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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Widening the thematic scope without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobia that made the original 1979 Alien universally spooky Prometheus takes the trophy for this summer's most adult-oriented blockbuster entertainment. The movie will leave your mouth agape for its entire runtime first with its majestic exploration of an alien planet and conjectures on the origins of the human race second with its gross-out body horror that leaves no spilled gut to the imagination. Thin characters feel more like pawns in Scott's sci-fi prequel but stunning visuals shocking turns and grand questions more than make up for the shallow ensemble. "Epic" comes in many forms. Prometheus sports all of them.
Based on their discovery of a series of cave drawings all sharing a similar painted design Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are recruited by Weyland to head a mission to another planet one they believe holds the answers to the creation of life on Earth. Along for the journey are Vickers (Charlize Theron) the ruthless Weyland proxy Janek (Idris Elba) a blue collar captain a slew of faceless scientists and David (Michael Fassbender) HAL 9000-esque resident android who awakens the crew of spaceship Prometheus when they arrive to their destination. Immediately upon descent there's a discovery: a giant mound that's anything but natural. The crew immediately prepares to scope out the scene zipping up high-tech spacesuits jumping in futuristic humvees and heading out to the site. What they discover are the awe-inspiring creations of another race. What they bring back to the ship is what they realize may kill their own.
The first half of Prometheus could be easily mistaken for Steven Spielberg's Alien a sense of wonder glowing from every frame not too unlike Close Encounters. Scott takes full advantage of his fictional settings and imbues them with a reality that makes them even more tantalizing. He shoots the vistas of space and the alien planet like National Geographic porn and savors the interior moments on board the Prometheus full of hologram maps sleeping pods and do-it-yourself surgery modules with the same attention. Prometheus is beautiful shot in immersive 3D that never dampers Dariusz Wolski's sharp photography. Scott's direction seems less interested in the run-or-die scenario set up in the latter half of the film but the film maintains tension and mood from beginning to end. It all just gets a bit…bloodier.
Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's script doesn't do the performers any favors shuffling them to and fro between the ship and the alien construction without much room for development. Reveals are shoehorned in without much setup (one involving Theron's Vickers that's shockingly mishandled) but for the most part the ensemble is ready to chomp into the script's bigger picture conceits. Rapace is a physical performer capable of pulling off a grisly scene involving an alien some sharp objects and a painful procedure (sure to be the scene of the blockbuster season. Among the rest of the crew Fassbender's David stands out as the film's revelatory performance delivering a digestible ambiguity to his mechanical man that playfully toys with expectations from his first entrance. The creature effects in Prometheus will wow you but even Fassbender's smallest gesture can send the mind spinning. The power of his smile packs more of a punch than any facehugger.
Much like Lindelof's Lost Prometheus aims to explore the idea of asking questions and seeking answers and on Scott's scale it's a tremendous unexpected ride. A few ideas introduced to spur action fall to the way side in the logic department but with a clear mission and end point Prometheus works as a sweeping sci-fi that doesn't require choppy editing or endless explosions to keep us on the edge of our seats. Prometheus isn't too far off from the Alien xenomorphs: born from existing DNA of another creature the movie breaks out as its own beast. And it's wilder than ever.
On the eve of the release of Paul, a movie about two aging geeks who find an alien while on a road trip to Comic-Con, we figured it would be a good time to revisit our favorite sci-fi road trips. We’re not talking about a sci-fi journeys, either. These movies aren’t just about a group of people hiking toward some far off destination, they’re about that great American tradition of hoping in a vehicle (of some sort) and heading off on a mission, be it to accomplish a precise goal or to simply wander. As long as they’re in a vehicle when they do it, it’s up for consideration-- and the great thing about sci-fi is that the vehicles can get pretty crazy.
Also, be wary of spoilers below for any of the films you haven’t seen.
The Vehicle: 1977 Ford Mustang Cobra II
The Travelers: Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the Starman (Jeff Bridges)
The Destination: From Wisconsin to Arizona so the Starman can catch an intergalactic ride away from the stupid people who shot down his peace-bringing spaceship.
