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.
What's your damage, Lindsay Lohan?
LiLo appears to give that question an answer as disaffected, super-mascaraed socialite Tara in Paul Schrader's epic fizzle of a film The Canyons: her damage is something to be exploited for drama (certainly by Lohan herself) as if she were a kind of latter-day female Dennis Hopper. The only problem is that she doesn’t possess any of Hopper's jittery, live-wire spark, his inventory of manic quirks. What you get from Lohan in The Canyons is energy-sapped ennui that looks like a bad parody of an Antonioni movie starring people who've never actually watched an Antonioni movie. There's no train-wreck appeal in seeing The Canyons. Only boredom and the dawning of a final realization that our inexplicably enduring interest in Lohan far surpasses her actual talent.
Schrader, and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), make their agenda in The Canyons clear in its title. It's the topographical and moral opposite of The Hills. The MTV show was glammed-up meaninglessness about hot young things buying stuff and getting into petty squabbles. The Canyons also focuses on hot young things (one of them, James Deen, a real-life porn star!), but to reveal the dark, even psychotic, moral decay at the center of their lives.
Deen's Christian is another of Ellis' sociopathic twentysomething trust-fund brats — Patrick Bateman with a smartphone. He films himself and others having sex with his girlfriend Tara (Lohan), who he plans to cast opposite a naïve Hollywood newcomer named Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) in a movie he's about to start shooting. He's young, rich, and has nothing better to do, so why not make a movie? Who cares if he has no idea how to make one?
On the side, Christian keeps another bed partner, Gina (Amanda Brooks), who he has sex with but violently refuses to kiss. Like everything in the movie, Schrader and Ellis' ideas are abundantly clear and on the surface: Christian wants instant gratification but not intimacy, and it's hard not to see him as their shallow commentary on the millennial generation as a whole. Schrader deploys a dizzying array of distancing devices to keep us at bay, including the projection of neon lights on Deen, Lohan, and Funk's nubile bodies during a group sex scene that has "Razzie Nomination" written all over it.
The web of trysts between these four characters is pretty complex, and on the surface it seems none of the characters possess any emotional investment in their hook-ups. But, of course, they really do. Like the characters in one of Schrader's favorite movies, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game, they've actively tried — and failed — to deaden themselves emotionally in order to deal with the meaninglessness of their lives. Finally, an eruption of violence shatters the love polygon once one of the characters decides that he can only find meaning in petty jealousy. These are people who, like Renoir said of his characters at the time of The Rules of the Game's 1939 release, "dance on the edge of a volcano." The only problem is that, unlike in Renoir's film, this is a volcano that produces no heat.
Schrader started as a film critic until making the jump in the mid '70s to screenwriting (The Yakuza, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and then directing with Blue Collar and Hardcore, the latter an acid portrait of a father devastated when he discovers his daughter has become a porn actress. He followed up Hardcore with American Gigolo. These were dynamic depictions of the intersection of sex, money, and morality. But Schrader's always had a clinical streak, and he's shown throughout his career a penchant for having great ideas but not knowing how to dramatize them, for being able to deconstruct movie tropes like a critic without being able to reassemble them for emotional satisfaction. He was as washed up as Lohan when he got around to making The Canyons, and together they've made a film that has us wondering why we ever cared about them in the first place.
Lohan wears her hair up in a bun and equips herself with ridiculous bangle jewelry, as if she's just stepped off the set of Liz & Dick. Deen, an actor who's better at "doing" than speaking, seems to recite his lines phonetically. And Schrader's direction feels like that of a UCLA sophomore with a running bar tab at the Chateau Marmont. It's utterly lifeless.
The moral rot of Spring Breakers is given pungent urgency by all that neon and Skrillex — you get caught up in the girls' crime spree and are even implicated in it yourself, because that film throbs with life. The Canyons doesn't even have a pulse. It's not so bad it's good. It's not destined to be a camp classic. It certainly will do nothing for Lohan's career. It's just bad. All it has going for it is an apt title that applies to the movie itself: a place you fall into until you hit rock bottom.
What do you think? Tell Christian Blauvelt directly on Twitter @Ctblauvelt and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
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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.
The film's producers, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin, were awarded the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer Of The Year Award at the ceremony.
The movie, starring Colin Firth as the stammering British King George VI, was among 10 nominees including The Social Network and Black Swan.
Other winners at the 22nd annual PGA Awards, which took place at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, included Toy Story 3 in the Best Animated Picture category and Waiting for 'Superman' for Best Documentary.
The producers of Modern Family landed the Best TV Comedy Series trophy, while Mad Men was named the Best TV Drama.
Sean Penn also picked up the special Stanley Kramer Award in honour of his humanitarian work in Haiti, while director James Cameron received the Milestone Award.