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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UPDATE: Samuel L. Jackson denied dropping an f-bomb (but does admit to cursing) on Twitter:
I only said FUH not FUCK!K was sposed to cut off da BULLSHIT, blew it!! twitter.com/SamuelLJackson…
— Samuel L. Jackson (@SamuelLJackson) December 16, 2012
EARLIER: We're used to cheering like a Spartan whenever Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon or another recently departed Saturday Night Live alum returns to Studio 8H. But SNL fans found themselves disappointed when a former SNL legend returned to glory on the sketch comedy show's stage. Dana Carvey — also known as one of the main reasons (save Chris Farley) the early 1990s is still held up on an SNL pedestal — seemed a promising host for fans in 2011, but, sadly, the actor's revival of popular characters like Wayne's World's Wayne, Ross Perot, and Church Lady seemed more unoriginal than nostalgic.
So, considering Carvey's stint, Martin Short's hosting gig Saturday seemed worrisome — would we be forced to sit through Ed Grimley and Jerry Lewis sketches years after we already grew sick of them watching best of SNL VHS tapes?
As it turned out, absolutely not. Short proved to be a delightful host who was just as hilarious as he was current. We were subjected to a split second of Ed Grimley, but only during Short's jolly monologue, which brought us even more exciting SNL characters of seasons past. Well, rather, cast members — Fey, Fallon, Kristen Wiig (complete with Junice baby hand), and honorary cast member Tom Hanks (making his second SNL cameo this year) all joined in Short's Christmas-centric musical number, which marked the seventh this season. This week, however, the musical monologue was worth it — it's hard to say what sight was better: Abe Lincoln with a llama or Short planting a smooch on the predictably stoic Lorne Michaels. Still, each paled in comparison to Short's astute ad lib, "How does a man sit on a piano, I wonder?"
The SNL cameos continued with "A Tony Bennett Christmas," headed up by Alec Baldwin's fan-favorite impression of the crooner. The sketch veered into ESPN Classic territory with its ad-shilling bathroom humor ("It's sure easy to get down in the dumps when you can't take one"), but, then again, anything that reminds us of Will Forte's Greg Stink picks us out of the dumps.
But, following the sketch, we hardly said "Cheerio!" to bathroom humor. The next sketch — about a royal OBGYN being trained to treat the Duchess of Cambridge — mainly centered on euphemisms for female genitalia: "The King-Maker," "Thomas' English Muffin," and, of course, "Her Downton Abbey" among them. Anyone else in the role of the consultant tasked with prepping Bill Hader's OBGYN would have been groan-worthy, but Short even managed to make a dated Camilla Parker-Bowles funnier than the prospect of her Downton Abbey being guarded by a troll that asks you a riddle. Just ask Hader, who couldn't keep a straight face while Short revealed euphemisms for the anal cavity. (In case you were wondering, "The Church of Taint Andrews" is one.)
More impressive, though, was Short's impeccable impression of Larry David as Linus in an adult-themed, star-studded Charlie Brown special, You're a Rat Bastard, Charlie Brown. Typically, Hader's impersonations steal SNL sketches, but his Al Pacino paled in comparison to Short's David. The actor even looked like the Curb Your Enthusiasm star. Other highlights included Taran Killam's Michael Keaton and Jason Sudeikis' Philip Seymour Hoffman — though I can't be the only one wishing Nasim Pedrad's celebrity impressions all didn't sound like Nasim Pedrad. Kristin Chenoweth deserves better — and no, this time around, I'm not talking about Jake Pavelka.
Speaking of zingers, Seth Meyers' one-liners were the highlight of Weekend Update, attracting more laughs than Vanessa Bayer's adorably funny roasting Bar Mitzvah boy and Cecily Strong's ho-hum revival of Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. Jokes about Jersey Shore's finale and criticism of Barbara Walters for asking Hillary Clinton about her hair over her policies were astute enough, but the funniest one-liner of the night was also the bluest: “An Ohio woman who gave birth to her daughter at 12:12 p.m. on 12-12-12 has named her 'Forever.' Which I suspect is how long she’ll be a stripper.”
Samuel L. Jackson, who made a cameo alongside SNL's stars in Short's monologue, returned to appear in Kenan Thompson's recurring — but long dormant — "What's Up With That?" sketch. The premise remains the same, and so does Sudeikis' jaunty tracksuit dancing — but this week, the sketch came with a NSFW twist. Pulling a Jenny Slate, Jackson dropped an f-bomb at the end of "What's Up With That?" and followed it up with a "bulls--t." "Come on now, that costs money," Thompson ad-libbed. Your move, FCC.
SNL rounded out its episode with a sketch about two old friends (Fred Armisen and Short) with bizarre hobbies (acting for EMT training) and habits (eating 25 bagels a day) that was sorely lacking a Stefon, and a Christmas pageant audition sketch with Short and musical guest Paul McCartney that quickly turned into a Christmas-themed performance from the former Beatle. But while McCartney turned in two other lovely performances — including a reprise of his "Valentine" single — the rock legend was overshadowed by SNL's touching cold open, which featured the New York Childrens Chorus singing "Silent Night" as a quiet tribute to the Sandy Hook tragedy. The moment echoed Paul Simon's post-9/11 performance of "The Boxer" on the sketch comedy series, and proved, once again, SNL can be as heartfelt as it is funny. We might not be able to sleep in heavenly peace for some time, but dammit if SNL didn't help us try.
