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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The trailers for the upcoming In Time may have you believing that stars Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried are stuck in one giant "there's no time!" chase sequence. You'd only be partially right. This couple of beautiful people are most definitely on the run, but with a greater purpose.
Every human on the planet, including the sprinting duo, is born with a ticking clock, an implant that acts as both their life's countdown clock and their wallet (in this world, time is currency). Nefarious circumstances force the duo to constantly search for a few more minutes, but the danger also inspires them to Robin Hood the rich (who have centuries worth of time on their clocks) and spread the wealth. Er, hours. They're bank robbers—and the newfound occupation elevates them to what is known in the movie world as "Bonnie and Clyde" status. Thanks to the lawless world of movies, two turn-of-the-century criminals have been immortalized, with Timberlake and Seyfried being the latest to keep the thieving dream alive.
Obviously, they aren't the first (but may be the most futuristic?). Here are a few examples of couples who make doing bad oh so good:
Pulp Fiction's Pumpkin and Honey Bunny
We don’t know a good deal about who “Pumpkin” and “Honey Bunny” are, or what brings them to the Hawthorne Grill that eventful morning. But aside from an offhanded remark about not particularly wanting to kill anybody, we can tell that the two of them are none too averse to a life of criminal activity (they might have undergone a change of heart after a run-in with Jules Winnfield, however). It seems the two are most amorous when they’re about to pull a job. In fact, it might be this life of crime that is, in fact, holding their love together. Thus, a more Bonnie and Clyde-esque pair you’d be hard-pressed to find.
Duplicity's Ray and Claire
Ray and Claire may be just as confused by one another's hazy allegiances as the audience watching this mind-bending romantic thriller. Throughout the movie, their relationship intertwines, doubles back and disintegrates over many years and many cooperate invasions. By the end, they're working together (or are they?!) to infiltrate and profit from their big business employers—but find themselves screwed by another unseen force. Thanks to Julia Roberts and Clive Owen's genuine chemistry, the only thing that doesn't feel like an espionage maneuver is the two's lust. But even then…
Fun with Dick and Jane's Dick and Jane
Dick and Jane Harper begin their cinematic adventures as your average married couple—their financially well-off, passionless, hardly the criminal type. Once Dick’s evil conglomerate lets most of its employees go, the two resort to robbery—ranging from quiet stickups at the ATM to the carefully-plotted takedown of Dick’s billionaire ex-employer—which, incidentally, ups the ante in their own personal zests for living. This simple suburban married couple, played by Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni, get a healthy dose of Bonnie and Clyde in Dean Parisot’s Fun with Dick and Jane.
Natural Born Killers' Mickey and Mallory
When it comes to couples who fuel their love life with crime, you’re bound to expect a little darkness. But even Bonnie and Clyde themselves would shudder at the activities of Mickey and Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. From the moment of Mickey’s romantic—wait, no…horrifying—rescue of Mallory from her abusive parents, the two spend their life on the run from the law, committing murder after murder in the name of whatever they claim to believe in. It may be even beyond the wheelhouse of cinema’s most iconic criminal couple, but the roots of Mickey and Mallory are certainly planted in Bonnie and Clyde: they’re the bad guys. But they’re the bad guys together. So it’s kind of sweet—wait, no…horrifying.
Knight and Day's Roy and June
Roy and June may not pilfer the innocent, but they are a couple that spends a majority of their time on the run, firing guns amongst bystanders and escaping from sticky situations just in the nick of time. Sounds like a Bonnie & Clyde duo if there ever was one.
And they do do quite a bit of stealing: The secret agent and his blonde bombshell captive hunt, nab and protect a tiny trinket called the Zephyr, a never-ending battery capable of powering pretty much anything. The tricky part of their renegade romance is that neither really knows when one is going go backstab the other. Being a couple's a lot easier when both people have the same agenda, even if that agenda's robbing banks.
True Romance' Clarence and Alabama
Clarence and Alabama are guilty of plenty: prostitution, drug possession, murder, Sonny Chiba fandom. But their intentions are never quite criminal...it's all just a means to the truly romantic end of spending their lives together. Caught up in a runaway life, the couple portrayed by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in this Tony Scott film exemplify the downward spiral that is the Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle. At the beginning of the film, Clarence is a simple video store clerk—but his love for Alabama, and possibly impassioned sensibilities over this new life of danger, have launched him and his call girl soul mate into an inescapable life of crime.
Bonnie and Clyde's Bonnie and Clyde
We're certainly not going to compile a tribute to Bonnie and Clyde couples and not include the definitive Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway inhabited the notorious crime couple and helped define the pair as symbols of counter culture. They were in love…but they also shot tommy guns and stole people's hard-earned cash. Back in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde shocked the nation. Now, anti-heroes are perfectly acceptable—to the point that Bonnie and Clyde may not even deserve the "anti" in their label!
August is the time of year when cable television's innovator of "reality" shows, The Discovery Channel, encourages us to turn our thoughts to the possibility of being eaten alive by giant fish. That's right, the 13th annual "Shark Week" kicks off today. This year, perhaps feeling the pressure to outperform all the newer reality shows in the ratings, we move a step closer to actually feeding the documentary filmmakers directly to the animals in "Giants: Sharks" (today at 10 p.m. PDT).
