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.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
Conan to replace Leno in 2009
During a special program Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of NBC's The Tonight Show, Jay Leno announced he will retire as the show's host in 2009 and pass the torch to fellow comedian Conan O'Brien. Late Night With Conan O'Brien currently airs directly after The Tonight Show, but the comic's contract with the network was due to expire this year. According to The Associated Press, NBC made the announcement five years in advance to hold on to the 41-year-old O'Brien, who was considered likely to jump to another network without a promise of advancement. Leno said NBC executives approached him about O'Brien shortly after he signed his latest contract extension. He said he endorsed the move and set his own 2009 exit date. Leno, 54, took over the show in 1992 from Johnny Carson, who hosted the show for 30 years. At the time, he beat out David Letterman, who then moved his late night chat show to rival CBS. "A lot of good friendships were permanently damaged," Leno said as he recalled the hostility during Monday's show. "Quite frankly, I don't want to see anybody go through that again." Leno, who was accused of overlooking Carson's 30-year legacy when he took over host duties 12 years ago, also offered a warm tribute to his predecessor by showing a lengthy clip package of Carson's funniest moments. "Johnny set the standard for how this job should be done," Leno said. "He was such a gentleman. He always had impeccable timing. He was the comedian's comedian. Those of us who do this for a living, we all owe him a tremendous debt."
Chaka Khan's son arrested
Damien Patrick Holland, the 25-year-old son of R&B singer Chaka Khan, has been arrested for investigation of murder stemming from the Friday night shooting of an 18-year-old man in Los Angeles, the AP reports. According to the police report, Holland and the victim were fighting and both struggled to control a gun, which fired and struck the teen, who died later at a nearby hospital. Holland was booked for investigation of first-degree murder and remained in custody on $1 million bail. The victim's identity was being withheld until his relatives could be notified.
Barenaked Ladies get variety show
Fox Broadcasting Co. has ordered a pilot for a comedy/variety show starring the popular Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, best known for their hit songs "One Week" and "Pinch Me." According to the Hollywood Reporter, the project, tentatively titled The Barenaked Ladies Variety Show, is set to expand upon the tongue-in-cheek stage banter as well as improv bits with the audience that have become a staple of Barenaked Ladies' concerts. The show will highlight band members Steven Page, Kevin Hearn, Tyler Stewart, Jim Creeggan and Ed Robertson in comedy skits as exaggerated versions of themselves and will include musical performances by the group and other musical guests.
Are Daily Show viewers just "stoned slackers"?
Whose audience is more intelligent, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor or Comedy Central's The Daily Show? The question begged to be answered after Daily Show host Jon Stewart's appeared on Bill O'Reilly's Factor. "You know what's really frightening?" O'Reilly told Stewart. "You actually have an influence on this presidential election ... you've got stoned slackers watching your dopey show every night and they can vote." Comedy Central said they didn't want this misconception to persist so they turned to Nielsen Media Research, whose research indicates viewers of Stewart's show are more likely to have completed four years of college than people who watch The O'Reilly Factor. Comedy Central, however, added it had no statistics on how many people watch The Daily Show stoned.
Darrell Hammond wins Best Regis award
Comedian Darrell Hammond's impersonation of Live With Regis and Kelly host Regis Philbin was awarded Best Regis in the second annual Rellys. The mock awards, which include self-affirming categories such as Funniest Guest, were created to offset its lack of success in the Daytime Emmys, the AP reports. Hammond was up against Best Regis nominees Dana Carvey, Tom Hanks and Kevin Pollack. Winners, decided by viewer votes, receive the coveted Golden Stool, a trophy-size version of the seating that accommodates Live guests and co-hosts Philbin and Kelly Rippa. Philbin, meanwhile, took home a Golden Stool for Best Dressed for outfitting himself as Kid Rock.
Gilligan's Island resumes filming
Whew! Filming continued on The Real Gilligan's Island after the Gulf of Mexico island where the TBS reality show is being shot was evacuated for Hurricane Ivan last week. TBS spokeswoman Michelle Sisco told the AP this week the cast and crew had been evacuated Sept. 16 as a precaution and no one was injured by the hurricane. The exact location of the reality show, however, hasn't been revealed. The unscripted skein features seven castaways--a real-life skipper, a first mate, a millionaire couple, a movie star, a professor and an innocent farm girl--and pits them against the elements to see if they can devise a way to get off the island. The Real Gilligan's Island is set to premiere as scheduled Nov. 30.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.
Now that the major networks have released their fall 2001 schedules, all it takes is a brief glance at the Thursday night brackets to realize this year's hottest rivalry--CBS' Survivor and CSI vs. NBC's Must-See TV lineup--will ignite yet again come October.
CBS appears to be riding a wave of confidence following this season's consistent victory over NBC's Thursday night sitcoms. Survivor scored on average 10 million more viewers than Friends per week, partly due in part to several Friends reruns in March, according to Nielsen Media Research. As a result, the Eye Network is unflinchingly pitting this fall Survivor and CSI against NBC's Friends, Will & Grace, Just Shoot Me and the new sitcom Inside Schwartz.
