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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Comedic entertainer and character actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, who appeared in John Wayne films and other movies, has died. He was 80.
Gonzalez Gonzalez died of natural causes at his home Feb. 6, according to his grandson, actor Clifton Collins Jr.
The entertainer began his career at age seven, when his parents pulled him out of school to entertain migrant works and residents in the American south west.
In 1953, he appeared as a contestant on Groucho Marx's TV quiz show You Bet Your Life and his banter with the legendary entertainer stole the show.
John Wayne saw his guest appearance on the show and signed the actor to his production company.
The performer became one of the most recognizable Mexican-American actors, appearing with Wayne in The High and the Mighty, Rio Bravo and Hellfighters.
Gonzalez Gonzalez, whose name was a traditional combination of his mother's and father's identical surnames, is survived by his wife Leandra and three children.
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A group of FBI hopefuls journey to an island on the outer banks of North Carolina for a special training operation. They're sent there to hone their skills under the watchful eye of their ambiguously shady boss Harris (Val Kilmer). Not much is known about Harris but one thing is clear: The apprentices don't trust him. So when things start going fatally awry--with the seemingly uninhabited island turning into an FBI abattoir as the agents are picked off one by one by an unseen assailant--they all think he's the one to blame. But is he? Maybe it's the hotheaded FBI alum Gabe (LL Cool J). Or maybe someone else in the group. Tired and wary the team or at least those who remain begin pointing fingers at one another. Whoever it is time is of the essence literally and figuratively as the clever sociopath (aren't the all?) leaves clues--usually in the form of some time-telling device--to when he'll strike next. The surviving agents all turn vigilant and split up (thus setting the scene for more slayings) except for two of the group members Sara and Lucas (Kathryn Morris and Jonny Lee Miller) who vow to stick together. By the end your head will be spinning--either from the bevy of startling twists or from how such twists probably fell through the cracks in the editing room. Chances are if you would shake your head at the latter you won't be seeing Mindhunters anyway.
While the premise of Mindhunters is similar to TV's Survivor the acting might be a bit better on the hit reality show. Christian Slater--clearly trying to jumpstart a career revival á la John Travolta in Pulp Fiction-- plays as J.D. Reston the dutiful leader of the FBI profilers like a good boy scout while the aforementioned Kilmer plays the Harris as cryptically as only Kilmer can. The odd thing is that two of Mindhunters' biggest stars are reduced to mere cameos which leaves the movie's next-biggest star LL Cool J to carry the movie--and he does a more than adequate job. Of course had the film been released on its scheduled time this might have been LL Cool J's leading-man vehicle but he's been able to achieve that more or less on his own since 2003. The rest of the dead profiles walking consist of journeymen and women: Morris (TV's Cold Case) as the eager Sara; Miller (Hackers) as her comrade in arms; Clifton Collins Jr. (Traffic) as wheelchair-bound Vince; Will Kemp (Van Helsing) as Rafe; and Patricia Velasquez (The Mummy Returns) as Nicole.
Perhaps Mindhunters was doomed from the start. It is invariably a bad sign when a movie comes out two years after the fact. Should the finger be pointed at director Renny Harlin (of um Cutthroat Island fame) then? Not really. It's not his fault--well not entirely--that he hasn't directed anything worthwhile since 1993's Cliffhanger. Harlin clearly does know how to guide a rather straightforward action-thriller and Mindhunters is no exception. He conjures up legitimate scares and makes the most of a seemingly anemic script. No the colossal Disney-Miramax rift is probably more to blame for Mindhunters' extreme delay and the negative buzz. Coupled with the fact that the script by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin--with its outlandish implausibilities--turns a potential summer blockbuster that is meant be a psychological thriller into psychobabble. Harlin's skill is evident in Mindhunters and therefore he should be spared--this time.