided to cut its order of the new show, about a summer camp where "parents decompress with gin while teenagers make gleeful mischief and fall in and out of love." Instead of 13 episodes, scheduling needs have cut the order to 10. [Deadline]
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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
The trailers for Hope Springs might lead you to believe it's a romantic comedy about a couple trying to jumpstart their sexless marriage but it causes more empathetic cringing than chuckles. Audiences will be drawn to Hope Springs by its stars Meryl Streep Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell and Streep's track record of pleasing summer movies like Julie & Julia and Mamma Mia! that offer a respite from the blockbusters flooding theaters. Despite what its marketing might have you believe Hope Springs isn't a rom-com. The film is a disarming mixture of deeply intimate confessions by a married couple in the sanctuary of a therapist's office awkwardly honest attempts by that couple to physically reconnect and incredibly sappy scenes underscored by intrusive music. Boldly addressing female desire especially in older women it's hard not to give the movie extra credit for what writer Vanessa Taylor's script is trying to convey and its rarity in mainstream film. The ebb and flow of intimacy and desire in a long-term relationship is what drives Hope Springs and while there are plenty contrived moments and unresolved issues it is frankly surprising and surprisingly frank. It's a summer release from a major studio with high caliber stars aimed squarely at the generally underserved 50+ audience addressing the even more taboo topic of that audience's sex life.
Streep plays Kay a suburban wife who's deeply unsatisfied emotionally and sexually by her marriage to Arnold. Arnold who is played by Tommy Lee Jones as his craggiest sleeps in a separate bedroom now that their kids have left the nest; he's like a stone cold robot emotionally and physically and Kay tiptoes around trying to make him happy even as he ignores her every gesture. One of the most striking scenes in the movie is at the very beginning when Kay primps and fusses over her modest sleepwear in the hopes of seducing her husband. Streep makes it obvious that this isn't an easy thing for Kay; it takes all her guts to try and wordlessly suggest sex to her husband and when she's shot down it hurts to watch. This isn't a one time disconnect between their libidos; this is an ongoing problem that leaves Kay feeling insecure and undesirable.
After a foray into the self-help section of her bookstore Kay finds a therapist who holds week-long intensive couples' therapy sessions in Good Hope Springs ME and in a seemingly unprecedented moment of decisiveness she books a trip for the couple. Arnold of course is having none of it but he eventually comes along for the ride. That doesn't mean he's up for answering any of Dr. Feld's questions though. To be fair Dr. Feld (Carell) is asking the couple deeply intimate questions so if Arnold is comfortable foisting his amorous wife off with the excuse he had pork for lunch it's not so far-fetched to believe he'd be angry when Feld asks him about his fantasy life or masturbation habits.
Although Arnold gets a pass on some of his issues Kay is forthright about why and how she's dissatisfied. When Dr. Feld asks her if she masturbates she says she doesn't because it makes her too sad. Kay offers similar revelations; she's willing to bare it all to revive her marriage while Arnold thinks the fact that they're married at all means they must be happy. Carell's Dr. Feld is soothing and kind (even a bit bland) but it's always a pleasure to see him play it straight.
It's subversive for a mega-watt star to play a character that talks about how sexually unsatisfied she is and how unsexy she feels with the man she loves most in the world. The added taboo of Kay and Arnold's age adds that much more to the conversation. Kay and Arnold's attempts at intimacy are emotionally raw and hard to watch. Even when things get funny they're mostly awkward funny not ha-ha funny.
The rest of the movie is a little uneven wrapped up tightly and happily by the end. Their time spent soul-searching alone is a little cheesy especially when Kay ends up in a local bar where she gets a little dizzy on white wine while dishing about her problems to the bartender (Elisabeth Shue). Somewhere along the line what probably started out as a character study ended up as a wobbly drama that pushes some boundaries but eventually lets everyone off the emotional hook in favor of a smoothed-over happy ending. Still its disarming moments and performances almost balance it out. Although its target audience might be dismayed to find it's not as light-hearted as it would seem Hope Springs offers up the opportunity for discussion about sexuality and aging at a time when books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike are perking up similar conversations. In the end that's a good thing.