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.
March 28's "Songs from the Singers' Idols" episode of American Idol was so enthralling, we can forgive Ryan Seacrest's awkward Hunger Games riffs at the episode's onset. The judges couldn't stop giving standing ovations (five in total) and it took every fiber of my being to not stand up in the middle of my apartment after some of these songs.
I've said this time and again, but this season's set of singers is just unfair. And then there's Heejun. There are nine singers left and if it were up to me, I'd crown five of these folks the 2012 American Idol this second. But alas, there can only be one and there are eight more potentially heated weeks to go before the finale. The Top Nine not only earned spots in the Idol mansion, but they made it to an even bigger milestone: the week in which the great Stevie Nicks provides mentorship. And Nicks follows up Diddy's turn as a candid, outspoken, brutally honest mentor with her own brand of comedy and genuine interest in each and every one of these contestants. Of course, Phillip Phillips got her special attention for resembling Lindsey Buckingham circa 1975. Translation: Stevie Nicks thinks he's a cutie. But from Nicks' emotional moment with Hollie Cavanaugh, to harmonizing with Elise Testone, to her constant jabs at her longtime friend and producer Jimmy Iovine, the best episode yet was presided over by the best guest mentor yet. And whether it was the inspiration of a legend like Nicks shaping their performances or energy drinks secretly slipped into their water supply, the Top Nine turned in some seriously phenomenal performances. And to top it off, they were all able to choose songs by their personal idols, meaning they knew these songs inside and out. Every note means something, every word has been sung in front of a mirror with a hairbrush a thousand times. How is a voter supposed to choose? The Best of the BestBy this point, we've come to expect greatness from Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez, Joshua Ledet, Skylar Laine and Colton Dixon. March 29 found each of them getting nice and cozy in their sweet spots, delivering performances that actually made me squeal in amazement. These singers, in case you hadn't guessed already, are the five contestants that deserve to win this whole competition right now. The problem is, there's five of them. Skylar Laine broke out of her comfy, solid routine to get a little more boisterous and lot more sultry with Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder & Lead." She riled herself up into that tizzy we experienced during her Top 24 performance, giving us a little reminder of why we liked her so much back then. She's a little firecracker and she works the stage like a teen sensation country crooner performing for a sold out stadium. Colton Dixon continued on his alt-rocker path to greatness, giving a tearful rendition of "his favorite worship song of all time" "Everything" by Lifehouse. Say what you will about his genre (or his hair, which Nicks told him to hang onto for dear life), but Dixon has got it down pat. There were some pitch issues that none of the judges seemed to notice, in fact Steven Tyler even told him he had "perfect pitch," but as a total package, Dixon's performance proved one very important thing: this guy can and will sell records. Phillip Phillips has remained a favorite throughout the competition. At the outset, his official Idol Twitter page even had the greatest number of followers, whatever that means. As the competition has progressed, he continues to dig his feet in, refusing to make wardrobe changes and put down his beloved guitar. Usually, that sort of stubbornness plays out badly for Idol contestants, but Phillips defies the stereotype. The more he dresses down and hangs onto to his bluesy, gritty, gutteral sound, the better he gets. This week, his choice of Johnny Lang's "Look Out My Window" couldn't have been any more perfect. Whether or not he's left standing, we'll see more of Phillips. He's the rare Idol picture of an artist's artist. Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet are our soulful powerhouses. They're head and shoulders above everyone else, regardless of genre. You just don't encounter voices like these. Sanchez' choice of Beyonce as her mentor had me cheering; the R&B diva is the perfect example of how to turn a giant force of a voice into a pop music powerhouse. And while the slow arrangement of "Sweet Dream" killed the song's momentum for me, despite what the judges said about it being "beautiful," Sanchez has music flowing through her. She doesn't make conscious decisions onstage. She just is, and she is nothing short of phenomenal. Ledet, too, is simply phenomenal. What he has on Sanchez is an emotional connection. Sanchez sings beautifully, but perhaps its her maturity that hasn't quite caught up with her. When Ledet sings, his tone and lyrics work their way into our souls. He's not tugging on heartstrings, he's rocking us to our very cores. It's almost impossible to say one singer stands above everyone in this fantastic competition, but Ledet does, albeit by a very small margin. The Comeback KidsElise Testone and DeAndre Brackensick have been hovering on the lower brackets of the finalist set, and with her weak performance during Billy Joel week, Hollie Cavanaugh's potential dropped immensely. But what a difference a week makes. Testone earned the best performance slot of the night: the finale. Yet, week after week, she's continued to confuse us. Who is she? What's her genre? What's her thing? She's been all over the place, and her ability to ham it up for the camera was practically nonexistent. She's been the vegetable we're supposed to love, but just can bring ourselves to enjoy. Perhaps its the magic of being the last performer of the night, or Testone finally found her sweet spot, but her rendition