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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
You can't go home again. It's a maxim whose institution in our culture has spanned from Thomas Wolfe's eponymous novel to that first season episode of Battlestar Galactica, but is it a tried and true phrase to live by or a tired cliché rung up by the real estate industry? In the realm of television, many a star has attempted to revitalize past glory on the old stomping grounds, return to the network that launched his or her career in the first place. James Gandolfini, for instance, is returning to HBO (the old home of his historical series The Sopranos) with a new drama pilot titled Criminal Justice.
The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Gandolfini will headline the project, an adaptation of a BBC series that aired in 2008. The story follows the trial of a Pakistani-American murder suspect (Rizwan Ahmed) from inception to conclusion, with Gandolfini playing his second-rate defense attorney Jack Stone. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Gangs of New York, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) will direct and co-write the pilot with The Wire writer Richard Price.
Although it's not unheard of for a star to find success with a second series on the network responsible for his or her renown, there are definitely motivations to branch out to other venues. Generally speaking, television actors looking for work following a hit series opt to showcase their versatility, rather than promote the idea that they can't do anything we haven't seen from them so far. Famously, the stars of Seinfeld have endured difficulty illustrating what they can do beyond the confines of what NBC's hit sitcom displayed. Both Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus sought post-Seinfeld work on NBC, to little success: Richards' detective series The Michael Richards Show only ran for eight episodes in the year 2000, while Louis-Dreyfus' sitcom Watching Ellie only made it to 16 before ratings-provoked cancellation. It should be noted that Louis-Dreyfus has found much greater success on other networks; her CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine lasted five seasons, in addition to earning the actress an Emmy — a victory that her new HBO comedy Veep might well match.
Coming off of another NBC powerhouse, Friends, actor Matthew Perry has sought work on the network twice since putting Chandler Bing to rest. In 2006, he starred in the Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which earned critical acclaim but only ran for one season. His new sitcom Go On premiered on the network this season, and has been a contributing factor in NBC's number one ratings status.
A greater certainty in star-network reunions existed in the past — at least on CBS. Responsible for hits like The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Bob Newhart Show, CBS granted these series' featured actors Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Denver, and Bob Newhart followup shows The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Gilligan's Island, and Newhart — each of which were monumental success stories.
But with today's "less forgiving" television audiences, always looking for reasons to reject an actor's efforts to explore the new, the adherence to a network is riskier. The pattern suggested above is that when you see a star return to his or her network, you want to see that star doing the thing that instituted the fame. On The Michael Richards Show and Studio 60, the actors in question were too far gone from their Seinfeld and Friends characters. But Go On and the sitcoms of CBS yore reproduced the things we loved about Perry, Moore, Denver, and Newhart. The same can be said for Tony Danza, whose success on ABC's Taxi was transmitted to the network's later sitcom Who's the Boss?. If we're tuning into the same place to watch the same people, we want to see the same thing.
So how will Gandolfini fare on Criminal Justice? Is a jailhouse lawyer close enough to a mafioso to keep audiences engaged in the actor, or will people miss Tony Soprano an opt away from the new series? If viewers are willing to accept Gandolfini as anything other than Tony in the first place, the actor might have a hit on his hands. More than any pattern of which we might take note is the issue of quality. If Criminal Justice is well-written and accessible, then it could well be a hit. With the creative team of Zaillian and Price, and an actor like Gandolfini, quality is indeed promised. Now if only they could find a less generic title...
[Photo Credit: HBO]
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The film and television nominations for the 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards have been released, recognizing achievements in both individual performances and the strengths of ensemble casts. This year's television award nominations are listed below, including many worthy recipients, but there are also a few surprising absences. Among the hard-hitters listed below are dramas like HBO's Mildred Pierce and Boardwalk Empire, AMC's Breaking Bad and comedies such as ABC's Modern Family (which swept the Emmys this year) and NBC's 30 Rock. However, some might be surprised not to find the new Showtime drama Homeland or NBC's secret weapon Parks and Recreation.
The 18th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will air live at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Jan. 29, 2012 on TNT and TBS.
Click here to read the list of this year's film nominees.
