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.
After wrapping my tour of the set of White House Down, the new movie from destruction maestro Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012), one movie jumped to mind: Russian Ark. Alexander Sokurov's 2002 drama was a history nerd's fantasy come to life, 300 years of Russian culture compacted into one 96-minute film. Sokurov orchestrated it all in one single camera movement, floating through the Russian State Hermitage Museum's Winter palace like a ghost, with costumed characters moving in and out of rooms to showcase the passing of time. It's a mesmerizing spectacle akin to architectural pornography. It's incredible.
Russian Ark may be on the other end of the spectrum from White House Down in terms of cinematic goals, but they share a common element. Both movies love their locations. While my experience on the White House Downset promised an excess of action — from shootouts to hand-to-hand combat to a demented car chase featuring Cadillac One — Emmerich's latest is also infatuated with historical fact and architectural accuracy. When we follow Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx running down the halls in true summer blockbuster style, it won't just be for the tumbles and gun squibs. It'll also be for what's behind it, a stunning recreation of the places we don't see in the White House.
Emmerich has a love for the White House. The German director first visited America when he was 12-years-old, and his first stop was to see the grand presidential mansion. Afterward, he caught a drive-in flick: Planet of the Apes. It all makes sense now.
The director will always have a connection to the most famous home in America. He did the unimaginable when he blew it up in Independence Day. "There I used the White House as a symbol," Emmerich tells us while waiting for his crew to prepare for that day's filming. "When I destroy it with one 'boom,' people will be really taking the invasion serious. Anything can happen when the White House explodes."
Emmerich has returned to the White House out of the pure trip of playing with recognizable monuments of mankind. He won't make an adaptation of a famous character or property because he isn't interested. He likes f**king with the reality that people know. "I don't like comic book heroes or comic book films very much. Because of that, I have to find other ways to find trademark names. Like 2012. Moments in time where it's bigger than life. It gets harder and harder to open a movie worldwide where it doesn't have one of these things. Everyone in the world will understand White House Down."
The day I arrived on set in mid-August of 2012, Emmerich was preparing to shoot one of White House Down's calmer scenes, a moment where President James Sawyer (Foxx) greets a group of White House tourists and charms the pants off 'em. It's also where he first meets John Cale (Tatum), a hopeful Secret Service agent, and his daughter Emily (The Dark Knight Rises' Joey King), a rambunctious tween hoping to get a few quotes from the President for her political YouTube channel. Kids these days. They play the scene a few times, Sawyer giving Cale a bit of crap for letting his daughter get out of hand.
Emmerich says these character beats are what separate White House Down from the typical action movie (or any other White House invasion movie, for that matter). "It has a very long first act," he says. "Which makes people very nervous. It's a strange thing. There's like this rule that the first act should only be half an hour. Tons of movies, very good movies, have first acts that are like 50 minutes. It doesn't matter how long it is. It has to establish everything the right way."
Writer James Vanderbilt thinks that care is what helped movies from the early '90s work. "Most of the '80s were Stallone and Schwarzenegger being totally indestructible," he says. "Then these characters came along who got the crap kicked out of them. The guy who can take a beating and keep coming back, that's what I like. Channing is all about that. He's all about 'beat me up as [much as] humanly possible.'"
White House Down is a movie built on passion. Vanderbilt loves the boiled down action concepts, gushing over the usual genre milestones along with Jean-Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport. When he started writing the movie, it poured out of him. A few visits to Whitehousemuseum.org, and he knew enough to spin the wild tale. He was able to let his imagination run wild.
"You can do close quarters gun stuff, but you can also do bigger stuff," Vanderbilt says. "There's a Black Hawk assault on the White House, or a tank shoots at the White House… I was able to access the side of my brain that was like a kid playing with G.I. Joes, and [ask] "what if?" Everything in the kitchen sink of 'what could we do to the White House?'"
The script had a miraculous evolution into the finished product. Emmerich says he pitched a similar concept 10 or 12 years ago that never went anywhere, so when Vanderbilt's movie hit his desk — after being recommended to him by the head of Sony — he knew it he had to make it. "Sold it Thursday, on Friday we got Roland, on Sunday we sat down with Roland and Harold at their house and they greenlit the movie," Vanderbilt explains. "That was four-and-a-half months ago. And now we're on the porch of the White House."
