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.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Last night's episode of Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23 was absolutely perfect. That's not because it featured tranquilizer guns, moral depravity, and jokes about gay hookup app Grindr. (But then, really, when doesn't it?) No, it was because it finally took television and the entertainment press to task for it's unhealthy obsession with "reunions." Ugh, if I have to hear one more thing about "reunions" I'm going to reunite my feet with a bridge and then disunite them when I jump the hell off of it.
Last night James Van Der Beek, who plays a version of himself on the show, was talked into doing a Dawson's Creek reunion to disastrous results. The whole thing was a play on the disturbing trend that is taking over TV when it casts people from one of its stars' old shows to try to get a little boost in the ratings. If the old gang is back together, everyone will come flocking, right? Recently we heard about the Heroes reunion on Hawaii Five-0 because George Takei and Masi Oka will both be on (this is after the same show capitalized on Terry O'Quinn and Daniel Dae Kim's Lost reunion). Then there's the Will & Grace reunion on Smash because Sean Hayes will be stopping by to sing a few bars with Debra Messing. Oh, and let us not forget about the Franklin & Bash reunion that is happening because Mark-Paul Gosselaar is going to guest-star on a show produced by his current costar Breckin Meyer.
OK, we all need to calm down with this nonsense. First of all, Gosselaar and Meyer are currently starring on a show together which has only been on for two seasons! That's like having a reunion of the cast of New Girl when you can see them already united each Tuesday on Fox for free. That is ridiculous. As for the Will & Grace reunion, do you know what that is missing? Will! And Karen! The same thing goes for Heroes, especially considering that Takei (though excellent) was never even a series regular. Where are the rest of the damn heroes? These aren't reunions, these are just popular actors appearing on the show together once again. Do you know what that is called? Acting! It is called acting on a show with someone who you have acted with in the past. It is called the way that television has always worked since the dawn of time.
You don't see The Good Wife calling it a Birdcage reunion because Christine Baranski and Nathan Lane have been cast together. You don't see the same show calling it a "Fire Island Hot Tub Party" reunion because Alan Cumming and John Benjamin Hickey are back together. You don't see TBS calling the season one episode of Law & Order featuring Cynthia Nixon and Chris Noth a Sex and the City pre-union because it happened before the later show was cast. No, some people don't want the cheap publicity from having two actors that worked together sharing craft services once again.
But some shows (Cougar Town and their several Friends reunions) or certain groups of fans (there have been more phony Lost reunions than we care to count) just won't let it go. And neither can the press, which gets plenty of clicks on the internet from the nostalgia of people wanting to reengage with their favorite old shows. Red carpet interviewers are the worst, asking anyone who has ever been on a popular show when we can expect a reunion as they walk past the wall of flash bulbs. They all say they'd love to do it, but it never quite happens. Hmm. I sarcastically wonder why? Because it's an awful idea, that's why!
As far as I can tell, this recent "reunited and it feels so good" obsession started with Jimmy Fallon trying to reassemble the cast of Saved by the Bell, which got his fledgling show plenty of attention and wasn't a horrible idea. That was around the same time when Seinfeld did a real/fake reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Also a good idea. So is Entertainment Weekly's annual "reunions" issue because it actually delves into where the people have been, has them reminisce about the show/movie that made them famous, and puts them into interesting photos. Also, in all of these cases, the entire cast gets together (minus Screech, who is still reuniting with a porn movie). A reunion is not made of two people. You don't call dinner with your mom a family reunion. It's just life. It's just the way things are.
That is what was perfect about Don't Trust the B---- in Apt 23. (We really need a shorter name for this show. Don't Trust? The B? Apt. 23?) It was a little bit of a reunion – Busy Phillipps stopped by as did Frankie Muniz and our old reunion friend Gosselaar all playing versions of themselves – but without falling into the old nostalgia trap of having them relive their old roles. It took our old favorites and made them into something new and interesting. It also poked fun at the ridiculousness of the proposition to begin with: the fans who can't move past the moment in time when they were obsessed with one particular program, actors not wanting to appear ungrateful about their success but not wanting to go back into a role they're trying to outshine, and our collective obsession with nostalgia. It ended with some good advice: to walk away from the past in slow motion as it explodes like in a John Woo movie. It's time we do that to the whole concept of reunions in general. There are more shows out there than any human being can watch, tune in to one of those and just hope two people from The Wire pop up on any given episode. It happens more often than you'd even know or most people care to make a big stink out of.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: ABC]
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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.