The cages are removed and the supersmart marine biologists voluntarily swim with Great Whites in the open ocean. "Shark Week -- Uncaged," a full seven days of docs (unlike NBC's "West Wing Week" which only lasted for three days) officially kicks off today at 9 p.m. PDT with "Sharks 3D." Yes, you'll need to get the glasses.
Tom Selleck "Running Mates" (premiering today at 8 p.m. PDT), an original made-for-cable comedy about an aspiring presidential candidate (Tom Selleck) clearly demonstrates two things we've suspected for quite sometime. First, movies about political conventions are always more interesting than actual political conventions. And second, yes, Selleck does look kind of weird without the moustache.
Faye Dunaway ("Bonnie and Clyde") and Teri Hatcher ("Lois and Clark" and those Radio Shack commercials with ex-football player turned actor Howie Long) costar as two of the many women in Selleck’s life.
On Tuesday, television finally gets around to figuring out some way to glorify stockbrokers as TNT premieres its original dramatic series "Bulls" (8 p.m. PDT and encoring all night).
A bunch of hip, young, idealistic stockbrokers (no, seriously) led by Robert "Ditto" Roberts III ("Father of the Bride") defect from Ditto's" not so young and decidedly unhip grandfather's firm to start their own (young and hip) brokerage firm. Uh, sounds really, really cool. Stanley Tucci ("Big Night") also stars.
Kurt Angle A couple of weeks ago, live coverage by all three major networks of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's acceptance speech propelled "WWF Smackdown!" (Thursday at 8 p.m. PDT on UPN) to one of its highest ratings of the year.
This Thursday, another very important speech, this time from Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, will likely raise the awareness of professional wrestling on UPN to an even higher level. If you don't normally watch on nights without coverage of political conventions, you'll need to get caught up. There is trouble in paradise as the marriage between evil ex-champ Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley, the beautiful but similarly evil daughter of evil promoter Vince McMahon, has run into a potential snag. It seems that Hunter is jealous of Stephanie's relationship with evil Olympic hero Kurt Angle.
Fair warning: If you don't want this show to become an (evil) habit, you'd better play it safe and stick with the vice president.
Chris Rock Finally this week, the long awaited return of "The Chris Rock Show" (Friday at 12 a.m. PDT on HBO) happens. The most thought-provoking, irreverent and funniest comic working today begins a new season of the best talk show on television.
This week, footage of Rock's visit to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and his grass roots efforts to "Free Bobby Brown" from a Florida jail after the erstwhile singer turned inmate's latest bout with the law.
The networks are in rerun mode now, so think of this as your big chance to find out what’s on Fox. Hey, come on, we just kid Fox because we love 'em.
Actually, summer is the time for cable TV to pick up the slack and to prove it’s worth paying for, so let’s take a look at what they’ve got this week.
-- It’s steamy, ribald, often shocking, often funny and sometimes even poignant. It’s “Sex and the City” (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Sunday) back for its third season on HBO. Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall head an ensemble of single, professional Manhattanites happily weeding through as many Mr. Wrongs as it takes to one day find Mr. Right. Women can usually relate pretty well, as these well drawn and varied characters always seem to be either picking up the broken pieces of their last relationships, or generating the broken pieces of the latest one. And for us men in the audience, “Sex and the City” can be frighteningly educational.
-- Of course, we realize that there must be a great segue from the manhunters above to this next item, but we’re going to ignore that and just jump right into “Quest for the Giant Squid” (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Sunday, Discovery Channel). This is a one-hour documentary with an intriguing premise. We know that giant squid actually do exist in the deep, deep ocean because dead ones turn up in fishing nets all the time. But apparently no one has ever seen one alive, ever. Enter intrepid squid seeker and marine biologist Clyde Roper, his supercool one-man sub, Deep Rover, and a documentary film crew. If anybody can film this not-so-mythical beastie, alive, it should be this guy, right? “Quest” is a pretty entertaining hour, in the tradition of Discovery’s ratings giant “Raising the Mammoth,” but it does have one little problem. They don’t actually find any squid. Call us old-fashioned, but we would actually like to see a giant squid or two in our giant squid programming.
-- Outstanding actress and Oscar winner Holly Hunter gives another outstanding performance in “Harlan County War” (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Sunday, Showtime). This well-written drama about coal miners in Kentucky striking over unsafe working conditions is a good example of premium cable putting its best foot forward. It’s gritty, intelligent and not flashy in the least. Network made-for-TV movies are never this good.
-- Meanwhile, on the other side of the world and the other end of the spectrum, Fox presents “Britney in Hawaii” (9 p.m. EDT/PDT, Wednesday). Twenty thousand screaming teens can’t be wrong, right? Well, what difference does it make, really? Britney Spears sings, she dances, she swims with dolphins, her new album “Oops! ... I Did It Again” recently debuted at No. 1, and she’s just red hot in general.
-- And finally this week, no one puts on more entertaining award shows than MTV. It seems to be able to avoid all the down time that plagues most award shows, cutting right to the glitz, glamour and fluff -- you know, the stuff we really want to see. So when the 2000 MTV Movie Awards (hosted by the aforementioned Sarah Jessica Parker) airs Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT, expect it to rock. By the way, tonight brings Broadway's Tony Awards (8 p.m. EDT/PDT, PBS; 9 p.m. EDT/PDT, CBS), as hosted by Rosie O'Donnell, but be honest, who really cares?