[Image Credit: NBC]
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As Skylar Laine so excitedly informed the 15 million folks watching American Idol last night: The judges like Joshua Ledet. They really like him. Following his performance of India.Arie's "Ready for Love," the Top 6 contestant received his 12th standing ovation and, as Kate Ward pointed out in her Queen night recap, Ledet’s only performed 11 solos since he got past the semifinals. He’s got more standing o’s than Steven Tyler has ways to tell the contestants how beautiful they are. The issue is, as great as Ledet is, he’s not exactly the second coming of Luther Vandross. He’s a very talented singer, but the judges need to stop standing on their feet like zombies drawn to a warm body every time he opens his mouth.
It’s not that there’s an issue with excessive praise from fans — look at anything I’ve ever written about Phil Phillips (swoon) and you’ll see just how over-the-top this show makes me people. But it's not the judges’ job to transform into fanatics. They’re supposed to guide and build our contestants, not throw roses at their feet and place tiaras inscribed with “Jennifer’s Little Man” on their heads every week. Look, I’m not expecting Jennifer Lopez to go all Ruth Bader Ginsburg on these contestants, but come on, Jenny from the Block. Show a little restraint.
Joshua is hardly J. Lo's only pet — the judge has tried to use the save for every cutie that ever gave her goosies on the show, lamenting from week to week that she'd been (correctly) outvoted. (And that's coming from someone who loves DeAndre Brackensick.) The exciting part of American Idol is that we’re never sure who’s going to get the boot, especially during this most shocking year. The problem is, when the judges stand on their delicate little toesies every time Joshua sings, millions of viewers become instantly manipulated. (Why do I have a strange feeling I'm going to regret not voting for Jessica Sanchez at approximately 8:56 PM ET tonight?) I thought that performance of “Ready for Love” was genuine, and sure, it made my heart flutter to see him sitting calmly on a stool with nothing but his voice and a hat stolen from Bruno Mars’ closet for once, but I assure you that not only did I remain comfortably seated on my couch, but my peppermint tea never left my hands. Was his performance really that earth-shattering? Did someone slip something into my tea? Hey roomie, are my eyes dilated? Why am I not reacting like Joshua just sang the miraculous song that’s going to save us from a music industry that still embraces Ke$ha?
Because the judges are drinking their own Kool-Aid. They want Joshua to win (Jennifer even admitted it outright) and their mindless — and practically prerequisite at this point — reaction to every song Joshua ever sings is their way of sending voters a subtle message. It goes like this: VOTE FOR JOSHUA. HE’S THE BEST SINGER EVER. But here’s my plea, judges: Stop messing with our heads. Save your energy for grinding up on William Levy in your next music video and let us decide who’s in it to win it. Your ubiquitous standing ovations mean nothing. At this point, Steven Tyler’s tongue would have to roll out of his ginormous mouth and slap the floor like a cartoon wolf chasing a Copacabana dancer for their reactions to hold any weight.
Do you think Joshua deserved all 12 standing o’s? Why do you think Joshua gets so many when Jessica Sanchez is arguably just as talented?
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler.
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After garnering widespread praise (and an Oscar nomination for screenwriting) for his 2000 directorial debut You Can Count on Me Kenneth Lonergan was in-demand. In September 2005 the writer/director began production on a follow-up feature: Margaret which touted Anna Paquin Matt Damon Mark Ruffalo Matthew Broderick Allison Janney as well as legendary filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) as producers. The movie wrapped production in a few months time. The buzz was already growing.
Now six years later the movie is finally hitting theaters. So…what took so long?
The journey to this point hasn't been an easy one and it shows. If a film's shot footage is a block of granite and the editing process is the careful carving that turns it into a statuesque work of art Margaret feels like it was attacked by a blind man with a jackhammer. The film is a cinematic disaster a mishmash of shallow characters overwrought politics and sporadic tones. The story follows Lisa Coen (Paquin) a New York teenager who finds herself drowning in chaos after distracting a bus driver (Ruffalo) causing him to hit and kill a pedestrian (Janney). Initially Lisa tells the police it was all an accident but as time passes regret takes hold and the girl embarks on a mission to take down the man she now regards as a culprit. That's just the tip of the iceberg–along the way Lisa deals with everyday teen stuff: falling for her geometry teacher (Damon) combating her anxiety-ridden actress mother losing her virginity dabbling in drugs debating 9/11 and the Iraq War cultivating a relationship with her father in LA and more. There are about eight seasons of television stuffed into Margaret but even a two and a half hour run time can't make it all click.
For more on Margaret check out Indie Seen: Margaret the Long Lost Anna Paquin/Matt Damon Movie