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.
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Top Story: Depp Film Release Pushed Up
In an attempt to capitalize on Johnny Depp's overwhelming popularity after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Sony Pictures is releasing his latest thriller Secret Window April 12 instead of the original date of March 23rd, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Jeff Blake, Sony's president of worldwide marketing and distribution, said of the decision, "We just had our first screening of the film, and it went great; Johnny Depp is terrific in this film, adding that the media campaign for the film would begin February 1st, Super Bowl Sunday. The film stars Depp as a novelist terrorized by a man (John Turturro) who insists the book Depp is writing was stolen from him. Jurassic Park scribe David Koepp wrote and directed the film based on a Stephen King novella.
Stone Bars Reporters From Alexander Set
Volatile director Oliver Stone has barred reporters and onset photographs in an effort to avoid "distractions" while the film is being shot in Thailand, Associated Press reports. Cast and crew are also banned from taking photos of the battle scene in which Alexander (played by Colin Farrell) does battle with King Porus during his invasion of India in 325 B.C.E. According to an actor in the production, "We've been warned that if Oliver sees us with a camera, he'll storm over, stomp all over the camera and personally escort you off the set." Production on the epic, which also stars Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins, began in September of last year in Morocco and in studios near London. The film is due to be released in November of this year.
Jackson Customized Bentley To Be Sold
Michael Jackson's Bentley Arnage Red Label Turbo will be auctioned off this weekend unless the auction house is notified otherwise by the singer, AP reports. Jackson entered into a contract to sell the 2001 Bentley with the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction house in October of last year before the singer was arrested on charges of child molestation. The auction house is now unsure whether the singer still wishes to sell the car. "We just want to do what he wants us to do and we don't know what that is," the house's Craig Jackson (no relation) said adding he has spoken with Jackson's management team, but, "These discussions have resulted in mixed directions about the car's status for the auction." Since the agreement to sell the car was signed by the singer, unless he specifically tells the auction house he wants to keep the car it will be auctioned off this weekend. The Bentley model would ordinarily be valued at $150,000, but with the additional customization and celebrity signatures as well as the fact it was used in the Jackson video for "What More Can I Give," the price should significantly increase. Says the auction house's Jackson, "It could bring a half a million dollars."
Singer Art Garfunkel was arrested Saturday for marijuana possession after the limousine he was riding in was pulled over for speeding, Reuters reports. The 62-year-old former member of the '60s duo Simon and Garfunkel was riding in the back of the limo when a state trooper pulled the driver over for diving 61 mph in a 45 mph zone, and noticed the scent of marijuana coming from the back of the limo. The trooper, who did not recognize the singer-songwriter, discovered small amount of pot in Garfunkel's jacket pocket. Garfunkel faces a $100 fine if convicted of unlawful marijuana possession next Wednesday in the Town of Hurley Court in New York State. Garfunkel's driver received a speeding ticket.
Mother of Combs' Son Wants More Child Support
Misa Hylton-Brim, mother of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' 10-year-old son Justin, is asking for a raise from the $5,000 a month in child support she receives to $30,000 a month, AP reports. Ms. Hylton-Brim's lawyer Brett Kimmel said in New Rochelle, NY, Family Court his client needs the extra monthly income to pay for the private school Justin attends, as well as a nanny and 24-hour security for the boy. Says Kimmel, "This child's needs specifically relate to his father being who he is." Combs did not appear in court nor did his lawyer, Peter Galasso, comment on the case. Model Kim Porter, the mother of Combs' other son, 6-year-old Christian, receives $30,000 a month for support. Combs runs Bad Boy Entertainment as well as owning numerous other business ventures including restaurants and a clothing line.
Music Industry Sues Hundreds For Piracy
The Recording Industry Association of America has filed four separate suits against 532 users of unnamed Internet service providers (ISP), Reuters reports. The group will issue subpoenas to the ISPs requiring them to turn over the names attached to the numerical addresses of music downloaders. Cases involving music downloaders have already been settled in separate cases with downloaders paying $3,000 a piece. In recent years the music industry has seen a decline in CD sales, leading the giants to crack down on downloaders who get songs for free off such peer-to-peer trading programs as Kazaa and Limewire. Napster one of the original peer-to-peer music sources has become a service with agreements with record labels where downloaders pay a monthly fee for music.
Role Call: Cameron Back to Sci-Fi
Director James Cameron hopes to being shooting a new sci-fi project later this year, his first film since Titanic six years ago, Reuters reports. The film, financed by 20th Century Fox, will be shot using high-definition 3-D cameras. Cameron describes the untitled project as, "a big-budget science-fiction film with a pile of special effects." Though he has not made a narrative film since Titanic, Cameron has made two documentaries about shipwrecks, Ghosts of the Abyss about the visiting theTitanic wreckage, and Expedition: Bismarck about the sunken German battleship.