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.
Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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If you caught this week's episode of Boardwalk Empire, you're likely to agree that the ending was one of the series' first genuine "Holy sh**!" moments in quite some time (spoilers to follow, so be wary). Following a breakup-and-makeup session with her emotionally ravaged lover Nucky Thompson, showgirl and aspiring movie star Billie Kent fell victim to cruel machinations of the mid-season formula: she is killed in a colossal explosion, courtesy of the handiwork of Gyp Rosetti, meant to do away with Nucky, and his business associates Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano.
We've warmed up to Billie quite a bit since her introduction in the Season 3 premiere. She has brought Nucky face to face with his thickening complex to act the father and protector of every woman he meets, usually aspiring to play the hero for those more than capable of rescuing themselves. But even with her contributions to the construction of Nucky's character, even with actor Meg Steedle's onscreen affability, and even with the eye-popping means through which she was killed, it's hard to really tread too heavily on the subject of Billie's passing. She's not, after all, Jimmy.
Ever since Jimmy was killed in that mind-warping Season 2 finale, the show has killed off a handful of noteworthy figures, some in particularly shocking ways. But it's difficult to muster up the energy we had when James Darmody fell dead last year. These passings seem to be coming off more as surprising and exciting moments, rather than the weighty game changers disturb and enliven us long after viewings, as was the case with Jimmy's.
Here's a rundown of the major mortalities Season 3 has dealt us so far:
Shot in his own doorway by Richard Harrow, seeking vengeance for the murder of Angela Darmody
Shot by Nucky Thompson after stealing from, lying to, and all but winning over the former treasurer (Jimmy really left a hole in Nucky's heart)
Beaten to death by Al Capone after bullying Capone's pal for his weight
Attacked and smothered by Nelson Van Alden and his wife Sigrid in their home when they thought he had come to arrest
Roger (the Jimmy Doppelganger)
Drugged and drowned by Gillian Darmody in her brothel bathtub
Killed in an explosion meant to take down Nucky Thompson, courtesy of Gyp Rosetti
All these, plus a handful of one-off or nameless characters, have met their ends over the past seven weeks. And just as they are so morbidly listed above in a fashion that seems more like a mathematical brief than a list of human beings befallen by tragedy do these deaths translate to the screen. Since Jimmy, whose murder was so powerful it took an entire summer upon which to properly ruminate, every shooting, strangling, and restaurant explosion hasn't afforded audiences with the appropriate substance to truly mourn these characters, and to truly maintain an investment in this world.
It's not easy for a show with as many characters as Boardwalk to make them all feel important to us, personally. Billie Kent is probably the greatest achievement yet this season. We knew her through Nucky, and largely as a function of Nucky. When she, a complete innocent, was taken down thanks only to her affection for a not-so-great man, it was tragic and sad. What we need from Boardwalk is more of this.
Sure, the series can fill its episodes with acts of vengeance on the part of fan favorite characters like Richard, Van Alden, and Al Capone. But we won't remember these deaths the way we'll remember Jimmy's and, to a lesser extent, Billie's. And while it might seem macabre to campaign for more significant deaths, it is important that we do not allow onscreen killing to become an aesthetic. While on TV we do have minor characters, in real life, everyone is the star of his or her own series. Nobody's real world passing is "meant" to be a ratings ploy, and it's detrimental when this is a practice to which we become accustomed on television. Our treasuring of the lives of Jimmy, Billie, and all the rest of the characters to whom we are sincerely attached is important. Appreciating all living individuals as major characters, significant people, is important. Even if we're meant to hate them, we have to have some semblance of humanity for them.
And that's why Boardwalk did such a bang-up job crafting Jimmy. He was a bad guy, sure, but one we knew, and one we felt that we truly lost. We'd feel the same for Nucky (bad, but important to us), for Margaret, for Richard... unfortunately, a killing off of every character like this would effectively end the show. That's why Boardwalk needs to find a new M.O.
Instead of resorting to the obvious gangster show ploy of shocking deaths, we need to see more enlivening: more of Nucky recognizing the complexes the death of his son brought on. More of Margaret struggling to identify her own sense of morality. Death is an inevitable element that should, of course, be addressed... but when it's addressed just to make us jump out of our chairs, that's just selling short the great characters involved. [Photo Credit: HBO] More:Revenge Recap: And We're Back in The Game The Walking Dead Recap: Killer Within Homeland Recap: Die Hard From Our Partners: Katy Perry Moves Forward at Barack Obama Rally in Wisconsin (PHOTOS) (Celebuzz) Russell Brand Talks Awkward Encounter With Ex-Wife Katy Perry and Addresses Geri Halliwell Dating Rumors (EXCLUSIVE) (Celebuzz)
Mary (Jena Malone) -- born again at the age of 3 and an unquestioning bible thumper ever since -- is about to start her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School and God is smiling on her. She and her pretty devout friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) are popular she has a handsome boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) and she religiously rocks out at Christian concerts. The first sign of trouble is when ice-skating chastity embracing Dean tells Mary he thinks he's gay. Determined to bring her man back to the Lord Mary makes a deal with Jesus: She'll seduce Dean if the Lamb of God then restores her "emotional" and "spiritual" virginity. Cut to a few weeks later: Dean-o's been packed off to sexuality rehab Mary can't keep her breakfast down and all of a sudden Jesus is looking a lot less like a pal and a lot more like a used car salesman. With the core of her faith shrinking as her belly is expanding Mary sees her peers in a whole new light -- "perfect" Hilary Faye has plenty of flaws and "bad girl" Cassandra (Eva Amurri) might not be the spawn of Satan after all. All of which helps Mary and company discover what being a Christian really means -- just in time for prom!
