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.
Summer 2010 Box Office Review - Or...How I Learned to Love the bombs and the hits and learned a few lessons along the way.
The opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, sums up the summer movie season of 2010 most accurately: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and so it goes as we hit a revenue record of $4.35 billion yet find ourselves with the lowest attendance since 1997.
What went wrong?
1. Too many underwhelming films and ticket prices that saw steep gains over last year.
This formula does not work – Higher prices plus lower quality equals unhappy moviegoers.
2. A seemingly endless supply of films that felt like video rental candidates, not movies worthy of the big screen and 15 hard-earned bucks! No one cares about the cost of a movie ticket except when the movie sucks, then they care.
3. The seven 3D films for the season did not really generate much box office heat and notably three of the top five performing summer movies had not a single frame in 3D! Summit's The Twilight Saga: Eclipse was a massive hit with the all-important (and presumably 3D crazed) teen audience and it wound up as the third highest grossing movie of the summer with an impressive near $300 million in domestic revenue. Lackluster looking first quarter 3D conversions left a sour taste in moviegoer’s palates and affected their appetite for more (and more expensive) 3D fare.
It will always be true that technology is great, but the best special effect is a good script.
4. Social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook made word-of-mouth (both positive and negative) an hour by hour proposition. Back in the good old days, negative audience reaction to a film could take days to affect a movie, now it can happen in mere hours. Put another way: Big on Friday, dead by Sunday. Unfortunately with many substandard offerings this happened a lot.
5. Comparisons to the super-solid summer of 2009 made comparisons tough. Case-in-point the early August strength in ’09 of District 9 and Inglourious Basterds. Last year we had Quentin Tarantino, Christoph Waltz and Sharlto Copely, this year we got Sylvester Stallone, 3D Piranhas and sucky vampires.
What went right? (Well, a lot more than you would think given my condemnations listed above)
1. Number one with a very surreal bullet: Warner Bros.’ Inception. Brains and brawn manifested in one terrific summer film and one that is worthy of Oscar consideration. The film was not too smart for general audiences as many had predicted and in fact became a studio executives dream by begging for repeat viewing. Lesson learned: Smart and summer can actually go together (especially in the hands of a director like Christopher Nolan).
2. Toy Story 3 – No one does it better than Disney and Pixar and a billion dollars worldwide proves the point. A heartfelt and beautifully executed film that was a worthy successor to the first two installments and became the highest grossing film of the summer and the year thus far.
3. Mid-Summer PG family adventures such as Sony’s The Karate Kid and the critically vilified The Last Airbender from Paramount gave families reason to ignore the tomato-meter and just take the kids on a non-threatening, thematically appropriate epic adventure. M. Night Shyamalan proves that despite having a really tough last name and being the Rodney Dangerfield of directors, he still knows how to pull in the audience.
4. Comedy and mindless action still work. Sony worked up a double dose of late-summer action and comedy The Other Guys and Salt, while Lionsgate scored big with The Expendables. These films worked because they were utterly shameless in their attempt to take the conventions of their respective genres and without flinching, crank the cinematic volume to eleven. Jolie, Ferrell, Wahlberg & Stallone and company gave audiences exactly what they wanted and the audience loved it. Other comedies that worked included Universal's Get Him to the Greek and their animated hit Despicable Me.
5. Indie films still give audiences the antidote to the typical summer blockbuster and films like Focus’ The Kids Are All Right, Fox Searchlight’s Cyrus, Letters to Juliet from Summit, Music Box’s The Girl Who Played With Fire, SPC’s Animal Kingdom and Weinstein Co’s The Tillman Story and others show that there is always a place for challenging and unique films in the marketplace, even in the summer.
Before concluding this overview, an award for the most subversive and daring release of the summer by a major studio has to go to Warner Bros. for the amazing, shocking, frightening and psycho therapy-inducing Splice starring Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody. Released way back on June 4 and earning a total of $17 million, the film deserves kudos for having the courage of its convictions to go all the way and not look back. Love the movie or hate it, you’ve got to give it up for any movie studio that is willing to honor their filmmakers with such a show of support in the pursuit of unbridled artistic freedom.
That said, the summer of 2010 will go in the record books with a revenue win despite an artistic come down. Lest anyone attempt to signal this as the end of the summer blockbuster season as we know it, keep in mind that this is a business that is not only cyclical but ever resilient. The summer of 2005, home of the infamous 18 week down streak, was said by many at the time as the tipping point and the final nail in the coffin of the movie industry. That was pure crap and the next two summer seasons were both huge in terms of revenue and solid in terms of quality. This makes the case that one lackluster summer does not spell any kind of reason for alarm or concern and in fact will make the killer-looking summer season’s of 2011 and 2012 seem all the more like a major return to form for Hollywood.