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.
In Indie Seen, we take a look at the smaller (but just as fantastic) films making their way into theaters alongside the big Hollywood tentpoles. Movies
Even in our progressive world, where gay couples can live openly, marry one another and adopt children, the film industry has a difficult time portraying gay relationships as simply "relationships." You don't see mainstream films with gay couples unless their homosexuality is directly acknowledged. That, for one reason or another, it's a big deal that they're gay. Even indies can't seem to bring it up without making it a thing—to the point where gay drama is becoming a low-budget cliche
So when a movie takes a subdued approach to portraying a gay relationship, depicting it simply and honestly, that bond automatically feels a thousand times more refreshing, exhilarating and tangible. That's what Weekend achieves, a new movie by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh that follows two men who find themselves caught in a romantic whirlwind over the course of (you guessed it) one weekend. The movie centers on Russell (Tom Cullen), a mellow, introverted lifeguard who we quickly learn is disinterested in discussing his sex life with friends. One night, while flying solo at a bar, Russell meets Glen (Chris New), and a night of small talk and drinking leads the two gentlemen back to Russell's place. While the next morning reveals a few ulterior motives (Glen wants Russell to chronicle the previous night's encounter on tape for an art project), through morning conversation, both men find quickly themselves entranced by one another.
While Russell has trepidations over engaging sexually with Glen and Glen struggles with his own commitment issues, neither character arc deals explicitly with gay issues. They're the bumps in the road of any budding relationship, especially one that sparks as brightly as the instant connection between Weekend's two leads. Like Before Sunset or Once, Haigh shoots the action simply, relying on his characters realistic actions to stoke the fire of intimacy. The two leads have chemistry—you wouldn't be able to sit there and watch them snort cocaine, play Guess Who and make out if they didn't—and it gives us a reason to invest in Weekend's simple story.
After attending a screening of the film at South by Southwest Festival (where it won the Emerging Visions Audience Award) I realized that Weekend wasn't just a great movie, but an important one. Weekend is relatable through and through, from the adorable moments of watching two people hesitantly fall for each other to the gut-wrenching experience of seeing two new lovers faced with big, last-minute decisions (early in the film you discover Glen is set to go overseas for school). There's no angle. These are just two guys who fell in love. And it's convincing.
There are great films, great art, great people out there in the world helping set the equality bar where it needs to be, but Weekend doesn't feel like that film. It's not political. Instead, the movie feels one step ahead of the curve. Not only can we live in a place where everyone's equal, but we can live in a place where everything's the norm, where experiences are shared across all types of people, no matter the differences. I doubt anyone, no matter what their feelings on homosexuality, could watch Weekend and walk away not empathizing with what Russell and Glen endure in their short time together. Weekend might be a small film recounting an intimate relationship, but it speaks to the grandest of ideas.
Weekend is currently in limited release. You can find out how to see the movie by heading to the movie's website.
You can contact Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and remember to follow@Hollywood_com!
Haven't had your fill of high-concept romance with One Day? Fortunately for you, that first world problem should be solved by English romance Weekend. The independent film stars unknown actors Tom Cullen and Chris New as a pair of gay men whose one night stand turns into a budding weekend-long romance - with an unavoidable expiration date. It's sort of like dreamy Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy romance Before Sunrise, but with two hot dudes for the price of one.
In this first trailer, watch the main characters Glen and Russell fall in love to the strains of indie rock. The trailer makes the whole thing seem kind of cutesy, but it's gotten some great reviews (including this one from our own Matt Patches) and won the Audience Award at this year's SXSW.
It's always nice to see a romance break out of the "attractive, young, white, rich and heterosexual" bubble, even if it's just into the "attractive, young, white, slightly less rich and homosexual" bubble.
Directed by Andrew Haigh, Weekend comes to the US on September 23, for a limited release.
Watch it in HD at Apple