And we really were. The White House set was built in pieces, but the chunk we saw could be explored from the front entrance all the way to the back, with the ability to duck into the kitchen or presidential bedroom before going end to end. It was tangible, detailed, and ready to be destroyed. Kirk M. Petruccelli described his meticulous preparation for recreating the home, investigating wallpapers, rugs, and every nook and cranny to make it a 99% replica — a feat he doesn't believe has been matched on screen. The thought is that an action movie couldn't service that artistry, but Emmerich suggests he's approaching White House Down like he did Anonymous.
"[I'm shooting] the movie with a lot of wide angle lenses," he says. "Which is a cool thing. It will look like no other action movie you have seen. Everything looks beautiful. Even when it goes kaput." Sizing down the mayhem was a challenge for Emmerich, and one that demanded more than any of his past movies. Just in terms of stamina. "It is different, because my action was always on a grand scale," Emmerich says. "This is more 'real' action. Gun fights, people fight mano a mano. Totally different thing. I always try to stay away with it because it's the most tedious thing to do in a movie. It's fun in the first rehearsal, but after two days, even the actors who were excited, become slower! It's all these little pieces to make it look real. It takes a lot of time."
While the production value is high, don't expect Emmerich to play it safe. This isn't Russian Ark, and not everything is going to survive the twisted adventure Vanderbilt has crafted on the page. Judging from the hulking size of the recreated Cadillac One, an SUV limo that, upon further inspection, was built like a tank by Emmerich's automotive team, Tatum and Foxx will leave a few track marks (and worse) on the White House grounds before the credits roll. Emmerich says that his film is "very irreverent" when it comes to iconic patriotic imagery. "On one hand, you show it exactly how it is. Then you do action scenes in there with an ironic tint to it."
So Emmerich won't be blowing up the White House in White House Down. Instead, he's opted for a slow implosion. That's a new platform I can get behind.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
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.
Louis Leterrier’s remake of Clash of the Titans the 1981 cult favorite that fused Greek mythology with sci-fi theatrics is a grand experiment in the ancient art of alchemy a big-budget attempt to spin fanboy nostalgia for a 30-year-old novelty into contemporary box-office gold. The main ingredients in this ambitious concoction are a potent arsenal of CGI weaponry and the star of the biggest movie ever Sam Worthington who inherits Harry Hamlin’s role as the heroic Perseus. But it’s what’s missing from the formula that ultimately dooms this remake.
Clash of the Titans redux mimics the original film’s epic ethos and preference for spectacle over all else but its storyline differs dramatically. Perseus is still the half-breed product of a one-night stand between the god Zeus and a human hottie and he still must to defeat the monstrous Kraken in order to save the lovely Princess Andromeda. Almost everything in between however has been altered — and not necessarily for the better.
The new version casts the Greek city of Argos as the primary battleground in a proxy war fought by dueling Olympian superpowers Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes). Born of a god but raised by and partial to humans Worthington’s Perseus battles not for the hand of Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) — as Hamlin’s character did — but instead for the people of Argos who stand to perish along with their princess at the hands of the dreaded Kraken. The film’s love story if it can be called that consists of the briefest of flirtations between Perseus and Io (Gemma Arterton) his self-appointed spiritual guide. (Cursed with immortality by the gods Io’s been secretly watching him all his life — which ostensibly makes her a glorified stalker.)
This detail is a small but crucial one. Strong-willed Perseus braves an obstacle course of giant scorpions gorgons and other horrors laid out for him by the wheezy fiend Hades but it’s never quite clear why he bothers with it all since what’s at stake is a princess he isn’t particularly interested in and a community of people he doesn’t really know — and who frankly don’t seem all that worth saving. His deadbeat dad up on Mount Olympus certainly isn't worth dying for nor are the battlefield compatriots he met barely a week prior. And while I’m sure that a few inviting glances from Gemma Arterton are positively delightful I wouldn’t risk being doused in flesh-eating scorpion venom for them.
This narrative oversight triggers a drain in enthusiasm that persists throughout the film. For a movie so epic in scale Clash of the Titans makes for a disappointingly bland ride. Leterrier’s CGI set pieces are at times magnificent but they’re proffered in the service of weak story filled with characters whose motivations are either unclear or unconvincing. During the film’s climax when Neeson’s Zeus utters the portentous words “Release the Kraken ” what should be an emotional high point instead feels perfunctory and anticlimactic. The only excitement it spawns comes from the knowledge that the end is mercifully imminent.