Trip Highlight: There’s a lot to pick from in John Carpenter’s Starman - resurrecting a deer, fighting the truckers, fleeing the NSA - but the highlight would have to be Starman driving their car directly into a gas tanker while they’re both inside. It takes balls to intentionally blow up your road-tripping ride, even if you are a space alien.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Vehicle: A variety of station wagons and trucks, but it all begins in a yellow Ford-F250.
The Travelers: Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian (Melinda Dillon)
The Destination: Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming
Trip Highlight: The arrival of the mothership, of course. It technically happens after they’ve reached their destination, but we’re still counting it since it’s the start of a second road trip for Roy. Except where he’s going, they don’t need roads. (Sorry, it had to be said.)
The Vehicle: The spaceship Icarus II
The Travelers: A team of eight scientists
The Destination: The sun
Trip Highlight: Some crazy stuff goes down in Sunshine, but as insane as stuff gets, the trip highlight has to be the spacewalk Kaneda and Capa take to make repairs after Trey forgets to adjust the heat shield for their new trajectory. Not only is it a visually awesome scene, but it’s essentially the most high-stakes tire change ever seen in a road trip movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Vehicle: The spaceship Discovery One
The Travelers: David Bowman (Keir Dullea), Dr. Franke Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Hal 9000
The Destination: Jupiter, though no one knows what to expect when they get there.
Trip Highlight: Dave’s mind-bending trip into the monolith orbiting Jupiter, which in turn sent countless college kids on acid trips of their own while trying to figure out just what in the hell the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey means.
The Vehicle: A pimped-out Winnebago Chieftain
The Travelers: Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and Barf (John Candy)
The Destination: Planet Druidia to stop President Skroob (Mel Brooks) from stealing all of its air.
Trip Highlight: Lone Star and Dark Helmet’s duel inside Mega Maid’s ear, which taught the world over the heartwarming message that you don’t need a special ring to use the Schwartz as long as you’re pure of heart. Or something.
The Vehicle: A 1984 Chevy Van
The Travelers: A group of geeks on a mission to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace early.
The Destination: Skywalker Ranch
Trip Highlight: A surprise encounter with William Shatner in Las Vegas, who then tells them what they need to do to infiltrate Skywalker Ranch. Sure, the movie may not be all that great, but it’s scenes like this that prove its intentions were in the right place.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Vehicle: Treebeard, the oldest Ent of Middle Earth
The Travelers: Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd)
The Destination: Isengard
Trip Highlight: Merry and Pippin going to battle riding atop giant, ancient walking trees of doom. Enough said.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Vehicle: The spaceship Heart of Gold
The Travelers: Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), Ford Prefect (Mos Def) Zaphond Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin (Alan Rickman/Warwick Davis)
The Destination: The planet Magrathea, which contains the answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything
Trip Highlight: All manner of insane and improbable things happen in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, so it’s hard to pick just a single highlight. However, we’ve got to hand it to Marvin the Paranoid Android for saving the day by turning the Point-of-View gun on the Vogons, causing them to be overcome with crippling despair.
The Vehicle: Virgil, a deep-Earth drilling vessel.
The Travelers: A team of scientists and astronauts trying to restart the Earth’s molten core, which has stopped spinning.
The Destination: The Core, duh.
Trip Highlight: Let’s be clear, The Core is only a movie worth talking about because of how joyously silly it is. To that end, we can’t help but give a bit of a slowclap to its cheesiest moment: getting rescued because a pod of whales singing a song that alerts the surface that Virgil survived the nuclear explosions at the core.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
The Vehicle: A Bird-of-Prey starship
The Travelers: The exiled officers of the USS Enterprise.
The Destination: Earth, 1986, where the crew plan to abduct a humpback whale and bring it back to the future.
Trip Highlight: Well if it isn’t another whale-related sci-fi plot point (if only we had gone with the falling whale in Hitchhiker’s Guide, we’d have a hat trick going on)... Strange obsession with whales aside, it’s hard not to love the scene where Kirk saves the day (and the future) by decloaking the Bird-of-Prey right in front of a group of angry whalers who most likely all had to change their underwear afterward.