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.
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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Now that Thanksgiving is done, the holiday shopping rush has officially commenced. In order to help you shop for those on your list with more eclectic tastes, we’ve compiled some of the best offbeat DVD and Blu-ray releases of late. We’ve even arranged them so that you can present your loved ones with one gift for each of the 12 Days of Christmas. Here’s what they should expect…
“12 Angry Men”
Title: 12 Angry Men
Company: Criterion Collection
12 Angry Men is the preeminent courtroom drama. Legendary director Sidney Lumet crafts an unbearably tense, remarkably humanist depiction of strangers coming together to decide another man’s fate. As you would expect, Criterion’s high-def transfer is absolutely gorgeous.
Special Features Include: Frank Schaffner’s 1955 television version, production history, archival interviews with Sidney Lumet, new interview with screenwriter Walter Bernstein, “Tragedy in a Temporary Town”—teleplay directed by Lumet, original theatrical trailer
“A Show Boasting An 11 Season Run”
Title: Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXII
Company: Shout! Factory (Release Date: 12/6)
If you’re already a fan of MST3K, there is absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t want to purchase this set. If you are on the fence about the show, these are some of the funniest episodes as yet released. The titles themselves are hysterically bad: Time of the Apes, Mighty Jack, The Violent Years, and The Brute Man. Shout! Factory’s animated menus and plethora of special features continue to pay sincere tribute to fans.
Special Features Include: Interviews with Delores Fuller and Kathy Wood, “The Making of MST3K” (1997 Sci-Fi Channel Special), 4 exclusive mini-posters by artist Steve Vance
“10 10 Different Kinds of Adventure”
Title: The Adventures of Tintin: Season One
Company: Shout! Factory
Before you rush off to the theaters this holiday season to see Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, check out the animated series on which it was based. Join Tintin and his trusty canine pal Snowy as they solve mysteries and go on fantastic adventures. Here's our review.
“9 Shades of Red and Blue”
Title: Red vs. Blue Season 9
Company: New Video Group
Red vs. Blue comprises some of the best parody available online and now it can once again be viewed in the comfort of your living room. Based on the popular Halo videogame series, Red vs. Blue demonstrates action chops just as adept as its comedic timing.
Special Features Include: Director’s commentary, special videos and PSAs, outtakes, deleted scenes, cast interviews, and behind-the-scenes videos
“8 Hookers with Whom to Play Doctor”
Company: Synapse Films
If you are looking for a twisted take on the classic story of Frankenstein, you could not get any more twisted than Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker. When a young scientist’s fiancé is cut to pieces by an errant lawnmower, he must harvest spare parts from a select group of ladies of the evening to put her back together. The scene in which he sizes up eight such ladies for his unholy creation is outlandish, crass, and hilarious.
Special Features Include: Audio commentary, three featurettes, photo scrapbook, and theatrical trailer
“7 Teams Racing for Glory”
Title: The Cannonball Run
Company: HBO Studios
The Cannonball Run is a schlock classic available for the first time on Blu-ray. Directed by ’s Hal Needham, the film weaves the whacky tale of seven teams competing in a cross-country race. The cast list alone should entice you to check out this film; Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan, and Peter Fonda just to name a few.
“6 Featured Women-In-Cages Films”
Title: Machete Maidens Unleashed
Company: Dark Sky Films
It's one of the most entertaining documentaries on cult genre film you will ever see. Directed by Mark Hartley, this doco catalogues the very strange history of genre films from The Philippines, both native and made by Roger Corman’s visiting production company. Corman was known for his nefarious women-in-cages films and several of them were filmed in The Philippines.
Special Features Include: Commentary and trailers
“5 Heroic Stories”
Title: Marvel Knights Collection
Company: Shout! Factory
Fans of Marvel’s extensive catalogue of heroes will love this collection of motion comics from some of today’s leading genre authorities. The collection features motion comic stories of The X-Men, Iron Man, Black Panther, Spider-Woman, and Thor. Particularly recommended are Iron Man: Extremis by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov and Astonishing X-Men: Gifted by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.
“4 Dysfunctional Siblings”
Title: Our Idiot Brother
Company: The Weinstein Company (Release Date 11/29)
Format: Blu-ray & DVD
Though predictable in many ways, Our Idiot Brother is more personable than a good many of Paul Rudd’s typical comedic fare. The film also features dynamite supporting performances from Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, and Elizabeth Banks.
Special Features Include: Director’s commentary, deleted and extended scenes, making of featurette
“3 Unlikely Heroes”
Title: Three Amigos
Company: HBO Studios
Finally available on Blu-ray, Three Amigos contains one of cinema’s most impressive comedy team-ups. Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short play three phony Hollywood heroes in this unquestionable classic. If you don’t already own this film, or even if you only own it on DVD, now is the time to get your little buttercups down to your local electronics store and pick up this Blu-ray today. Also check out our interview with director John Landis.
Special Features Include: Cast interview with Martin, Chase, and Short, deleted scenes
“An Evil Part 2”
Title: Evil Dead 2 (25th Anniversary Edition)
Company: Lions Gate
In 1987, Sam Raimi managed to accomplish the impossible; he created a horror sequel that many fans actually preferred to the original. Evil Dead 2 has never looked better and this release is an absolute must-have for any horrorphile.
Special Features Include: Commentary with writer-director Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel, and effects artist Greg Nicotero, “The Gore the Merrier” featurette, Evil Dead: Hailed to The King videogame preview, theatrical trailer, still galleries, and talent bios
“1 Terrifying Train Ride”
Title: Horror Express
Company: Severin Films
Horror icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing join forces with the great Telly Savalas in this fantastic 70s fright fest. A creature being transported by train breaks free and begins taking victims left and right. Horror Express is exquisitely shot (something emphasized by Severin’s phenomenal Blu-ray transfer), eerily claustrophobic, and incredibly exciting.
Special Features Include: Interviews with director Eugenio Martin, producer Bernard Gordon, star Peter Cushing, and composer John Cacavas, theatrical trailer
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.