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.
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
Top Story: Downey Jr. Ends Marriage
Actor Robert Downey Jr. and his estranged wife, actress-model Deborah Falconer, have officially called it quits after 12 years, Reuters reports. The couple, who have been separated for eight years, filed divorce papers this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, publicist Alan Nierob said. "This is more or less just a formality," he told Reuters. Downey, 39, and Falconer were wed in 1992 after a 42-day courtship. Their 10-year-old son, Indio, will continue to live with his mother, but Downey "remains very involved in the upbringing of his son," Nierob said.
Gay Harden Gives Birth to Twins
Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden and her husband, Thaddaeus Scheel, welcomed twins--a boy, Hudson Harden Scheel, and a girl, Julitta Dee Harden Scheel--last Thursday in Los Angeles, The Associated Press reports. "Everyone is doing fine," Harden's publicist Carri McClure told AP. "They're not getting a lot of sleep, but everyone is doing well." The couple also have a 5-year-old daughter, Eulala Grace.
Joel Expected To Pay for Damages
A 93-year-old woman whose house singer Billy Joel slammed into over the weekend expects the singer/songwriter to pay for repairs, AP reports. Maria Dono of Bayville, New York, returned from a shopping trip Sunday afternoon to discover the accident and told the New York Post, "He hit my bushes and the wall. He'd better come fix it. I'm sure he has money." Claire Mercuri, a spokeswoman for Joel, said the Joel's "main concern" was to repair the damage. "He's taken immediate steps to make sure it's repaired as quickly as possible," Mercuri told the Post. Joel apparently skidded on the wet road and hit Dono's house, with no evidence of alcohol or drug involvement.
Elton John Calls Idol Racist
Elton John thinks American Idol's voting system by the national viewing audience may be "incredibly racist," Reuters reports. John, who was a guest judge on the hit show a few weeks ago, was among the many who voiced their shock at the dismissal of talented contestant Jennifer Hudson last week. "The three people I was really impressed with, and they just happened to be black, young female singers, and they all seem to be landing in the bottom three," said John, commenting on the tally in which the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. "They have great voices. The fact that they're constantly in the bottom three--and I don't want to set myself up here--but I find it incredibly racist," John said at a news conference promoting his Radio City Music Hall concert. The other two singers grouped in the bottom three of the seven remaining American Idol finalists last week were divas La Toya London and Fantasia Barrino. Black singer Ruben Studdard won the title last year.
Crowe Helps Out Fire-Bombed School
Upon learning of a Jewish elementary school bombing earlier this month in Montreal, Russell Crowe immediately offered aid to the school, Reuters reports. "He said he was very upset about what had happened that a place of learning should be attacked that way," Shelley Paris, a spokeswoman for the United Talmud Torahs elementary school told Reuters. The Oscar-winning actor, on location in Toronto filming Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, made a donation to help rebuild the school's library. Police said a note with anti-Semitic comments was found on the outside wall of the gutted library after the bombing.
Mohamed Al Fayed Rails Against CBS
Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Dodi Fayed, who was killed with Princess Diana in the fateful 1997 car crash, has filed suit against CBS for emotional distress, Reuters reports, citing the network's broadcast last week which showed a photo of Diana as she lay dying. Fayed's lawyer Fred Gaines said on Tuesday that a lawsuit claiming invasion of privacy and emotional distress was filed in Los Angeles late last week. Although no pictures of Dodi were shown, Fayed had been concerned that CBS also planned to show pictures of his son dying. The CBS program examined the number of conspiracy theories in the princess' death, put forward principally by Fayed, including his belief Diana and Dodi were murdered because their relationship was an embarrassment to the British royal family.
Comcast Isn't Buying Disney Out
Comcast Corp., the largest U.S. cable company, withdrew its unsolicited $48.4 billion to buy Walt Disney Co. Wednesday, after the Mouse House refused to open negotiations, Reuters reports. "Unfortunately it has become abundantly clear that Disney does not share our interests," Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts told Reuters on a conference call. "I am very comfortable with our decision to withdraw even though it is not the outcome I had hoped for." Speculating where Comcast may set its sights on next, Reuters reports Roberts gave investors a hint when he said he expected Comcast to take a serious look at Adelphia, the bankrupt cable company that recently announced it was seeking a buyer.
CBS Continues to Lead the Pack
Despite some strong showings from NBC's Friends and Fox's American Idol, CBS still came out on top in total viewership as the television season winds to an end, AP reports. CBS had 11.7 million viewers followed by NBC (11 million), Fox (8.8 million), ABC (7.1 million), the WB (3.4 million) and UPN (2.8 million). For the week of April 18-25, the top 10 shows included: American Idol (Tuesday), Fox; Friends, NBC; American Idol (Wednesday) Fox; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS; CSI: Miami, CBS; Survivor: All-Stars, CBS; Friends, NBC; ER, NBC; Law & Order, NBC; Will & Grace, NBC.
Role Call: Theron's Jinxed
Charlize Theron is in negotiations to star in and produce Jinx, a film based on the comic book of the same name. The comic book centers on a bounty hunter who must learn to trust a wanted criminal so they can team up to find millions of dollars of abandoned mob money in order to start a new life together. Brian Michael Bendis, who spent two and half years writing and illustrating the comic, will adapt his own work for Universal Pictures. "This is not the traditional comic book movie, which tends to be more about concept," Bendis told the Hollywood Reporter. "This is a crime novel that is illustrated so you're more interested in the voice of it."