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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The Five-Year Engagement is an ambitious film by Hollywood rom-com standards. The script by director Nicholas Stoller and lead actor Jason Segel aims for charm and pain and laughs and truth. The presentation is slick with the beauty of San Francisco and small town Michigan backdropping the comedy captured with above-average photography that screams "This isn't your run-of-the-mill Katherine Heigl flick!" Five-Year Engagement is a shotgun blast of grand ideas every element spread so thin it ends up being not that charming not that painful not that funny and not that truthful.
Tom (Segel) a professional cook and his girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt) a hopeful psychology student have been dating for one year before the question is finally popped. They seem perfect for one another understanding the other's perspectives sharing sensibilities and helping each other loving life to the fullest. The couple's wedding planning process is slow and steady but when the date is finally in sight Violet finds herself with an offer to attend the University of Michigan. The wrench in the life plan sets the nuptials back much to the chagrin of Violet's mother (Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver) who pushes her daughter to tie the knot before all the grandparents are dead. The potential move doesn't sit well with Tom either — leaving San Fran means quitting a high profile cook job and saying goodbye to his best bud Alex (Chris Pratt) and Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie). But the compromise is eventually made and Tom and Violet find themselves driving into the cold snowy unknown of Michigan.
Five-Year Engagement maximizes Segel's and Blunt's inherent charisma (and really they're two of the gosh darn nicest on-screen people in recent years) by making them kind loving and flawless. To give the movie a reason to exist problems for their relationship are then randomly conjured up. Slowly but surely their relationship suffers strain from all the bending over backwards. The archaic conceit of why these two actually need to get married to profess their love isn't really addressed — they just have to and life is standing in their way. Tom can't find a cooking job; Violet's professor plays devil on her shoulder about marriage; Tom hates Michigan but turns out to be too nice to say anything; Violet sees shades of her psychological experiments ripping apart Tom's exterior. After meeting them in the beginning the hurdles the central couple faces throughout their five year engagement are nonsensical. They're perfect for each other they're just written to have rom-com problems.
The movie earns a few chuckles. Pratt and Brie steal the show as the friend and sister who quickly fall in love tie the knot have kids and foil Segel and Blunt's relationship. The two leads are comedically proficient too — a conversation between Blunt and Brie performed with Cookie Monster/Elmo voices is pure genius. But it's a movie of moments diluted by a non-action arc that's simply a bore. Halfway through the movie Segel's Tom goes full-on cartoon character embracing a mountain man persona who's obsessed with venison and brewing his own honey mead. The jokes could work in another movie but not in Five-Year Engagement which strives for something more.
Time is essential to Five-Year Engagement but it's unclear how many months have passed between the movie's scatterbrained scenes. Alex and Suzie visit Tom and Violet with kids then magically they're all grown up when a year (maybe) has passed. And when did Tom go crazy? How quickly did they put their third marriage attempt together? The film's timeline is key but never feels established — even with a run-time of over two hours. Much like Tom and Violet the audience waits and waits and waits and waits for the couple to finally tie the knot in Five-Year Engagement. Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part.
In 1977 Harvey Milk (Penn) was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While this would not normally be an earth-shattering phenomenon in this case Milk became the first out-of-the-closet gay person to win a major public office in the United States -- and was assassinated in 1978 along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Based in part on the Academy Award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk the film focuses on the last decade of his life as he moves from New York at age 40 to San Francisco with lover Scott Smith (James Franco). Using his experience as an entrepreneur as a catalyst he suddenly becomes more politically involved making a couple of runs for office and finally getting elected. With a new lover (Diego Luna) and agenda Milk takes on some major issues -- including lobbying against California’s controversial Prop 6 an initiative to fire gay schoolteachers. But his activities anger another supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) and soon their destinies will collide. It’s not an overstatement to say that Sean Penn’s performance here is a revelation. As Harvey Milk he not only perfectly embodies the late politician but exudes a certain kind of warmness and humor we rarely see from the star. His immersion into the persona of Milk is truly remarkable and winning. A large supporting cast includes: standout performances from Franco as Milk’s true love and friend Scott who eventually can’t compete with Harvey’s increasing ambition; Diego Luna hilarious and annoying as Milk’s lover later; and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones a young activist and Milk protégé. Brolin as the unlikeable White perfectly captures the frustration and simmering jealousy the man he feels steals his job. It’s a risky role and there is little room for audience empathy but Brolin makes this loser understandable if not acceptable. As the lone woman among the principal players Alison Pill is bright and appealing as Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg. Gus Van Sant’s odd directorial career encompasses a series of ups and downs with the highlights being Drugstore Cowboy and his Oscar-nominated work on Good Will Hunting. The absolute nadir of Van Sant’s resume is undoubtedly his ill-advised shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s untouchable Psycho. It’s nice to report he’s back in form now with the warm funny and moving Milk a film that doesn’t quite escape the clichés of the biopic genre but still finds its own beats thanks in large part to the piercing performances. Getting such mature and joyful work from Penn a brilliant but distant actor is impressive indeed. He also imbues the movie with a documentary feel appropriate since much of the source material comes from the Oscar-winning docu. Milk paints us a triumphant and inspiring life one that won’t soon be forgotten especially with its parallels to current California circumstances. The state’s recent anti-gay marriage initiative Prop 8 could not have come at a more significant time in making Harvey Milk’s crusade seem more relevant than ever.
Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is an emotionally closed-off British ex-con who heads to Canada to visit an old lover. When he misjudges the distances between Ontario and Winnipeg he rents a car and starts driving across the snowy winter landscape. He encounters a charming young woman named Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire) who hitches a ride and begins to thaw out his frozen heart but then tragedy strikes as the pair has a terrible car accident and Vivienne is killed. Alex is left with terrible guilt and so drives to the little town of Wawa to offer condolences to Vivienne’s mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). Surprisingly Alex discovers that Linda is a high-functioning autistic and as he agrees to help her plan the funeral an unlikely friendship develops. Meanwhile Alex also meets Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) Linda’s beautiful next-door neighbor; his relationships with those two very different women change him very unexpected ways. Forget Ripley from the Alien flicks! With Snow Cake Sigourney Weaver gives the performance of her life. She transforms completely into Linda Freeman a middle-aged woman whose life is framed – but not controlled – by her autism. From her slightly twitchy movements to the far-off look in her eyes Weaver masterfully captures the physical elements of the disorder; add in the completely believable dialogue that reveals Linda’s inner emotional state and the portrayal is one that just might bring Weaver an Academy Award for her work. Alan Rickman is equally affecting as a man whose personal anguish threatens to shut him down completely; his emotional reawakening is so real that we can’t help but empathize and root for him. Carrie-Anne Moss is quietly effective as the sexually restless neighbor and Emily Hampshire is a beam of sunshine in her short time on the screen as Linda’s daughter a real face to watch for the future. Welsh director Mark Evans cut his teeth on British television and small films like Trauma. With Snow Cake he proves that he’s got a talent for telling emotional stories without descending into sentimentality. That’s a fine line and one that makes this film sit head and shoulders above those Lifetime channel flicks that send a chill up the spine of every red-blooded male (and many of us females too). First-time screenwriter Angela Pell should get massive credit as well. She tapped into her personal experience as the parent of an autistic boy translating that knowledge into creating a portrait of a grown woman (and mother of a normal daughter) who has successfully made her way through life despite her disability. The potent combination of those two talents united with across-the-board fine acting make Snow Cake a supremely satisfying cinematic experience. Watch for this one during awards season later this year.