of Led Zeppelin's "A Whole Lotta Love" was the ultimate comeback. Robert Plant created a sound that no singer should ever attempt to recreate, and Testone didn't do that. She Elise-d it. But it might not be enough. Is this really who she is? Is she the rocker chick leading a brash band? If this sweet spot is where she belongs, her chances could be on the rise, but weeks of indecisive performances are hard to undo. Brackensick also upped the ante, finally picking a song that highlights his fantastic falsetto. Eric Benet's "Sometimes I Cry" is right up there with the sweet spot Brackensick hit when he sang "Woman's Work" by Maxwell. His passionate, flawless rendition of the R&B song was exactly what he needed to stay a bit long in the competition. Unfortunately, he still has an issue with truly connecting, though he certainly tried this week. Perhaps his 17 year-old mentality is just a bit too green to truly connect to the weight of the songs he's singing, but unless he figures out a way around that, we'll be saying goodbye very soon. Cavanaugh finally broke away from her usual schtick: the little pixie girl with a big voice. She always moved around the stage like a small child carrying a heavy box; her voice is fantastic, but she was constantly trying to wrangle it. When she took on "Jesus Take The Wheel" by Idol winner Carrie Underwood, she appeared to have significantly more control over the song and herself. And as emotional as she was able to get thanks to Nicks' candidness during the mentoring session, Cavanaugh still lacks the put-together element that others like Sanchez and even Laine possess. She's got the chops, but she lacks the polish. And Then There's HeejunThe topic of Heejun Han is a bittersweet one. I rooted for him all through Hollywood Week and Las Vegas groups. He's the sweet, funny kid who kept us entertained while the other drama queens had mental breakdowns over singing a Blu Cantrell song. And, his voice has a velvety, beautiful tone that draws us in. Unfortunately, every time that voice draws us in, it doesn't deliver on its promise. It's a nice one, and Han's performances consistently feel right technically. He hits the right notes, he sounds pretty, and he appears to connect to the song, but he's not a performer. He's a good singer. That's it. There's a disconnect between Han and the audience and among his fellow singers, who are all performing as if they're drawing energy from the Earth's core, his simple, sweet performances just aren't cutting it. Are you done with Heejun? Can he compare to singers like Jessica and Joshua? Did Elise and DeAndre do enough to stick around? Let us know in the comments or get at me on Twitter @KelseaStahler. More:American Idol Rankings: Top Nine Keep The Judges on Their FeetIdol: Is Colton Dixon TV's Tim Tebow? Idol Recap: Colton Dixon Becomes the Piano Man
In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.
John Q is just your ordinary average blue-collar worker in Middle America trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately things are slow at the plant and John's hours have been cut in half. To make matters worse his wife's car has just been repossessed and he can't find a second job to bring in more income. Then the hammer really falls: his son collapses during a Little League game and the doctors say the boy needs a new heart--and fast--or he will die. When John finds out that his insurance won't cover the operation (his policy has been downgraded by his company because his hours were cut) and that the hospital won't put his son on the organ transplant list without a stiff up-front cash payment John takes matters into his own hands. Holding the ER hostage John demands that the hospital put his son on the organ transplant list.
Denzel Washington is Everyman letting his hair get unruly packing on some un-Hollywood-star inches around the middle and wearing nothing but cheap hats and jeans. Despite some silly screenwriting Washington manages to raise John above soap-opera dramatics and weak polemics ("The enemy is us--we shot down national healthcare") with genuine emotion and convincing resolve but barely. James Woods is perfect as the sniveling smarmy and supercilious doctor but unfortunately he and the rest of the talented cast are wasted as one-dimensional characters and saddled with routine clichéd dialogue. Anne Heche (who should be commended for taking on such a villainous role) is the icy hospital administrator; Robert Duvall is the by-the-book hostage negotiator; Ray Liotta is the trigger-tempered police chief; and Shawn Hatosy is the big-city brat who just won't stand for being a hostage. The rest of the hostages aren't even remotely interesting nor are any of the other characters.
While weak dialogue is partially to blame when a cast as strong as this one can't breathe real life into their characters some of the culpability must be laid at the feet of the director. Nick Cassavetes' (She's So Lovely) movie suffers from heavy-handed treatment: every five minutes the audience is beaten over the head (again) as someone rails against the country's failing health system and places guilt on this party or that complete with obligatory tight close-up shot (and halo) directly on that character. Not to mention Cassavetes tips his hand with the opening scene. The patter by screenwriter James Kearns (TV's Highway to Heaven) is cute at times but on the whole the script is didactic yet inane and would make for a poor episode of E.R.. The story however does manage to engage the audience on an emotional level with its timely message. One cannot help but root for John Q no matter his vigilante ways. After John's denouement Cassavetes closes the film with news clips of celebrities stumping for the cause. This is typical of the movie as a whole; while it attempts to deal with the serious issue of health care reform it only does so on the most superficial level.