CBS' decision to keep the Thursday night battle alive has nothing to do with a rivalry with NBC, but has everything to do with constantly improving that night's ratings, said CBS publicist Dana McClintock.
"We're shooting for Thursday nights to not be considered 'bowling night' at CBS, as it's been considered in the past," he said. "We want to increase our viewership on that night--something we've accomplished dramatically this year so far."
In addition to increasing viewership, CBS and NBC are looking to increase advertising revenues this fall. If they can, of course, remains to be seen, but if the spring 2001 advertising payouts are repeated, NBC could find themselves beneath CBS on the revenue-generating totem pole. Ad rates for Friends this spring actually dropped moderately following the February sweeps, which saw Survivor well ahead in the ratings. Conversely, CBS received a cool $12 million apiece from each of its nine core sponsors, including, Bud Light, Cingular, Doritos, Mountain Dew, Pontiac Aztek, Target and Visa.
CBS' McClintock understands the need to increase the network's Thursday night bottom line, pointing out that-despite the sheer entertainment value of its shows-in the end, money matters.
"[Thursday's] a crucial night financially," McClintock said. "We've increased viewership in our key demographic on Thursdays by triple, so we're excited not only about Survivor and CSI next fall, but also the new drama The Agency, which will follow those shows at 10 p.m."
And herein lies NBC's ace in the hole: the 10 p.m. slot. ER continues to be a ratings juggernaut-the highest-rated drama on TV-balancing out the CBS-NBC rivalry this spring.
"While Survivor certainly has helped improve CBS' ratings, NBC continues to dominate Thursday nights," NBC spokesman Mike Nelson said.
While both networks sound clearly confident in their Thursday night lineups this fall, a hidden threat does exist to both: Fox's Temptation Island 2, which will air Thursdays at 9 p.m., against CBS' CSI and NBC's Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me. Witnessing the success a reality show has had against NBC's Must-See TV gang, Fox president of entertainment Gail Berman told The Hollywood Reporter that it's time for her network to get aggressive. Fox attracted only 3.9 million viewers on Thursday nights.
"We're going to be bold," she said.
When last we checked in with ratings news, NBC had sent ABC a message with a loaded Thursday lineup. ABC responded with a step that would seem to foreshadow that "All Regis, All the Time" programming strategy we've been trying to warn you about. For the other networks, and for those of us who have to come up with fresh material about the same blasted show every week, this is perhaps our darkest hour. We can only hope and pray that it doesn't go any further than the current "Mostly Regis, Most of the Time."
But in all honesty … What can stop it now?
Here's the carnage report from the primetime front for the week of May 1-7, according to the fine folks at Nielsen Media Research. (Each rating point is worth a little more than 1 million viewers).
1. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Tuesday), ABC -- 23.6 It was Celebrity Week on "Millionaire." Did you notice that, after all that trash-talking he did, Alex Trebek didn't show up? Give Regis credit, he wasn't afraid to bomb on "Jeopardy."
2. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Wednesday), ABC - 22.6 Rosie O'Donnell, Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis … Yep, since Frank, Sammy Dean and Sammy exited, this is what passes for celebrities now. The Bizarro-world version of "The Rat Pack."
3. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Monday), ABC -- 22.5 Regis asks a question, then guest Dana Carvey responds as "Regis." It's as if Regis never stops talking at all. Man, it's just like a little slice of heaven!
4. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Thursday), ABC - 22.1 How hot is this show? "Greed" was giving away a shot at $4 million this week. It finished in 69th place.
5. "ER," NBC - 18.0 Down four places from last week even though its ratings were only a point off from the No. 1 finish. This is what happens when ABC flexes some muscle.
6. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Sunday), ABC --17.1 After this powerhouse week, the regular ol' noncelebrity editions might become a thing of the past.
7. "The Practice," ABC - 14.1
8. "Friends" (8 p.m., Thursday), NBC - 13.7 How much does ABC love "Millionaire?" Even if every contestant actually won a million dollars, it's still cheaper than paying the per-episode salaries for "Friends" and "ER."
9. "20/20: Downtown," ABC - 13.5
"Dharma and Greg," ABC - 12.9
"Friends" (8:30 p.m., Thursday), NBC - 12.9 In the overall battle of the networks, ABC dropped the hammer on everybody and showed who's really driving this bus. It placed eight shows in the Top 10, including four nearly off-the-chart performances by "Millionaire," en route to an 11.7 average rating. CBS, with no shows at the top but a whole bunch scoring consistently in the Top 30, regained second place with an 8.2. NBC, still trying to get the word out that it doesn't just broadcast on Thursday nights, was a step behind at 8.1. Lost in the shuffle, Fox dropped a little to a 5.0.
With the little guys, the drama is all about the WB trying to find an answer for UPN's "Smackdown!" But the wrestling show continues to perform during sweeps -- UPN 2.8. WB 2.4.