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.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Filmmaker Roger Vadim, best known for discovering Brigitte Bardot and keeping company with the likes of Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve, died today of cancer. He was 72.
The Paris-born Vadim was married to the then-teenage Bardot when he made his directorial debut in 1956 with "And God Created Woman." The film launched Bardot's career as a sex symbol and stirred much talk for its outrageous (at the time) unveiling of her skin. In the short run, "And God ..." was banned in several countries. In the long run, it helped launch France's New Wave film movement of the 1950s.
In 1965, Vadim wed a 27-year-old, pre-controversial Jane Fonda (his third wife). Two years later, the couple teamed to reveal Fonda's own assets on screen with the Vadim-directed sci-fi cult hit "Barbarella". The couple had one daughter, Vanessa, before splitting in 1973.
Vadim also fathered a son, Christian, with Deneuve and had one daughter each with wives No. 2 and No. 4, Annette Stroyberg and Catherine Schneider respectively.
In all, Vadim wed five times. In 1987, he authored the ladies'-man memoir, "Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda: My Life with the Three Most Beautiful Women in the World."
Survivors include his four children and actress-wife No. 5, Marie-Christine Barrault.
BEST IN SHOW: Annette Bening, the "American Beauty" real-estate wife who goes to great lengths to sell a house, has been named ShoWest's Female Star of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners. Bening, 41, will receive her award at ShoWest's convention March 6-9 in Las Vegas.
COURTED: Mark Ronald Bailey is scheduled to face trial April 7 on charges that he stalked "Suddenly Susan" star Brooke Shields while in the possession of a handgun, a Los Angeles court ruled Thursday. Bailey, 41, has two prior convictions relating to Shields -- one for stealing a pickup truck and trespassing at her New Jersey home in 1985, and one for threatening her in 1993.
... In New York, a prosecutor on Thursday said rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs offered his driver $50,000 and a diamond ring he received from girlfriend Jennifer Lopez if the driver would say he owned a gun police found as the couple fled a nightclub shooting. ...
... A California appeals court reinstated a $4.3 million jury verdict against Connie Stevens, saying she missed her opportunity to make the defense that her agreement with former manager Norman Styne was void under the Talent Agencies Act. Styne originally sued Stevens claiming she didn't honor a verbal contract giving him 10 percent profits from her cosmetic line. A jury found in favor of Styne, but the verdict was thrown out two months later.
QUICK TAKES: Ensuring that the Academy Awards this year will have a small dose of excitement, double Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni will present at the ceremonies. The actor-director won Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor kudos for "Life is Beautiful." On Oscar night 1999, Benigni, whose two exuberant acceptance speeches "used up all [his] English," announced that he wanted to be like Jupiter, "kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody." No word on what Benigni's plans are this year ...
... Salma Hayek has been named a presenter for the techie Oscars, to be presented March 4. She'll hand out a statue to Dr. Roderick T. Ryan, recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, honoring "an individual ... whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry." ...
...Steven Spielberg, on the mend from kidney surgery, will be on hand to receive his Vanguard Award at the NAACP Image Awards on Saturday. He'll also help present the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award to Harrison Ford on Thursday, along with George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Anne Archer, Daryl Hannah, Julia Ormond and Anne Heche ...
... Songstress Patti LaBelle, 55, and her husband-manager, L. Armstead Edwards, are separating after 30 years of marriage. They call it "an amicable decision."
THIS WEEK'S RUMOR ROUNDUP: While Neve Campbell recently denied she's headed to the altar with rumored-boyfriend John Cusack, Heather Graham and Edward Burns may be a different story, reports Fashion Wire Daily. Graham herself recently told Elle magazine: "I fell in love with this guy and it's unlike any love I've ever known. Knock on wood, I don't see an end in sight." They live together in Hollywood and gargle mouthwash every morning so they'll "taste fresh" when they kiss. Anyhow, sources say Graham "fits right in" with Burns' Long Island family, and she's even considering motherhood. "It's like a definite maybe." Uh, Heather, isn't that an oxymoron? ...
... MTV gross-out host Tom Green apparently got wind of the rumors about him and Monica Lewinsky, and in order to save his own dating life, posted a message on his official Web site. For the record, Green notes that he was introduced to Lewinsky through one of his show's writers (whom she dated), and Green later met up with Lewinsky and her date (not the writer) to attend a Kids in the Hall after-party. He thinks the Edmonton Sun reported their pairing because they were standing together. "Andy Dick was with us too ... I am also not dating him," he writes.
Why doesn't Green just ignore the rumor? "Because I just met this girl a few weeks ago, and I really like her... and I don't want her to get mad at me and think that I'm dating Monica ... this girl is ... really cool, and cute and stuff." Awww, how sweet.