The cast of Saved! is almost as eclectic a mix as a real high school class. Malone Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter) Patrick Fugit (as alterna-cutie skateboarder Patrick) and Heather Matarazzo (as blunt hanger-on Tia) are all card-carrying members of the Hip Indie Actors club while Moore and Macaulay Culkin (as Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother Roland) come from the Much-Mocked Pop Culture Icon school. All acquit themselves admirably with Moore and Amurri as particular standouts. Moore has Hilary Faye's mix of smug self-entitlement and hollow concern nailed: This is one pop tart who knows how to play a sugar-coated bitch. Her showy piousness is particularly amusing when you contrast it with her PAX-worthy performance as a doomed preacher's daughter in A Walk to Remember. Playing American Eagle's token Jewish student Amurri expertly offers glimpses of tough-talking Cassandra's inner vulnerability and warm heart; her scenes with Culkin's wryly cynical Roland are some of the movie's best. Malone is occasionally a bit tepid but her sparks with Fugit seem real. The token adult actors -- Mary-Louise Parker as Mary's trashy widowed mother Lillian and Martin Donovan as principal Pastor Skip (whose insecurity almost overwhelms his own faith) -- also turn in strong performances.
Saved! made its debut at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and it's not hard to see why: Brian Dannelly's film has "indie" written all over it. Dannelly deserves credit for pushing the envelope as far as he has -- suffice it to say that Saved! probably won't go over so well in the heartland (or even the suburbs) -- but the film isn't a total success. Its mix of dark humor and sincere sentiment is a bit jarring; just when you're guffawing at Dannelly's send-up of "hip Christianity" in the form of Pastor Skip's unbelievably lame attempts to connect with his young flock ("let's get our Christ on!") or Hilary Faye's forceful attempts to perform a drive-by saving on the wayward Mary you land with a bump as Mary and her mom share a quiet moment or Patrick and his dad exchange some tense words. It's obvious that Dannelly didn't want Saved! to be dismissed as mere parody but the film strays too far into spoof territory to be a drama and vice versa.
Michael Jackson feels deeply "betrayed" by the recent special television documentary about his life that aired on British TV Monday. ITV's Martin Bashir, who spent eight months with the singer and was privy to Jackson's lifestyle, conducted the in-depth interview, which includes the revelation that Jackson still believes sharing his bed with children is perfectly normal. "Today I feel more betrayed than perhaps ever before, that someone who had got to know my children, my staff and me, whom I let into my heart and told the truth, could then sacrifice the trust I placed in him and produce this terrible and unfair program," Jackson, 44, said in a statement released in London, Reuters reports. Granada Television, who produced the special, stood by Bashir. "It's not surprising that a film about [Jackson], which is so open and revealing, draws some hostile reaction and comment about him. It's regrettable that Michael should feel devastated as a result of that, but perhaps inevitable," the company said in a statement. The documentary will air in the U.S. Thursday on a special edition of ABC's magazine program 20/20.
Rapper Ice-T was ordered by a judge Tuesday to pay $4,000 a month in temporary child support after he admitted to fathering a 15-month-old son. Initially denying he ever had sex with the child's mother, Linda Marie Sanchez, Reuters reports the star of NBC's Law and Order: Special Victims Unit waived his rights to a paternity trial when DNA testing proved he was the boy's father.
Dustin Hoffman was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the British Empire Film Awards Wednesday, based on votes by British moviegoers. Other winners included best actor Hugh Grant for About A Boy and best actress Samantha Morton for Minority Report.
Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson had her second child with partner Arpad Busson Tuesday. Aurelius Cy Andrea was born in a London hospital, weighing 7 pounds, 11 ounces. The couple has a 5-year-old son, Flynn.
The AP reports actor Wesley Snipes and record mogul Suge Knight are being sued by separate banking organizations for failure to pay. Chase Manhattan Mortage Corporation has filed suit against Snipes for allegedly failing to pay the mortgage on his mansion in Isleworth, Fla., while City National Bank is suing Knight for neglecting payments on his yacht moored in the Los Angeles area. Pay up, boys!
Director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) plans to make The Invaders, a $40 million epic on the first Anglo-Indian war, starring Bollywood star Vivek Oberoi, Variety reports. The film will focus on the first battle between English troops and the Maratha dynasty in western India during the late 18th century.
Variety reports Steven Soderbergh and pal George Clooney are gearing up to remake the Argentine thriller Nine Queens through their production company, Section Eight Productions. The film follows the day in the life of two con artists and was released in the U.S. last spring.
NBC will cover the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, on a 24-hour a day basis across its networks NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo and Telemundo. This nearly doubles the coverage for the 2000 Sydney games, as NBC did not own Bravo or Telemundo at that time.
According to the AP, the Recording Industry Association of America numbers show the Dixie Chicks' latest album, Home, has reached the quadruple-platinum mark, having shipped four million copies. Tim McGraw's Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors also went double platinum.