18th ANNUAL SAG AWARDS NOMINATIONS: PRIMETIME TELEVISION
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Laurence Fishburne - Thurgood (HBO)
Paul Giamatti - Too Big to Fail (HBO)
Greg Kinnear - The Kennedy (Reelz Channel)
Guy Pearce - Mildred Pierce (HBO)
James Woods - Too Big to Fail (HBO
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
Diane Lane - Cinema Verite (HBO)
Maggie Smith - Downton Abbey (PBS)
Emily Watson - Appropriate Adult (Sundance Channel)
Betty White - Hallmark Hall of Fame: The Lost Valentine (CBS)
Kate Winslet - Mildred Pierce (HBO)
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series
Patrick J. Adams - Suits (USA)
Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights (DirecTV)
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Michael C. Hall - Dexter (Showtime)
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series
Kathy Bates - Harry's Law (NBC)
Glenn Close - Damages (DirecTV)
Jessica Lange - American Horror Story (FX)
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife (CBS)
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer (TNT)
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock (NBC)
Ty Burrell - Modern Family (ABC)
Steve Carell - The Office (NBC)
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men (CBS)
Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family (ABC)
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series
Julia Bowen - Modern Family (ABC)
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Tina Fey - 30 Rock (NBC)
Sofia Vergara - Modern Family (ABC)
Betty White - Hot in Cleveland (TV Land)
Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series
Boardwalk Empire (HBO) - Steve Buscemi, Dominic Chianese, Robert Clohessy, Dabney Coleman, Charlie Cox, Jose & Lucy Gallina, Stephen Graham, Jack Huston, Anthony Laciura, Heather Lind, Kelly Macdonald, Rory & Declan McTigue, Gretchen Mol, Brady & Connor Noon, Kevin O'Rourke, Aleksa Palladino, Jacqueline Pennewill, Vincent Piazza, Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Van Wagner, Shea Whigham, Michael Kenneth Williams, Anatol Yusef
Breaking Bad (AMC) - Jonathan Banks, Betsy Brandt, Ray Campbell, Bryan Cranston, Giancarlo Esposito, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk, Aaron Paul
Dexter (Showtime) - Billy Brown, Jennifer Carpenter, Josh Cooke, Aimee Garcia, Michael C. Hall, Colin Hanks, Desmond Harrington, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Rya Kihlstedt, C.S. Lee, Edward James Olmos, James Remar, Lauren Velez, Peter Weller, David Zayas
Game of Thrones (HBO) - Amrita Acharia, Mark Addy, Alfie Allen, Josef Altin, Sean Bean, Susan Brown, Emilia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage, Ron Donachie, Michelle Farley, Jerome Flynn, Elyes Gabel, Aiden Gillen, Jack Gleeson Iain Glen, Julian Glover, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Conleth Hill, Richard Madden, Jason Mamoa, Rory McCann, Ian McElhinney, Luke McEwan, Roxanne McKee, Dar Salim, Mark Stanley, Donald Sumpter, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams
The Good Wife (CBS) - Christine Baranski, Josh Charles, Alan Cumming, Matt Czuchry, Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth, Archie Panjabi, Graham Phillips, Makenzie Vega
Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series
30 Rock (NBC) - Scott Adsit, Alec Baldwin, Katrina Bowden, Kevin Brown, Grizz Chapman, Tina Fey, Judah Friedlander, Jane Krakowski, John Lutz, Jack McBrayer, Tracy Morgan, Maulik Pancholy, Keith Powell
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) - Mayim Bialik, Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, Jim Parsons, Melissa Rauch
Glee (Fox) - Dianna Agron, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Ashley Fink, Dot Marie Jones, Jane Lynch, Jayma Mays, Kevin McHale, Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Heather Morris, Matthew Morrison, Mike O'Malley, Chord Overstreet, Lauren Potter, Amber Riley, Naya Rivera, Mark Salling, Harry Shum Jr., Iqbal Theba, Jenna Ushkowitz
Modern Family (ABC) - Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, Julia Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Nolan Gould, Sarah Hyland, Ed O'Neill, Rico Rodriguez, Eric Stonestreet, Sofia Vergara, Ariel Winter
The Office (NBC) - Leslie David Baker, Brian Baumgartner, Creed Bratton, Steve Carell, Jenna Fischer, Kate Flannery, Ed Helms, Mindy Kaling, Ellie Kemper, Angela Kinsey, John Krasinski, Paul Lieberstein, B.J. Novak, Oscar Nunez, Craig Robinson, James Spader, Phyllis Smith, Rainn Wilson, Zach Woods