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.
Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
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In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
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While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Top Story: Sizemore Didn't Take the Witness Stand
After Tom Sizemore declined to testify in his abuse trial, his lawyers concluded their case Monday by showing a videotape shot by Heidi Fleiss, Sizemore's former fiancé, who has claimed the actor beat her during their tumultuous relationship and has since threatened her and her family's life. The Associated Press reports the tape was shot in a hotel room where Fleiss and Sizemore were staying during a publicity tour for Black Hawk Down. On it, she declares her love for Sizemore. "I can't wait for Tom to get home to tell him how good he was, how handsome he is, how happy he makes me," she reportedly said on the tape. The defense suggests this contradicts her claim that on the same day Sizemore came to the hotel room and beat her so badly that both of them missed the premiere of the movie. AP reports Sizemore cried at the defense table while the tape was playing. The actor could face up to 13 years in prison if convicted of all the charges, which include making about 100 harassing phone calls to Fleiss, vandalism, threatening to inflict injury to a person or property and corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition.
More on the Ben & Jen Saga
Promoting the new Project Greenlight film The Battle of Shaker Heights, Ben Affleck skirted reporters' questions about his recent visit to a Vancouver strip club in July, Reuters reports. "You can tell your news editors that you are too big for that kind of stuff, that you are better than that, that you rise above it," Affleck joked at the press conference. The affable actor also commented on his upcoming film Jersey Girl, in which his lady love Jennifer Lopez also makes an appearance. "I think Jersey Girl is a really good movie," he said. "Jen is only in it for about 10 minutes, so it's not really like a 'me-and-Jen' movie. In fact, probably after the towering success of Gigli, I suspect Miramax will find a way to sell it as other than a 'me-and-Jen' movie."
Al Franken Sued by Fox Over Slogan
Saturday Night Live writer and political humorist Al Franken is being sued by Fox News to stop using the phrase "fair and balanced" in the title of his new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, AP reports. Fox filed the suit Monday, claiming they registered "Fair & Balanced" as a trademark in 1995. Franken's "intent is clear--to exploit Fox News' trademark, confuse the public as to the origins of the book and, accordingly, boost sales of the book," AP reports the suit said.
P. Diddy Targeted in Lawsuit
Two men have filed suit against rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for $25 million each, claiming they were attacked by a security team at Combs' recording studio, AP reports. Thomas Guest and Damon Jackson filed their suits Monday, alleging that they were assaulted in August 2002 at the Daddy's House studio in New York, where the two men were trying to visit Combs, a friend of Guest. Combs' spokeswoman, Susan Makarichev, told AP the lawsuits were "totally baseless" and "the allegations are ridiculous."
Robert Evans's Wife Files for Divorce
Former model Leslie Ann Woodward filed for divorce Monday from legendary film producer Robert Evans, citing "irreconcilable differences," Reuters reports. The 34-year-old Woodward married the 73-year-old Evans last November, his sixth marriage, and has been separated from him since June. The couple has no children.
Bertrand Cantat Probed in Beating Death of Girlfriend
Bertrand Cantat, the lead singer of the popular French rock band Noir Desir, is close to being charged in the beating death of his girlfriend, Marie Trintignant, AP reports. The French actress was found in a coma in July in a hotel in Lithuania, where she was filming a movie, after she and Cantat reportedly had an argument. AP reports a French judge will travel to the Baltic nation Monday, when Cantat, who has been detained in the country, will be notified that he is under investigation for "fatal blows leading unintentionally to death," officials told AP on condition of anonymity. In France, being placed under investigation is one step short of charges, AP reports. Cantat has maintained the death was an accident.
Coppola Searching for Utopian City
Location scouting for his next film, director Francis Ford Coppola visited the sleepy town of Curitiba, Brazil, as a possible place to shoot Megalopolis, his first film in six years, Reuters reports. The story follows a visionary architect who sets out to design a utopian city. "[Curitiba] is amazing, especially the public transportation," Coppola told Reuters, whose quest for an urban paradise will also take him to cities in India, China, the Netherlands and the United States.
Rap Industry Producer Cuts Deal With Prosecutors
Rap industry player Jon Ragin, who co-produced a recent film marketed by the record label Murder Inc., has quietly cut a plea deal with authorities investigating alleged ties between the Murder Inc. music label and New York City's violent drug trade, AP reports. Ragin, a convicted drug dealer, was arrested in January during raids at various New York locations, including the Murder Inc. offices and a fake tuxedo rental business linked to a 1999 murder. He was accused of using the tuxedo shop as a front for laundering proceeds from stolen credit cards, AP reports. Ragin is also known to be a close associate of Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, a convicted drug kingpin suspected of secretly bankrolling Murder Inc.--a 50-50 joint venture between McGriff's longtime friend Irv Gotti, and Island-Def Jam Records, a division of Universal Music Group, home to multi-platinum artists Ashanti and Ja Rule, AP reports. Neither McGriff, Gotti nor any of Vivendi's companies have been charged in the ongoing investigation.